Gordon Downie

For me, it was “Grace, Too” that did it, that August night.

I am a Kingston boy, born and raised.

I was just starting high school when the Hip were rolling themselves out at places like the Manor, so I couldn’t have known much about them or seen them in those early years; by the time I was graduating, “New Orleans was Sinking” was already a massive hit.

My musical tastes in my awkward years ran a broad spectrum, but you were likely to find me loading up Sting or Peter Gabriel. In 1989 – the year the Hip released their first full length album, “Up to Here” – I was rediscovering older music, too. “New Orleans Is Sinking” was a song they played on Muchmusic a lot and it wasn’t my style. I was aware they were from Kingston, and did not really care, truth be told. I have little interest in where people are from; I’m not provincial.  Anyway, to me as a teenager, the idea that someone famous was from Kingston did not strike me as being an especially noteworthy thing.  I didn’t really know anything BUT Kingston, and lots of famous people had come from Kingston before.   When you live your whole life in one city you’re used to the local press hyping up anyone local who gets famous, and you become a little suspicious of whether they’re really that big a deal.  In 1989, I don’t think anyone guessed The Tragically Hip would sell more albums in Canada than The Beatles.

I started liking the band in 1991. Now at university (but still awkward) I was studying one night, and “Road Apples” was playing on the communal tape deck, one of the sort that would just go from side to side endlessly if you let it. I like music being on when I work, and couldn’t bother to change it.  I knew “Little Bones,” since that song and its weirdly off-topic video was on constant rotation, but I didn’t know anything else on the album.  After one play I thought, hey, this isn’t bad. After another, hey, this is really good. After a third, hey, who the hell ARE these guys?  I’d never heard music like it.  It wasn’t all Little Bones and songs like it, not even close.  The music was fascinating, deep, varied.  It seemed both beautifully simple and raw and at the same time carefully planned; their early work seems to use not one note more than is necessary to explain the song, and yet not one note less.

I rushed out to buy “Fully Completely” and was not disappointed. The ferocious rock of “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” delighted me. I adored that song. And all the songs, really; I had never, in my life, heard an album that so spoke to me. I’d heard lots of great albums, certainly albums performed with more technical proficiency – Bobby Baker is a hell of a guitarist but he’s not Eddie Van Halen – but I’d never heard anything so damn FASCINATING, with such a clear voice, a clear intent as to how it wanted to sound and what it wanted to say.  No band I’d ever heard was like that. They were my favorite band, just like that.

A moment, now, to discuss Gordon Downie as a lyricist; he is the best lyricist in the history of popular music, full stop. He is not the best Canadian lyricist, not the best lyricist of an era; he is the best ever. It’s not a close call.  Downie is to rock lyrics what Michael Jordan was to basketball, Usain Bolt to sprinting, Gretzky to hockey. That’s a bold statement and I stand by it, but he is completely without peer. Others approach him from time to time – Springsteen is up there, and “Born in the USA” is sublime on par with Downie’s usual output; Lennon was often brilliant,  Alanis Morrissette is brutal and frank, Zevon intelligent, Paul Simon beautifully and cleverly evocative, Roger Hodgson emotional and urgent, Michael Stipe wonderfully poetic and original. None are as effortlessly literary, as wonderful with words and metaphor and double entendre and feelings, and none as CONSISTENTLY magnificent, over and over, song after song, album after album. Bob Dylan’s lyrics are hopelessly juvenile nonsense by comparison. Between “Up to Here” and “Phantom Power” Downie produced more brilliantly written lyrics than has any other lyricist ever; there are more lovely, wonderful lines than I care to type here, 100 of which Canadian rock fans know and hundreds more they’ve forgotten. Other writers write “My baby’s so hot,” or in the case of Robert Plant, “honey drips”; he loves that. Downie; “My girl don’t just walk; she unfurls.”  In seven words he expresses a deep, true admiration for a woman, not just an observation of her appearance but her person, in a crazily clever metaphor.  His lyrics are both accessible and deeply meaningful, evoke feelings when needed and say literal things when needed, speak with a remarkably natural voice, never rely on rock music cliché, and yet scan perfectly, always singable. The number of brilliant songs – it’s got to be three dozen. Maybe more. Fifty? There is little filler in their albums.  That August night in Kingston wasn’t even half their best work.  You could have held a second concert of 30 songs with the stuff they didn’t get around to. “She Didn’t Know,” “38 Years Old,” “Everytime You Go,” “Thugs,” “The Luxury,” “Poets,” “So Hard Done By,” “Put It Off,” and on and on.

Much of the talk of Downie’s lyrics, which merge perfectly with the band’s music, speak of the Canadiana in it, and God knows he unapologetically makes references to Canadian people and places. But it’s not about Canada.  His lyrics were about the human condition.  Many of the band’s finest songs have nothing at all to do with Canada – Locked in the Trunk of a Car, Little Bones, Blow at High Dough, Cordelia, Nautical Disaster.  All the songs rock. Downie did not write Canadiana in to impress you, and if an American reference worked better he used it; heck without even really trying I can think of three songs that reference American places in the title.  He wrote in Canadiana because he was Canadian, and it made sense to him.  That he was Canadian was simply part of what he was, just as was the fact he spoke English, or was tall, or had kids.  He didn’t hide it, because he felt no need to; he wrote what he understood and felt. The result was rock lyrics raised to an art form never matched before or since.

When Prince died last year, someone wrote “We don’t mourn artists because we know them, we mourn artists because they help us know ourselves.”  It’s true.  Gord Downie’s lyrics explained emotion and the human condition a hundred different ways.  They helped you understand.  His lyrics were almost never about himself; they were stories of people, of madness and loss and frustration, of sadness, of love and commitment, of learning, or emptiness, loneliness, regret, joy, fear, intolerance, fury, of winning and of losing people, of beauty and ugliness.  Here is a story of a man released from prison with nowhere to go.  Here is a story of a person remembering a terrible relationship that left a permanent scar.  Here is a story of what marriage is like.  Here is a story about falling in love.  Here is a song that talks about two kinds of heroism.  Here is a song about bilingualism.  Here’s another about a woman born on the wrong side of the tracks.  Here is a story about ten things.  Like all great writers, in every case Downie’s emphasis is on how people feel, on what it is like to be a person.

When you listen to their finest work, you do not just hear.  You see images.  Colors, feelings.  “The Luxury” sounds like the inside of a motel room.  Yellow sun angles in through dirty curtains onto a cheap, rough, hotel-pattern bedspread; before it is a TV on a metal stand, watching it is a man with nowhere better to go.  “Eldorado” is a person in a dark apartment who cannot leave it for fear he (she?) will be unable to resist the lure of the alcohol that will wash away the loss.  “New Orleans Is Sinking” is, well, Bourbon Street in New Orleans right when the booze starts to hit you pretty hard, light and noise around you.  “Nautical Disaster” is a person sitting in bed, their feet resting on the floor, the room the blue of night, their head in their hands, wondering when they will finally forget the person they also want to remember.

I could intersperse this whole thing with brilliant lyrics and discussion of them and never run out of material. But I won’t. Go listen to them. It’s worth it.

Back to my story.

I attended a Hip concert at Richardson Stadium in Kingston in – geez, 1993? 1994?   It was the first time they billed the tour as “Another Roadside Attraction.”  By then I’d memorized, word for word, note for note, the Hip’s first three albums and was eager to see them.   The band was just starting to put out “Day For Night” and one of the songs they started playing was “Nautical Disaster.” New songs always get a muted, unsure crowd reaction, because no one knows them and they usually want to just get to the next song they know, but, Jesus. The crowd was awestruck by the song. I was floored. What the hell did we just hear?

The album came out and I immediately zipped to “Nautical Disaster” and listened, in amazement, at a song of the sort I had never heard before; a tight, hard rock song that has no chorus, no lyrical structure, just power and loudness and a story within a story within a story. I was amazed. And then I went back to “Grace, Too” and listened all the way through and was further amazed. I had never heard anything like it; the album was a work of stunning genius.

Over time it was “Grace, Too” that grew on me and became my favourite song from the album. There is, again, no song really like it. It is an epic rock anthem that in the end cries out in anguish and frustration and pain about a story that ten people will interpret ten different ways; a woman once told me it was about a man and an escort who had truly fallen in love, and they tried for real, but could never be together because of how they had come to know each other and she was the one strong enough to walk away. That seems as good an explanation as any I can provide you, and the poignancy and sadness of it would explain Downie’s fury and the crying, keening guitars that complete the song.  If you have a different take, yours might also be right.  Great poetry is not meant to be taken one way.

“Day For Night” is, in my mind, the band’s magnum opus.  I am probably in the minority on that; most people would say “Fully Completely,” which isn’t a stupid choice by any means; it’s a close call.  But it’s “Day for Night” for me, and the fact that the subsequent albums were never that good is hardly an insult; you have to have a peak at some point, after all.  And “Grace, Too” begins it.  A simple drumbeat, a bass line, and a slowly growing wall of sound towards a screaming, indignant typhoon of rage and sadness and wanting.  It is a song not designed for Top 40 approval; it’s a song they wrote and performed because they thought it was a great song.  And the album goes from there from brilliant work to brilliant work, always anchored by Gord Downie’s voice – singing, speaking, helping you understand.

After that the band’s output is a little shaky; there are great parts in the next three albums, especially the wonderful Phantom Power.  After “Music @ Work,” their first real disappointment, I stopped going to the midnight releases for the new LPs; I felt they had sort of lost their voice.   Or had they?  Maybe I was just getting older.  Old people generally aren’t receptive to new music; our brains become fixed.  We like what we liked when we were kids.  So maybe it was me.  You cannot be young again.  I can’t recapture what I was when I was 20, just as, when I am 70, I will not be able to be 45 again.

That’s fine.    What they had produced to that point was a body of work without parallel in Canadian music history in terms of sheer genius, and enough music to keep me happy for life.

I will never appreciate a band more.  Oh, I can’t say for certain someone won’t come along, but now I am halfway done my life and in terms of musical appreciation, probably nine tenths done.  I am as confident as I am of anything the Tragically Hip will be my favorite band if I live to be 100, and if anyone is ever a greater lyricist than Gord Downie hats off to that person but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Certainly no singer will ever speak to me the same way.  How could they?  He was not just great, he was my neighbor.  Gord was from my home town.  We were not far apart in age.   We are not too different, he and I.  He was a father, a husband, a friend, a Kingstonian, a sports fan.  I did not appreciate that in 1989, but I came to.  He speaks with a voice not unlike mine, and so there is a comforting familiarity to it, but apparently I am not alone, based on the group’s prodigious record sales.

His voice was the soundtrack of most of my life. It still is.

Studying and listening in wonder to “Road Apples.”

Riding in my car with the first woman I really fell in love with, singing together to the end of Eldorado… “Inside, inside, inside…”

Rocking out to “Fully Completely” with my best bud in his red Jeep.

Doing a sensational karaoke rendition of “Bobcaygeon.”

That night in Toronto.

Singing “Fiddler’s Green” as a lullabye to my little girl… `The same wind that moves her hair,’ you see.

That August night, when they came from miles around, I was in Oakville, with the woman of my dreams, watching the Hip, playing their last show in Kingston, where they began and where I began, the city that will always be my home even though it’s not anymore.  He looked so sick, and so brave.  He was thin and weak, and yet sang with a power that could be summoned only by a precious few.  We watched and listened in awe and fear and love.  I loved all those songs.   Did Gord find solace that he brought joy to so many and spent so much time at what he loves?  Did he find comfort in the worthiness of his final months, using his blessings to help people who have the fewest?  He was like me; he had a family, children, and he seemed like a good man so I know he must have loved them with a ferocity and devotion that cannot be expressed, and I know he wanted to see his family decades longer.  But it’s a shame we all cannot live longer. The world is so full of wonders; 50 years is not enough, nor 80, nor two hundred. I wish he and I and all of us could live a hundred lives, but we can’t, so we get the most out of what we’re given, and that he did.

God, their music was so wonderful.

And then, towards the end of their final concert, that summer night, they played “Grace, Too,” because of course they would never not have. And after struggling most of the night, ill and sapped of most of his energy, Downie put every ounce he had into it, and the band, after more than thirty years together still his four dearest friends in all the world, rose up, and the music thundered, and Mrs. MAJ and I watched awestruck, and I burst into tears, because I never want this to end, not them, not me, not my family, not any part of our beautiful world that is so full of art and love and magic, but you know everything must end to have meaning in existing, so goodbye, Gord, goodbye, and thank you for helping me know myself.

We loved you.

Give to the Canadian Cancer Society

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