“As the Tragically Hip’s lead singer and lyricist,” wrote CBC’s John Mazerolle last month in memoriam of the group’s frontman, “[Gord] Downie was the face and voice of a band whose discography sold more than eight million copies. The band’s propulsive, muscular rock, coupled with intense live performances and Downie’s cryptic, literary lyrics, allowed the band to attract a diverse fan base that included party animals and armchair philosophers alike.” With several decades of work to their credit, The Hip had long since become the soundtrack of a nation by May of 2016 when the announcement of Downie’s terminal brain cancer was made public. This devastating news was greeted with an added revelation, however: That The Tragically Hip would pursue one final tour as a public goodbye to to their fans.
The final show took place August 20 in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario with nearly 12 million watching the broadcast, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in attendance. As had been the case with the other shows on the tour, Gord dawned a top hat and extravagant metallic garb on stage (to draw attention to the performer and away from the man) and used teleprompters to help him keep up with lyrics as surgery and chemotherapy had disrupted his ability to always remember where he was and what he was doing. An emergency unit was on site in the event of seizures or a collapse and the band closed with “Gift Shop.” It was all so heavy, all so beautiful.
On the morning of Gord’s death I received a text message from a friend alerting me to the news. This same friend bid farewell to the band with me when we watched that final show together last year. I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to the news that day, and somehow kept it together last August, but the weeks that followed have brought with them the sort of emotional outbursts that I had anticipated experiencing during the poetic death rattles of the band’s final show. In the time that’s passed, I’ve read commentaries and goodbye letters, dug into several dozen interviews and video features, watched the recently released Long Time Running tour documentary, and listened to the band’s discography a few times over. It’s taken me a while to put words to the feelings.
The Tragically Hip wrote most of their enduring anthems before the five members of the group were out of their twenties, and by the time I bought my first Hip album (1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse) they were a decade in to their recording history and had already come to represent the country, in a sense. (“What’s more Canadian than a band with two guys named Gord in it?” joked someone in the tour doc.) They also flirted with mainstream American exposure, having experienced minor Billboard success with the 1993 release of “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” and an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1995. A few years after Henhouse, they played 1999’s Woodstock reboot.
In my life the band has always been “big,” but I can’t remember a time when their accomplishments didn’t feel somewhat diminished. It’s like there’s always been a cloud looming over them, comparing their accomplishments to some ideal larger sense of success, fueled by their ongoing inability to become every bit as popular internationally as they were domestically. I remember growing up with that perverted idea ingrained in me, that in some ways to be successful in Canada you had to be successful outside Canada. Yet despite these opaque boundaries surrounding what it means to be Canadian (or a success in Canada), the band represented the country well. They were emblematic of the nation’s ambitions, constantly touring the country’s largely empty terrain while maintaining a counterbalance to their everyman sound and grit with a lyrical bend toward the poetic. Inarguably, all this is something to be remembered and celebrated, but the lingering feeling these last several weeks has left me with had to do less with a discussion around the Tragically Hip’s legacy and more to do with the intention behind Gord Downie’s parting efforts.
While Gord’s final LP, the double-album Introduce Yerself, was released last month, it’s the message behind last year’s Secret Path that has resonated most deeply with me since his passing. Its vision is two-fold. In part it’s a “concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from an Indian residential school.” But it’s also a rallying cry, challenging the country’s clean cut outward appearance by using that story to illuminate a larger national black eye. Over the course of a century, tens of thousands of children just like Chanie were removed from their homes and relocated to boarding schools as a means of forced cultural assimilation. “At least 6,000 of these students are estimated to have died while residents.” Just sit and think about that for a moment. It’s heartbreaking. Knowing this is heartbreaking. Knowing that my whole life I had no idea of this is heartbreaking. That’s what Gord felt, too. “Canada is not Canada,” he wrote in the project’s liner notes. “We are not the country we think we are.”
Secret Path was created to help bridge the divide that continues to exist between indigenous and non-indiginous Canadians, but in absorbing myself in its story, it became apparent that Secret Path also served as a reconciliation with self for its creator. Gord called the album the best thing he’s ever done. He said he had to do it because it was good for his heart.
Throughout the Tragically Hip’s history, be it through songs such as “Born in the Water,” their support of the Clayoquot Sound protests, or their contributions to such projects as Camp Trillium, they continually led an internal challenge to step outside their selves and serve a greater cause. At the band’s final show, Gord challenged Prime Minister Trudeau to succeed where others in his position have failed. (Given Trudeau’s reverence for the man, you get the sense this plea didn’t fall on deaf ears.) And with Secret Path, Gord challenged Canadians’s national identity, urging citizens to reconsider our relationships with the parts of our country that aren’t reflected in the stereotypical celebration of donuts and hockey.
There’s a line in Secret Path’s “Son” which crumpled me when I first heard it. “And when something stirs in your heart, a feeling so strong and intense, when something occurs in your heart, and there isn’t a next sentence.” It had such impact because at the time there were no words, only feelings, for the pressure that was building up under the weight of all the thoughts that had passed through my mind.
My instinct upon starting this was to write a personal tribute to Gord and the band. Maybe so I could tell myself I had done something and pretend like it was meaningful. It’s so easy to put words down, to let them flow out of you, and to consider their publication the conclusion of a metamorphosis process. But somewhere within the dozens of paragraphs I voided myself of in an attempt to understand what I was feeling, I began to feel fear. And the longer I put off facing it, the more I dreaded addressing where it was coming from.
What I think Gord was advocating for — that thing he found in Secret Path which spoke to his soul, that thing he challenged Trudeau on — was a sense of personal accountability. He could feel he had to do something, and until he did it his world just wasn’t going to be right. This last month I’ve been reading all of these words, listening to all these songs, and the entire time they’ve been showing me a reflection into my own heart, allowing me to see that change was needed. They told me I need to look at the thing that’s been haunting me in the eyes and face it. Challenge it. Work away at it until I know I’m done. I’ve been putting off coming here, putting these words down like this, because I didn’t want to then have to be accountable to myself for the change that I recognized to be required in my own world to renew my own heart.
Maybe this the best way I can pay my respects. Through action. And as the band has reminded me time and time again over the past twenty years or so, daydreaming of a better life only gets you so far…