As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Gordon Edgar Downie, poet, lyricist and front-man for The Tragically Hip, has died. How much can I add? What can I say that might even be relevant?
His sense of Canadian wasn’t nationalistic, but openly inclusive, passionate, critical and uniquely lyric. There was a generosity and attentiveness to him that was quite remarkable. He worked to make us better, more aware and closer to each other.
Christine and I watched that final show on the CBC last year and were transfixed, in awe of what the Hip had accomplished over their tenure, and amazed at how CBC was aware enough to capture such an important cultural moment, both live and commercial-free.
The summer after the publication of his poetry collection, Coke Machine Glow (2001), he came through Ottawa to finally launch the book at an event hosted by the ottawa international writers festival. He opened his reading to an audience of some three hundred plus to a poem of mine, from my collection bagne: or Criteria for Heaven (Broken Jaw Press, 2001). I was floored.
Apparently at the Ottawa Book Awards ceremony the other night, Sean Wilson mentioned the look on my face as this happened. I can’t even imagine, or recall. I know throughout the reading, Gord read poems by four other poets: David O’Meara, Karen Solie, Al Purdy and Elizabeth Bishop. I hope I’m remembering that correctly. The on-stage interview was conducted by Ken Babstock.
I was already aware of a recommendation he’d made, via the Chapters.ca website (a post long disappeared). He’d been asked to recommend other first poetry titles by Canadian titles, and mentioned my first collection alongside first collections by Paul Vermeersch and, I think, Babstock and Solie as well (the list is hazy now in my recollections).
Prior to the event, as Sean and I stood in the National Archives, we spotted Neil Wilson and Gord Downie walking toward us from the entranceway, Gord holding up a copy of my book as they approached. How, I asked myself, was this happening?
After the reading, we walked with Gord into the Byward Market for drinks, and some of us took turns wearing his jean jacket; like teenagers. He seemed amused by us.
The following night, he’d left tickets for a number of us for the Blues Festival show the Hip were doing. I took my daughter Kate, and we ended up in the V.I.P. section, where she was able to meet opening performer Sarah Harmer. Kate and I walked home on air, stopping for pizza on Bank Street around midnight (the first we’d walked more than half a block without my preteen child complaining I needed a car).
It was a baffling generosity by a man who clearly had an enormous amount of time, attention and energy for everyone around him. He made things better wherever he went, and as much as he could, including, even in the months following his diagnosis, giving an incredible amount of attention to helping others.
The likes of him will not be soon this way again. Godspeed, Mr. Downie. You will be missed.