By Kohan L. Eybergen
A year ago on October 17, 2017, the world lost an amazing musical artist. Gord Downie, the lead singer of what is often considered “Canada’s band,” The Tragically Hip, passed away from terminal brain cancer, leaving behind him a legacy of music, poetry, and activism. With deep and often surreal lyrics focused on the human experience, it’s no surprise that Downie’s music made a large impact on many people, and his work still has an effect on many Canadian lives after his death.
Often able to sum up complex and obscure emotions and experiences with just a few well-chosen words, Gord Downie is often referred to as the Canadian Shakespeare. And for good reason: you don’t have to listen to too many of the Tragically Hip’s songs (although you should) to realize that Downie truly was a poet who also happened to be the frontman of a great rock band.
Born on February 6, 1964 in Amherstview, Ontario, Downie and his family moved to nearby Kingston Ontario. Growing up in the town of Kingston, Gord, like many other Canadian kids, played hockey with a local team, winning many tournaments in the position of goaltender. In high school, Downie befriended the musicians who would eventually become The Tragically Hip: Bobby Baker, Johnny Fay, Gord Sinclair, and Paul Langlois. During the early years while the band was touring the club and university circuit in Ontario, it wasn’t uncommon for people to remark “Gordon Downie? The goalie?”
After being signed to the record label MCA in the late 1980s, the Hip released one EP, thirteen full-length studio albums, and two live albums over their thirty-three year career. But Downie didn’t just use his songwriting talent solely on the Hip’s material. With a solo catalogue of six albums, two of which were written and released after his cancer diagnosis, and a book of poetry, Gord Downie was certainly a musician and writer both fully and completely capable of writing music on his own. Despite his solo career, Downie always stayed together with The Tragically Hip up until his passing, always insisting on the band being a democracy, writing credits of every song were always split between the five members.
Throughout his life, Gord Downie also had many philanthropic efforts. From environmental causes to the rights of Indigenous Canadians, Gord was always thinking of others and using his fame as a platform to bring awareness to many of our country’s issues. The best example of this is probably the “Secret Path” album. One of his solo albums, which Gord assured was his most important musical work, this album tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy who died running away from a residential school in the 1960s.
Although a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer would certainly be a career ender for most people, Gord Downie was determined that he and The Tragically Hip would still go on tour for their “Man Machine Poem” album. Equipped with multiple teleprompters for Gord to read lyrics off of, The Hip completed their final tour in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. The over three-hour long show included songs from every single Hip album, the last of which being “Ahead By A Century” from “Trouble At The Henhouse.”
Although Gordie is gone physically, his spirit lives on in his work and lyrics. There will be no arbitrarily-numbered list of best Gord Downie lyrics in this article, but let’s look at some of the most striking examples of his writing.
“His tiny knotted heart
Well, I guess it never worked too good
The timber tore apart
And the water gorged the wood
You can hear her whispered prayer
For men at masts that always lean
The same wind that moves her hair
Moves a boy through Fiddler’s Green” – “Fiddler’s Green” from “Road Apples.”
“If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me,
They bury me some place I don’t want to be,
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city-breeze, garbage bag trees,
Whispers of disease and the acts of enormity
And lower me slowly, sadly and properly
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy,
At the hundredth meridian” – “At The Hundredth Meridian” from “Fully Completely.”
“Building up to the larger point
With an arrogance not rare or pretty
We don’t declare the war on idleness
When outside it’s cold and shitty
We stay inside and try to conjure the fathers
Of the injured and faking
If there’s a glory in miracles
It’s that they’re reversible”- “Titanic Terrarium” from “Day For Night.”
“So, I’m at your house this morning
Just a little after nine
‘Cause, it was in Bobcaygeon
Where I saw the constellations reveal themselves
One star at time” – “Bobcaygeon” from “Phantom Power.”
“Stare in the morning shroud
And then the day began
I tilted your cloud
You tilted my hand
Rain falls in real time
And rain fell through the night
No dress rehearsal, this is our life” – “Ahead By A Century” from “Trouble At The Henhouse.”
Through his work and lyrics we remember Gord Downie and his legacy. Rest easy Gord, we love you.