Gord Downie, the lead vocalist and lyricist for Canadian band the Tragically Hip, died Wednesday from terminal brain cancer. Downie led “The Hip” through 14 studio albums, 54 singles and 16 Juno awards. He also released six solo albums and appeared in a number of Canadian films.
Downie’s final performance came as a surprise guest at a Blue Rodeo concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall in Feb. 2017.
Downie’s close friend and Blue Rodeo founding member Jim Cuddy spoke about his fondest memories of Downie, Downie’s commitment to Indigenous rights and his favourite Tragically Hip song, “Bobcaygeon,” in an interview with CTV National News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme.
The following is a transcript of a six-minute interview with Cuddy, slightly abridged and edited for clarity and brevity.
LaFlamme: Jim it is such a sad day for this country. So poignant that his final performance was with you on stage.
Cuddy: I don’t think I realized that was his final performance, but Gord was always-- I think that you know from the Hip’s reputation that they, all of those guys, are super generous, super lovely human beings, very respectful of all other musicians. Gord would show up at gigs here and there or we would play together and it was always a good hang because we go right back to the beginning. I remember seeing them at the Crazy Horse in Halifax when we were at the Misty Moon so it’s pretty much the launching pad of most careers in Canada.
So, the influence is just that we were fellow travellers on this path and that he was resolutely himself and that was reinforcing for other bands that operated like that too. Plus, since he got sick, he was such a love man. He would kiss you on the lips and tell you such lovely things and I don’t know if you’ve seen the clip where he’s playing with us at Massey Hall, but I go back to him because I know he doesn’t know the song and I say ‘I’ll guide you through it,” and he starts saying such complimentary and beautiful things to me that I kind of lose my way in the song a little bit too and that’s who he was. That’s who he chose to be, that’s what came forward when he got this terrible diagnosis.
“Resolutely himself” is a great way to put it. In one of his songs he has this line -- always resonated with me and so many others -- he sang: “Let’s get friendship right.” How did he bring that line to life?
Cuddy: It started off from a fairly intimate level with Gord. You could do small talk, but it was also meaningful small talk. I would say that more often than not in the last six months, I would just text him, he would be on the road and I would say, ‘Look, we’re thinking about you,’ and he would text me something back that would be a little 10- or 12-word text that I would think about for a couple days. And he was a very intimate comrade and he was like that with everybody -- I am one of many, many friends that he had but obviously there was a general concern about Gord and just this outpouring of love. And I think that that made everyone in the music community really proud that we had somehow gotten to this stage where we were making our living from music, but more importantly we’re all operating on a decent and loving level and Gord was a big part of that.
It was so much more than music though. His advocacy work became really part of his legacy. His impact on Canada was so profound -- right to our roots.
Cuddy: Well, you’d have to think in the last 10 years, musicians have lost their political teeth because they’re not really influencing any elections anymore. But in terms of activism, Gord started a conversation that had been dormant for a long time. I think everybody knew about residential schools, but they felt it was part of the past and Gord brought that up again and realized that those are wounds that are not healed yet in this country and I know he didn’t do it single handedly, and I know his close circle of friends and brothers helped him do it, but I think he started a conversation that will stay around for a long time and will have a huge impact on how those two cultures -- the Indigenous culture and the invading culture -- get along for the next 50 years.
And for the next few hours, at the end of this long day, is there one song you will turn up to volume 11 in his honour?
Cuddy: (Laughs) You know, I would probably listen to his latest solo record, but I love the song “Bobcaygeon” and I used to bring up to Gord that I didn’t understand the timeline, I don’t understand how you’re leaving the house a little after nine and you’ve seen the constellations reveal themselves and he would never answer, he would just laugh and it took me a long time to realize he’s reminiscing in the song, he’s talking about another time. So, probably because that means something to me about him and his response to it all, I’ll play “Bobcaygeon.” I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m ready to do any of that.
Good point. Such a poet and a genuinely profound loss. Jim Cuddy, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this sad day.
Cuddy: Thanks Lisa. Bye.