Friends, admirers, and collaborators remember Canadian rock legend Gord Downie

“It seems emotion was one of the first casualties of the digital audio age.”

Few musicians garner the same level of respect from the likes of Drake, Neil Young, Neko Case, and Chuck D, let alone the leader of an entire nation, but Gord Downie was just such an artist. Downie, the lead singer and songwriter for Canada’s favorite sons The Tragically Hip, passed away after a long battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer on October 17. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau observed, “We are less of a country without Gord Downie in it.”

Downie leaves behind a recorded legacy with The Hip that is equal parts based in the grit and groove of the finest rock has to offer, combined with lyrics that are a visceral combination of fierce imagery and poetic license. “Collectively, we have something unique. Whenever we reconvene, we’re different,” Downie told me of the chemistry the band shared, during one of our many backstage conversations over the years. “And we’re always curious to see what comes next. We don’t ever think of not doing it.”

I never could get enough of the way Gord commanded the stage.

Following in the footsteps of his own personal music heroes David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, Downie has a final solo album appearing soon to serve as his ultimate curtain call. Introduce Yerself, will be released on Friday, October 27, in various formats via Arts & Crafts. From a whisper to a scream, Yerself burbles and bristles with songs sung and performed by a man who knows life is worth living up to the very last second.

I had the privilege of knowing Downie personally for over 27 years, and he was the most mesmerizing live performer I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen over 2,000 bands in my lifetime. In fact, I saw The Hip live about 100 times, and I never could get enough of the way Gord commanded the stage and improvised new lyrics on the spot during many an intense free-form jam section. He was like some sort of shamanistic verbal-juju conjurer.

To honor the legacy of this truly unique artist, I asked some of Gord’s noted peers, collaborators, and admirers to discuss his songwriting prowess and his knack for finding the best, most interesting sounds to reinforce his sometimes nonlinear messages. I also culled some rarely and never-before-shared comments from the man himself via my personal archives. To quote a line of his from The Hip’s 1996 masterstroke track Springtime in Vienna, which also happens to be my all-time favorite line from any song ever: “We live to survive our paradoxes …”

Digital Trends: If you don’t mind me borrowing a line of yours from The Bastard [a song on 2000’s Music @ Work], I feel the observational skills you display in your songwriting serve as “a bird’s-eye view of a birds-eye’s view” — that is, you take one step back to give listeners a much bigger snapshot of what’s going on around them.

Gord Downie: In my mind, there’s always a TV flickering away in the corner of every song. It’s there all the time, tuned in to Fox News. TV is the main source of information. It’s the biggest part of everyone’s diet, and, in some cases, it’s the only source. It makes one unsettled, and, I think, kind of afraid. That’s all there. It also seems emotion was one of the first casualties of the digital audio age.

That’s sad but true, I have to agree. Guess it’s a good thing we can reconnect to some degree by sharing our love of putting the needle down on some new vinyl, right?

Downie: Spinning records is always preferable to cueing up CDs or MP3s. I have always felt vinyl infiltrates a room more subtly and more consistently than a CD. To have dinner serenaded by CD player means to be forever rising up from the table to adjust the volume. A CD just never “sits” right.

I also feel listening to vinyl is a group activity, a family activity. It is a performance. My kids seem to recognize and cherish the importance of being the one to choose the perfect side for any occasion. They keep that choice secret, preferring it to be unveiled, to better enjoy the delight of getting a simple “nice one!” from their audience.

I see my kids making deeper connections with songs because they are on vinyl. It’s just a real trip to watch your teenage daughter falling for [David Bowie’s 1972 album] Ziggy Stardust, staring deeply at the cover, and flipping the record over and over — just like you did.

Oh, you know I did. Still do, in fact.

I think vinyl is better able and better suited to translate the emotional message of our records. One of my favorite Hip songs ever is Man Machine Poem [a track on 2012’s Now for Plan A, later repurposed as the title of The Hip’s final studio album in 2016]. A strong and fulsome emotional resonance was the subtext I was after in the recording of that record.

Note: The following comments about Gord Downie were garnered from separate conversations.

Open question to everyone: How did Gord and The Hip impact you as a listener, and later, as a performer?

Charles Spearin (Broken Social Scene jack of all trades — guitarist, keyboardist, background vocalist, bassist, and more): I think you can’t live in Canada without being exposed to The Tragically Hip thing. By osmosis, you come to know the songs. I can’t say I was a big Tragically Hip fan back in the 1990s when they were at their peak. However, I did always have huge respect for Gord Downie’s lyrics.

His first solo album, [2001’s] Coke Machine Glow, is one I’ve spent a lot of time with. I love that line from the song Chancellor: “I could’ve made Chancellor without you on my mind.” That’s such a beautiful song. So good!

It was a real honor to get to know him these past few years, and to work with him. [Spearin played bass on Downie’s 2016 solo effort, Secret Path]. He’s a golden human.

Dale Morningstar (producer/engineer who’s worked with the likes of Cowboy Junkies and Barenaked Ladies, founding guitarist of avant-rockers The Dinner is Ruined, and a longtime Downie solo collaborator): I first knew of “Gord Downie, The Icon,” before ever meeting him. But as a collaborator, he gives everybody the green light. I don’t think there was ever an instance where he said, “Hey, can you play this like this?” You just feel it out, and after awhile, Gord’s like, “Go further out there. Do what’s in you.”

The best rock isn’t clean. There’s a certain freeness and abandon about it that could derail at any second, but the thing is, you continue. And hopefully, a little magic dust gets on a track and you go, “Ah, there it is! That’s what I was looking for!”

Gord wanted to have fun, and explore areas he might not have been to. So who knows what will perspire — there could be anything coming out of that hat of his. Or toque.

There’s always plenty of perspiration when Gord’s onstage, that’s for sure. He sweats for his art.

Morningstar: My parents have seen him on TV and they’re like, “Wow, he really sweats! He really works out, doesn’t he?” (both laugh)

Dave Clark (drummer for Rheostatics and The Dinner Is Ruined): You couldn’t live in Canada without being aware of The Tragically Hip. It’s kind of like not being aware that it snows in the wintertime. (both laugh)

The major appeal for me with Gord is that he’s a good man. He’s honest. He’s fiercely loyal, and he’s straight up. There are many people I know who can play music who have technical ability that’s astronomical, but what I mostly care about is honesty and soul, and Gord’s got that in spades. He cares about the people he plays with, and I respect that.

What I mostly care about is honesty and soul, and Gord had that in spades.

Good music is about intention, and Gord knows how to play a style of rhythm guitar that really glues the rhythm together with the drum kit and the bass. That’s essential.

The man has written great tunes, and great melodies. It’s like going to the temple. No matter how you’re feeling, you try to make it a cathartic, ecstatic moment. Otherwise, you might as well be punching out tires.

Once you’ve tasted a certain kind of life — to quote [hockey player] Michel Goulet after playing and winning with Team Canada, “It’s hard to go back flying with turkeys when you’ve been soaring with the eagles.” (both laugh)

Josh Finlayson (guitarist/vocalist for The Skydiggers): Without question, lyrically, Gord stands alone. He’s incredibly melodic as well. A lot of his stuff is subtle, but it will grow on you — and that’s a sign of a really great songwriter.

The other thing is how he delivers a vocal, both live and in a recorded sense. While recording, sometimes he would change the words, which would dictate the phrasing would be slightly different. In between takes, he would scribble something down phonetically, and the syllables would change the way he would have to sing something.

He relished that stuff. Working with The Hip for so many years had given him a skill I’m not even sure he was conscious of.

Rik Emmett (former lead guitarist/vocalist with multiplatinum Canadian power trio Triumph, now a successful solo artist): There’s never been anything in my lifetime that resembles this national outpouring for Gord; nothing that even comes close. Gord was unique, and our national reaction to his departure from this life is fitting, despite our heartbreak. The size of the loss fits him, and the version of Canada that he willed into life.

There’s never been a rock star like Gord Downie, and never been a Canadian icon that even comes close to him. No mold fits: he fashioned his own. He was a poet laureate/cock of the walk/Chaplinesque bundle of charismatic intensity, wit, and depth. No one has ever been so self-aware and yet selfless, so self-conscious yet a gracious open host — a free spirit who invited, encouraged, and succeeded in the channeling of an audience. He was our very best one-and-only man who could play the Everyman. He was more than a politician, more than a hockey star, more than a poet, more than a rock star, more than a socially aware humanitarian — and one in a t-shirt and jeans, and a tight-lipped grin.

His spirit was at, and in, our service, and now it has been set free.

His spirit was at, and in, our service, and now it has been set free. Who knows what that spirit will do now? Well, to start with, the spirit will inspire. It will guide and instruct. I know I will ask myself, from time to time to time, “Yeah, but would Gord Downie think this was bullshit? Or could he get behind this?”

And the spirit will lead. Because, like any great leader, Gord was way out ahead of us, then he was leading from behind, and then we’d glance over sideways, and he was walking right beside us. In Gord’s Canada, whenever we got close to his orbit, he had us surrounded.

He was our Northern Lights. And now the comfort of knowing that the “Downie Galaxy” is gone, the sun has gone supernova. So it’s up to us to figure out how to make it happen, instead of relying on Gord to provide the encouragement, the razzle-dazzle, the provocation, and the satisfaction of the artistic answer. But here, in the short term, in the grief of our loss, that seems impossibly hard.

Back to Gord …

Gord, one of my favorite lines of yours is in Use It Up [from 2002’s In Violet Light], which you once told me was something you adapted from [short-story writer/poet] Raymond Carver, right?

Downie: Yes: “Use it up. Don’t save anything for later.” It’s a favorite saying of Raymond Carver’s that I love and use on a daily basis when confronted with the dilemma of how to proceed in this “art world” we all live in. To me, it’s a reminder that it’s the doing — the act of writing and the work — and not the number of things done that matters.

What’s the best thing about music?

Downie: Unconditional love. Every song aspires to it. What else should we aspire to? Take care of each other. That’s what we’re here for.

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