“Heaven is a better place today
But the world is just not the same.”
— “Heaven is a Better Place Today,” The Tragically Hip
There may have never been, and may never be, a better frontman in a rock band than Gordon Downie. That’s a high mark, to be sure, but if you’ve ever seen The Tragically Hip live, you know that he belongs among the greats for his vocals, his sense of flair and drama, his showmanship and connection with the fans.
That’s why I was so saddened to learn that he has succumbed to the brain cancer that robbed us of one of the great songwriters and minds in rock and roll.
The first time I saw The Hip live, he wound up on the floor shouting “let me out!” during “Locked in the Trunk of a Car.” I can’t explain it other than to say it was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen live.
When I saw the band live at Highland Park in Rochester, a rainstorm moved in and scattered most fans, but Gord wanted to keep playing despite the not-so-safe conditions because he had that kind of connection with the audience. The band came back and played to a much smaller crowd after the rain passed and the stage cleaned up, but he put forth the effort as if he was playing to a packed stadium.
I mapped a visit to the Pacific Northwest around the time the band played in Vancouver and my friend Laura somehow scored us second-row seats. I’d seen The Hip a few times in the States but to see Gord up close in his home and native land, where he was revered and among the most beloved statesman, was to see a performer in all his glory.
Throughout the years, he had so many small and entertaining running bits, almost blending pantomime with performing. He would do crazy antics with a handkerchief, scuffle with a microphone stand and generally make the smallest things entertaining.
But even as he improvised bits, he also improvised songs on the stage that later became tracks on records. His extemporaneous brilliance was awe-inspiring.
And when the band made its last tour last year, despite the circumstances of his illness, it was a kind of victory tour: Venues sold out, fans packed every stadium, ovations were loud and moving, and Gord and the boys kept their emotions in check (mostly) to return the love letter to the fans. I cried then.
I’m fighting back tears now. I knew this day would come and I thought I could write something profound. But my heart hurts for his family, his friends, his fans. This man meant so much to me, so much to those who loved him — and maybe more to his native Canada then any entertainer.
You were ahead by a century, Gordie. Your music will continue to be a treasure. We’re all richer for hearing you.