Downie’s death hits hard on many fronts: BEING BLUNT
Gord Downie leaves the stage for the final time at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto after the Tragically Hip's final show in the city on Aug. 14, 2016. KEVIN LAMB/PHOTO
Gord Downie’s passing this week is sad news on many fronts.
First and foremost, it’s a tragedy for his family and friends who witnessed Downie’s struggle with brain cancer for nearly two years.
At age 53, Downie left those closest to him far too soon.
The other loss is to the many Canadians who discovered, or rediscovered, The Tragically Hip during its farewell tour of the nation last year.
Perhaps like no other rock band, the Hip tapped into the Canadian identity – who we are, what we care about, and why.
There are far too many Hip songs in that vein to name.
So let’s look at Fully Completely (1992), regarded by many as the band’s finest album.
It contains Fifty-Mission Cap (Bill Barilko), At the Hundredth Meridian (where the Great Plains begin), Wheat Kings (David Milgaard) and Courage (for Hugh MacLennan) - not to mention The Wherewithal, one of those words only Canadians use.
Such as ‘at least he had the wherewithal to find his way home in that snowstorm.’
Or Phantom Power (1998), with Bobcaygeon (Ontario town), Thompson Girl (Manitoba town) and Fireworks, maybe my favourite Hip song.
‘You held my hand and we walked home the long way, You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr’ are the key lyrics, in my mind, although ‘If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ 72, We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger’ is pretty good too.
The Hip made 14 albums from 1987 to 2016, and every one of them has something about being Canadian and what it means.
There has been much talk since Downie’s passing about him being a poet, and he has published poetry.
But his most famous words are in songs by the Hip. And while they have a certain poetic quality, I’m not really sure they are poems.
I’ve always thought the true test of poetry is whether it reads well, by itself.
We’ll never know with Downie’s lyrics, because they need not thrive on the printed page.
His distinct voice and the Hip’s powerful playing makes that unnecessary.
And while we’re on the subject of this band, let’s remember that Downie was a singer working with musicians who played exceptionally well together.
Rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois, Rob Baker on lead guitar, bassist Gord Sinclair and
Johnny Fay on drums provided the sonic staple of the Hip’s music. They also co-wrote the music and helped arrange the songs. Too often that gets lost.
These guys were a band, and that’s why Hip songs still carry so much punch.
Downie’s own albums don’t have that advantage, so his solo stuff doesn’t really resonate with me – although his efforts on behalf of Canada’s Indigenous people should be lauded.
Canada has had some pretty good bands and some very fine songwriters. The Guess Who, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Blue Rodeo, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, to name just a few.
In their own way, they’ve all written about being Canadian and what that means.
But not on The Tragically Hip’s level.
That seemed evident in their final tour last year, right across the country, which ended in Kingston on a hot August night, and on the CBC.
It felt like three hours of the Hip, all the songs Canadians cared about, all the songs the band wanted to play for us, one last time.
And Downie was at the centre of this love-in, which was just fine with Langlois, Baker, Sinclair and Fay.
On that stage, before an entire nation, he got to know exactly how Canadians felt about him.
That’s a rare thing, something to be treasured, and maybe the lasting image we have of Gord Downie.
Bob Bruton is the Examiner’s city hall reporter, and rock’n’roll writer, even if it is by default.