Downie revealed in May 2016 that he had terminal cancer, an aggressive, incurable form called glioblastoma. He was diagnosed in December 2015 after suffering a seizure, and then had surgery to remove the bulk of the brain tumour, while six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy reduced it even further.
Post-treatment, the energetic lead singer was deemed healthy enough to go on a Canada-wide 15-stop summer tour in 2016, which started in Victoria, B.C., and ended in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ont., on Aug. 20. CBC, which broadcast and streamed the concert live, reported that 11 million Canadians tuned in to watch or hear the final Man Machine Poem Tour show.
WATCH: Gord Downie overcome with emotion during an AFN ceremony
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a statement about Downie’s passing:
“For almost five decades, Gord Downie uncovered and told the stories of Canada. He was the frontman of one of Canada’s most iconic bands, a rock star, artist, and poet whose evocative lyrics came to define a country.
“The Tragically Hip’s music invited us to explore places we had never been – from Mistaken Point to Churchill – and helped us understand each other, while capturing the complexity and vastness of the place we call home.
“Gord’s command of language was profound. He painted landscapes with his words, elevating Canadian geography, historical figures, and myths. When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian. Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest – like Gord himself.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau overcome with emotion paying tribute to Gord Downie
“In the wake of his diagnosis, Gord only fought harder for what he believed in: social justice, environmentalism, and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Before passing, he shined his light on the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home from a residential school. For his work raising awareness of Indigenous issues, he was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada in 2017.
“Gord did not rest from working for the issues he cared about, and his commitment and passion will continue to motivate Canadians for years to come.
“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to Gord’s family, friends, bandmates and crew members, and his many, many fans. He will be sorely missed.”
Downie released a solo album, titled Secret Path, in October 2016 inspired by the death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old First Nations child who died while fleeing a northern Ontario residential school some 50 years ago.
In December 2016, the Assembly of First Nations honoured Downie at an emotional ceremony for his work on reconciliation, where he was given a star blanket and received the name Wicapi Omani, or “walks with the stars.”
The outpouring of love for Downie and the band illustrates the impact The Hip has had on Canadians for its 30+ year run. Spanning decades, The Hip is unquestionably one of the biggest bands in Canadian music history.
First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life
— Ahead By a Century
Born Gordon Edgar Downie in Amherstview, Ont., on Feb. 6, 1964, he grew up in and around Kingston, forming friendships with the guys who would eventually become his Tragically Hip bandmates.
The group originally started out touring bars in Ontario playing covers of famous songs, but were quickly offered a record deal by MCA Records after then-president Bruce Dickinson heard them perform at Toronto’s historic Horseshoe Tavern. Their first EP, the eponymously named The Tragically Hip, was released in 1987. What followed was widespread acclaim and mainstream success, thanks to 1989’s Up to Here and 1991’s Road Apples; the latter reached #1 on the Canadian music charts. Each produced much beloved songs like Blow at High Dough, New Orleans is Sinking, Little Bones, 38 Years Old and Three Pistols.
The Hip was also recognized as Canadian Entertainer of the Year at the 1991 Juno Awards (a recognition they’d go on to receive again in 1993 and 1995; in 1995 and 1997 they were also recognized as Group of the Year).
Wider success and fame followed when the group released 1992’s Fully Completely with hits like Locked in the Trunk of a Car, Courage, At the Hundredth Meridian, and Wheat Kings (a tune which detailed the untold story of David Milgaard, a man wrongfully convicted of the murder of nursing assistant Gail Miller).
The song is “about David Milgaard and his faith in himself,” wrote Downie in the book Top 100 Canadian Singles. 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.”
More albums followed, including 1994’s Day for Night, 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse and 1998’s Phantom Power, giving Canadians tunes like Nautical Disaster, Grace, Too and Ahead by a Century.
Walk like a matador
Don’t be chicken-s**t
And turn breezes into rivulets
Flamenco-sweep the air
And weave the sun
And stamp your feet for everyone
This time in the band’s career also brought them new levels of fame. They made their first and only appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1995 (see clips from that performance here), and were inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame (2002) and Canada’s Music Hall of Fame (2005). They made an appearance at the 92nd Grey Cup in Ottawa and even showed up on beloved Canadian TV comedy Corner Gas.
LISTEN: Music commentator Eric Alper on the passing of Gord Downie
By 1998, when they released their seventh full-length album, Phantom Power, they were able to sell out big stadiums like Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. They also released one of their most iconic songs — Bobycageon — one that speaks to the group’s love of Canada and helped put a small Ontario town on the map.
“Anywhere you go in the world when you’re travelling, you say Tragically Hip and they say Bobcaygeon. It’s amazing,” Aaron Shaw told The Canadian Press before a viewing party of the band’s Man Machine Poem tour in August 2016. “I’ve been to Thailand, I’ve been to Dubai, I say it and they say ‘Bobcaygeon.'” Others have said the song is “true Canadiana” and have called it “a gift.”
It was around this time that Downie also started to experiment with side projects away from The Hip. In 2001, he produced his first solo compilation entitled Coke Machine Glow, which he followed up with a book of poetry using the same name; another followed in 2003. He made a cameo in the 2002 curling film Men with Brooms. He also appeared in fellow Canadian Joshua Jackson’s 2008 film One Week, which (eerily) follows a man diagnosed with terminal cancer as he makes his way across the country.
There’s a dreamy dream where the high school is dead and stark it’s a museum
And we’re all locked up in it after dark where the walls
Are lined all yellow, grey and sinister hung
With pictures of our parents’ prime ministers wheat kings and pretty things
Wait and see what tomorrow brings
— Wheat Kings
Downie dove deeper into some of his personal passions during this time as well, like environmental activism (he has been a board member for the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and was part of the Swim Drink Fish Club, a project that brought musicians together to fight for environmental change).
More group and solo albums followed (you can see a full list below), as did growing fame within Canada. In 2008, they were the first band to perform at Kingston’s K-Rock Centre (where they ended up wrapping up their Man Machine Poem tour), and in 2013, they were honoured by Canada Post alongside four other Canadian music icons (Rush, The Guess Who and Beau Dommage). The street next to K-Rock was even renamed The Tragically Hip Way.
Josie Dye, Toronto DJ and radio host, met Downie around this time, too, when she conducted her first interview with him in 2010. The pair became incredibly close. Interestingly, Dye claims that Downie was more about the structuring of the song (the lyrics and the meaning) rather than the music itself. It’s pretty clear when you scrutinize The Hip’s lyrics, which can range from solemn and heartfelt to just plain silly, that the beauty of each song has the same aesthetic, coming directly from Downie’s mind.
“Gord lived and breathed poetry,” said Dye. “I think, for him, it was all about the lyrics.”
“He wrote every single day,” she continued. “He always had a little book, writing everything down. Everything. Even the little conversations in life, he’d write those down too. You could be a part of one of his songs and never even realize it.”
Then came May 24, 2016, when the band announced Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer.
I left your house this morning
‘Bout a quarter after nine
Coulda been the Willie Nelson
Coulda been the wine
When I left your house this morning
It was a little after nine
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at time
Drove back to town this morning
With working on my mind
I thought of maybe quittin’
Thought of leavin’ it behind
Went back to bed this morning
And as I’m pullin’ down the blind
Yeah, the sky was dull and hypothetical
And fallin’ one cloud at a time
“He has returned to his physical, emotional, mental strength well enough now to be able to get back doing what he loves doing,” Dr. James Perry from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre said of the charismatic frontman at a press conference outlining the band’s final tour details.
Neither Downie nor his bandmates attended the event, but they broke the news online and issued a press release the following day saying, “This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us … What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and its magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans. So, we’re going to dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet.”
They did that, and then some, for Canadians across the country.
“There will never be another repeat of what we just experienced together as a nation,” said Dye, referring to the Hip’s last tour show in Kingston. “We could never repeat that. Nobody can.”
She adds no one will ever be able to take the place of someone like Downie: “Honestly, I feel like there was a five-second pause before he said anything. If you asked him a question, it would take him at least five seconds before he answered. He didn’t just throw things out. It was definitely incredible. He was the kind of person who would ask you a question as soon as you walked up… about your life, your job, your family or whatever you’re interested in. ”
Downie leaves behind his wife, Laura Usher, and his four children.
1987: The Tragically Hip
1989: Up to Here
1991: Road Apples
1992: Fully Completely
1994: Day for Night
1996: Trouble at the Henhouse
1998: Phantom Power
2000: Music @ Work
2001: Coke Machine Glow (Solo album)
2002: In Violet Light
2003: Battle of the Nudes 33 (Solo album)
2004: In Between Evolution
2006: World Container
2009: We Are the Same
2010: The Grand Bounce 8 (Solo album)
2012: Now for Plan A
2014: And the Conquering Sun (Solo album with the Sadies)
2016: Man Machine Poem
2016: Secret Path