Beloved Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie dead at 53 after public cancer battle

TORONTO — Gord Downie, the poetic lead singer of the Tragically Hip whose determined fight with brain cancer inspired a nation, has died. He was 53.

Downie died Tuesday night "with his beloved children and family close by," the band said in a statement on its website Wednesday morning.

In the wake of his diagnosis with glioblastoma — an incurable form of cancer — the musician became a symbol of perseverance in the face of his mortality.

"Gord knew this day was coming — his response was to spend this precious time as he always had — making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss … on the lips," said the statement, which was attributed to the Downie family.

"Gord said he had lived many lives. As a musician, he lived 'the life' for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in tears as he paid tribute to Downie and how he devoted the last chapter of his life to advocating for the rights of Canada's Indigenous Peoples.

"He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country," Trudeau said.

"He wanted to make it better, he knew as great as we were we need to be better than we are. That's why this last year's been devoted to Chanie Wenjack and to reconciliation. This is something I've certainly drawn inspiration and strength from.

"We are less without Gord Downie."

Downie, one of Canada's most revered singer-songwriters, penned a steady stream of 1990s rock radio staples including "New Orleans Is Sinking," "Blow at High Dough," "Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)," "Ahead By a Century" and "Bobcaygeon." While Hip albums released in the 2000s didn't produce as many hits, the band hung on to its unofficial status as Canada's favourite rock band.

While the Hip was frequently described as quintessentially Canadian, Downie had dismissed the suggestion that he set out to celebrate his homeland in song.

"I haven't written too many political lyrics," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press in 2014. "Nor have I written any pro-Canada lyrics, any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant.... That stuff doesn't interest me and I don't even know if I could write that if I tried because I don't really feel it.

"Social causes are quite obvious. Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in."

In the aftermath of the shocking May 2016 announcement that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer the band said it would mount a tour — which many correctly assumed would be the Hip's last.

Interest was off the charts and tickets sold out nearly immediately. While the band's managers assured fans that Downie was prepared to "blow people's minds," he was suffering from serious memory issues. In the recently released documentary "Long Time Running," Downie recalled his struggles with lyrics as he prepared to perform.

"I actually couldn't remember a damn thing. I think I started to cry," the singer said of the first tour rehearsal. Dave (Billy Ray) Koster, the Hip's technical director, recalled Downie's trouble with the hit "My Music at Work," a song which repeats its title in the lyrics 18 times.

"He would look at me and say, 'Billy, what's that line called?' and then he would write it down," Koster said. Downie ultimately had six teleprompters on stage to help him get through the concerts.

Despite conflicting with its coverage of the Summer Games in Rio, the CBC broadcast the last show of the tour live — in the Hip's hometown of Kingston, Ont. — and thousands of fans also attended public viewing parties across the country to experience the band's swan song.

An impassioned Downie led the group through a nearly three-hour set and acknowledged the country's enthusiastic support.

"Thank you, people, for keeping me pushing and keeping me pushing," he said from the stage, which prompted a "Gordie!" chant from the audience.

He used the national platform to call for more attention to the inequities faced by Indigenous Peoples, particularly in the North.

"We're in good hands, folks, real good hands," Downie said in reference to Trudeau.

"He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what's going on up there. And what's going on up there ain't good. It's maybe worse than it's ever been, so it's not on the improve. (But) we're going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help."

About two months later, Downie released the multimedia solo project "Secret Path," which recounted the life of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school in northern Ontario.

"Secret Path" won three Juno Awards in April — best adult alternative album, best songwriter for Downie, and best recording package for its presentation with a graphic novel. While Downie didn't attend the Juno festivities, he appeared in a pre-recorded acceptance speech during the telecast.

"First Nations have many, many stories like this one,'' he said in reference to Wenjack's experience being separated from his family and put in a residential school.

"My dream would be that this record with Jeff Lemire's drawings might help people. Might give teachers something to help teach our young ones.''

In June, Downie was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada for his work in raising awareness of Indigenous issues. He was also set to be honoured by the Order of Canada along with his bandmates for "their contribution to Canadian music and for their support of various social and environmental causes."

The Tragically Hip's last release, "Man Machine Poem," won the Juno for rock album of the year and the band also took home the group of the year prize, which was its third time winning the award among 11 nominations.

The Hip's modest beginnings can be traced back to 1984 in Kingston, where Downie co-founded the band with four high-school friends — including guitarist Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay. Guitarist Paul Langlois joined in 1986 when saxophonist David Manning left the band.

The early years were a slog as the Hip graduated from local university campus shows to dive bars like the Toucan, where they played on a stage tucked in the back corner of the venue's basement.

A small but loyal fan base began to form just as their self-titled debut EP hit record stores in 1987. While not one of the Hip's most-loved releases — and one the band didn't touch during their career-spanning final tour — it offered a sliver of insight into Downie's songwriting and performance potential.

Downie's reputation for adding monologues to songs during live performances was started with a memorable rendition of "Highway Girl," which fans nicknamed the "double suicide rant" version. Part of the mid-song rant would later make up the lyrics of the song "Locked in the Trunk of a Car."

But it was the live "killer whale tank" version of the fan favourite "New Orleans Is Sinking," off the band's 1989 followup "Up to Here," that cemented Downie's legacy as a unique live performer always capable of surprising an audience.

The legend of the band's thrilling concerts grew as rock radio stations devoured the Hip's output of one hit album after another. "Road Apples" in 1991 produced favourites like "Little Bones," "Long Time Running" and "Three Pistols," and the next year the record "Fully Completely" introduced another slew of soon-to-be classics including "At the Hundredth Meridian," "Fifty Mission Cap" and "Wheat Kings."

Stories of the Hip's ability to attract huge crowds wherever they played in Canada gradually began to trickle south of the border, and the band got its biggest chance to break through in the United States in 1995, thanks to a fellow Kingston native. Dan Aykroyd introduced the Tragically Hip as musical guests on "Saturday Night Live" to play two songs off "Day for Night," which was released six months earlier.

The band won over pockets of fans in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere but never got as big internationally as they were back home, where they collected 16 Junos, a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame, and immortalization on a postage stamp in 2013.

While playing sold-out shows to adoring audiences, Downie also sought out opportunities to stretch himself creatively outside the confines of the Hip.

He dabbled in acting with roles as a police officer in "Trailer Park Boys: The Movie" and as a recovering cancer patient in the drama "One Week." Prior to "Secret Path" he had cultivated several other solo projects, starting with the album "Coke Machine Glow" in 2001, released with a companion book of poetry; "Battle of the Nudes" in 2003; and "The Grand Bounce," credited to Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles, in 2010. Late last month, Downie surprised fans by announcing he would be releasing a new solo album of 23 original songs produced with long-time collaborator Kevin Drew. "Introduce Yerself" is slated for release Oct. 27.

In 2014, Downie recalled the thrill of performing for a different kind of audience — at a country music festival — in support of a side project with the Sadies.

"In this country, perhaps with a certain identity trailing you around, it's hard to be miscast," Downie told The Canadian Press.

"It's hard to play a gig where you might get the hook, where you might be booed gloriously off the stage. I don't mean that to sound immodest.... (When) you're kids, it's the thing you're most afraid of, but it's the thing you miss, just the sort of lack of approval."

Staunchly dedicated to his environmental side projects, Downie was a devoted board member of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper advocacy group, helping to raise money for the cause through benefits. After his diagnosis, he lent his name to brain cancer research with the Gord Downie fund at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

Downie's final public performance was in February as a surprise guest during a Blue Rodeo concert at Toronto's Massey Hall. Singer Jim Cuddy introduced Downie for a rendition of the 1992 hit "Lost Together," alongside members of the Sadies. As the song finished, Downie kissed and hugged his fellow musicians, waved to the audience and left the stage.

 

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David Friend, The Canadian Press