Goodbye, Gordon Downie

I worked as a record label intern briefly in 1989. It was a job that was pretty dependent on being personable and that has never been a thing I’ve felt very comfortable being. Still, for six months, it was not a bad gig. The stores I dealt with were big fans of mine because I couldn’t bring myself to push things I didn’t like, so my calls were pretty short, and I would send them cool label things whenever I had something. Every now and then, there’d be a record I genuinely fell in love with and I would make a genuine effort to get my stores to promote it (I still feel like I should have gotten a gold record for Michael Penn’s March), but otherwise, I really was terrible at the job.

In autumn of that year, the label sent all of their unpaid interns on a trip to the New Music Seminar in New York. It was essentially a convention for the college music arm of the labels; lots of showcases and meetings and panels. It was a headier atmosphere than unpaid interns usually got to experience. We had lunch with Peter Murphy (terribly nice, he sat with the interns instead of the label bosses and asked us questions about what we did). I met Michael Penn (no interesting story to tell, but I was a fan). I had my picture taken with Margo Timmins (so tiny!). I shook Lou Reed’s hand (ask me to do my impersonation of the moment, sometime). But the most amazing moment of the trip, far and above anything else, was seeing the Tragically Hip live.

I don’t remember the name of the club. It was somewhere in Alphabet City, which in ‘89 was still pretty scary. We only went because one of our label’s new acts, a Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano player, was headlining. Opening was a Canadian band I’d never heard of. One of the other interns told me they’d initially been signed by our label but then dropped and signed by MCA. I had no expectations. I was, in fact, too busy pining for my fellow Atlanta intern and trying to craft ways to make sure she didn’t fall for our way-too-cool-multiple-wristband-wearing LA-based compatriot.

The club was dim and smoky, oddly laid out with the stage against the long wall. There were small round tables with hoop-backed metal chairs. The bar was behind the tables, opposite the stage, and to the right. I remember these things. I remember them because I saw the best show I’ve ever seen, that night. It was the best show I’ve ever seen because of Gord Downie.

They shot a movie once, in my hometown
Everybody was in it, from miles around
Out at the speedway, some kind of Elvis thing
Well I ain’t no movie star
But I can get behind anything
Yeah I can get behind anything
…he sang, and the band kicked in. Tight, loud, but nothing that particularly stood out. They knew what they were doing and they played it well, but it wasn’t especially my thing. But that singer… what the hell is going on there? Gord prowled the stage like a maniac, his hands gesticulating as he sang like he was trying to convey a second, secret language. “He’s thirty-eight years old… never kissed a girl,” he sang, and my heart was breaking, even though I couldn’t make out enough of the lyrics in the mix to tell how that thirty-eight-year-old ended up that way. But Gord pushed on anyway, stomping and stabbing the air, alternately boxing and dancing with his microphone stand, bursting into one random, poetic diatribe after another, sometimes in between songs, sometimes during songs. He seemed like a conduit for something bigger, full of so many thoughts and words that he couldn’t contain them all. If he stuck to the simple structure, he would simply burst.

I’d never seen anything like it. I would again, but he would always be at the center of it.

After the show, I knew I was going to tell him how blown away I had been, not a thing I ever did. I found him at the bar, talking to Michael Hutchence. I think I shook Michael’s hand, too, but I really have no idea. All I cared about was telling Gord what he’d just done to my brain and how my label had been idiots to let them go. But even then, I didn’t have any idea of the kind of influence he would have on me.

I bought their record the day I was back in Atlanta. I bought every subsequent release. I saw them live a few more times, on their not-frequent-enough visits to the US, where they never quite broke. Every time I saw them live it was an experience. It was impossible to know what he’d give you for any given show, but he always owned the stage. He always owned the crowd. The Hip grew as a band, their music a little more adventurous, but the focus for me was always Gord. As a lyricist, as a poet, he was incredible. He is solely responsible for more lyrics that left me envious than any other writer I know.

Sled dogs after dinner / Close their eyes on the howlin’ wastes
Kurt Cobain, reincarnated, / sighs and licks his face

Somehow where democracy / is how we all learn to sleep
with ourselves, drawing to ourselves / everything we can carry

Everyone’s got their breaking point / With me, it’s spiders
With you, it’s me / Thugs in perpetuity

All things being balanced / it’s balanced and called balancing
somewhere beyond everything / It’s being balanced
not for the sake of balance / but balancing between the throes
of learning and the entire thing / entirely balancing

I could do this for hours.

But it was onstage… onstage was where he ascended. I tried to play the Hip for a lot of people, very rarely would it connect with anyone. Anytime I took someone to a show, they fell in love. The same way I did. He knew a dark, secret magic I could never understand. When he sang live, my chest would expand.

I love you, Gord. For all that you did, for all that you were. Something of you will always be in everything I do musically.

We’re all richer for having seen you in this life.

Leave a Reply