Gord Downie, the lead singer for the beloved Canadian alt-rock band the Tragically Hip, died Tuesday at the age of 53. The cause was terminal brain cancer.
“Last night, Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by,” his family wrote in a statement. “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,” they added. “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.”
Downie was diagnosed with brain cancer in December 2015, but didn’t reveal his disease publicly until May 2016. That same summer, the Tragically Hip released a new album, Man Machine Poem, and embarked on a lengthy Canadian tour that culminated in an emotional final show: a hometown gig at the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario. The concert was broadcast live and viewing parties were held across Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance and the Toronto Police Department summed up the event’s magnitude with a simple tweet: “Dear world, Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 p.m. Have a #TragicallyHip day.”
Over three decades, the Tragically Hip released 14 studio albums, the majority of which topped the Canadian album charts and were eventually certified Platinum (their first three LPs all went Diamond). The band also earned 16 Juno Awards – the most ever for a band and the fourth-most ever for an artist – picking up their last two in April for Group of the Year and Rock Album of the Year for Man Machine Poem. But the band’s greatest accomplishment may be transcending their status as a key Canadian cultural touchstone to an integral part of the country’s identity. In 2013, the band was featured on a set of postage stamps and in July, they received the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honors.
Speaking with The New York Times around the band’s final show, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew summed up the Tragically Hip’s influence: “We’re a country that hasn’t really embraced its history just yet. We’re still trying to figure out what makes us Canadian, and we have one of the loudest neighbors in the world, so this band helped a country, and Gord helped people lyrically, slowly start to try to define themselves.”
Downie formed the Tragically Hip in 1984 alongside childhood friends Bobby Baker, Paul Langlois, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay. The group gigged around Canada throughout the Eighties and eventually earned a record contract after then-MCA president Bruce Dickinson caught them live in Toronto.
“Gord Downie is definitely in the tradition of great Canadian poets,” Dickinson told the National Post in 2016. “There can be a certain darkness in the lyrics, in some ways that reminded me of reading and listening to Leonard Cohen or Robertson Davies. I think that’s all part of what appeals to Canadian fans. They’re five Canadian guys who go up on stage and they look like their audience. I think that everyman quality matters.”
Their self-titled debut EP arrived in 1987 while their first LP, Up to Here, followed in 1989. They picked up their first Juno award – Most Promising Group of the Year – in 1990.
As their popularity in Canada grew, the Tragically Hip seemed primed to cross over in America, especially during alternative rock’s Nineties heyday. However, the band never quite took. The Hip’s biggest U.S. moment came in 1995 when — after notching their third straight Canadian Number One album with Day for Night – they played Saturday Night Live. The gig notably came together thanks to the efforts of fellow Kingston, Ontario native Dan Aykroyd, who introduced the group despite John Goodman hosting that night’s show.
Throughout the Nineties and into the Aughts, the Tragically Hip and Downie developed and expanded their sound. During their live shows, Downie would notably ad-lib lengthy stories in the middle of songs. These tales would often spawn new Hip songs – “Nautical Disaster” and “Ahead by a Century” were both borne out of “New Orleans Is Sinking” – while some live versions, such as “Highway Girl,” proved more popular than the studio recordings.
Downie’s lyrics were often packed with references to Canadian totems and history, though he approached both with an appreciation for lore and a cautionary eye towards reality. “Fifty Mission Cap,” for instance, recounts the story of Toronto Maple Leafs hero Bill Barilko, who died in a plane crash months after winning the Stanley Cup. “Bobcaygeon,” meanwhile, is a summer sing-along named for a sleepy town in East-Central Ontario, though the lyrics also grapple with the 1933 Christie Pits riot, during which Toronto’s Jewish community clashed with so-called Swastika clubs.
Outside his work with the band, Downie released five solo albums – his first, Coke Machine Glow, arrived in 2001 – and collaborated with an array of artists including Buck 65, Fucked Up, Dallas Green, Alexisonfire and the Sadies. He was also a dedicated activist, focusing on environmental issues and the disenfranchisement of Canada’s indigenous community. In 2005, the band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Following the release of Man Machine Poem and the Tragically Hip’s final concert, Downie continued to work. Last year, he released a solo project, Secret Path, and announced the 23-track double-LP, Introduce Yerself last month. Downie recorded the latter album, produced by Drew, across two four-day sessions in January 2016 and February 2017, with much of the final product assembled from first takes. The album was scheduled for release on October 27th.
Downie kept storytelling at the center of both records. In a trailer for Introduce Yerself, he noted that every song was about a single person. Meanwhile, Secret Path comprised not just a record, but a graphic novel and animated film as well, all of which were based on the tragic, but largely unknown, story of Chanie Wenjack, an indigenous 12-year-old boy who froze to death trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School.
In a rare interview with the CBC upon Secret Path‘s release, Downie spoke about how he hoped Secret Path would bring more attention to the challenges indigenous communities face and potentially help shape Canada’s future.
“The last 150 years aren’t as much worth celebrating as we think,” Downie said. “But the new 150 years can be years of building an actual nation. Imagine if they were part of us and we them, how incredibly cool it would make us? That’s what’s missing as we celebrate doughnuts and hockey. Over and over and over and over again.”
“Thank you everyone for all the respect, admiration and love you have given Gord throughout the years,” his family wrote following his death. “Those tender offerings touched his heart and he takes them with him now as he walks among the stars.”
“Gord’s command of language was profound. He painted landscapes with his words, elevating Canadian geography, historical figures, and myths,” Trudeau said on Wednesday. “When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian. Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest – like Gord himself.
“In the wake of his diagnosis, Gord only fought harder for what he believed in: social justice, environmentalism and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples,” he added. “Gord did not rest from working for the issues he cared about, and his commitment and passion will continue to motivate Canadians for years to come … He will be sorely missed.”