Will Ry Cooder sing Gord Downie’s eulogy? Will anyone?
More than 15 months after the revered Tragically Hip frontman died of brain cancer, a significant celebration in his honour has yet to happen, or even reach the planning stages. Not that there is a rush. It bears noting that the recent Chris Cornell tribute concert at the Forum in Los Angeles took place 19 months after the Soundgarden singer’s 2017 passing.
As for Downie, on 1992’s At the Hundredth Meridian he laid out his in-memoriam wishes in a verse that explicitly called for Cooder-sung praise and no “acts of enormity.” Despite Downie’s decree, at least one of his bandmates is completely unsure about how to proceed with a posthumous salute.
“It has come up as an idea,” Tragically Hip rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois says, speaking from Kingston. “So far, we’re kind of lost without him, though. We were a consensus sort of band, and he was obviously a strong part of that decision-making. Ultimately, I think it’s just been too heavy a thing to consider.”
The grief and aftereffects of Downie’s death were never going to dissipate quickly for a band that first grouped in high school. Langlois, who joined later, feels as if he’s been with the Hip “my whole life.”
Life goes on, as does Langlois. On Feb. 7, he will appear with John McDermott for the first of the Celtic tenor’s three shows at Hugh’s Room Live in Toronto. Langlois has performed a handful of times since Downie’s death. “I’m not sure I’ve adjusted yet," he says. “It wasn’t our plan – our plan was to just keep doing it.”
According to the guitarist, Downie was upset that his eventual death would cause the end of the band. He even suggested replacement singers that could take his place. Last summer, though, lead guitarist Rob Baker dashed any notion that the band would perform without their inimitable frontman. “The Hip,” he declared, "has played their last time.”
Langlois concurs. “We’re not a band any more, but we keep in touch. We’re friends." He says he bumps into Baker in Kingston and drummer Johnny Fay in Toronto. And bass player Gord Sinclair? Langlois curls with him on Wednesdays.
Although the members are no longer together as a performing entity, the band has not dissolved legally or commercially. Downie is still a member in that sense; his share of Hip revenue goes to his children. “We’re still doing little things," Langlois says, “but nothing musical.”
On the one-year anniversary of Downie’s death, the band announced a partnership with Ontario-based cannabis producer Newstrike for a brand of medical herb, Up Cannabis. The names of the various weed strains involved take inspiration from Tragically Hip tunes Morning Moon, Eldorado and others.
On the song Bobcaygeon, Downie mused that it “could’a been the Willie Nelson, could’a been the wine.” The invoking of Nelson’s name is a reference to marijuana, the recreational drug of choice of the country singer and, clearly, the Tragically Hip.
For the wine, a few years ago the band joined forces with Stoney Ridge Estate Winery to develop a red and a chardonnay. According to the band’s website, the former (Fully Completely) has a finish that is “long and velvety, featuring juicy red fruit and menthol." Perhaps an oenophile can assure us that these are desirable, complementary nuances.
Other commercial interests include the Bathouse Recording Studio, a band-owned money-generating facility in Bath, Ont. “It’s tough to get in there,” Langlois says about the busy studio. “I booked it for a session this March and I was just bumped by a paying customer.”
Langlois is attempting to write material for an album of his own. “The only songs I have right now are songs that I rejected from my last two solo records,” he says. “I’m not going to start there.”
The guitarist has done his own tributes to Downie since the singer’s death. At a benefit for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper last year, he performed Trick Rider with Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize of the Skydiggers. “It’s one of my favourites of his,” Langlois says about the song off the Downie solo album Coke Machine Glow. “It didn’t seem to be a stretch for me to sing it.”
After the coming one-off concert with McDermott, the future for Langlois is unclear. During the Tragically Hip’s final tour in 2016, the terminally ill singer drew Langlois aside.
Downie: “I’m expecting big things from you, man.”
Langlois: “But that’s what we just did for the last 30 years – the big things.”
Downie: “That not what I mean, man.”
So, what did he mean? “He never did tell me,” Langlois says.
As for a Downie celebration, there’s no guarantee it will happen. Or maybe it already did, in the form of the band’s emotional final show at Kingston’s K-Rock Centre on Aug. 16, 2016. Broadcast nationally and streamed worldwide, the concert galvanized a nation. “On that tour, the whole country was saying goodbye to him,” Langlois says. "And he said goodbye to every arena.”
What Downie actually said was "Let’s just see what the morning brings.” So we wait.
Paul Langlois plays with John McDermott at Hugh’s Room Live, in Toronto, Feb. 7 (hughsroomlive.com).