It may seem hyperbolic to say that no non-Canadian can truly understand the importance of Gord Downie, because it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Downie, who died last night at 53 after a protracted and public bout with brain cancer, was the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, a band that is iconic in Canada and mostly known outside of Canada for being iconic in Canada.
The Hip (they are only and always referred to in Canada as the Hip) formed in Kingston, Ontario, in 1984. In their later years, they graduated into a kind of venerated touring ensemble, sort of like the Grateful Dead, but the apex of their impact was in the early ’90s.
I can’t go any further without confessing: Back then, I was not a huge Tragically Hip fan. I liked a few songs, I loved one song in particular, but in general I always found them to be a little too bar-band for me, not as edgy or alternative as their Stateside grunge counterparts, or even other emerging Canadian bands of the era like Sloan. They were, in the parlance, hosers — unabashedly Canadian and, ironically, not particularly hip, nor particularly interested in being hip.
But Downie. Oh, Gord Downie. What a glorious genius. Even as a nonfan of the music — and these are songs that now rank with the national anthem on evergreen playlists of Canadiana — I respected, and even revered, Downie. If you don’t know him, a comparison is hard to conjure: My mind goes first to Michael Stipe, because Downie was a similar brand of weirdo poet, an off-kilter stage presence, and a famously awkward dancer. But that doesn’t quite get it — and by “doesn’t quite,” I mean, not at all. Try to imagine Stipe if Stipe was beloved in every corner of this country, red state and blue, but practically nowhere else around the world. The Hip are big in Canada, which sounds a bit like a lame joke, but it means that Downie always belonged peculiarly, and uniquely, to Canada.
For a long time, the book on the Hip was that, unlike Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or, God help us, Nickelback, they couldn’t quite break through in the States. In this, they also felt quintessentially Canadian — that cloying suspicion that something is not quite validated until it’s earned the approval not just of Canadians but of fans south of the border as well. I remember vividly an appearance by the Hip on Saturday Night Live in 1995 — the show was hosted by Dan Aykroyd, a Canadian who had passed through the international membrane and who, legend goes, advocated to Lorne Michaels (another osmotic Canadian) to invite the band to appear. I watched that episode with a combination of pride, trepidation, and dread. Part of me feared the Hip would fail to charm this captive U.S. audience and part of me worried that they would — and Canada would lose them for good. They didn’t, and Canada didn’t, and I’m confident both are happier for it to this day.
But back to Downie. His lyrics are magnificent. It’s hard to call him the greatest lyricist Canada’s ever produced, given that country also gave the world Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, but he’s in their company, which says enough. Just this morning, by way of acknowledgment of Downie’s passing, a Canadian TV writer on Twitter posted, simply, a stanza from the Hip song “Another Midnight”: “Perhaps we’re an election day / Pumping hands and kissing all the babies / Ain’t no time for shadowed doubts or maybes / Is there another way? / Or we’re a stolen Cadillac / Racing for a roadblock in the distance / Flashing by a lifetime in an instance / Can we take it back?”
For my money, Downie’s greatest lyrical achievement — and one of the greatest ever, anywhere — is the 1993 song “Fifty Mission Cap.” The song is built around the story of Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko, who disappeared without a trace on a fishing trip, only to be found dead 11 years later in the Canadian wild, the victim of a plane crash. The title refers to a cap worn by American bombers in World War II that developed a particular shape over time due to the headphones the bombers wore. The song opens: “Bill Barilko disappeared that summer / He was on a fishing trip / The last goal he ever scored / Won the Leafs the Cup / They didn’t win another / Till 1962 / The year he was discovered / I stole this from a hockey card / I keep tucked up under / My fifty-mission cap / I worked it in / To look like that.”
Even writing it now, the stanza seems diminished — like all great lyrics, it loses something when disentangled from the song, and from the singer. You can’t hear, for example, Downie’s rising plaintive wail as he delivers the punch-line coda, The year he was discovered. I know it’s a cliché to cite a song about hockey and the wilderness as a Canadian cultural landmark. I can’t quite explain through what mad alchemy Downie turns a bit of hockey-card trivia into a mythopoetic meditation on sports, loss, being a kid, the Canadian wild, and the odd and befuddling wonderments that life periodically offers us. I also can’t quite explain why those words, in that order, delivered by that not particularly melodious voice, make me cry every time I hear them, including right now. Though I guess this time around, the reason isn’t so hard to decipher.
After Downie made his terminal brain cancer public, in 2016, the band announced they’d embark on a final tour. It culminated in a concert held in Kingston that aired live in prime time on Canada’s national broadcaster, drew nearly 2 million viewers, and was celebrated like a national holiday. The concert was a fitting benediction that said everything about how the country feels about the man. The Hip played every song. They took a bow. He wiped away a tear. They said good-night.
I remember following the concert on Twitter, as it was all my Canadian friends were talking about. It happened in August of last year, at the end of a long and ragged summer. The contrast was staggering: Up north, an entire country rallied around one person while, down here, another person was holding rallies of his own that promised to tear this country apart. Like I said, I was never a huge fan of the Hip. But on that night in August, I’ve never missed Canada more.