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Gord Downie: Hero of Canadiana

Category: English Culture | 2017-10-23

As an expat in Germany, I am often asked what Canada is like. And when I think about this question, I am flooded with a myriad of images of Canadiana. But, as a musician and music lover, I inevitably turn to the most Canadiana of all things to describe what Canada is…The Tragically Hip. The Hip, led by frontman Gord Downie, have encapsulated the Canadian spirit for 30 years with their music, lyrics and their inexhaustible support of the downtrodden.

It is with a sad heart, that I write about Gord Downie and his contributions to Canada and Canadians the world over. My sadness comes from the untimely death of one of our greatest citizens, a poet, author and activist. He passed quietly on the evening of Tuesday, October 17, in the company of family. He will be missed.

Unlike a few of my lucky friends, I never had the pleasure of meeting him. However, through his music I consider him a friend and have never doubted that he knew me intimately. Today, I will explore how he touched a nation and the language he used to do it.

Gord Downie: Hero of Canadiana


The Beginning of it All

Gord Downie

Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip began their musical legacy in 1984 in Kingston, Ontario, home to Queen’s University. They began as many Canadian bands do, gigging at small clubs and playing cover songs. As their own songs began to make their way to the forefront of the shows, the band grew in local popularity. They toured Ontario and played the famous Horseshoe Tavern, where they were discovered by MCA and signed to a long-term deal. They recorded their first EP, titled simply The Tragically Hip, which included such hits as Small Town Bringdown and Highway Girl.

Gord Downie’s lyrics resonated immediately with the audience and there is no question why. His writing showed an empathy for the everyday life of Canadians, as seen here in the lyrics to Small Town Bringdown.

It’s a sad thing, bourbon’s all around
To stop that feeling when you’re living in a small town
You’re long and lean but things don’t get you down
You’re a top ten kingpin in the borders of your hometown

Can’t live to die, too easy
Why stick around?
I want my life to please me
Not another small town hometown bringdown 

With so many Canadians having small town roots, it’s no wonder people connected with the Hip. I think back to my time in small town New Brunswick (one of Canada’s more rural provinces) and can imagine dozens of times drinking and dreaming of something bigger… Thinking, if only there was some way to get out, I’d show the world what I was made of!

Gord Downie

Along with Small Town, the album is full of fantastic imagery. Take for example I’m a Werewolf, Baby with its raw, animalistic desire strewn into a howling rock tune. I can’t help but drift back to puberty and the bi-polar extremes of fear and desire for the girls in school.

The moon goes up, I start to sweat
Call the doctor, call the vet
Well, my brain goes numb and my blood gets hot
All I need is what you got
I lose control, I just can’t stop
You look so good, like a big pork chop
Ripped my pants, ripped my shirt
I’m going to eat your mother for desert
Well, I can smell your blood, I can hear you breathe
I’m going to eat your heart right off your sleeve
Eat you cooked, eat you raw
I’m going to rip you up like a big chainsaw

Starting off relatively mild-mannered in the first verse, by verse two the blood is up and it’s almost too much to bear by verse three. This progression is so familiar, I feel like I am back in the locker room with the boys. All of us pretending the girls didn’t terrify us and that we were born to be great lovers. All we needed was chance to work our magic! Oh, to be a fly on those walls now. What a laugh I would have knowing that women would ALWAYS terrify me! 😉

Bursting Onto The National Stage

Over the next couple of years, the Tragically Hip’s fan base grew, as did their maturity as song writers. 1989 saw the release of Up to Here, with classic Hip songs like Blow at High Dough, New Orleans is Sinking, Boots or Hearts, and 38 Years Old.

When I think of what music makes up “Canadiana”, 38 Years Old will always be one of the first songs that comes to mind. It details a fictional account of the real-life escape of 14 inmates from Millhaven Institution, a maximum security prison outside of Kingston. This once little-know story in Canadian history has become a kind of folklore to an entire generation across the country. Gord Downie had the amazing ability to take simple stories from the darkest corners of Canada and turn them into summer rock anthems, adored by millions.

Another song that has always resonated with me was Blow at High Dough. The first verse

They shot a movie once in my hometown
Everybody was in it from miles around
Out at the speedway, some kind of Elvis thing
Well, I ain’t no movie star but I can get behind anything

is something that I can really “get behind”. In two separate small towns where I lived, films were shot. Friends and acquaintances were in it or part of the crew. I can’t listen to this song without thinking about Billy Baldwin and that horrendous movie they shot in Saint Andrews. Terrible movie, but a great time and so many fun memories!

The second full-length album, Road Apples, was another step forward in song writing and fame. With more classics like Little Bones, Fiddler’s Green and Long Time Running, Gord and the Hip had found their way into the hearts of millions of Canadians and were becoming a household name.

Check out this video of Fiddler’s Green from the Hip’s final concert in Kingston last summer. I watched it the night after hearing the news of Gord’s death and couldn’t help whimpering and sniffling like a lost puppy. If you are a fan, brace yourself. If not, just enjoy a brilliant song!

Gord Downie Hits his Stride

By the early 90’s, the Tragically Hip were full speed ahead throughout Canada. They created their own rock festival and released Fully Completely, an album that, to me, defined their sound and took them to the legendary status they hold today. This album has been on steady rotation for as long as I can remember. It’s hard to think of a song that isn’t great on it, but there are a few that have always stood out to me. Both Fifty Mission Cap and Wheat Kings are pure Canadiana, and further define why so many Canadians consider the Hip to be the greatest Canadian band of all time.

Fifty Mission Cap tells the story of Bill Barilko, a defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Barilko’s story is truly the stuff of Canadian legend. Here it is as told by Gord Downie:

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 nineteen sixty two
The year he was discovered
I stole this from a hockey card
I keeped tucked up under

My fifty-mission cap
I worked it in
I worked it in to look like that

If a song about the tragic death of a hockey player from Toronto, a hockey card and a beat-up old hat isn’t Canadian, I don’t know what is!

Alongside this rocker, Wheat Kings fills out the softer side of the album. This song was so much more than a great piece of music. It shows a side of Gord Downie’s writing that defends his position as unofficial Poet Laureate of Canada. Wheat Kings alludes to the story of David Milgaard, a Canadian wrongly imprisoned for 23 years for the rape and murder of Gail Miller. Milgaard was released in early 1992, six months before the release of Fully Completely.

When asked about Wheat Kings, Gord Downie had this to say. The song is “about David Milgaard and his faith in himself. And about his mother, Joyce, and her absolute faith in her son’s innocence. And about our big country and its faith in man’s fallibility. And about Gail Miller, all those mornings ago, just lying there, all her faith bleeding out into that Saskatoon snowbank.”

The opening track on this album, though, is arguably their most popular song of all time. Courage (For Hugh McLennan) is an homage to Canadian author Hugh McLennan and uses the final verse to paraphrase the closing lines of his book The Watch that Ends the Night. Check out the video below, with typical Gord pomp and flair:

Following up on the success of Fully Completely, the Hip released Day for Night in 1994. This album opens with the song Grace, Too, whose lyrics which, although unintentional, were prophetic of Gord Downie’s final days.

I come from downtown, born ready for you
Armed with will and determination, and grace, too

Despite the success of this song, another song on the album is arguably one of the best of the Hip catalogue. The lyrics and dark overtones of Nautical Disaster play with emotion and imagery so effortlessly, it is difficult not to be swept away in the metaphor and miss the story of a love lost.

Have a look at these lyrics, and see how fluidly Gord Downie navigates from the brutal scene of sailors clawing at a final chance of survival to a phone call wishing a past lover goodbye.

I had this dream where I relished the fray
And the screaming filled my head all day
It was as though I’d been spit here
Settled in, into the pocket
Of a lighthouse on some rocky socket
Off the coast of France, dear
One afternoon four thousand men died in the water here
And five hundred more were thrashing madly
As parasites might in your blood
Now I was in a lifeboat designed for ten and ten only
Anything that systematic would get you hated
It’s not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated
The selection was quick, the crew was picked in order
And those left in the water
Got kicked off our pant leg
And we headed for home
Then the dream ends when the phone rings
“You doing all right?”
He said, “It’s out there most days and nights
But only a fool would complain”
Anyway, Susan, if you like
Our conversation is as faint a sound in my memory
As those fingernails scratching on my hull

Gord Downie

Gord Downie, Maturing Poet

As the 90’s rolled on, the Hip continued to gain momentum. Their song writing continued to mature and their fan base continued to grow. In 1996, they released Trouble at the Henhouse, which contained perennial concert favourites Gift Shop and Ahead by a Century. The latter contains what may likely be the most quoted of Hip lines.

With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life

It shows a more reflective and philosophical side to his writing that was well received by the audience. As they matured and ventured into adulthood, their values were changing and their minds were opening to grander insights.

After Henhouse, came Phantom Power, which met with moderate success but happens to contain one of my all-time favourites. Fireworks is a great song, both for its Canadiana but also because it has such a great feel-good vibe to it. As I said earlier, there isn’t much that is more Canadian than hockey. And the first verse sums up the Canadian sentiment on the subject perfectly.

If there’s a goal that everyone remembers
It was back in old seventy two
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside you

You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr

Another truly Canadian song on Phantom Power (and another of my favourites) is Bobcaygeon, a cottage country town in Northern Ontario. The song makes indirect reference to the Horseshoe Tavern where The Men They Couldn’t Hang, a band known for it’s anti-fascist beliefs, plays to an Alt-right crowd.

The Tragically Hip followed up Phantom Power with Music at Work, In Violet Light and In Between Evolution. These three albums, although not commercially as successful as previous albums, are rife with Canadian content, both inferred and obvious. With songs like Toronto #4 and The Dark Canuck, the Canadiana is right there for even the casual observer to see. Other songs, like The Dire Wolf, require you to bite a little deeper to find the hidden national treasures.

At the Dire Wolf’s Crest, the Newfoundland paused
Desolate’s best was gotten across
We were never more here, expanse getting broader
When better boats been done by this water

Other Canadian references come in Heaven is a Better Place Today with the line, “A toonie to the busker”. For those of you who aren’t aware, the Toonie is a two dollar coin in Canada. And then in Problem Bears, Gord Downie opens the song with the mention of Lake Memphramagog. He then goes on to work in a reference to Shakespeare, Voltaire and hockey, all in one verse.

Shakespeare, you’re a drunken savage
Well, you’re a sober and green eyed Voltaire
It almost sounds funny
Like two tough talking goalies
Who are really going at it upstairs

Gord Downie


The Twilight Years

As their career moved into its later stages, four final albums were released: World Container, We Are the Same, And Now for Plan A, and Man Machine Poem. Gord Downie continued to let Canada and its culture dominate his writing. A great example of this (and again, one of my favourites), is The Lonely End of the Rink, where the hockey references are rampant. But, I think it has to be said that only a truly great writer could write a love song while working in dekes and fakes!

I hear your voice cross a frozen lake
A voice from the end of a leaf
Saying, “You won’t die of a thousand fakes
Or be beaten by the sweetest of dekes

Gord Downie has never been known to walk away from the darker side of Canadian history, which sadly there is plenty of for him to draw from. One such example is the song Now The Struggle Has a Name, from the album We Are the Same. He wrote the song after watching a CBC program on Residential Schools, the systematic removal of First Nations children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools to assimilate them to “southern culture”. The name Honey Watson in the song refers to the CBC reporter who came on directly after the segment to report on Haiti. Although he misheard her name, Connie Watson, it remained in the song as is.

Putting it All Together

I could go on ad nauseam about all the Canadian references and skillful writing of Gord Downie. However, I will let the above be an appetizer for those who don’t yet know the Tragically Hip and a reminder for those who do. Gord Downie was one of the greatest Canadian songwriters, an outspoken activist and a concerned citizen. He was one of the reasons we are proud to call ourselves Canadian.

It is a tragedy that he is gone, but he will be remembered forever. In his own words, we can be sure that

Heaven is a better place today
Because of this, but the world is just not the same

Gord, you will be missed. May your light shine on in the hearts and minds of Canadians for time eternal. Gord Downie lived until his final day, singing and fighting for what he felt was right. And so, as a parting thought, I leave you with the words of Dylan Thomas.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

How has Gord Downie’s writing influenced you? What are your favourite lyrics? What about his writing has touched you the most? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Sign up for our monthly newsletter and receive a 7 day free trial of our online English course. Also get more tips, articles and exclusive deals. Thanks for reading!



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