Some of us are better at dealing with death than others. A concern so great that people have decided to band together and process what death means to them.
How to have an elegant exit from life? Gord Downie is sure doing it. Guelph darling Vish Khanna wrote about his interactions with Gord in this perfect little piece. It reads like Vish was sitting down having a coffee with you:
Gord Downie and the Guelph I know
Waterloo Region Record file photo
This week we learned that Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was the first thing I read on Tuesday morning and it literally took my breath away. I have a long, mostly one-sided history with this man but he himself has been an interesting presence in the life of this town, at least from my perspective.
In the fall of 2000, I road managed a Guelph band called Royal City. One of our first stops was on the lower east side of Manhattan at a place called the Living Room. Our man Nathan Lawr was pulling double-duty that night, drumming for RC but also the opening act, Leslie Feist.
Nothing seemed unusual about the early evening sunlight in the room until I saw him. Someone caught me staring across the way and probably said, ‘Yup, Gord Downie’s here tonight.” He’d come to see Feist. He was a fan already, in that way he appreciated younger, emerging artists a bit before the rest of the world did.
He was tall. I might be taller actually but when I approached him, he seemed like a giant. I introduced myself and shook his hand, later joking that it was the softest hand I’d ever felt. He had a bed for a hand; I was tired already and wanted to nap in it. The Hip were on tour in the states themselves so I showed him our wacky, back-and-forth itinerary. “Huh,” he said, scanning the page. “You guys are doing it the hard way.”
This was a pretty startling, inexplicable thing—to be in a Canadian band on your first American tour and, almost immediately, you run into Gord Downie, whom you’ve only encountered from a distance. This figurehead who did the hardest thing an artist can do really, which is conjure a voice and point of view that’s distinctly his own and yet speaks, in a way, for a nation.
I don’t remember when I first heard him sing. I was a small kid. It might’ve been on the radio or via a Hip music video on MuchMusic. I bet it was “Blow at High Dough” on TV. The words weren’t clear, or at least they weren’t the words I usually heard people sing in rock songs.
And then I saw the band in Markham in a field during the first edition of their Another Roadside Attraction tour, which featured a number of artists they loved. I was only 16 and got pushed around a lot. My dad had to pick us up afterwards; he got past security and into the grounds by flashing his car insurance and claiming he was a private investigator. I don’t know why he did that.
I kept consuming the Hip’s music and seeing them live at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Air Canada Centre, Massey Hall, Guelph Lake, and wherever else days and times brought us together. I introduced my then two-year-old son to Gord at a Stop Line 9 event he was playing with the Sadies in Toronto in 2013 while the former was somewhat obsessed with the Hip song, “Poets.” My fault really: few records mean more to me than Phantom Power (and Day for Night, which remains revelatory). To this day, I sing their songs to myself and my kids. Smart, wordy, melodic stuff.
Gord has made a couple of solo records, working with people I now call friends. He called his band the Country of Miracles, teaming up with the Dinner is Ruined Band, Julie Doiron (Eric’s Trip), and Josh Finlayson (The Skydiggers). They played the Hillside Festival twice. The last time, Dave Clark, my drumming guru, gave me his sticks during their workshop and I jammed with Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles. I think Gord and I locked eyes at one point but it was all a blur. I might’ve screwed up a fill.
I introduced their Main Stage set and said some of the nice things you’re meant to say as a festival emcee. I probably said even nicer things than I might have ordinarily said. As the band filed on stage, Downie stopped, held my shoulder, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Thank you Vish. I am so happy that you could be here today.” It felt like the warmest thing anyone had ever said to me.
Very few people have written better songs than Gord Downie, very few people have sung such songs as well, very few people can command a stage, as a performer, like he can, very few people have utilized their own success to support lesser known artists and those in need as well as he has, and very few people in a position such as his have been as kind and forthcoming to me personally. If I’m honest, his songs and melodies are always in my head.
The Hip are touring this summer and I will go see them and we will all weep. But if I can, I will find a way to tell Gord about how happy I am that he could be here today. And that he always will be.
Vish Khanna hosts the Kreative Kontrol podcast and radio show on CFRU 93.3 FM. He took the night off of work to watch and record the Tragically Hip perform on Saturday Night Live in 1995.