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Grace, Too: Gord Downie 1964-2017

Juris Diction gives their take on Canada's musical conscience

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Balloons all filled with rain
As children’s eyes turn sleepy-mean
And Falstaff sings a sorrowful refrain
For a boy in Fiddler’s Green

On Wednesday morning Canadians were informed of a death that seemed to shake the entire country.  Flags were flown at half mast, moments of remembrance were observed before hockey games, and the Prime Minister broke down in tears while addressing the loss.  This was not a politician, or a civil servant, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. The man at the heart of the tribute was the son of a travelling salesman from Kingston who became the voice of a nation, telling stories that highlighted the joys, beauties, and shames of the country we live in.  The New York Times described him as a Canadian hybrid of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Stipe, but to the millions who grew up listening to his work, and who were inspired by his courageous curtain call of social activism, he was simply known as Gord.

KCVI

They shot a movie once, in my hometown
Everybody was in it, from miles around

Gordon Downie was born on February 6, 1964 in Amherstview, Ontario.  The god-son of Harry Sinden, Gord grew up in Kingston a devout Bruins fan, cheering on Bobby Orr and fellow Kingstonian Don Cherry. He attended Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, and it was there he met Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair, who had played together before, and in 1984 the Hip was formed.  They played the local scene, including Clark Hall Pub and the Toucan, before being noticed by MCA President Bruce Dickinson at the famed Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.

Ain’t got no picture postcards, ain’t got no souvenirs
My baby, she don’t know me when I’m thinking ’bout those years

The Hip released their first studio album in 1989, titled Up to Here, which featured such staples as “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Blow at High Dough”.  Their music was tinged with blues influence, and after embarking on their first national tour, the country was introduced to their music for the first time.  They were also introduced to Gord’s unique stage presence, often writhing and slithering on stage while recounting strange and non-sensical stories between songs.  One show in Madison, Wisconsin only brought 40 spectators, but featured a young Seattle band named Nirvana as the opening act.  The Hip followed this up with 1991’s Road Apples, which went #1 on the Canadian album charts.

hip

Either it’ll move me
Or it’ll move right through me

In 1992, the band released what many considered to be their magnum opus, Fully Completely, featuring hits like “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”, “At the Hundredth Meridian” and the titular “Fully Completely”.  The album also featured “50 Mission Cap”, about the Maple Leafs’ overtime hero Bill Barilko, and “Wheat Kings”, about the wrongfully convicted David Milgaard.  Gord’s lyrics about real life Canadian events and figures, both famous and infamous, cemented his status as one of the nation’s greatest storytellers.   Instead of a traditional tour, the Hip founded the “Another Roadside Attraction” festival, which travelled the country highlighting talent like Blues Traveler, Ziggy Marley, Sheryl Crow, Wilco, and others.

woodstock

He said, “I’m fabulously rich, come on just let’s go”
She kind of bit her lip, “Jeez, I don’t know”
But I can guarantee, there’ll be no knock on the door
I’m total pro, that’s what I’m here for

In 1994, the Hip released Day for Night, which took a more subdued, darker tone than their previous offerings. The album featured “Grace, Too”, the song they opened with on their only Saturday Night Live appearance in 1995.  Introduced by a super-patriotic Dan Aykroyd, Gord brought his signature style to millions of American audiences for the first time. Following this up with Trouble at the Henhouse and Phantom Power, the Hip continued to find huge commercial success in Canada, while seemingly making an upward climb into U.S. consciousness. This culminated in their hour-long set at Woodstock ’99.  Cheered on by thousands with Canadian flags waving, Gord announced “we’re here to study you!”, before captivating the audience with a mix of hits.   Despite the performance, the band never fully integrated into full North American success, but continued to be Canada’s premier group, playing the first ever concert at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

cfl-grey-cup-topix

Avoid trends and cliches
Don’t try to be up to date
And when the sunlight gets the olive oil
Don’t hesitate

For most of the 21st century, the Hip reigned in their home nation, playing the 2004 Grey Cup, and opening up the K-Rock Centre in 2008.  They released albums like In Between EvolutionWorld Container, and Now for Plan A, while also putting out their definitive “hits” album titled Yer Favourites in 2005.  None of these albums broke through in the States, but the band had the opportunity to open for the Who during a U.S. tour.

Thousands of Tragically Hip fans pack Kingston's city square (credit: Lars Hagberg, The Canadian Press).

Tired as f*ck 
I want to stop so much I almost don’t want to stop 
See now then 
Can’t and won’t 
Will and can

On May 24, 2016, it was announced that Gord had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. While shock set into the country, the band immediately announced the release of an album Man Machine Poem later in the summer, as well as a final national tour, culminating in an August 20th farewell back in Kingston.  Tickets soon became scarce, thanks to demand and predatory ticket bots buying up seats and selling them for egregious re-sale prices, but the CBC announced it would be broadcasting the Kingston show on its main network for all to see, directly following the Closing Ceremonies of the Rio Olympics.  On August 20th, following a culmination of a proud two weeks of Canadian success on the podium, Hockey Night in Canada‘s Ron MacLean intro’d the band from Brazil, and in front of their hometown, the Hip played their final show, with “Ahead by a Century” fittingly being their final song played live.  Near the K-Rock Centre, thousands filled Springer Market Square to take in the show on a big screen, while 11.7 million Canadians watched from home, nearly one in every third person in the entire country.

Courte

Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter,
Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

While facing his imminent mortality, Gord Downie decided to focus his last years on social causes, specifically, reconciliation efforts for the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples throughout Canadian history.  Always socially aware, Gord put out a solo album and accompanying graphic novel titled Secret Path, which tells the true story of twelve year old Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died trying to escape a Residential School in Kenora, Ontario.  All proceeds from the projects went to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.  Multiple times during his final tour, Gord brought up these efforts, mentioning that for many, the Canada we knew was not the Canada Indigenous Canadians knew, even calling out Justin Trudeau at his final show (which the PM attended) to do more to address these issues. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called Gord “an ally and a friend”, and in late 2016, the singer was honoured at a special chiefs assembly and was given the name Wicapi Omani, which translated from Lakota means “Man Who Walks Among the Stars”.  While most facets of Canadian life only mention reconciliation sparingly to meet a moral quota, Gord dedicated his final days on earth to that cause, and used his celebrity and creativity to raise awareness.

memorial

When I left your house this morning,
It was a little after nine
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at time

Gord’s death late Tuesday night offered very little joy, despite all that he brought to Canadians.  For such an accomplished man, his work still felt unfinished.  As mourners lined up to leave condolences in Market Square on Wednesday, one couldn’t help but overhear mentions of great times spent at the cottage, the bar, or at Hip shows listening to the band’s music, often followed with “but so sad it happened to him eh” – almost a comforting stereotypical Canadian remark.  Being in Kingston yesterday, it was almost like walking through Gord’s history, passing KCVI only steps away from the Law School, biking by the many fine drinking establishments he serenaded fans at, or looking out at the lake on a beautiful October day, wondering if he had once gained inspiration from the same serene surroundings.  Gord wasn’t just Canadian, he was Canada. The Hip may not be the soundtrack to all our lives, but there’s a good chance, for many of us, it was the soundtrack to our identity.

Ethan Gordon is a 3L and Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction. His favourite Tragically Hip album is Trouble at the Henhouse. 

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