Gord and Me

Why does it feel like you just lost someone you actually knew when a rock star you’ve never met dies?

The death this week of Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip was a shock, but not a surprise. His brain cancer was announced last year and the emotional final show in Kingston, broadcast by the CBC, was a beautiful closing scene, poetic and more than most people get. Gord knew his disease was terminal but he had the energy and guts to do what he’s dedicated his life doing one more time, and experienced so many emotions in front of a crowd of millions. His scream at the end of the show was sad and unforgettable, tears of existential dread in his eyes and the knowledge that the love of his life, to play his songs for people who love them, had come to an end. What was exactly going through his mind, I don’t know. But it was goodbye, and it was sad, and that night I drank too much whiskey, and it didn’t help anything.

But it wasn’t the end. He put out a solo album since then. And it was just announced that he would be putting out another. I got the idea in my head that maybe he could pull off a few more years. Maybe a decade. We hear these stories all the time — doctor gives someone a year, they pull through ten.

That ended up not happening.

But I didn’t come here to bury Gord, but praise him. Like most bands you love, you vividly remember first contact, but the rest is a blur of having known their entire catalog intimately and you just remember the shows and the new releases. I was introduced to The Tragically Hip by Chris, Live Between Us, recorded live from Cobo Hall, Detroit. I saw them at Pine Knob when I was serious but not enthralled. I saw them at the 9:30 Club in DC when I was smitten. I saw them at The Fillmore Detroit when I was die hard. I saw Gord Downie and the Sadies with a room of 80–100 people on a Sunday at the Magic Stick, the last time I saw Gord live, and I was lucky.

I’ve used Tragically Hip or Gordon Downie songs to help me understand my own relationships and stories. I’ve put them on countless mix CDs and playlists. I used a line from a Hip song in the dedication of my Master’s thesis. One particular Gord Downie concert gave me a crucial insight that changed how I live my life. And I wrote about that change on my old blog, The Post-Rockist. And the woman who is now my wife read what I wrote, and thought I might be different from the other guys she’s met. The link is long gone from the internet; the words are still with us both.

There were few other songwriters who could make me feel so much. I’ve had nights like the one in “Bobcaygeon,” even though I may not have actually. I was left reeling with loss when I heard “Last Night I Dreamed You Didn’t Love Me.” I clench my hand above my head in glory every time I turn the volume up “armed with skill and determination and grace, too.” When he sings “Are you going through something? ’Cause I am too.” in “The Depression Suite,” goddamn it, I am going through something. I feel the suffocation of “Nautical Disaster.” The screaming has filled my head all day too. I’ve had daydreams of bittersweet fatherhood from a deep cut, “Throwing Off Glass,” from In Violet Light, a song where a daughter asks her dad “Why’s the world so creepy,” and he tells her that “it isn’t, that it’s exquisite” but knows he’s losing her — her attention and her innocence to adulthood. I feel his discomfort in his optimistic response — she’s too old to buy this shit anymore, but he still kind of believes it, and so do I. I feel elated and animated and unselfconscious when I jump around and growl “Courage, my word, when it comes it doesn’t matter.” In “Yellow Days,” I feel delirious, desperate. When I listen to “Fireworks,” I almost feel that I could give a fuck about hockey.

There were few songwriters who could make me look at the world differently. When I wake up in the morning and walk to my bus and there’s a morning moon, I sing in my head “And that’s a morning moon, yeah,” and I think “The sun’s a light bulb, and the moon is a mirror. There are times when you can see both the bulb and the mirror.” I sometimes wonder what actually happened to Bill Barilko, and how randomness plays such an important part in our lives and our stories and our destinies. At night, as I walk city streets or pass open-windowed office buildings or pass a rest stop in my car, I notice every glowing coke machine, and hear the electric pulsing of its fluorescents.

When I listen to Gordon Downie songs, whether Hip or solo, I just feel a little more alive. When I listen to Gordon Downie songs, I realize there’s so much more to life than spreadsheets and auto insurance and yard work. I feel pulled out. And it’s amazing that people exist that can create art that can make other people feel this way. And we all need it.

What’s this life all about? I don’t know. Luckily, you find teachers along the way that help guide you, that wake you up. Gordon Downie was one of mine.

Here’s a Spotify playlist of some but not all of my favorite Gordon Downie.

Note: Spotify doesn’t have Phantom Power, We Are The Same, or his second solo album, Battle of the Nudes.

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