Gord Downie

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He is one of the most famous musicians in Canadian history, and was the lead singer of the band that was called the most Canadian band in history.

When he passed away, it resulted in a huge outpouring of emotions from Canadians.

Today, in this episode sponsored by Brock Crocker, I am looking at the life and legacy of Gord Downie.

Gord Downie was born in Amherstview, Ontario on Feb. 6, 1964 to a family that included two brothers and two sisters. His parents were Lorna and Edgard Downie, and his father was a travelling salesman, who later transitioned into a career in real estate. His godfather was Harry Sinden, who would go on to become the coach of the Boston Bruins, leading them to the Stanley Cup in 1970, and then coached Team Canada to victory in the 1972 Summit Series.

Downie was raised in Kingston and that is where he would attend high school.

Downie would say years later quote:

“I came from a rural area. I wouldn’t say it has given me a stigma, but it is something that’s always stayed with me, not actually being from Kingston.”

It was at high school, the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, that he met the other members of who would form The Tragically Hip.

In school, Downie formed the band The Slinks and they would perform on a variety show, where another band The Rodents, played. That band had Rod Baker and Gord Sinclair as part of it.

In 1984, Downie, Baker, Sinclair, along with Johnny Fray and Davis Manning, formed The Tragically Hip. The band played its first gig in November of that year in a small white room at the Kingston Artists Association.

Manning would leave and be replaced, and the band would initially perform British rock songs from the 1960s.

While performing at the Horseshoe Tavern, Bruce Dickenson, the president of MCA Records saw them perform and offered them a record deal.

From this point, the Tragically Hip would become known as the most quintessential band in Canadian history. A band that was beloved in Canada but never cracked into the United States.

I am not talking about the Tragically Hip much in this episode, as the episode is about Gord Downie and his own life, rather than the band.

Nonetheless, the band would become one of the most successful in our country’s history.

In 1987, The Tragically Hip released their self-titled album, featuring eight songs. In 1989, the band released its first full-length album, becoming one of the most successful in the band’s history, earning the band its first Juno Award. On the album were the iconic songs Blow At High Dough and New Orleans Is Sinking. In 1991, the band released Road Apples, which was eight times platinum.

Over the course of the band’s career, they would release 13 studio albums, one live album and over 50 singles. The Tragically Hip have won 16 Juno Awards, the most ever by a band, and sold nearly six million albums. The band is the most-selling Canadian band within Canada and the fourth best-selling Canadian artist overall in Canada. The band’s song Ahead By A Century was listed as the 67th most played song on Canadian radio between 1996 and 2016.

Macleans would write in 1996, quote:

“Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, drafts some of the most sophisticated, intricate, evocative lyrics in rock ’n’ roll. The sing-along phenomenon is a measure of the remarkable power of The Tragically Hip to unify an audience with its music. It is not surprising that these five unassuming, thirtysomething men from Kingston, Ont.— singer Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay—comprise Canada’s most popular band.”

In 2001, Downie released his first solo album, Coke Machine Glow. He would also publish a poetry and prose collection with the album. He would release a second solo album, Battle of the Nudes in 2003, and a third, The Great Bounce, in 2010.

Downie would say of music quote:

“Rock ‘n’ roll is not unlike love,” he told music writer Michael Barclay in 2000. “You find it oddly strangely comforting that no matter how old you get, when it comes to matters of the heart, you’re always 15 inside. I know an 85-year-old with boy trouble. That’s a strange and comforting thing to me. As we move towards resolution and understanding and greater serenity in all aspects of our life, love’s pretty elemental and that’s nice to know. I think rock ‘n’ roll is the same. I don’t pretend to understand it; it feels confusing and frightening and wonderful.” 

Outside of music, Downie was also known for popping up in cameos in Canadian productions. He had a cameo appearance with The Tragically Hip in Men With Brooms, and another cameo in Nothing Really Matters. He also appeared in The Trailer Park Boys movie, the Big Dirty, playing a police officer with RUSH guitarist Alex Lifeson. Downie and the Tragically Hip were also featured in an episode of Corner Gas.

Downie was heavily involved in environmentalism, especially when it came to water rights. He was a board member of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, and he helped prevent a cement company from burning tires for fuel.

He would support War Child Canada, organized by Samantha Nutt, inviting her to stand on stage with him in September 2000 when he sang before 80,000 people in Winnipeg. This helped the organization raise over $300,000 in a single night.

Indigenous affairs was a passion for Downie, and he would form the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigneous peoples. Wenjack was a young boy who died while trying to flee a residential school.

In December 2015, Downie had attended his father’s funeral and soon after was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He was told it was terminal. The diagnosis would be made public on May 24, 2016.

Through the summer of 2016, the band toured Canada to support their 13th album Man Machine Poem. This would be the last tour for The Tragically Hip and it was widely covered and attended throughout Canada.

A friend would address why Downie chose to tour despite his terminal disease. He would say quote:

“When he first said they were going on tour, I said, are you okay? Are you sure? Then I understand his reasoning, not the least of which was doing it for the guys, which was really lovely, and I thought, Of course, you’re a rock n’ roll band. You’re a family. And doing it for his own family as well, to put something in the coffers for his kids.”

The final concert for Downie and The Tragically Hip was held at Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016. It was streamed live by the CBC on television, radio and internet. It was viewed by an estimated 12 million people, one-third of all Canadians.

Macleans would write quote:

“This quiet man had held much of the entire nation rapt, millions watched as he summoned all his strength to tackle his terminal condition, to fend back, however briefly, the inevitability of death. To testify one more time. It would turn out to be the last show of his band’s 30-year, multi-million-selling, award-winning career, a fate many suspected at the time.”

On Dec. 2, 2016, the Assembly of First Nations honoured Downie with an eagle feather, a symbol of the Creator, for his support of the Indigenous. He was also given the name Wicapi Omani, Lakota for Man Who Walks Among The Stars.

On Dec. 22, 2016, Downie was named The Canadian Press’ Canadian Newsmaker of the year. He was the first entertainer to receive the title. He would earn the distinction again in 2017 due to the public reaction to his death.

On June 19, 2017, Downie and his Tragically hip bandmates were all awarded the Order of Canada.

On July 2, 2017, Downie was at Parliament Hill to speak out in support of Indigenous youth in Canada. This was his last public appearance.

In September, Downie announced his final solo double-album, Introduce Yerself, which was released on Oct. 27, 2017. The album would go on to win three Juno Awards including Artist of the Year for Downie.

On Oct. 17, 2017, Gord Downie passed away from brain cancer at the age of 53 in Toronto. His death was announced on the Tragically Hip website, stating quote:

Last night Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by. Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss … on the lips. Gord said he had lived many lives. As a musician, he lived “the life” for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one.”

Justin Trudeau, who gave a tearful statement, stated at a press conference quote:

“Our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had—and not just loved it in a nebulous, ‘Oh, I love Canada’ way. He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.”

The House of Commons would also observe a moment of silence.

Across Canada, Downie was mourned on a level not seen in decades, likely since the passing of Terry Fox. On The National the night he died, 40 of its 60 minutes was devoted to Downie. Several NHL teams and players also paid tribute to him on social media, as did famous Canadians such as Seth Rogan, k.d. lang, Neil Young and Ryan Reynolds.

On the day of his death, radio stations across Canada played the Tragically Hip much more than usual. There was a 1,500 per cent increase compared to a normal day. Some even shifted to an all-Tragically Hip format.  Several radio stations dropped their regular names for the day and rebranded as Gord FM.

Arjun Sahgal, the oncologist who had been helping to treat Downie commended his strength and courage in continuing to tour and make music, while also using his fame to help with cancer awareness and Indigenous reconciliation. He would call Downie a quote:

“Terry Fox in the modern day.”

In December 2017, Ontario put forward a proposal to create a Poet Laurate of Ontario in honour of Downie. This would pass in 2019, establishing the position.

In 2018, the Canadian Screen Awards awarded Downie two Canadian Screen Awards posthumously for the Secret Path, an animated television show broadcast on CBC in conjunction with his solo album Secret Path, released in September 2016.

I will end this episode with what Macleans wrote of Downie after he passed away. It is a long piece, but it sums up his impact on Canada well. It states quote:

“Instead of asking “Where is here?” Downie dispensed with the uncertainty and doubt — and most importantly the sense that Canada’s proper place was in the periphery — and declared “Here is where.” He took what had been a question and turned it into a quest. Placing us front and centre, he set out to discover and express an authentic sense of identity and belonging. Along the way, he taught us that our perceived weakness was one of our greatest strengths; that our absence and amorphousness, our lack of any real concrete identity, was not only an essential part of our identity, but a defining characteristic that could be immensely empowering. Gord Downie helped us feel confident in being Canadian, and encouraged us to see that we were super cool just the way we were. No matter what anyone else thought.”

Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Rolling Stone, Wikipedia,

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