Gord Downie: 1964-2017

(I originally published the following piece in Banter M more than sixteen months ago. Yesterday, at age 53, the great Gord Downie finally succumbed to brain cancer. The disease has robbed us of many more years of Downie's inimitable genius.)

Gord Downie often screams bloody murder during the final measures of the Tragically Hip's "Grace, Too." If you aimed your attention northward and listened carefully, you might've heard it. Saturday night, in particular, it was the screaming of a man who was confronting the end of all things: his relationship with his family, with life. With everything.

The fleeting nature of life on display. And nothing short of everything's enough.

It's likely you have no idea what the hell those first sentences mean -- any of it -- considering how I'm referencing a band that's not so well known in the United States, but which competes with Rush for being Canada's most popular and revered recording artists. Formed in the middle 1980s, The Hip has defied the odds, holding together as a troupe of five friends who've released 13 studio albums, nine of which have gone number one in Canada; that's nine platinum records; two diamond records and one gold.

Writing for Vox.com, Rachel Sklar described The Hip's popularity in Canada as being equivalent to Bruce Springsteen's notoriety in America. That's about right -- maybe if there were five Springsteens playing as a collective. There's no other band quite like them. For the uninitiated, imagine REM by way of Tom Petty by way of a bar band you'd hear performing from behind a chicken-wire fence in a Memphis dive. At the helm are Gord Downie's unpredictable performance-art vocals, ranging from sweet to borderline insane, and layered on top of basic (though never simplistic) blues-rock riffs and pulse-pounding jams.

Earlier this year, The Hip announced that Downie, at the too-young age of 52, had been diagnosed with what's known as a gliobastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer that'll surely kill him long before his work here is done. Indeed, its victims are usually dead within a year of being diagnosed.

Downie's hourglass was turned over last December.

Justin Trudeau with Gord Downie before his final show in Kingston.

Justin Trudeau with Gord Downie before his final show in Kingston.

Merely typing those words re-engaged the emotions I experienced while watching Downie's final concert, streamed live from the band's home town of Kingston, Ontario this past Saturday night [August, 2016], complete with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the box seats, joining us in saying goodbye to The Hip as we know it. All of Canada, as well as scores of us here in the States, were locked into the show as a matter of both Canadian national pride and as a cursory means of embracing a man who's contributed so much to the soundtracks of our lives.

Like I said, Downie emotes loudy on stage, and he's done so hundreds of times while performing the dangerous lyrical content of "Grace, Too," which was apparently inspired by the 1944 film-noir Double Indemnity, about a man and his female lover who plan to murder the woman's husband.

He said, "I'm fabulously rich, come on just let's go"
She kind of bit her lip, "Jeez, I don't know"
But I can guarantee, there'll be no knock on the door
I'm total pro, that's what I'm here for

I come from downtown, born ready for you
Armed with will and determination, and grace, too

The secret rules of engagement are hard to endorse
When the appearance of conflict meets the appearance of force
But I can guarantee, there'll be no knock on the door
I'm total pro here, that's what I'm here for

I come from downtown, born ready for you
Armed with skill and it's frustration, and grace, too

In recent years during the tail of the song, Downie unloads on stage, screaming into his microphone, then offering the mic to the audience, inviting us to do our own screaming. But Saturday night, Downie appeared to completely break down on stage, overwhelmed by the rapidly diminishing beat-count of the final night performing his life's work, ever. He openly sobbed between outbursts of what seemed like unspeakable emotional pain and fear. For those who witnessed that moment, it was soul-crushingly sad, as well as a little shocking. A dying man revealing the full force of his mortal grief in the face of an entire continent. The fleeting nature of life on display.

downie crying.jpg

I'm ashamed to confess that soon after discovering The Hip, it took me a while to get used to Downie's live performance style. On stage, Downie's dark passenger invariably emerges in full force, amplified beyond the walls of the room as a means of not just singing the lyrics, but becoming them. Downie once said he's always looking for something to do with his hands while his bandmates, Gord Sinclair (bass), Rob Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar) and Johnny Fay (drums) chill their way through instrumental passages and improvised rock-outs. And in pursuit of keeping busy, this will absolutely do.

I didn't get it until I fully understood that Downie was adding new dimensions to the words and, often, the desperation of the characters who inhabit his poetry, adding an audiovisual spit-coat on top of what was already on the page, enhancing it beyond expectations. He'll scream. He'll grunt. He'll rant in non-sequiturs. He'll dance awkwardly. His face will contort and his hands, demanding constant business, appear to twitch and tic in awkwardly human ways as if the song was liquefied, heated and pumped into his veins, forcing him to involuntarily illustrate the mood of his songs in every possible configuration.

Saturday night, he sobbed between screams.

As opposed to his often devilish concert style, producer Bob Rock, who produced the The Hip's "World Container" (2006) and "We Are The Same" (2009), once referred to the subtler side of Downie's vocals as his "hotel voice" -- his sweeter, less disruptive, less vocally caustic side that's so emotionally inviting; as heard in songs like "Now For Plan A," "Fiddler's Green," "Ahead By A Century" and "Bobcaygeon." Each song, among others, often conjures the animus to Downie's in-concert dark passenger, and each song is completely and unexpectedly touching for unique reasons.

Like many other enthusiasts of The Hip, the latter song, "Bobcaygeon," was the first I heard by the band, and I immediately fell in love with it. I should explain: perhaps as a reaction to my former career in music radio, I don't listen to a variety of music, randomly mixed and matched. With music, I don't often have one-night stands. Instead, I tend to fall in love. I fall in love with bands and engage in long-term affairs with the music, listening to albums like mantras on endless loop until I wear them out (literally so, before the digital era). I fell badly for "Bobcaygeon" and, with it, The Hip.

"Bobcaygeon," the centerpiece of 1998's Phantom Power, is quite nearly the perfect love song. As opposed to "Ahead By A Century," about first loves, this one's about adult love. New love. Even if you've never experienced it, listening to the song provides a taste of what it's like. It's about those first nights together at her place making love, then leaving the next morning for work -- perhaps dangerous work -- wishing for time to speed on by so we can wheel back to that new warmth; to nourish that electric love turning our stomachs inside-out as the sun rises. It's nauseating-in-a-good-way; it's the excitement of the romantically unknown and its myriad possibilities.

I left your house this morning
About a quarter after nine
Could have been the Willie Nelson
Could have been the wine
When I left your house this morning
It was a little after nine
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves one star at a time

Drove back to town this morning
With working on my mind
I thought of maybe quitting
I thought of leaving it behind
I went back to bed this morning
And as I'm pulling down the blind
Yeah, the sky was dull, and hypothetical
And falling one cloud at a time

It's among the most beautiful songs ever recorded.

In keeping with The Hip's humble Canadian attitude, however, Downie once told an audience, "I wrote this song walking to a Baskin-Robbins. Sorry to disappoint you." He later elaborated that the name of the Ontario town, Bobcaygeon, just happened to rhyme with "constellations." So there. And hence the song. But like any great works of art, we apply our own meanings, and this one is galactically powerful to me. Perhaps as a matter of harmonic convergence, it's a song about new love, and it happened to spark a new long-term love affair with a band, while, years later, it provided the soundtrack to falling in love for real. Sometimes gorgeous things emerge out of the mundane. Love and music. Everything.

From this one song bloomed so many others that've run concurrently with the events of my adult life, having discovered the band, at the time, more than ten years into its career.

In 2012, The Hip released Now For Plan A, inspired in part by Downie's wife's fight against breast cancer. The title track is a haunting bookend to "Bobcaygeon." The music is more sorrowful, dirtier, and the lyrics take us through an existential conversation between a man and a woman who've been together for decades, facing a health crisis that could separate them forever. Downie's vocals are joined here by Sarah Harmer, who represents his wife, doubling his words as this couple vows to fight on together, one for the other.   

Yeah, I know, I know, I know
It's still not enough
Nothing short of everything
Nothing short of everything's enough
No matter how wide or how tough
Nothing short of everything's enough

Yeah, I know, I know, I know
Now for Plan A
I'll stay till the wisteria fades
And falls on L.A.
No matter how high or how rough
Nothing short of everything's enough

In your face the endless patience
The fleeting nature of life on display
(And nothing short of everything)
(Nothing short of everything)
I'll stay till the wisteria fades
The way it falls all over L.A.

More often than not, it seems that we're stripped of the closure that goes along with saying goodbye to that which moves us...before it's gone. When Robin Williams died, we all craved a chance to go back; to give him a hug and to whisper "thank you" in his ear. How many of our loved ones have died before we could do the same? With Gord Downie, the world shared a hug with this beautiful man while he's still here and very much alive.

Thank you for that.

Thank you for everything.

It makes so much sense that Downie would spend a sizable chunk of what could be his final days touring Canada -- the fleeting nature of life on display -- saying goodbye while raising money for cancer research. The Hip has been a constant companion as we've experienced our own lives, and now, as with any love affair, be it lifelong or temporary, we have no choice but to part ways. We meet, we fall in love -- and no matter how vigorously we promise to stay (until the wisteria fades), we move on. If we're lucky, a magical troubadour like Gord Downie will join us for the ride.

And, yes, amid the gratitude and the memories, the end will make us all scream a little.

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