Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wept openly last Tuesday, while commenting the death of Gord Downie at the age of 53. With the possible exception of Barack Obama, can you imagine any other political leader, past or present, for whom the passing of a rock singer would invoke such a vivid, naked show genuine grief? 'Our buddy Gord' he said, '.....loved this country with everything he had and not just loved it in a nebulous, 'Oh, I love Canada' way. He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.'
In addition to fronting The Tragically Hip for over 30 years, Gord released 5 solo albums and had long been heavily involved in environmental movements and indigenous affairs. He was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive brain tumour at the end of 2015, made his diagnoses public in in May 2016 and performed an emotional farewell tour of Canada with The Hip through the Summer of that year. In spite of his poor health Downie stayed busy, making a film, co-authoring a graphic novel and recording a final solo LP, 'Introduce Yerself', produced by Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, which is scheduled for release next week.
I was very fortunate to see The Tragically Hip several times during the 1990s, in a series of much smaller venues than they would have been used to playing back at home. If you weren't paying attention, you might be forgiven for thinking that they were just another, very good, rock band, but take a closer listen to Downie's lyrics, which often tackle subjects not typically associated with rock music. 'Courage', for example, draws inspiration from Hugh MacLennan's 1959 novel 'The Watch That Ends the Night', 'Three Pistols' looks at the life and mysterious death of the early 20th century artist Tom Thompson and 'Fifty Mission Cap' concerns the 1951 disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey player Bill Barilko, whose mortal remains lay undiscovered in dense woods for 11 years.
'Ahead by a Century', on the other hand, is a somewhat more straightforward tale of youthful romance and innocence lost.