Once we get sort through our grief over the passing of Gord Downie, we’re going to have some explaining to do to the rest of the world about why we lost our collective minds over the death of a rock singer. Even the Prime Minister couldn’t keep it together during his short statement.
Seriously, Canada? What’s up with that?
Well, yeah, we did. And we’re not ashamed of it. It was Gord Downie fer crissakes. What else did you expect?
Hold on. Back up.
Back in May, I’d just landed at Pearson Airport in Toronto after a long flight from the Far East. As soon as we began taxiing, I turned on my phone. The texts and emails slammed onto the scream.
BAM! Gord Downie was dying.
BAM! Brain cancer. Something sinister called glioblastoma.
BAM! The prognosis wasn’t good. The condition was terminal. He had one year, maybe two. Five at best.
But that same news conference also featured the announced that the Hip was going on tour again. That distracted us from the worst of the news for a while. The Man Machine Poem roadtrip turned into a national celebration of all things Gord, all things Hip, all things rock and all things Canadian.
Tens of millions of people stopped what they were doing to gather around TVs on the night of the final show from Kingston. The band never said this was the “last” anything, but I think we all knew the truth.
Then came a period of denial. Sure, Gord was sick, but he was still around. A couple of interviews (as rough as they were to read and watch, what with Gord’s failing memory). His Secret Path album and documentary that included a couple of concerts. He showed up to receive his Order of Canada. So things were fine, right?
It had to be all right–especially after we heard that Gord had yet another solo album due on October 27. That was a sure sign that Gord was doing well and coping with his condition.
Well, no. Digging into the story of the new album revealed that sessions had wrapped up in February, so that didn’t explain the radio silence for most of the year. There were lots of rumours, but no news. Nothing from Gord, his family, the band, their management or their record label.
We knew the end was coming, but we preferred to ignore that. But then came the morning of October 18 and suddenly, Gord was gone.
The outpouring of grief and affection as immediate and sustained. Hip music was heard everywhere, coast-to-coast. His death was given the same attention that other countries might offer to a beloved royal or head of state. Grown men have been reduced to tears.
But why? What is it about this particular rock band that burrowed itself so deeply into the psyche of the nation? Once the fog of grief lifts a little, this is a question worth investigating on an academic level.
If you ask me, the Hip’s appeal lies in their unabashed Canadian-ness. Gord was unafraid to namecheck people, places and events but without wrapping himself in the flag. His nationalism was both proud and quiet; subtle, no overt; poetic, not jingoistic. He inspired without inflaming.
Listening to certain Hip songs was like a great lesson in history, humanity, geography, sociological or all of the above. One guy told me that Gord was the best teacher he ever had. Hip songs had him digging through library books for stories on Jacques Cartier, Hugh MacLennan, David Milgaard and many others. We heard about places like Algonquin Park, Bobcaygeon, Dire Wolf’s Crest and Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Sault Ste. Marie, the hundredth meridian. And then there were all the hockey references: Bill Barilko, the ’72 Canada-Russia series. And so on.
All these songs were intelligent, delivered with passion and by a band so tight that nothing could phase them. They were a bluesy bar hand with a head and a heart.
And maybe we loved them more because America didn’t seem to care. After trying to break into the US multiple times–thwarted on each occasion by record company issues, bad luck and other things completely beyond the band’s control–Canada embraced the band even tighter. “You don’t want ’em, America? Fine! They’re ours!”
American rejection was turned into a strength, not only for the band, either. Inspired by the Hip’s ability to carve out a career based on domestic success, other artists began to think “Maybe I don’t have to leave the country to succeed.”
When the Hip when on that final tour in the summer of 2016, it was an instant sellout. When the CBC broadcast that final show on August 20, the country came to a grinding halt. Officially, 11.7 million people watched that broadcast, but I believe that number is too low. It didn’t take into account all the Canadians watched together at house parties, in bars and restaurants, at campgrounds and around campfires and in public spaces from coast to coast. I’d argue that the real number is closer to 20 million–more than one in two Canadians.
People from other countries looked at us and scratched their heads. “What’s up with you people? It’s just a rock band.”
No, it wasn’t. This was something between a band and 36 million people. If you’re not Canadian, you just won’t understand.