Gord Downie, Tragically Hip Frontman, Dead at 53

Charismatic frontman and Canadian national treasure, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip passed away Tuesday night at the age of 53.

Tragically Hip Cancer Gord DownieDownie was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in December 2015. It was discovered after he suffered a seizure.

The diagnosis wasn’t publicly revealed until May of last year when the band also announced a final Tragically Hip tour. The Hip, with Downie (vocals), Rob Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass) and Johnny Fay (drums) embarked on a 15 show cross-Canada tour in 2016, culminating in a nationally-broadcast show in their hometown of Kingston, ON on Aug. 20.

Gord Downie
Gord Downie assessing the situation in Canandaigua.

A statement issued on the band’s website spoke of the inevitability of Downie’s passing, “Gord knew this day was coming – 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.” Downie made a point to kiss his bandmates on the lips at the end of each performance on the Man Machine Poem tour in 2016 to show his love for them. The full statement from the Downie family:

Last night Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by.

Gord knew this day was coming – 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 “the life” for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one.

We would like to thank all the kind folks at KGH and Sunnybrook, Gord’s bandmates, management team, friends and fans. Thank you for all the help and support over the past two years.

Thank you everyone for all the respect, admiration and love you have given Gord throughout the years – those tender offerings touched his heart and he takes them with him now as he walks among the stars.

Love you forever Gord.

The Downie Family

Downie’s final days were spent championing indigenous causes, forming The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada. Chanie Wenjack was a young indigenous boy who died while trying to escape one of Canada’s now defunct residential schools in 1966. Downie released a solo album entitled Secret Path, accompanied by a graphic novel, last October to bring light to Wenjack’s death and the impact of the residential schools on Canada’s indigenous people.

As a result of his tireless work for the First Nations people, Downie was honored at a ceremony given by the Assembly of First Nations last December. National Chief Perry Bellegarde bestowed an eagle feather, a symbol of the creator, on Downie and gave him an honorary aboriginal name, Wicapi Omani, which means “man who walks among the stars.”

Gordon Edgar Downie was born in Kingston, ON on Feb. 6, 1964. He attended the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, where he met his future bandmates. Davis Manning was an original member of the band as saxophonist. He was replaced by Langlois in 1986. The band inked a deal with MCA Records after an appearance at Toronto’s famed Horseshoe Tavern, releasing its self-titled EP in 1987. The follow-up Up to Here in 1989 produced four hit singles for the Hip in Canada, “Blow at High Dough,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” “38 Years Old” and “Boots or Hearts.”

The band’s blues-based sound and poetic Canadiana lyrics endeared them to Canadians of all walks and perhaps kept the Hip from success in the U.S., aside from the border towns. Nonetheless, the Hip became Canadian rock royalty, garnering 16 Juno Awards (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys), the Order of Canada, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and a street naming in their hometown.

Over the course of 30 years, 14 Tragically Hip albums, five solo efforts (with another set for release on Oct. 27) and many collaborations, Gord Downie was a champion of music, especially Canadian music. The Hip brought many Canadian artists with them on tour, including the Arkells, Rheostatics, the Sadies, Eric’s Trip, Spirit of the West, the Inbreds and Ron Sexsmith among others. Many of them have left fond remembrances. Max Kerman of the Arkells told CBC Radio’s “Q” podcast, “Gord taught me that it’s OK to dance.” The Toronto Globe and Mail tweeted, “Gord Downie, troubador of Canada, charmed and challenged a nation.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, visibly emotional, delivered a statement on Wednesday, describing Downie as one who “gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian.”

But Downie was more than a musician. Downie was an activist. He was a performer. He was a poet. He was an actor. Gord Downie was a treasure. To gather an image of who Gord Downie was, the New York Times said it best, “The place of honor that Mr. Downie occupies in Canada’s national imagination has no parallel in the United States. Imagine Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe combined into one sensitive, oblique poet-philosopher, and you’re getting close.”

Farewell, Mr. Downie. “It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

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