Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, passed away on Tuesday, October 17th.
Despite the fact that he’d been public about his illness from the start, when I heard the news this morning, I was heartbroken, as was much of Canada.
Just yesterday, I’d been strolling through the late evening light of Montreal’s Mount Royal park and was wondering how he was doing as the latest Tragically Hip album played on shuffle.
We didn’t really “know” Gord—but we feel like we did; as Prime Minister Trudeau choked through tears in his announcement this morning, “He was everybody’s friend.”
He was, by all accounts, a genuine soul, making his work count while never seeming to hog the spotlight. He did what he did, and he knew it mattered.
Canada primarily knew the lead singer of the Tragically Hip as a fantastic poet and musician. We feel particularly close to his words in part because of the regular references to Canadian geography, history, and culture in hits like “Bobcaygeon,” “Fifty Mission Cap,” and “Hundredth Meridian.” Downie certainly had a knack for creating these sort of ethereal (sometimes fun, sometimes dark and raw) story-based songscapes.
On a related but perhaps more important note, we loved him because he was consistently transparent: he was never afraid to be his quirky, weird, wonderfully intelligent, and sometimes over-the-top creative self, both on stage and off.
But his magic stands out on another level: as a celebrity, he was somewhat of a rarity as he contributed his compassionate and artistic efforts toward real problems. And not just in a financial sense—he was on the ground. This year, he was awarded the Order of Canada for his social and environmental efforts, both throughout his lifetime and, most notably, in the past year or so as he worked through inoperable brain cancer.
One of those efforts is “Secret Path,” a project dedicated to Chanie Wenjack, a boy who died in 1966 as he attempted to flee an Ontario Indian Residential School. Proceeds from this project go toward the education, healing, and recovery of First Peoples, as well as reconciliation efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
I don’t even know a lot about Gord, or about who he was in his private life.
But I’d like to to say this:
Let us keep recognizing and praising the artists and human rights advocates who stand up daily and fight for actual peace in the form of compassionate action and creative freedom.
Let us focus on the humble ones who do good things, not the ones who are doing wrong.
Let us use our privilege, our status, our social standing toward making things a little better for current and future generations.
These are the people who should be dominating our (social) media streams.
The thing about Downie is—and this is commenting on the letter his family left—he didn’t stop. He didn’t stop fighting for the things he believed in, even when he knew he was dying.
I don’t really believe in an afterlife, Gord, but you make me hope there is.
A 2012 interview on the National, where he speaks of his wife having breast cancer:
In a World Possessed by the Human Mind:
New Orleans Is Sinking (the last song from their last concert in their home town of Kingston):
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