By Keith Sharp
We knew it was inevitable but the passing of The Tragically Hip’s poet laureate Gord Downie Tuesday night is no less painful for all the fans who had felt an affinity to the Kingston Ontario band’s unique brand of Canadiana.
Surrounded by family, friends and his Tragically Hip band mates, Downie, aged 53, finally succumbed to the terminal effects of the Gliobastoma (brain tumour) which was first revealed in May 2017. Yet even though Downie was aware of his own mortality, he still miraculously held up during the band’s swan-song Man Machine Poem Canadian tour, in support of the band’s final album. The last show, August 20th at the band’s hometown Rogers K-Rock Centre being telecast nationally by the CBC to a viewing audience of 11.7 million viewers.
“Gord knew this day was coming”, read a statement issued on his family’s behalf. “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.
“Gord said he had lived many lives as a musician, he lived this life , lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies (guitarist Rob Baker, guitarist Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay). At home he worked just as tirelessly to be a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord, no one.”
A strong fighter for the rights of Canada’s indigenous people, Gord battled against his medical issues to release a solo album, `The Secret Path’ as an accompanying piece to Jeff Lemire’s book detailing the tragic death of 12 year-old Chanie Wenjack, who froze to death trying to find his way home (400 miles away) after being placed in a Kenora residential school in 1966. This project earned Downie three Juno awards earlier this year and was also turned into an animated film, broadcasted by the CBC.
Downie never said that Man Machine Poem would be the band’s final album and tour, he made a surprise appearance this February at Massey Hall during Blue Rodeo’s encore of “Lost Together”. And It’s a testament to Downie’s courage and fortitude that he also found time to record one more solo record; “Introduce Yerself” which will be released October 27th by Universal Music Canada.
Having one of the band’s original managers, Allan Gregg, as a partner in Music Express in the mid 1980’s presented our magazine with a unique insight into the band’s rise to prominence. My first exposure to the Hip came one Wednesday night in October 1987 when my associate Conny Kunz and I attended a party at Allan’s swank Forest Hill residence with a bunch of his other Conservative Party honchos, Larry Grossman being one attendee.
Midway through the evening, Allan asked us to put our drinks down and step outside as he was taking us on a Magical Mystery Tour bus ride. A bemused group of partygoers filed into said bus and we soon found ourselves parked outside the infamous Isabella Hotel where we were greeted by Allan’s management company partner Jake Gold.
We were ushered upstairs to the hotel’s grungy performance space just as this rather scruffy bunch of guys set up to play. Originally, I can’t say The Tragically Hip made much of an impression. Their original batch of songs didn’t sound too commercial; the most striking character was guitarist Rob Baker with his long mane of black hair. But when lead vocalist Gord Downie started singing his own interpretation of The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” I was extremely impressed.”
Gregg and Gold informed me they were managing the band, that a tip off from one of Allan’s Conservative cronies, Hugh Segal, had attracted their attention, and the rest, they say his history. Gregg and Gold built up a regular following at the Isabella and then switched to the Horseshoe Tavern where the band created huge traffic whenever they played.
When it came to staging our annual Music Express Awards in early 1988 at the then titled Diamond Club, The Tragically Hip performed live on a bill that also included Blue Rodeo, The Jeff Healey Band, Platinum Blonde and April Wine’s Brian Greenway.
As the Hip’s first debut studio album ‘Up To Here’ was taking shape in Memphis under the direction of ace producer, Don Smith, Gregg would invite me up to his Decima Research office at Yonge and Eglinton were he excitedly played me the initial mixes of “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Blow At High Dough”
A few months later, my new girlfriend Karen and I were in Los Angeles for the band’s album showcase debut before MCA Records’ chief honcho, Irving Azoff at the famed Roxy nightclub. The place was packed with assorted MCA hair bands, industry types and Sunset Strip regulars.
Backstage, Downie told me he was thrilled by the band’s reception, attendees bubbled that the band was comparable to a cross between The Stones and The Doors but the reality was that MCA U.S had no idea what to do with them.
And although The Hip never did connect with the U.S, their brand of roots rock with their Canadian lyrical messages (“Bobcaygeon”, “50-Mission Cap”, “The 100th Meridian”, “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car”, “Courage (for Hugh McLellan) established the band as a unique cultural asset.
Over the course of their 34-year career, The Hip recorded 13 studio albums (most going Diamond or multi-Platinum), chalked up 16 Juno Awards, were elected into Canada’s Music Hall Of Fame in 2004 and Downie himself was the recipient of The Order Of Canada in May of this year. The band itself was feted with the shooting of a documentary of that final tour, `Long Time Running” (by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier) which was featured at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
To his credit, Downie must have been fully aware that his time was running out. He used that time the best way he could. By working to promote awareness of the plight if native indigenous people, providing his loyal fans with one final opportunity to say goodbye and to leave them with one final solo recording.
A unique individual who will be sorely missed!.
CTV Release: In Tribute to Gord Downie, CTV Advances World TV Premiere of LONG TIME RUNNING to Now Air This Friday, October 20 at 8 p.m.
In celebration of the life of the unforgettable Gord Downie, CTV announced today it will now present the acclaimed film about The Tragically Hip, LONG TIME RUNNING, in a special advance, commercial-free world television premiere event this Friday, October 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The 95-minute film was previously scheduled to debut in November.
“Canadians from across the country are grieving the passing of this extraordinary individual, and in consultation with the band, we thought this was the right time to share with fans this intimate peek into last summer’s tour,” said Randy Lennox, President, Bell Media. “Gord Downie’s talent, passion, and heart made this country a better place. Gord, we miss you already.”
From award-winning directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas De Pencier, LONG TIME RUNNING chronicles The Tragically Hip’s iconic 2016 Man Machine Poem tour and emotional final concert in their hometown of Kingston, ON. Viewers are given a unique and exclusive perspective into The Tragically Hip’s world through interviews, verité, intimate behind-the-scenes moments, fan testimonials, audience experience, and performance footage.
LONG TIME RUNNING premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews. The film was previously announced to make its world television premiere in mid-November. LONG TIME RUNNING will encore on its original airdate of Sunday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on CTV, before it begins streaming on Canada’s premium TV streaming service, CraveTV.
Commissioned by Bell Media, the film is directed by renowned Canadian documentary filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier (Manufactured Landscapes, Act of God, Watermark), and produced by Banger Films’ Scot McFadyen (HIP-HOP EVOLUTION, RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE), and Rachel McLean, in association with Shed Creative (a division of Universal Music Canada). Executive Producers are Bernie Breen, Patrick Sambrook, Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn, Randy Lennox, Jeffrey Remedios, Dave Harris, Naveen Prasad, and Jeremy Smith. Music Consultant is Tyson Parker, Bell Media.