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Gord Downie, a distinctly Canadian rock star, dies at 53

Gord Downie, a distinctly Canadian rock star, dies at 53

Band announces death on its website
Gord Downie, a distinctly Canadian rock star, dies at 53
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip.
Photographer: The Los Angeles Times

Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip and one of Canada’s most revered rock stars, died Tuesday in Toronto. He was 53 and had announced last year that he had terminal brain cancer.

The band announced the death on its website. Downie had recently been working on a solo album, “Introduce Yerself,” scheduled to be released Oct. 27.

“Every Canadian musician just lost their cooler older brother,” the members of Barenaked Ladies, another Canadian rock group, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

The Hip, as the band was generally called, started as a bar band in the 1980s but grew into a phenomenon, fueled by Downie’s lyrics, which were full of Canadian history and culture. “Fifty Mission Cap” involves a hockey player, Bill Barilko of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who died in a plane crash. “Wheat Kings” references David Milgaard, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a nurse in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

“Gord and the Tragically Hip are an inevitable and essential part of what we are and who we are as a country,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on the occasion of a tour by the band last year. The final show of that tour, in August in Kingston, Ontario, the band’s home base, turned into a national event.

Gordon Edgar Downie was born on Feb. 6, 1964, to Edgar and Lorna Downie and grew up in Amherstview, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Ontario. He was a student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in the mid-'80s when he formed the Hip with the guitarist Rob Baker, the bassist Gord Sinclair, the percussionist Johnny Fay and the saxophonist Davis Manning (who was replaced in 1986 by Paul Langlois).

“We began as a university party band, doing Stones covers,” Sinclair once recounted in an interview. “We’d do it for fun and play for free beer.”

The band would go on to record more than a dozen albums, beginning with “Up to Here” in 1989. Its latest, “Man Machine Poem,” was released last year. Downie also pursued solo projects, beginning with “Coke Machine Glow” in 2001. “Introduce Yerself” is his sixth solo album.

Reviewing a 1998 New York performance by the Tragically Hip, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote that the group “harks back to 1960s rock, building songs on guitar riffs that look back to the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Neil Young and the blues.” Downie’s lyrics, he wrote, “are about endless varieties of disillusionment.”

Among Downie’s most recent efforts was “Secret Path,” a multimedia project — including an album, a graphic novel by Downie and Jeff Lemire, and an animated film — based on the true story of an indigenous boy who died of exposure after running away from a residential school in northern Ontario and trying to make his way 400 miles back to his home. Downie was concerned about his country’s reluctance to deal with its past and its treatment of its indigenous peoples.

“His story is Canada’s story,” he said of the boy, Chanie Wenjack. “This is about Canada. We are not the country we thought we were.”

Environmentalism was another cause Downie championed, through work with organizations like Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, on whose board he served. And, since last year, his causes had included the one that affected him personally: The Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research was established at the time he announced his diagnosis.

Downie is survived by his wife, Laura Leigh Usher, from whom he was separated; four children; his mother; two brothers; and two sisters.

In an interview last year, Downie expressed frustration with not being able to remember names and lyrics because of his illness, but he also showed that he could joke about it. He said that both he and the Hip were still working on new material and had some in the can.

“So we could hear more from the Hip?” he was asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “to the point where it would be like, ‘Jesus, is that guy not dead yet?’ Canadians can be funny.”

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