The Gord Downie legend: Canadiana's barstool bard has a lasting legacy of enigmatic erudition
ASHLEY HUTCHESON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL
"Late breaking story on the CBC." – Wheat Kings, The Tragically Hip
For an interview with Gord Downie in 2014, a journalist arrived with a sheaf of lyrics from the musician's latest solo album. Downie reacted with slack-faced surprise. "Nobody ever asks me about my lyrics," he said.
It was a candid and telling admission, from and about an artist who could rightly be called Canada's rock laureate. His gift had been taken for granted.
Early Tuesday morning it was announced that the Tragically Hip front man is battling terminal brain cancer, and that the iconic Canadian band would mount a Canadian tour following the release of its 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem, set to drop on June 17.
In a statement released by Universal Music Canada and posted on the Tragically Hip's website, the band revealed that Downie, 52, had been diagnosed with the disease in December, and that the group had decided to hit the road this summer. "This feels like the right thing to do now," the band said, "for Gord, and for all of us." (Specific dates and cities will be announced Wednesday by the concert promoter LiveNation Canada.)
At a Tuesday morning press conference at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, it was revealed that Downie had been stricken with glioblastoma. The musician had suffered a seizure this past December, after which an MRI confirmed the diagnosis.
Following surgery that month at Kingston General Hospital, in which the bulk of the left temporal-lobe tumour had been excised, a six-week program of radiation was completed a few weeks ago. Downie is currently undergoing a maintenance course of chemotherapy, and, according to Sunnybrook's head of neurology, Dr. James Perry, the musician has "rallied tremendously" and has returned to a physical and emotional state that allows him to participate in band rehearsals with no medical restrictions.
When asked about a possible miracle recovery, however, the physician was clear: "Gord's brain tumour is incurable," Dr. Perry said. "Unfortunately it will come back."
Downie, as robust a live performer as any have ever seen, will eventually succumb. And the voice of an evocatively Canadian songwriter will be silenced.
Since the band issued its breakthrough debut full-length album Up to Here in 1989, the singer-lyricist Downie has cut a brash, enigmatic path across the Canadian music scene. As a performer on stage, the native of Amherstview, Ont., is known for his commanding and dynamic presence, muscular and inimitable singing manner, inscrutable lyricism and dazzling, freestyle non sequiturs.
Downie is a published poet, and his fans are a curious mix of fist-pumping toque wearers and chin-scratching postgrad admirers, united in the arena-rock trenches when it comes to the Hip's anthemic brand of Canadiana. Since its release in 1992, Zippo lighters have been raised to Wheat Kings, a mournful ballad about David Milgaard, a Prairie teen wrongly convicted of rape in 1970 and released 23 years later:
There's a dream he dreams where the high school's dead and stark / It's a museum and we're all locked up in it after dark / The walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister / Hung with pictures of our parents' prime ministers
The strummed Wheat Kings is part of the album Fully Completely, which includes references to both Maple Leaf hockey lore (Fifty Mission Cap) and Canadian literature – Courage (For Hugh Maclennan). So, something for everyone – music for two solitudes.
As an erudite everyman and barstool bard, Downie identified with the great, burly Canadian poet Al Purdy. In 2002, Downie dramatically recited the Purdy poem At The Quinte Hotel on film.
On Fifty Mission Cap, Downie sings about Bill Barilko, a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player who disappeared in 1951, following the team's championship season:
Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, he was on a fishing trip / The last goal he ever scored won the Leafs the Cup / They didn’t win another until 1962, the year he was discovered.
According to the lyrics, Downie gleaned the story from a hockey card. Countless Canadians got the story from Downie and the Tragically Hip.
In 1995, the comedian Dan Aykroyd introduced the Hip for a performance on Saturday Night Live. Aykrord, wearing a Canada-emblazoned T-shirt, smiled a grin a mile wide. A television audience in Canada shared his pride.
In recent years, Canadian artists such as Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen have dominated North American charts and won glittering accolades, but the Hip stirs patriotism of a deeper, more visceral sort than those artists can instigate. When Downie sings that it was in Bobcaygeon that he "saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time," a country rallies around small-town Canadian life.
Although it's one of the most successful rock bands in Canadian history, the Tragically Hip's true-north appeal has never been matched outside the country; the lack of American validation, however, is seen by fans as a point of pride – a Canadian success story on its own terms.
The band's most recent release was 2012's Now for Plan A, a record that was lyrically influenced by Downie's wife and her successful battle with breast cancer. Of the five band members – the musicians have been friends since high school in Kingston – Downie was the only one who stayed in Toronto after the group moved to the city early in its career. Late last year, however, he sold the Riverdale home he shared with his wife and children.
On solo albums, side projects and his career with the Tragically Hip, Downie's lyrics are noted for their cryptic content, but in person he is an honest, lucid and charismatic interview subject. In 2010, upon the release of his album The Grand Bounce, he spoke of regaling his children with stories of his life on the road. "You know, I've been hit with a Greb boot in the face and I've been spat on," he told The Globe and Mail. "And my kids light up when they hear these stories. It really takes their minds off their troubles."
Earlier, in 2005, he spoke of his reverence of blues legends such as Howlin' Wolf, who sang about fighting for one more spoonful and who, near the end of his life, would walk from the dialysis machine directly to the concert stage.
Downie was asked about the band's prospects. "I have no illusions of the future," he said. "Or maybe it's all illusion. I don't know. I've always been ready for it."
At the Sunnybrook press conference, a doctor offered no specifics as to the singer's life expectancy. This summer, the Tragically Hip will tour. "Let's just see what tomorrow brings," Downie will sing on Wheat Kings, and audiences will harmonize with him, knowing full well that today is better for the man's passionate and galvanizing musical contributions, but that tomorrow will be lesser for his inevitable void.
FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL