Off the Deep End: Real Courage (For Gord Downie)
written by Chris van Staalduinen
Devastated. That’s the feeling of every Canadian rock fan recently when hearing of the tragically tragic prognosis for Canadian icon Gord Downie. If you don’t know who Gord Downie is…go back to where you’re from or at least try to imagine your country’s heart and soul being torn out of it far too soon. Downie is that kind of man – either he is your hero or he probably should be. The 52 year old Tragically Hip singer, writer, poet, husband and father has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and in typical heroic fashion, plans to go out on a final tour across Canada. This is much more to share himself and his gift with the fans who love him so much than any attempt to promote the Hip’s thirteenth and likely final studio album, Man Machine Poem.
There’s not much that can be said about the man that most Hip fans don’t already know or feel; it’s a Canadian thing. He sang the songs of my youth and my Canadian history lessons were interwoven; the enchanting lyrics forcing the curious side of me to read up on some of the stories behind the songs. Songs about hockey and heroes and hockey heroes; war stories, plane crashes and nautical disasters. As I learned stories of the old country from my grandfather, so did I learn old stories of this one from Uncle Gord. And that’s why this feels to me and probably most of you, so much like losing a member of the family. The Hip have been in our lives in their current incarnation for most of our lives and that in itself is amazing and a testament to just how Canadian these guys are. They’re just nice, small town boys who happened to make it big and do what everyone says and few manage – they stayed small town, humble, honest and courageous.
“Courage” is one of the Hip’s best known hits and on most people’s lists among their favourites. Right now it defines Gord Downie in the same way he has long defined Canadiana and redefined Canadian music forever. Downie has always shown courage in the way he writes – choosing to write songs about quirky things and people or historical events rather than some girl he used to love. He has the courage to write about love in deep, painful terms like “Love is a Curse”. He has the courage to be from Ontario and sing about the Leafs – bad enough, but to do so in a Bruins sweater?!? Unheard of. He has the courage of his convictions and his belief in making music the right way, regardless of critics. I have seen him have the courage to sing freestyle and freely, while dancing like a lunatic on speed for hours on end. It’s almost amazing he doesn’t die nightly on stage and anyone (which is most of us) who has seen him on stage would be hard pressed to argue. Mostly, though, I am amazed at the courage he has to go on tour while terminally ill, singing songs for millions of crying, adoring fans; all the while losing precious time with his children and wife. I don’t think I’d have that much courage. Or generosity, for that matter.
If for some reason you haven’t seen them live – accept the gift that this rock legend is offering. Many rock legends pass before we get the chance to see them and experience the one of a kind offering of a live show. I never got to see Hendrix, Morrison, Bonham and many others live. The originality of the live experience is amplified when it comes to Downie and The Hip – every song at every show is truly one of a kind, just like the man. His freestyling is like none I’ve ever seen or heard and it simply makes their concerts unbelievable. I have seen them 5 times; more than many fans, less than many others. They have all been awesome, but I personally will never forget when I saw them in 1993, for my 21st birthday at Seabird Island in Agassiz, BC. It was just after “Fully Completely” had been released and the sound on that day on an island in the middle of the river was unmatched. It was a fairly short set by their high standards, but full Downie, nevertheless.
All I can say is: on behalf of myself (and all of Canada) thank you, Gord Downie, for sharing your time, your gift, your music, your energy and really, your life with us, your adoring fans. Thanks for staying Canadian and being an ambassador for us. Thanks for being a hero worthy of looking up to. Thanks for having the “Courage” and “Grace, too” to not be “Scared” to go on a knowing farewell tour. Know that for Canadian rock fans you, Gord, will always be “In View”.
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written by Chris van Staalduinen