I will always remember Gord Downie as an advocate.
He was the singer and primary lyricist for the Tragically Hip from Kingston, Ontario. He performed similar duties in the Country of Miracles, a “solo project” that really was a band, a collective expression. He was also a poet, and occasionally an actor. He did many things, almost all of them extraordinarily well.
He’s gone now after enduring a terminal form of brain cancer in public for over a year. He spent that time working on Secret Path, music that drew attention to the plight of Canada’s Indigenous population, who are still suffering after decades of government-sanctioned persecution and neglect. It was never right, and Gord knew it wasn’t right and so he said so.
Speaking out and acting on his beliefs to better serve Canadian culture seemed second nature to Gord, and that impulse immediately spoke to us. He intuitively seemed to know that, with the platform he had been given thanks to the success of the Hip, he had power to change people’s lives, at least a little bit. And he used it in ways that spoke to so many young people (and certainly some racialized, first-generation Canadians like myself).
I first saw the Tragically Hip in Markham in 1993. I was 15 and attended a stop on their inaugural Another Roadside Attraction tour, a travelling festival programmed to showcase established and emerging bands.
I remember feeling badly for Daniel Lanois and Crash Vegas because of the impatient fans yelling for the headliners while the afternoon sun was still shining down. But I walked away turned on by both of those performances and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. I’d like to think that for Gord and the Hip, introducing people from different backgrounds to each other – even the idea that the other existed – was a tiny mission accomplished.
Over the years, Gord would perform similar ear-to-the-ground tricks and place a premium on community and commonality. I heard him say things over the course of last summer’s Man Machine Poem tour with the Tragically Hip that showcased his humanity.
“Thanks to all the ladies,” he said in Hamilton. “You helped us become a real band through all the years. There was a patch where we had to do something to the boys they were just trying to take over, jumping on our stage and stuff like that. We had to get the girls in to take over.”
Is that a superficial platitude or a kindly call to arms? A tacit nudge to think of others more, to think of each other in life, to show some respect?
The thing is, the music Gord made with his friends will perplex me forever. It was weird across the board. But through all my experiences with him – in a field on my feet, on my ass in a seat in an arena, at a small club on the lower east side of Manhattan, in a quiet moment at a protest concert where he gently spoke to my admiring two-year-old son – I see him less as an artist and more as a man of great character.
At the risk of saying something trite to memorialize someone, I can’t help but mention that Gord Downie really cared about “us.” All of us. And in the way he conducted himself, he inspired a million people like me to care more, too.
Listen to a 2010 interview with Gord Downie on Kreative Kontrol:
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