Countless better-known acts have come out of Canada, but if the nation ever had a true musical spokesperson, it might be Gord Downie, frontman and primary songwriter of the Tragically Hip. During their 32-year history, the band has notched countless hits – including 11 Top 10 Canadian singles – that many in the country can recite by heart.
But on May 24th, Canadians awoke to tragic news; the front page of every news site coast-to-coast announced that the singer’s days were numbered. “A few months ago, in December, Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer,” the band wrote on its Facebook page.
Later that day Downie’s neuro-oncologist, Dr. James Perry, announced that Downie had undergone surgery to remove the bulk of the tumor, followed by six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, but a complete recovery was unlikely. “Unfortunately, one day it will come back,” he said at a Toronto press conference.
With the news of Downie’s diagnosis came one final opportunity to celebrate a cultural institution. On July 22nd the band will embark on a final Canadian tour to promote its 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem, which came out in June.
Superstars at home, the Tragically Hip have never achieved fame beyond Canada’s borders. Nine of their albums have reached the top spot on Canadian music charts, but in the United States, the band has never broken the Top 100. “This band could have been U2, if not for some unlucky breaks,” Barenaked Ladies singer-guitarist Ed Robertson told Rolling Stone. “The quality and the appreciation of this band is not unique to its Canadian-ness. It’s just happenstance that they’re not as big as the biggest bands in the world.”
In 2014 Rolling Stone listed the band as one of 20 Hugely Popular Musicians Who Haven’t Gotten Famous in America (Yet), and in a 2011 cover story featuring the Sheepdogs, the then-unsigned Canadian winners of RS‘ “Choose the Cover” contest, author Austin Scaggs drew ire with his mention of the “awful yet extremely popular Canadian band, the Tragically Hip.”
“Having met them, none of them have ever [struck] me as people who wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine,” says Dallas Green, a Canadian musician who performs under the alias City and Colour, and was previously the lead singer and guitarist of Alexisonfire. “I think they’re just happy to be able to [continue performing], and that’s another reason why I love them.”
“[Interviewers] always ask us about our success or lack of success in the States, which I find absurd,” Downie once said. “While that is a story of the band, there are so many other stories.”
The more significant story of the Tragically Hip is one of mutual respect and appreciation between a country and one of its most prolific rock bands. The group’s lyrics often portray long-forgotten moments from the nation’s shared history, familiar scenes of Canadian life and, of course, hockey. The 1992 hit “Fifty Mission Cap” tells the story of Bill Barilko, the Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman who scored the 1951 Stanley Cup-winning goal before perishing in a plane crash. “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” is dedicated to a mid-20th-century Canadian novelist, and “Wheat Kings” tells the story of David Milgaard, a Canadian wrongfully accused of murder.
As the Tragically Hip have paid tribute to their native country, Canada has celebrated them right back. In 2002 they earned a place on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and in 2012 their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, renamed the block outside of its downtown music venue Tragically Hip Way. In 2005 they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and in 2013 the band was featured on a Canada Post stamp. A change.org petition with nearly 70,000 signatures seeks to award the band with the Order of Canada, considered among the highest honors in the land, and Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has declared the date of the band’s final show in the city, July 26th, as Tragically Hip Day.
As news began to spread about Downie’s medical condition, many took to social media to pay their respects. Fellow Canadian musicians Sloan, Billy Talent, Nickelback, Death From Above 1979, Arkells, Hey Rosetta! and Matthew Good offered tributes and well-wishes to Downie. Even the Trailer Park Boys, who starred in the music video for the Tragically Hip’s “The Darkest One,” tweeted that they were “sending all our love and best wishes to the magnificent Gord Downie.”
“Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years,” tweeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I am lucky enough to have seen many Tragically Hip concerts throughout my life, and Gord Downie is someone I have an extraordinary amount of respect for,” the Prime Minister later elaborated at a press conference. “His status as an extraordinary Canadian creative force and icon is not to be understated. Mostly, he’s just a great guy, and I know I speak for all Canadians when I say, ‘We’re with you, Gord.'”
Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years. #Courage
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) May 24, 2016
Downie’s generosity is often cited by those who know him personally, including Green, who met the singer in 2008. Struggling to finish a song he began writing in high school, Green found inspiration while listening to the Tragically Hip’s music, and after completing the track, he got in touch with Downie to ask if he would be interested in singing on the 2008 single “Sleeping Sickness.”
“One morning I got to the studio and he was already there,” he tells RS. “He had gotten up at six in the morning and drove from Kingston to Hamilton [Ontario] to sing and hang out with me at the studio. I’ll never forget sitting there with my headphones on, right beside him, watching him sing words that I wrote on one of my songs. It was one of the most surreal, magical experiences I have ever and will ever have. And then he just got in his car and drove back.”
The Tragically Hip’s final, 15-performance cross-Canada tour will begin in Victoria, British Columbia, and make its way east before concluding in Kingston on August 20th.
The nation’s public broadcaster, the CBC, will air that final show live. Small towns and major cities across the country have already announced public viewing parties, giving their citizens one final opportunity to celebrate their national treasure together.
Though Downie’s future is uncertain, Green and Robertson take some solace in knowing that the music will live on.
“This is one of the greatest bands of all time,” Green says. “And I don’t mean Canadian band – I mean they’re one of the greatest bands of all time. Their history speaks for itself. And Gord, specifically, he’s one of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever heard.”
“They’re a fucking amazing band, with one of the greatest frontmen ever in rock & roll,” adds Robertson. “It doesn’t go away after the last Hip tour. It’s not diminished at all by the fact that they’re bigger in Canada than anywhere else. The music stands for itself. It’s there, ready to be discovered and appreciated by anyone around the world.”