It’s a Good Life
if You Don’t Weaken
Farewell to virtual friend, activist, lyricist, poet and Canadian conscience, Gord Downie
By Wanda Potrykus
In search of a reference from one of the many songs Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip penned over the years, I finally settled on: “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken”. The title is a quote attributed to Canada’s 15th Governor General John Buchan, but it is one that many have made their own in the intervening years, and in their inimitable fashion Gord and the Hip did just that. Their song, written and recorded in 2002, is co-authored by the whole band – Robert Baker, Gordon Downie, Johnny Fay, Joseph Paul Langlois and Robert Gordon Sinclair – but the words will always resonate with me by the way of the rough timbered voice of Gordon Edgar Downie:
When the colour of the night
And all the smoke for one life
Gives way to shaky movements
A forest of whispering speakers
Let’s swear that we will
Get with the times
In a current health to stay
Let’s get friendship right
Get life day to day
In the forget yer skates dream
Full of countervailing woes
In diverse as ever scenes
Proceeding on a need to know
In a face so full of meaning
As to almost make it glow
For for a good life
We just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
Go somewhere we’re needed
Extract – It’s a good life if you don’t weaken – Tragically Hip, 2002
Poignant, prescient words
In some ways, when you review the lyrics of the song extract featured above, and if you didn’t know they were written some 15 years ago, Downie might just have been singing about his life in his last year or so and of that final battle with glioblastoma; a battle we, and he, all knew he was not going to win. It was just a matter of time, and that time ran out this week, on October 17, 2017.
With illusions of some day casting a golden light / No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
Ahead by a Century, Trouble at the Henhouse, Tragically Hip, 1996
Nonetheless, Downie made his last year count in a manner that speaks to the courage and spirit of the man he was. After the public announcement of the cancer diagnosis, he and the band set off on an amazing countrywide tour, culminating in nationally televised concert from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario.
This was followed by the release of one of his most poignant works in October 2016 in the form of a solo album entitled Secret Path, a collection of 10 poems recounting the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young Ojibwe boy who ran away from his residential school and tried to walk home (some 400 miles away) along the railway tracks only to perish in the ill-fated attempt.
Along with the poems that were recorded as songs in November and December 2013 there is an 88-page graphic novel, of the same name, written by Downie and illustrated by award-winning author Jeff Lemire, as well as an animated film inspired by Downie’s words and music and Lemire’s illustrations, with proceeds from sales going to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
Singer hailed for his work highlighting the impact of residential schools in Canada
With many First Nations appreciative of Downie’s efforts on their behalf in highlighting the impact of residential schools in Canada, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) honoured him in a ceremony on December 6, 2016 in Gatineau, Quebec where he was presented with an eagle feather – a gift from the Creator above, a star emblazoned blanket and where he was also given the Lakota spirit name of Wicapi Omani, “He who Walks Among the Stars”, a fitting name indeed for a man not destined to be long for this world.
“Soon, in a few days, a couple of weeks, there’s 150 years that Canada wants to celebrate, and I will personally then celebrate the birth of our country, celebrate the next 150 years. It will take 150 years, or seven generations, to heal the wound of the residential schools,” Downie said after receiving the blanket. He continued, with tears streaming down his face: “To become a country, and to truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever. This is the first day of forever: the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives. Thank you.”
‘To become a country, and to truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one. We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever.’
Downie claimed Secret Path was his ‘best work’ (although many fans might dispute that assertion as songs resonate in different ways with each of us and that is how it should be) but in Downie’s heart it was the culmination of the sort he was seeking in his lifelong fight to give back and make a difference by telling Canada’s stories through his poems and songs and performances.
He illuminated the gritty underbelly of life as well as the truths and triumphs. His songs and stories were extremely personal, about what it is to be a Canadian, about hockey, Canada’s North, small towns, family dynamics, the worker, little guy, along with the maligned and the wrongly convicted… and in Chanie’s case, the 12 year old heartsick indigenous kid, who just wanted to go home, as well as the injustice and cruelty of the residential schools that damaged so many of Canada’s indigenous families and tarnished our national reputation.
These were stories coming from the heart and soul of the man who once admitted in an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge: “I struggled for a long time with expressing the heart aspect, it’s so easy in our business to become maudlin and soppy and I fought hard against that”.
“Chanie was a young boy who died on October 22, 1966, walking the railroad tracks, trying to escape from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School to walk home. Chanie’s home was 400 miles away. He didn’t know that. He didn’t know where it was, nor know how to find it, but, like so many kids – more than anyone will be able to imagine – he tried. I never knew Chanie, the child his teachers misnamed Charlie, but I will always love him.”
“Chanie haunts me. His story is Canada’s story. This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable, but this begins in the late 1800s and goes to 1996. ‘White’ Canada knew – on somebody’s purpose – nothing about this. We weren’t taught it; it was hardly ever mentioned.”
“All of those Governments, and all of those Churches, for all of those years, misused themselves. They hurt many children. They broke up many families. They erased entire communities. It will take seven generations to fix this. Seven. Seven is not arbitrary. This is far from over. Things up north have never been harder. Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are.”
Statement by Gord Downie, Ogoki Post, Ontario, September 9, 2016
Final solo album to be released posthumously
Although the Juno-winning Secret Path album was conceived and recorded before Downie’s cancer diagnosis, it was only released in 2016, and it was listed this year as one of 10 nominated albums for the 2017 Polaris Music Prize. However, it was not his last album. That bittersweet accolade goes to a soon-to-be-released solo album, his fans are eagerly awaiting, entitled Introduce Yerself launched via a tweet Downie sent out on September 29, 2017:
Introduce Yerself is available for pre-order today! CD and Digital is avail Oct 27 & LP avail Dec 1.
– Gord Downie (@gorddownie) September 29, 2017
In a press statement and in the Youtube video trailer, issued at the same time, Downie said: “This is my solo record… Each song is about a person.” For me, those words summed up one of the enduring legacies of Downie – “the man, the machine, the poet” – because it is in the words of the songs, which seem to speak directly to each person who takes the time to listen, or to read the lyrics that so many of the fans identified with, that will ensure Gord Downie will live on in the hearts, minds and consciences of Canadians.
Introduce Yerself, featuring 23 songs, will be Downie’s sixth solo album. It was recorded over two four-day sessions in January 2016, and in February 2017. The album trailer features Downie ruffling through song sheets and a playlist and crooning: “Hello boys, way up in the North, on the Western side of James Bay.” To the last, he directed his attention to all corners of Canada, no matter how remote, places that some of us may never visit but which were to Downie just as important and deserved attention.
His fans, replying to that tweeted announcement and to the Youtube video, were as effusive as ever:
stewart demers @stewartdemers Sep 29
Replying to @gorddownie
Did the purchase today! Can you say Christmas in October? Thanking you Gord!!
Adam See 3 weeks ago
So excited for this!
email@example.com 3 weeks ago
LOVE IT… You are an amazing man “He who dances among the Stars”
watcher 2 weeks ago
“You’re in my Heart” – GD
Rs 225 2 weeks ago
Go gord, a hero for difficult times.
‘Our hearts break on news of the passing of Wicapi Omani, “Walks Among the Stars”, Gord Downie an ally and friend.’
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde
An outpouring of grief for a Canadian icon
Then, once the news broke of his demise, the online world and the radio waves were inundated with tributes to this Canadian rock icon, ranging from ordinary Canadians to rock stars, actors, talk show commentators to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
Nevertheless, if you are in seach of just one, Brad Wheeler of the Globe and Mail newspaper prepared a poignant review of Downie’s last year in words and images he called: Gord Downie’s swan song: How he made his final year count. It’s well worth a click through for both the fan and the curious.
‘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, Globe and Mail, Music section, October 18, 2017
Thanks for the music…
So, Gord, thanks for the poetry, the music, the fun, the laughter, the encouragement and the inspiration to push on through even when the future looks grim. I sincerely hope that you have gone where you are needed and you will find someplace to grow. You will be missed. And Canada needs a new conscience.
‘I’ll be your friend, your last refuge / when things get weird and weird breaks huge.’
Trick Rider, Gord Downie, Coke Machine Glow album, 2001
Condolences to the family, the band, friends, fans and fellow Canadians who are mourning the loss of a man who touched our hearts and told us a good life was possible, and that perhaps we simply need to follow our own secret path:
“For for a good life / We just might have to weaken / And find somewhere to go / Go somewhere we’re needed / Find somewhere to grow.”
Gord did that with the Tragically Hip and through his personal activism, his environmental work with Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, his concern for the health and welfare of Canada’s indigenous peoples, his love of all Canadians and for this huge country of ours. Our country is all the poorer without his inspiration and drive.
RIP RIM GD
(Rest in Peace, Rest In Music, Gord Downie)
Wanda Potrykus is a writer, editor, translator and poet. A graduate of McGill, she has spent most of her career in marketing communications, PR, event and media relations specializing in international aviation, telecommunications, education and the marketing of the arts.