I love you, Gord Downie
I was born just a few hours before Elvis Presley died. I can’t count how many times as a kid I jumped up on my bed, fully embracing my air guitar, somehow convinced I was the one born to become the next Elvis. Rock stars have a way with demanding our attention.
John Lennon was killed when I was three. While I don’t have any memory of listening to his music before then, I was completely obsessed by high school. Mark David Chapman, the man who shot him, was incarcerated at Attica State Prison, just a few miles from where I grew up. I wrote him a letter once, to try to understand. He wrote me back. Something about Jesus.
I cried when Freddie Mercury died, sitting at a table in art class with my friends, listening to the radio — something you’d only ever be allowed to do in an art classroom. Years later a documentary would reveal that Freddie, on his deathbed, said to Brian May that maybe now they could be famous. Now that queer Freddie was gone. Besides losing a great one, I knew at the time that he was never appreciated as much as he should have been, and it hurt.
I never cried when Kurt Cobain died. It felt like I wasn’t supposed to. Like it was something fans were supposed to expect, somehow. It felt like a middle finger to absolutely everyone and I didn’t know how to feel.
I have cried a hundred times at the loss of Gord Downie. You’re not a fan of the Tragically Hip, because fish aren’t a fan of water. It’s just how it is. Like an older brother, Gord helped show us the way. He shined lights in dark corners, and gave us hope. He helped us grow up.
He inspired us to be more thoughtful, caring, and alive. He was less afraid than we were. He was more jubilant. He would sweat far, far more than anyone else. And he could put words to moments that could leave a fingerprint on your soul that could have never been put there by anyone else.
We’re all mortal and there are typically only two ways out — fast, and very slow. But not for Gord. Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This is the moment anyone would take a deep sigh, hold family and friends close, and wait out their final moments. Instead, Gord did the impossible. He rallied, figured out how to jump start his brain little by little, and tour Canada, one last time. They made a movie about it.
Gord Downie gave us everything. He was giving us his last fucking days on earth. He gave us everything. Everything he had.
I had to see him again. Buying tickets to see The Hip in Hamilton Ontario fairly late in the proposed tour was stressful. Would Gord make it that far? Would I get to say goodbye? On August 20th, 2016, just a few days after my birthday, I got to see him one last time.
There were dozens of monitors strewn around the stage displaying the song lyrics. Like an elaborate karaoke setup, but for the sole use of the author himself. He would occasionally drift, not quite holding on to the words, but the audience was there, full throated and strong, holding him up.
Gord was known for stories and ad-libbed lyrics. For an audience that knew every line of every song, these fresh stories and anecdotes were what we lived for at a show. During this very last tour Gord was telling some new stories. He shared strong support for First Nations’ people in Canada, speaking directly to Justin Trudeau, who was now just a fan in the audience. He also shared more personal stories.
Gord told this story that included an anecdote about his wife’s father. It was a cute story, but something I’d forgotten as quickly as he shared it. In order to keep Gord healthy, the band took frequent breaks during this tour, so there was a pause for 5 minutes or so, and the band came back on the stage for more. Before playing the next song in the lineup, Gord spoke to the crowd. He said that he realized backstage that when he’d told that story before, he referred to his wife’s father as Dave, but his name is actually Greg. A simple mistake to make for a man with brain cancer, but he wanted to correct the record. It felt important to do. Because that’s the kind of man Gord Downie is.
The Tragically Hip is a band that started in high school and after more than three decades, never really stopped. The band always left the stage together. Always. But not this tour. Gord showed us, that if you’re lucky, if you can, and if you’re very very very lucky, you can take a bow. The love you take is equal to the love you make, the Beatles said. And on the biggest stage in a dozen cities across Canada, Gord could finally take a little. To see the faces, full of tears. The moments made. The relationships strengthened. The essence of being alive, echoed back to him, louder than he could sing anymore.
And he did it again, twice more. Once in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. And lastly, of course, in Kingston — the band’s hometown. How perfectly Canadian. This time it was broadcast live. It was a national event. And then a year later he was gone.
Last week The Tragically Hip released an album that included a handful of old songs thought to be lost to the archives. To help announce the album, Lindsay Pereira wrote an article for CBC “As an immigrant, I wanted to understand Canada’s fascination with the Tragically Hip. This is what I found”. It’s beautiful to see the light of Gord Downie coming through this new fan — an immigrant to Canada who arrived shortly before Gord died. He was thoroughly confused why the Prime Minister of his new country was crying on the news about a rock star who passed away. That would seem weird to me too if I didn’t know any better.
And that’s the thing about art. It lives on. It can outlast us, as long as we don’t forget. But it’s not the records or recordings or even lyrics that will carry us. It’s the spirit of Gord. His beautiful soul, that was able to convert all of life’s passion and pain into something the rest of us could easily understand and feel more deeply. Something to reflect on. Something to keep with you.
I love you Gord. Thank you. Fully, Completely.