No one talks about how funny it is that Gord Downie is wearing a Jaws T-shirt on stage on this, his final tour with the Tragically Hip, a fate forced on the Canadian rock legends after the 52-year-old singer was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last December. Underneath the metallic leather suits that literally light up the solemnity of the occasion is the image from that 1977 movie poster: a swimming innocent on the verge of a deadly surprise attack from a monster lurking below. As with everything Downie does, the symbolism is there, if you care to find it. Could a terminal cancer patient possibly wear something funnier on stage?
On the first of three Toronto shows on the tour, to a roaring crowd of 20,000 people, a physically and mentally diminished Gord Downie begins his set singing, “So consumed with the shape I’m in / Can’t enjoy the luxury.” But he clearly is enjoying the luxury of being able to perform for his fans one last time, of publicly kissing his bandmates and crew in appreciation, of mouthing the words “I love you” in painfully slow motion directly into a camera during one of his band’s jams, of standing alone on stage at the end of the set, waving for a good five minutes, a strangely intimate moment with 20,000 people.
During the set, the normally lithe and animated Downie—one of the most powerful and enigmatic frontmen in the history of rock’n’roll—is noticeably restrained, employing discipline worthy of tai chi to the most subtle of gestures. Recurring among his typically amusing dance moves is one that evokes a centenarian doing a vaudevillian soft-shoe. Teleprompters are visible beside every monitor. The improvisatory poet with such a bountiful command of language is now following a tight script—by crippling necessity.
But the shadow of mortality that hangs over the tour is far from fatal; it is an impetus to revel in the present, to reflect on this gift we’ve shared for decades: songs and poetry and performances. “We can’t forget to celebrate,” Sarah Harmer told me the week of the Toronto shows. The songwriter has been a close friend of the Hip for almost 30 years, since she was 16; she took her 84-year-old mother to one of the shows that week. “This is us honouring the life force. Celebrating is a duty.”
This year has been an annus horribilis, an avalanche of morbidity for music fans. The intensely private David Bowie hid his illness, but left behind one final masterpiece mere days before he died. The even more private Prince disappeared one snowy day in April, right after a solo piano tour. Gord Downie also guards his privacy. Which is why the public announcement of his diagnosis—which came immediately after the first long weekend of the Canadian summer, so as not to spoil it—was almost as shocking as the news itself. The traditional Tragically Hip-filled summer soundtrack suddenly turned sombre.
Softening the blow ever so slightly was a new album, Man Machine Poem, completed before the diagnosis: released in June, the Tragically Hip’s 14th studio album turned out to be one of their finest in years, a left turn co-produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew that proved the band was still capable of surprises. Says one source close to the band, “They didn’t make a rock record or an acoustic fireside album; they made something that has blood.” Then, this final farewell tour, 15 dates that started in Victoria on July 22 and will end in their hometown of Kingston, Ont., where they formed 32 years ago. That last show, on Aug. 20, will be broadcast by the CBC and screened in public parks, outside city halls, and in theatres and bars across the country. Outside of an Olympic hockey game, it’s hard to imagine an event of any kind—never mind a musical one—that could bind so many corners of this country together.
Why this man? Why this band? Nickelback has sold more than six times as many records as the Tragically Hip. (50 million vs. eight million—but who’s counting?) Will we lament their passing the same way? Will children’s choirs assemble to sing “How You Remind Me”?
These are strange and uncertain times, so: maybe. But unlikely. Nickelback, for all their objective strengths, can be easily replaced by a doppelganger. The Tragically Hip, on the other hand, is irreplaceable. Their albums betray some obvious influences (Rolling Stones, R.E.M.) and some less obvious (Sons of Freedom, Rheostatics, Eric’s Trip, Neu). But, says Halifax songwriter Joel Plaskett, “Their brew is a totally distinct recipe. What more can you ask for than when you drop the needle on something and you can instantly say, ‘Oh, that’s the Tragically Hip.’ Even though their records are produced differently, you never think, ‘Oh, it could be something else.’ ” Their evolution is remarkable: play 1989’s Up to Here and this summer’s Man Machine Poem back to back and track the changes. “The brilliance of the band and their legacy,” says the Rheostatics’ Dave Bidini, “is that they were able to transform what everybody thought of them into something nobody thought of them. That’s beautiful.”
That said, it’s highly unlikely the Tragically Hip would have ever escaped the 401 without Downie in front. Beyond his charisma as a frontman is a rich tapestry of imagery, allusions, and narratives that blur the personal, the historical and the fantastical. He sits beside Bob Dylan and post-Graceland Paul Simon for keeping it surreal (“Bourbon blues on the street, loose and complete / under skies all smoky blue green / I can’t forsake a Dixie dead shake, so we danced the sidewalk clean / My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?”) With Downie, there are more layers to peel back than there are with his contemporaries Michael Stipe of R.E.M. or Stephen Malkmus of Pavement. Only Downie could possibly have 35,000 people at a summer beer bash singing along with a stanza lifted from a Hugh MacLennan novel (The Watch That Ends the Night), incongruously set to a fist-pumping pop song that doesn’t even rhyme or subscribe to meter: “There’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do / And yea, the human tragedy consists in the necessity of living with the consequences under pressure.”
Downie disciple John K. Samson, of Winnipeg band the Weakerthans, cherishes what he calls the “beautifully meaningful non-sequiturs” in Hip songs. Downie “can work in the abstract and still somehow be really specific,” says Samson. “He lets parts of his consciousness in that most writers aren’t able to do, myself included. What Gord does with his body of work is build a more detailed world. There’s something really political about that: A more detailed world is a more complicated and complex one and therefore a more empathetic one. Gord’s lyrics are exceptionally empathetic. The fact that they can cross all those cultural cliques and boundaries really amplifies that.” That’s evident everywhere from the narrative of “Wheat Kings,” dedicated to the wrongfully imprisoned David Milgaard (“A nation whispers, ‘We always knew that he’d go free’ ”) to the domestic Cold War in “Fireworks” (“Complete with the grip of artificial chaos”) to the fragility of “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” (“In the forget-yer-skates dream / full of countervailing woes”).
“I can’t think of very many people who work as hard at songcraft as Gord does,” says Steve Berlin, the saxophone player in Los Lobos who produced the Hip’s Phantom Power (1998) and Music @ Work (2000). “It was life or death: every syllable was important. He had—oh God, it looked like a phonebook, a binder that was literally bursting with ideas. I’ve worked with a lot of songwriters who, when they’re stuck, they’ll cobble through other ideas they have. But for Gord it wasn’t about just plugging in some thing he didn’t use before; everything had to be perfect.”
“Don’t tell me what the poets are doing,” sneered a self-deprecating Downie in one of the Hip’s funniest singles, “Poets.” He published one book of poetry, Coke Machine Glow, in 2001, to accompany a beautifully abstract solo album by the same name. But what do actual poets think of Downie’s lyrics?
“Gord is part of a continuum of great Canadian songwriters who are actually poets,” says poet and editor Damian Rogers. “When I was growing up in Michigan, it was Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell—that’s who influenced me as a poet. The greatest compliment you can give a poet is to say she’s a rock star. The greatest compliment that you can give a musician is to say he’s a poet. Gord Downie is both.”
Rogers co-curates an annual confluence of writers and musicians in Toronto called the Basement Revue, in which Downie has participated; she knows literary and musical worlds intimately. “I’m familiar with the generosity of Gord and the Tragically Hip in the world of underground music; if they love a band, they do everything they can to make that band comfortable [as an opening act], with genuine love and enthusiasm,” she says. “I see that same spirit in Gord’s relationship to poetry. I can’t think of anyone else of our generation who is so deeply engaged in this country’s poetry. Not just that he’s read by poets, which he is, but also: he reads them. I can’t overstate how unusual that is.”
Paramount to his appeal as a rock lyricist, of course, is Downie’s elevation of Canadian geography and mythology to the level of the mystical. When the Tragically Hip’s debut EP was released in 1987, to hear Canadiana in rousing rock songs was novel—to a large degree, it still is. Audiences in the Hip’s early days were hungry for it, especially when free trade, endless constitutional wrangling, the Oka crisis, the Montreal massacre and other issues were necessitating national self-examination. The Hip were hardly alone; they were one of many bands chiselling out a new identity in Canadian song. “We were maturing as a nation, and the Hip was a huge part of that,” says the Rheostatics’ Dave Bidini, whose song “Saskatchewan” Downie has cited as pivotal in the Tragically Hip’s own approach to writing. “Gord would tell you that it was a collective, combined effort. There would have been a lot of people in the sea. But there was this wave that surged, and the Hip were in a canoe at the top of that, riding the crest.”
“There was an amazing concurrence of circumstances that led to a bunch of bands starting to reflect their own lives,” says Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy. For a long time in Canadian culture, he says, “Anything we took was co-opted, and anything we created was secondary. I think [Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip] were lucky that we came in at a time when Canadian audiences, whether they knew it or not, were sick of that. From the get-go, the Hip really reflected their own background. When audiences saw the Hip for the first time, they thought, even subconsciously: ‘Finally, our own band.’ ”
That said, Downie is not a parochial writer like Stompin’ Tom Connors, an artist for whom provincialism in the face of a colonial mindset was the entire point of his oeuvre. If the Hip’s fans are often more than happy to literally wrap themselves in the Maple Leaf—as detailed in a biting Spirit of the West song called “Our Ambassador,” about seeing such fans while touring with the Hip in the U.S.—Downie isn’t having it. “I’m not a nationalist,” he once told me, firmly. “I started using Canadian references not just for their own sake, but because I wanted to pick up my birthright, which is this massive country full of stories.”
Downie does occasionally sing about hockey and the Prairies and Ontario cottage country, but he’s just as likely to draw from Second World War history, Shakespeare, John Cage or any other ephemera that feeds his insatiable curiosity—though those references don’t get the biggest cheers of recognition in arenas. “When I mention Halifax or Edmonton in a song, I know that beers get cracked,” says Plaskett. “Gord’s writing goes all over the place. It’s rich, and you can dig deeper than what most people associate with it.” “Bring on the requisite strangeness!” sang Downie in 2009. “It always has to get a little weird.”
Even if the words washed over you, the Hip’s raw, no-frills sound stood apart from the L.A. metal and glossy pop production that sucked the life out of rock’n’roll in the 1980s. In its infancy, the Hip’s music was built to win over disinterested bar patrons in small Great Lakes beach towns, which made it instantly palatable to the classic rock crowd once radio signed on. Crowds got exponentially bigger between 1989-92; two of three Hip albums released in that period (Up to Here, Fully Completely) would become two of only 24 Canadian records to ever sell more than a million copies domestically. (Six of those are by Celine Dion.) “It was an amazing time,” says Peter Garrett, the frontman of Australian band Midnight Oil, who opened for the Tragically Hip on the 1993 Hip-curated travelling festival called Another Roadside Attraction—despite the fact that Midnight Oil could headline arenas on their own. “There’s something when a band reaches a point where communication with an audience is like a charge of electricity and it fires up a generation, and it’s no small achievement.”
With those crowds, however, came a lot of beer-fuelled fervour and testosterone that for decades would taint Hip fans as hooligans. On stage during the 1993 Another Roadside Attraction, Midnight Oil’s Garrett would order security to eject rowdy audience members, offering to pay back the cost of their tickets himself. “Most artists don’t really give a s–t,” he says. “They’re not really thinking about the safety of their fans or the effect they’re having more broadly. The Hip, on the other hand, are very thoughtful people.”
On that tour and others, opening bands—usually well outside the mainstream, and personally invited by the Tragically Hip—would be drowned out by chants of “Hip! Hip! Hip!” (Musicians call this “getting Hipped.”) This happened even to the likes of Blue Rodeo and Daniel Lanois, who was pelted with bottles in Barrie, Ont., at a Canada Day show in 1994, prompting Downie to dedicate the first song of his set that day to “assholes who throw s–t at musicians.” Female fans didn’t always feel safe at the front, which irked the band whose first album has two songs about abused women seeking vengeance, and another alluding to an avenged rape—incredibly rare subject matter for male rock lyricists of any era. It clearly weighed on Downie for years; at the second of the recent Toronto shows, one of the only things he said to the audience was, “Thank you to all the women for always coming to our shows, even when your men were jumping off stages and getting into fights down in front. We needed you here.” While discussing the Hip hysteria of the early ’90s, Downie once told me that by 1994, “That’s when rather than trying to figure out what we were, I tried to figure out what we weren’t.”
That begat the considerably more esoteric album Day For Night, a game-changer that included, among other glorious oddities, the left-field hit single “Nautical Disaster”—a song in which the narrator has a graphic dream about the sinking of the Bismarck, a song that sets an endlessly circular chord progression to a linear lyric containing neither a chorus nor a single rhyme. In 1996, Downie started playing acoustic guitar on stage, which changed the dynamic of the band—and to some degree the crowds—completely. “It was interesting,” says Bidini, whose Rheostatics opened the ’96 tour, “how maybe half the crowd left and ended up being replaced by a different half.”
After Day for Night, Tragically Hip albums became more hit and miss, though you could depend on at the very least one great single. Every few years they’d release a stunner: 1998’s Phantom Power, 2009’s We Are the Same, 2016’s Man Machine Poem. “This new record is some of the most powerful stuff they’ve ever written,” says Steve Berlin of Los Lobos. “That’s hard to do, let me tell you, as a guy who’s been in the same band for 40 years or so. To hit one out of the park in your third decade? Not an easy trick.”
In the mid-’90s, Vancouver band Spirit of the West played many shows opening for the Tragically Hip. In 2015, they played a unwitting role in preparing Canadian music fans for the wrenching drama of this summer.
The group’s co-founder and frontman, John Mann, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2014, at age 52. His short-term memory is gone; he now has trouble forming sentences, but his muscle memory for singing remains. Unbowed, his band embarked on a 12-show cross-country farewell tour last year, during which the normally manic Mann eschewed guitar and performed stationary in front of a mounted tablet with scrolling lyrics; during instrumental breaks he would transform into the kinetic energy force he’d always been. Offstage, Mann’s wife travelled with the band to help administer medicine and keep him on a steady regimen so that he could perform.
“It was very hard,” says Mann’s co-frontman Geoff Kelly. “Every gig was emotional. Each night you play there are friends coming out from every town to say goodbye. The overall feeling was sad and heartbreaking but also uplifting. I was able to hold it all together until the last gig at [Vancouver’s] Commodore [Ballroom]. When John was holding the last note of the last song, I just started crying.”
Dave Bidini remembers how his friend Paul Quarrington, the author of Whale Music, dealt with an unexpected diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer that left him 13 months to live; he died in 2010. “He thought, ‘Okay, I have a finite amount of time left on this planet. I’m going to use it.’ Next thing you know he’s on tour with his band, finishing his book. He thought, ‘What a gift, to know when I’m going to leave the planet. People get shot, hit by cars—you don’t know, you don’t have time to say goodbye.’ It seems as though Gord is embracing this on that level, which, as a creative person, why wouldn’t you?” Indeed, several sources confirmed rumours of more music and artistic projects from Downie in the coming months.
“There’s nothing dead down here, just a little tired,” sings Downie on 1991’s “Little Bones,” a song the Hip is playing almost every night on the tour. A song the Tragically Hip is not playing this summer has a chorus that goes, “I thought you beat the inevitability of death to death just a little bit.” But the occasion has not been the rock’n’roll equivalent of a casket criss-crossing the country by train, with parades of spectators hailing a fallen leader. Downie’s neuro-oncologist, James Perry, told the Canadian Press, “When I wondered if he would have the stamina, I never imagined him leaping around in a pink leather suit with a feathered cap. It says so much about the guy.”
Don Pyle, the drummer in Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet—who, in 2001, lost his 42-year-old bandmate Reid Diamond to a cancer that affected the brain—says he can’t help but contrast the secretive way David Bowie handled his pending death with Downie’s openness. “Everybody has to deal with their own illness in their own way,” says Pyle. “It was very in character for [Bowie’s death] to be so theatrically co-ordinated, for it to be scripted right to the very end.” The Tragically Hip tour is also a script playing itself out to an inevitable end, but one in which they’re inviting Canadians to share, to see the pain and the tears and the triumph. “I thought it was very generous for the Hip to go out and tour, but they’ve always been very much about connecting people and bringing people together,” says Pyle. “It’s less about the artifice of a constructed stage persona. Realness is something that is very much part of their game—and death is very real.”
“You’re going to miss me. Wait and you’ll see. Fully, completely.”