By Steve Newton
If you’re a fan of Canadian music you’ve already heard the devastating news. Yesterday the country’s greatest-ever guitar-rock band, the Tragically Hip, announced on its Facebook page that singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer.
Canucks from coast to coast were shocked and saddened to hear that one of their most beloved artists was in such a dire state. Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted his support with the hashtag #Courage, referencing the song “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”, the uber-Canadian single from the band’s best album, Fully Completely.
No doubt others just put the album on and took a melancholy-laced trip back to the early ’90s, when Fully Completely gems like “Fifty Mission Cap”, “Locked in the Trunk of the Car”, and “Looking for a Place to Happen” were the riff-driven soundtracks of their existence.
I count myself very fortunate to have interviewed Downie five times over the years, in 1989 (for the Up to Here album), ’92 (for Fully Completely), twice in ’95 (in February for the Day for Night album and again in July to promote the Another Roadside Attraction show at UBC), and then the last time in ’96, when I did a cover story on the band for the Georgia Straight.
In that first interview of ’95 we discussed how–with songs such as “Nautical Disaster”, “Inevitability of Death”, and the sombre first single, “Grace, Too”–Day for Night might easily be construed as the darkest Hip album yet. Additional song titles like “Thugs” and “Scared”—and the disc’s gloomy black-and-white art—seemed to second that emotion, but Downie wasn’t so sure.
“That was an adjective that was thrown around when it first came out,” he said, “that it was pretty dark, but I don’t really see it. Some of the songs I would call downright uplifting. Even ‘Inevitability of Death’ is kind of a funny song more than anything. I mean, I thought it would be funny imagining radio deejays cueing it up and announcing it as people are driving off to work.”
“Inevitability of Death” isn’t one of my favourite Hip songs, music-wise, but it does showcase Downie’s unique talents as a wordsmith. Just now I took my first close look at the lyrics, and realized that it includes a nod to the nation’s most famous cancer fighter, Terry Fox:
“Terry’s gift is forever green,” sings Downie in the second verse, “It got me up and back on the scene. We don’t go to hell just our memories do.”
Today, in the face of Downie’s incurable illness, the Hip defiantly announced dates for a final cross-Canada tour, which includes a stop in Vancouver on July 24.
It seems like Fox’s heroic spirit has manifested itself in another brave Canadian.