Fully and Completely: Gord Downie’s Legacy

My love for The Tragically Hip started at a young age thanks to the influence of my family. If you would have asked me back when I was 7 what it was about The Hip that I liked, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. But now, 17 years later and learning about the death of Canada’s beloved Gord Downie, I can tell you exactly why I adore this band. It isn’t the poetic lyrics, the intricate melodies, or Gord Downie’s rad dance moves. It is the way that The Tragically Hip connects with their audience and makes them feel. The Hip has given me some of the most cherished memories in my short life, and I am forever grateful for that.

First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk…or sit silently and listen to our thoughts

Now that I am older, I find myself cherishing the memories where not much was happening, as odd as that sounds. I remember sitting on the front porch of my Nana and Papa’s house in Cambridge, Ontario. It was just me, my Papa, and my Uncle Greg (shout out to Uncle Greg for constantly playing The Hip!). The summer sun was setting, The Hip was quietly keeping time in the background, and my Papa was smiling while my Uncle Greg joked about something or another. The specifics aren’t important. The topics of conversation weren’t important. What was important is that we were together soaking in every bit of happiness we possibly could in that moment. After my Papa passed away in 2016, I obsessed over the details of my memories. I often grew angry at myself if I couldn’t remember every specificity of every memory I had of him. When recalling this memory of us in Cambridge, I don’t remember much. I wish I knew what was so funny, but I was young back then and it would have probably gone right over my head. What I do remember, though, is that at one point there was a lull in the conversation and The Hip’s Ahead by a Century started to play…and for a moment it was quiet between us while Gord Downie’s voice rang out over the silence. He had that affect on people. He demanded that you be in the present. He willed his listeners to find joy in the little things, even in the silence. Now every time I hear that song, I see my Papa’s smile and I am reminded that sometimes the details don’t matter. It’s the little things. 

You gotta do what you feel is real

If my family loves one thing, it is dancing. Dancing to live music is even better. There isn’t one specific memory I have associated with The Hip’s song New Orleans is Sinking, but rather a concoction of memories that play through my head in bursts and flashes. The opening guitar riff plays and flash: my mom is taking off her shoes and dancing barefoot at my Uncle Dwayne’s wedding. Gord Downie’s low vibrato rings out and flash: I’m dancing with a beer in one hand and my Dad’s hand in the other in our front yard. The second verse begins and flash: everyone in the Coboconk Lion’s Hall yells along with perfect synchronicity. The chorus comes back around and flash: I’m in second year, realizing I can listen to Barrie’s Rock 95 online and I feel a little closer to home… and I will always feel a little closer to home whenever I hear this song.

 I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time 

2011 was not a good year. In short, I was a mess and had a knack for creating a mess out of everything else as well. My relationship with my family faltered, but some good did come out of that year. Even though I didn’t deserve it, my mom took me to one of the most exciting things to happen in our area. I hail from the Kawartha Lakes in Ontario, specifically a small rural community called Norland. Norland is about 40 kilometres from the infamous Bobcaygeon….yes, that Bobcaygeon. The one from the song. When it was announced that The Tragically Hip (plus Sam Roberts and The Trews) would be coming to the small town, the town that most people think is a Tragically Hip myth, everyone raced to buy their tickets. Located in a farmer’s field, around 25,000 people gathered for this special piece of history. 25,000 people gathered in a community where the population is only 3,000 to begin with. People came by the bus load, literally. My mom and myself, with a bunch of other people from the Coboconk and Norland area, rode in on a school bus. Trust me, we weren’t the only ones. The actual show, from all the quintessential Canadian bands, was amazing. Pure energy and passion radiated off the stage and into the crowd. I wish I knew back then what I do now, that on June 25, 2011, it would be the first and last time I would ever see The Tragically Hip. I would have made more of an effort to soak it all in as much as I could. I don’t remember much from the show itself as much as I remember the feeling. I remember feeing free. I remember feeling, even though my personal life was in shambles, complete somehow. I specifically remember that on this night, even though I didn’t deserve it, my mom extended to me the greatest gift she could have possibly given me at that point in my life: unconditional love. It was the first night in a long time where I felt like myself. That night, in the middle of a farmer’s field in Bobcaygeon, surrounded by thousands of people and some of the greatest bands of our time, I realized that there was more to life than what I had chosen and what I had made for myself. Experiencing something like that sticks with you for life, and even though it didn’t make a difference right away it certainly did in the long run. There is also something deeply special about seeing The Tragically Hip sing “Bobcaygeon” in Bobcaygeon, and only 25,000 of us in the world experienced that.

Armed with will and determination, and grace, too… 

August 20, 2016: Canada shuts down. The final show of The Tragically Hip’s farewell Man Machine Poem tour was emotional, to say the least. We all heard the news of Gord’s diagnosis a few months prior, and the word “terminal” hung in the air, suffocating us. This final show was important. It still is important. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that Canadians will inevitably tell their children and their children’s children. Only around 7,000 people were able to cram themselves into the K-Rock Centre to see the show, but the entire nation was watching the broadcast on CBC….when CBC was supposed to be broadcasting the Rio Olympics. Yes, this show was that important. It was more than just another concert: it was a cultural event. We could not miss the final time seeing Gord and the rest of the band. We could not miss the dramatic dance moves, the screaming into the void, or the well-placed rants. So, we tuned in and shut off the rest of the world because what else can you do when you know it’s the end of an era? It was a bittersweet 3 hours. We all united amid knowing that, soon, a piece of that would be gone. Gord stumbled through lyrics, shed a few tears, and put on the best damn Hip show with all the passion he could summon within him. He left his audience feeling hopeful, even when we all knew that in this situation, there wasn’t any. We knew what was going to happen, but we still hoped. He struck a match and lit the darkest parts of us, and that light recently flickered. It flickered, but I don’t think anything can put it out permanently.  

There’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do… 

Gord Downie: February 6, 1964- October 17, 2017. Most of Canada is now mourning the loss of one of the most influential cultural icons of our time. I do not state this lightly. Some of you may be thinking that I am too invested in just a bandWell, my friends, it isn’t just a band. It isn’t even about the music (even though it is really good music), it isn’t just about the songs (even though Gord Downie’s lyrics are brilliant poetic reflections of Canadiana), and it isn’t even about the entertainment value (even though The Tragically Hip has one of the best stage presences I have ever seen). It is about identity and unity. Gord Downie once said “music brings people together. So, my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in”. Looking back on the memories I have, it is safe to say that Gord and the rest of the band has done just that. The Tragically Hip has provided me, and I imagine thousands of other Canadians, a soundtrack to my life. Because of this, the band will always be part of my identity. They will always remind me of forgiveness, love, hope, and what it means it be a part of a country that is so passionate and beautiful that we shut down the nation for a night, gather in our homes, bars, and streets, and watch history being made on stage. So, thank-you, Gord Downie, for the years you have shared with me and the lessons your songs have bestowed on me. You have made an impression on the country that you loved; on the country that loved you….fully and completely