The moment that all Tragically Hip/Gord Downie fans have been dreading since May 2016 happened today: we learned of Gord Downie's death.
After battling terminal brain cancer for almost two years, Gord passed away last night at home, surrounded by family and friends.
I learned the news this morning from the official Tragically Hip Facebook page's post. Even though I knew that this was inevitable, it still came as a shock. A bit like getting the glaucoma "puff of air in the eye" test at the optometrist: even though you know that puff of air is coming, you still flinch when you get the blast of air in your eyeball.
This was a "puff of bad news" and I flinched.
The entire day has been watching the remembrances and salutes coming in, some from unexpected sources (the New York Times ran a fairly long piece about Gord's upcoming--now posthumous--album Introduce Yerself; the uber-hipster Pitchfork and Stereogum published pieces about Gord, and the mainstream Rolling Stone had a remembrance--though in their Facebook post they referred to Gord Downie as "Berry Gordy." Wtf?).
I have also been commiserating with fellow Hip fans on the Tragically Hip Fan Forum. So the mourning has been very much social media-based.
It is late and I'm tired, so I haven't much more to add. I suppose that among all of the recent musical deaths, this is the one I feel most personally. I connected to Gord, his persona, musicianship, and lyrics in a way far beyond anyone else (with the possible exception of Ray Davies and John Lennon). But Gord was only four years older than me. He felt like an older brother, in a way. He seemed more human than any other rock star/celebrity I can think of--and this may be due to the Hip not having international fame. They were "my little band," and Gord came across as someone I could imagine drinking a beer with and shooting the breeze about music or hockey.
Without Gord Downie, this American would probably have never heard of Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Tom Thomson, Algonquin Park, "the Paris of the Prairie," Attawapiskat, and Churchill (Manitoba), just to name a few figures and places of the Canadian historical landscape. Gord gave me a deeper appreciation of Canada.
I saw the Hip in concert twice, and both times I came away amazed at the energy Gord brought to the stage. Here was a guy only a few years older than myself. He seemed like a model of how to age gracefully. To some degree, I saw him as a role model. He seemed like someone that was impervious to illness, but even Gord is human. Gord's illness and death is further proof--as if I needed any--that nobody gets out of here alive. That it happened to him at age 53 just seems completely unfair, though.
At least Gord stared down mortality with bravery and resilience. 2016 and 2017 were probably his most productive years on earth. Rather than slow down, his band released an album and embarked on a cross-Canada tour met by adoring crowds. Then Gord released the Secret Path album and film; devoting his final year to reconciliation between First Nations and the government of Canada. His final act is a 23-track solo album, Introduce Yerself, that will be released posthumously.
When the Hip toured in summer 2016, Gord decided to go all out. He changed his stage apparel from his usual dark pants/jeans, white button-down shirt, and vest to sparkly, shiny, bright leather suits topped off with a feathered hat. Gord new this was his last waltz with the Hip and he was going out in style. (As an aside, the outfit became a popular Canadian Halloween costume last year). However, when the tour ended and he transitioned to the Secret Path concerts and album/film release, Gord appeared in public in a "Canadian tuxedo" of jean jacket and jean pants. The seriousness and solemnity of the Chanie Wenjack story and the struggles of the First Nations was not a time for flashy sartorial style, and with what Gord was going through personally, I doubt that he cared.
I am writing this while also trying to work, so I am feeling distracted. I'm not quite sure how to finish this post. I will conclude by simply stating that Gord will be missed, but he left a body of work--musical and social--that will continue to live on for years and decades to come.