Throw Away the Rudder (Float Away on Vapour Trails) – A Tribute to Gord Downie

When your nation’s leader gives a tearful press conference lamenting that they are less of a country without you in it. When your country’s flagship news magazine spends the majority of its broadcast speaking of your legacy. When a national network dedicates hours of programming on both television and radio to the news of your death. When the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a moment of silence for a lifelong Boston Bruins fan. When your hometown’s mass transit system substitutes the bus route for “thanks for your life” on the message boards. When musicians, athletes, politicians, actors, commentators, indigenous leaders and everyday people recount memories of their encounters with you. These are all signs that you led a life to be celebrated.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a press conference Wednesday

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip passed away Oct. 17, a casualty of glioblastoma, a severe and incurable form of brain cancer. His diagnosis followed a seizure he had in December of 2015. Why this resonates so strongly with me is that my mother was diagnosed with the same. The fact that he didn’t take this diagnosis as a death sentence but as a mission to bring his message to Canada and the world, speaks to the character of the man. The period following his diagnosis turned out to be one of his most prolific.

Downie was genuine. Downie was intense. Downie was humorous. Downie broke down fences. Downie built bridges. Downie was uniquely Canadian. Downie was one of kind.

The Tragically Hip was never a big name in the U.S. Perhaps the obtuse poetry of the band’s lyrics or the uniquely Canadian references in their songs kept that from happening. Those Americans who had heard of the Hip and who learned to love the Hip most likely did so because of some connection to Canada, whether it be proximity to the border, family ties or a friend in the know. For me, it was a combination. I was turned on to the Hip by my friend Derrick, who had played hockey professionally and had many Canadian friends who were big Hip fans. Knowing my fondness for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Derrick told me about a Hip song that lamented former Leafs player Bill Barilko, entitled “50 Mission Cap.” I was hooked.

I was in my mid-20s when I dove into the Hip. I dove in deep. Perhaps it was my many family trips to Canada in my childhood. Perhaps it was my need to be different than others. Whatever it was, I loved the sound of the Hip and the content of their lyrics. Through those lyrics, I discovered more about Canada than I ever would have otherwise. I was fascinated by the story of Barilko. I researched Hugh MacClennan and David Milgaard. I was an American with my own little Canadian secrets.

Perhaps the coolest thing about being an American Hip fan in their heyday was that seeing them live didn’t involve sleeping out for tickets or sitting in a huge stadium to see them play. While the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario is just a few hours away from my hometown of Rome, New York, in Hipworld, it may as well be light years away. My first time seeing the band was at the Club Chameleon on the Day for Night tour in Syracuse in 1995 with a band called the Rheostatics opening. Not only was I getting an opportunity to see a new favorite band in an intimate venue, I was also being introduced to a cool new band I had never heard of in the Rheos. I’ve been a Rheos fan since that day and have the Hip to thank for that.

The people working the door that night were asking each attendee how far they’d come for the show as they entered. I’d never encountered that when going to a concert. A few years later, I realized why. It soon became apparent that Hip fans travel, not unlike Pittsburgh Steelers fans. And I can’t say as I blame them. Given the choice between seeing my favorite band among 20,000 others in a stadium or with 1000 people in a small bar in Central New York, I’d choose the latter as well.

Perhaps the Tragically Hip’s greatest legacy is that on Canadian music as a whole. In the year and a half since Downie’s illness was revealed, generations of Canadian musicians have come forward to express their gratitude for the band’s music. On New Year’s Day, 2017, Canadian radio host George Stroumboulopoulous celebrated the career of the Tragically Hip in a four hour show that brought together artists as varied as Sam Roberts, Geddy Lee, Blue Rodeo, Barenaked Ladies, A Tribe Called Red and Tanika Charles to perform versions of Hip classics and discuss the band’s influence on them and the musical culture of Canada as a whole. You can listen to that show here.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway in becoming a Hip fan is the relationships I’ve developed along the way. To meet a fellow Hip fan is to meet a kindred spirit. And if you happen to be wearing something Canada-related, the barriers are immediately broken. This happened to me at Syracuse’s Landmark Theatre during the Phantom Power tour in 1998, the second of mine and my wife’s three consecutive “Thruway Tour” shows that also hit Albany and Rochester that year.

It’s pretty much a requirement to wear something Canadiana to a Hip show, whether it’s a maple leaf patch on your jean jacket, a hockey jersey or the shirt of any Canadian band. I wore my favorite Maple Leafs hat to every Hip show that tour. While waiting in line for a beer, a tall gentleman in front of me turned and asked where in Canada I was from, apparently bewildered that an American would be a fan of a Canadian hockey team. I mentioned that I was from less than an hour away and have been a Leafs fan for years. That question led to a friendship going on 20 years now. My friend Tom hailed from Barrie, Ontario and made the trip south for the show in Syracuse. He spoke about the tremendous time he had at the Hip’s run of shows at Bill’s Bar in Boston earlier that year and how he wished he could hear those shows again. As luck would have it, I happened to have said shows on tape from a trade I had made on a Hip listserv. He jotted his address down on a cocktail napkin.  A few days later I copied the shows and mailed them off to Barrie and a friendship was born. Tom now lives in the Calgary area, but thanks to the miracle of technology, he and I have been able to maintain our friendship over all these years and I can count him as one of my truly best friends.

Since 1995, I have been fortunate enough to see the Hip a total of 12 times, the most memorable was at Woodstock ’99 on the Saturday morning of that weekend in my hometown. Definitely one of the finest performances I’ve witnessed by any band, Gord at peak stream-of-conscious banter. When Downie said, “Ah, it’s nice to be back in Rome,” my face lit up, despite the fact that he’d more than likely never been here before.  The last time I saw them was with my wife at CMAC in Canandaigua on July 4, 2015. You can read my review of that show here.

The night of the band’s final performance, in their hometown of Kingston last August 20, I sat in my living room, watching along with 12 million others across Canada and throughout the world as Downie gave his final farewell, tears in my eyes.

Gord Downie brought people together. He had a magical touch that reached the rock fan and the poets. In times that have become increasingly divided, the world could use a lot more Gord Downies.

Rest in power, Mr. Downie. You have enriched the lives of millions. Your words, your actions, your life will live on in those you’ve inspired.