Update, May 24, 2016: The Tragically Hip announced on Tuesday that Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. “In privacy along with his family, and through all of this, we’ve been standing by him,” the band told fans in a letter, which also announced plans to tour. “This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.”
From the Maclean’s archives, a 2009 conversation between author and Maclean’s contributor Joseph Boyden and Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie:
Q: You are a showman of epic proportions, and yet offstage you are a very different person. Where do you go when you get up on stage?
A: I surrender. I throw myself on the altar of song and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colours and sounds and I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there like Howlin’ Wolf or Otis Redding or David Bowie with a mike in my hand and an audience that’s ready.
Q: Jim Morrison called himself a shaman, claimed he was possessed up on stage.
A: Who? Yeah, I’m really riding something up there, and it’s a hell of a ride. The way I always felt is that for a show to be great, something’s got to happen. I go for it; I sing, I dance, I listen to this great band, I do what the music urges. My brain tries to get a step ahead: jump there, turn, kick, spin, drop to your knees, dab brow with white hanky. Throw hanky into crowd. It’s just all really so fun and improvisational and cool and when things break or fall down or go wrong, it can be even better. This is my show, and having said all that, I really want and work to be a great singer. That drives me as well. To do my part for the band.
Also on Macleans.ca: The Tragically Hip — in rehearsal
Q: It isn’t a rehearsed routine. There’s this absolute feel of excitement in the crowd of “Holy *#%&, what’s going to happen next?” Like watching a tightrope act.
A: I watched Stevie Nicks the other night and with just a flick of her shawl the place drops to its knees. So I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Q: Maybe shawls are in your future?
A: Well, maybe they ought to be. What incredible economy. So American.
Q: Have you always been this way onstage? A wild man?
A: Pretty much. I’ve really refined it, believe it or not.
Q: So you can refine a wild man?
A: Yes. With dance. I’m a dancer. It’s what I love to do more than anything.
Q: Are you classically trained?
A: [Laughing. Pause.] No. I’m, uh, self-taught.
Q: The Tragically Hip are the long-reigning kings of Canadian rock ’n’ roll. To where does the credit go?
A: The songs. It’s the things we’ve made together that keep us together and, maybe more than that, it’s the vague promise of what we might still make together. Everyone is listening for the same thing, from an old songwriter or from a new one: potential. A great song’s greatest attribute is how it hints at more. The Hip has always had a strong curiosity to see what’s around the next corner. To see what more we can do, what more we can say—to each other, primarily. We try and serve the song. If we’re any good at all it’s because we’re together on that.
Q: We Are The Same, your new album, feels like it stretches boundaries for the band and for you as a songwriter, Depression Suite, especially—which I call an opera of sorts.
A: Bob Rock, our producer, wanted to try and combine three songs. It was Paul [Langlois, one of two guitarists for the band] who suggested these particular three songs and it was instantaneous. It totally worked. Then, it was just a practical matter: how do we stitch three songs together and make them flow? I gave it the name Depression Suite as a bit of a laugh; it appealed and stuck. I think, with this record, we have pushed the margins a bit wider and this song helped us do that.
Q: A mutual and dear friend, when he first heard this new album, said, “This is The Tragically Hip’s Harvest,” in reference to Neil Young’s opus. What do you make of that?
A: Wow. I’ll take it. I know we wanted to say something a bit differently this time; that we established some notions going in about what we wanted to do. This in itself, for a band that avoids most preconceived notions, made it a different record. Otherwise, we just tried to do what anyone does in the studio; jump wisely, hopefully, and with both feet from decision to decision.
Q: Let’s talk about your vocal range on this one: classic Downie is there in songs like Love is a First, and Frozen in my Tracks, but I see a softer, contemplative voice in songs like Morning Moon, Coffee Girl, The Last Recluse. Are you exploring your voice in new ways?
A: Bob kept calling it my hotel voice.
Q: Hotel voice?
A: I dunno. A quieter voice for quieter ideas? Wishes to be done with loneliness and dislocation are sometimes better whispered? Dreams dared quietly for fear they won’t come true? There were times I thought I needed to pick up the big circus hammer, swing, and ring the bell. But Bob would come in and gently remind me, “You don’t need to do that.” He didn’t want to lose the intensity at all. I was very challenged but very happy in the studio with Bob pushing me. With some producers, the singer can tend to get treated a bit like the goalie: the coach has no end of things to say to the forwards and defencemen. But when it comes to the goalie, coach is at a bit of a loss. “And you!? Umm, you go over there and . . . stretch.” Bob is a great producer, editor and friend. He takes the task to heart more than anyone I’ve known, to create beautiful songs. He would say that that’s really all it’s ever about.
Q: You don’t live the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, do you? What grounds you?
A: Family and my work. I like hanging with my family and helping them on their way however I can. There’s a new tragicomedy every half-hour, there is laughter, there are tears, and it’s all real. They are endlessly entertaining, they have given me so much, they’ve given me a chance to “see” things again. And then there’s my work. Lifting the 400 lb. feather. I work every day. I write every day. I walk around in silent conversation with my latest unfinished songs. I love it, I love all aspects of it, and I’ve found that doing it every day is the best (but by no means sure) way to get open, at the ready, and able to recognize what Raymond Carver called “a new path to the waterfall.” To find those simple statements to pass along that help or don’t.
Q: You are a supporter of environmental issues, especially of water rights. Why?
A: You mean Waterkeeper? I think the health of our water is tied to a lot: the health of our communities, hence our economy, the health of our basic human rights. I grew up on the lake and my tie to it came naturally. Our water laws are as old as the hills; they’re strong and they’re toothsome, and because they are so effective, I guess I can’t blame these guys who are trying to defang them. But these water laws, whether under the Fisheries Act or the Navigable Waters Protection Act, are there to protect what is rightfully ours. Our waterways belong to all of us, and for me to relearn this simple fact was life-changing. Our environment does not stand in the way of progress or stimulus. It is progress. A healthy environment and a healthy economy are not antithetical to one another. They are one. Waterkeeper Alliance gets results. They remind polluters of the good laws that are on the books and they remind everyone else of the treasures of our heritage.
Q: Any outdoor activities that you enjoy?
A: I love fishing. I fished every day as a kid on Lake Ontario. I never caught a big fish ever, till I met you, Joseph, when you took my son and me to James Bay. Anyway, as kids, we spent every waking moment up and down the rocky shore. We used to tie a skipping rope to a pitchfork and try to spear big carp. We never got one. My kids love that story, very Lord of the Flies.
Q: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
A: If I’m to be an “ist” then, like Bobby Kennedy, I’m probably more of a free market capitalist than an environmentalist. Rather than wanting to tell people to be less bad, I’m saying let’s make it fair across the board and stop subsidizing the big heavy-polluting fat cats, let’s make it a level playing field.
Q: Is it true you drive a minivan, you rock star?
A: Well, on occasion, yes. I own a minivan. We call it the Black Potato or Stinkmobile.
Q: Many of us know you as singer, a poet, and even an actor. But a championship hockey goalie?
A: When I was a kid, Bantam age, our team, Ernestown, went all the way to the provincial “B” championship. We had to beat four teams in four series to get there. The crowds were huge, the stakes brutal and crushing. I was the goalie. Teen hero or teen goat. It teaches you things.
Q: Was Bob Rock your coach?
A: I wish. He knows what to say to a goalie. And goalies are strange. You do want to play but there’s also a part of you that kinda hopes a compressor will blow or that there’ll be too much snow on the roof and part of it will cave in and they’ll have to cancel the game.
Q: You’re a big fan of the Boston Bruins. This could be considered a travesty, even treason with many Canadians.
A: I have loved them since the early ’70s. All of my siblings were big Bruins fans. It was a certain type who liked the Bruins. They were known as a “blue-collar” team. They seemed to me like an outlaw team. You were a bit of an outlaw if you liked the Bruins.
Q: Why not the Leafs?
A: My grandfather liked the Leafs. Because of him I always carried—and still do—a place in my heart for the Leafs—albeit a small place. I should mention, also, that Harry Sinden and his wife, Eleanor, are my godparents.
Q: The Harry Sinden, godlike Bruins head coach and coach of Team Canada in the famed 1972 Summit Series against the U.S.S.R.?
A: I didn’t like to make a big deal of it when I was a kid. But I was very proud of our connection and I still am. My brothers and me defended every move he made, and loved the Bruins fiercely, spiritually, as any number of our friends will painfully attest to.
Q: Okay, now for my own Proustian questionnaire. What is your single most prominent guiding principle in life?
A: Life’s too short for bad coffee.
Q: If you could change the world, what would you choose to do?
A: End poverty.
Q: How do you hope the world will be changed by the time your children reach your age?
A: Looking at all these kids, I know the world will be a more enlightened place.
Q: Name at least one TV show you like.
Q: Given the option of living at a temperature of zero degrees or 40 degrees every day for the rest of your life, which would it be?
Q: If you could design your favourite meal, what would it be?
A: My wife’s orzo with onions, Italian sausage, mushrooms.
Q: When I exert myself physically, I sweat a lot. I notice on stage that you sweat, a lot, too. Have you ever considered bottling it?
A: I do bottle it! I pour it out of my boots after every show. I call it “Whoa!” There’s nothing wrong with us, Joseph. It’s our body’s way of saying, “Easy there, volcano.” It’s why we’re so cool.