Gord Downie's swan song: How he made his final year count
After revealing his cancer diagnosis, Gord Downie didn't just say goodbye to Canadians: He pushed his art and his life to their fullest potential. Brad Wheeler revisits the highlights
On May 24, 2016, it was announced that Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. He died on Tuesday. Over the course of the nearly 17 months in between, the singer-lyricist and poet was stunningly prolific, whether releasing music and performing with the Hip or with others. His swan song was epic – a brilliant, potent and significant curtain call as ever witnessed in Canadian music history, highlighted by his solo album Secret Path, a conceptual album about a First Nations boy who died in 1966.
In the fall of 2016, suffering from the cancer glioblastoma, he performed Secret Path on stage at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. When Downie had originally written the poems adapted as songs for the record, he had not yet fallen ill. And, yet, when he sang on stage, "I'm not gonna stop / I'm just catching my breath," it was hard not to ascribe the protagonist's determination and persistence to Downie himself.
What follows is a timeline of the Kingston, Ont.-bred icon's brilliant flourish of final-act accomplishments.
June 17, 2016: The Tragically Hip's Man Machine Poem
Made with producers Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) and Dave Hamelin (formerly of the Stills), the Tragically Hip's 13th studio album won two Juno Awards and made the long list of nominated records for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize. Art-rock flourishes showed a band interested in new directions and adventurous collaborations. The album, like Downie's solo album Secret Path, was recorded before the cancer diagnosis. There is speculation that the band has plenty of unreleased material in the vault, some of it possibly recorded recently.
July 22 to Aug. 20, 2016: Man Machine Poem Tour
Eleven arena shows captured a country's imagination and were the events of the summer season. His memory ravaged by brain cancer and medical treatments, Downie relied on teleprompters to sing lyrics from songs that covered the group's whole career. Dashing in top hats, flashy coloured suits and a fashion-trending Jaws T-shirt, Downie was less physical but still capable as a front-man. A tour-closing, nation-galvanizing finale in the band's hometown of Kingston was broadcast without commercials on CBC and screened publicly in pubs, drive-in theatres and parks across the country.
Oct. 18, 2016: Secret Path
A concept album based on 10 poems written by Downie about Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who died in 1966 while fleeing a residential school in Northern Ontario. "Chanie haunts me," Downie said in a statement when the project was revealed. "His story is Canada's story." Recorded at the Tragically Hip's Bathhouse Studio in Bath, Ont., the album was part of a project that included a graphic novel of the same name (written by Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire) as well as an animated special that aired on CBC on Oct. 23. The Juno-winning LP was conceived and recorded before Downie's cancer diagnosis, and was listed as one of 10 nominated albums for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize.
Oct. 18 and 21, and Nov. 29: Secret Path in Concert
Downie performed three concerts (with a band that included album producers Drew and Hamelin), at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. The Toronto show was taped for broadcast, airing on CBC this Sunday evening.
Oct. 22, 2016: Dream Serenade
As a surprise participant at the annual benefit concert at Toronto's Massey Hall, Downie performed material from Secret Path.
Feb. 2, 2017: Blue Rodeo at Massey Hall
Downie joined an encore performance of Blue Rodeo's Lost Together.
Sept. 13, 2017: Long Time Running
The film by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier documented the Tragically Hip's 2016 summer tour. Concert footage competes for space with humorous backstage moments and interviews with the band and those in its orbit. The well-received film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is set for broadcast on CTV on Nov. 12. It will be available the following day on CraveTV.
Oct. 27, 2017: Introduce Yerself
"This is my solo record," Downie said in a press statement released a week ago. "Each song is about a person." Downie's sixth solo album of 23 songs was recorded over two four-day sessions in January, 2016, and February, 2017. Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew produced the album and co-wrote a number of the songs. An album trailer shows Downie shuffling through lyrics delicately singing "Hello boys, way up in the North, on the Western side of James Bay."
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