Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eulogy for Gord Downie

It’s not often that a person changes another person’s mind, and it’s even rarer when the two people don’t actually know one another. But that’s what Gord Downie did – he changed my mind.

If you’re in a bar band in certain parts of Ontario, Canada, you play the Hip. It’s a requirement, no two ways about it, and if you refuse, you’ll be hassled by surly patrons until you do.

That’s the situation that led me to the music of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip in the mid-1990s. I started singing in a cover band in London, Ontario, and a big chunk of that band’s repertoire was made up of Hip songs.

Of course, I had heard snippets of their music before that time - years before, in fact - and even though I found their songs intriguing (‘Little Bones’ in particular) I didn’t take them very seriously. In fact, I was dismissive of the Hip until I had to sing their tunes in concert.

And that’s when Gord's magic started to work on me.

Maybe it was the final verse of ‘Scared’, with its paradoxical tone of resignation and affirmation, sung in that characteristically untethered melody that was Gord’s signature. Or perhaps it was the exuberant ‘whooping’ and his call to “bring on a brand new renaissance” in ‘Three Pistols’. I can never be sure.

What I know is, I spent years performing in bars and clubs, and never tired of playing the Hip’s music, or letting Gord put words in my mouth. I was content to be his instrument. Fellow musicians even took to calling me ‘Lil Gordy’ for a time, because of how I committed to the band’s songs on stage.

But when I thought back to how I had dismissed their early work, I felt the pangs of someone who has misjudged a friend. That’s how Gord changed my mind. His musical presence in my life had palpability; even though I didn’t know him, it felt like I did, and I wanted to get right with him.

(How many night shifts did I labor with the words of ‘Music at Work’ echoing in my mind? And I couldn’t even count the times I’d “looked up to the Lord above / and said ‘hey man – thanks!”) 

The eloquence and eccentricity of Gord’s voice widened my perspective, made me think about relationships and the world differently. Like the acolyte of a holy man, I became a kinder, better person for having experienced his works.

The Hip music of the ‘90s spoke clearest to me, but I’ve enjoyed hearing fresh songs from the band over the years, as well as the most recent examples of Gord’s lyrical acumen. To me, his voice will always sound timeless.

“You are ahead by a century”, he sang, but I think we know now that he was the one ahead all along. Godspeed to you, Gord. “And grace, too.”