That night in Toronto.
Canada gently held a man in its arms last night, millions of people around the world coming together to share a moment, ostensibly because a single individual needed them, but really because they needed him.
When the news broke in May — that Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie was facing terminal brain cancer — the national gasp was palpable. I sure as hell felt it like a kick in the chest when I clicked a link in an email from a friend in Buffalo that otherwise contained just a single word: “Fuck.”
Because for me, and clearly for millions and millions more, Gord Downie and The Hip are tied up in what I am, and in the events that have shaped how I see the world. For 30 years they’ve provided the soundtrack for my adult life, and been a constant in the background as I married my best friend, raised three incredible children, created numerous businesses, moved to the United States, and experienced all of the awesome craziness that goes along with life.
It’s difficult to put into words what all of this means to me. I’m a brand guy, so I tend to see the world through that lens. For me, a distant observer/listener/fan, Gord Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair certainly seem incredibly creative and talented, but also intelligent and committed. Humble and strong. And caring and genuine. And yes, as cool as a snow-covered prairie — so much so that the first words heard from Gord Downie on The Hip’s 1997 live album ‘Live Between Us’ are a tribute to their opening act, The Rheostatics.
That’s brand power, for although I really only ‘know’ them from a distance, somehow I feel I know them intimately.
I never saw The Hip play in Canada, but have been fortunate to experience them live numerous times here in Chicago, most memorably at a tiny club called Martyr’s as they kicked off their 1998 Phantom Power tour, and most recently in 2015 at The House of Blues, where my son and I recognized more than a few members of the Chicago Blackhawks in the crowd.
And I once had the incredible good fortune to spend a few hours with Gord Downie. At a charity event in 2005, I bid on, and won, the much coveted opportunity to invite seven friends along to hockey game at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (of course!) as guests of Mr Downie. In October of that year, we shared a few beers and a lot of conversation, and watched a little hockey, too. In person, Gord, the enigmatic front man I’d ‘known’ from afar, was at first almost shy, but at the same time incredibly warm and funny and engaging, a guy like any other guy you’d be happy to hang out and watch a game with. I can’t think of any greater quality than that.
That night in Toronto stayed with me as I held back tears, knowing that Gord and his bandmates were bidding a loving farewell to their massive extended family at their final live performance in their hometown of Kingston. When I remarked in a text to Steve, my Buffalo-based friend, a lifelong Hip fan who’d been at that game in 2005, that Gord and The Hip were ‘Quintessentially Canadian,’ his brilliant response: “Quintessentially human.”
Gord once said “A country is only as great as its contribution to the world. And if we’re any good at all it’s because of what we’ve done for mankind.” The same has to hold true for people, for countries are only as good as the people who populate them.
Gord Downie is just one man, but through his humanity and courage he has inspired the nation he represents so well to think, to act, and to love, and to face its opportunities and challenges with will and determination, and grace, too.