Gord Downie and Learning How to Die

This blog post has been a 'long time coming.' But I'm not sure it's worth the wait.

For the past two weeks, I've been trying to put my feelings about Gord, the Hip and the End into words. The amount of words required for that endeavour is growing, and yet they still remain inadequate. But before they grow into untimely irrelevance, I want to send them out into the world.

Most of us have a few formative bands that are a permanent fixture in our library through life's transitions. Considering the monumental career of The Tragically Hip in Canada, I am sure they are one of those groups for many. But beyond that, Gord Downie (henceforth simply "Gord") was a unique and critical poet, which meant we could continually reinterpret his lyrics (and famous on-stage monologues) at various points in along our own existential journeys. And now that Gord is gone, people are once again turning to his words to find an answer to how to process his death. This should come as no surprise, as he himself described his lyrics as "user friendly," instructing us thus: "you deal with them -- here they are -- you deal with them." Gord even spent the final months of his life working on his record of relations and mortality, "Introduce Yerself," in which he extends his hand and heart to us as we process the his finitude and death along with him (and maybe learn something of our own in the process). The framework of the record underlies what we all know from endless popular articles detailing the concerns of individuals in the face of death, but, similar to death itself, seems to be opaque and ungraspable: namely, that in the end, it's the relationships we have with others, and the history of those relations, that we will value.

Each song Gord wrote for "Introduce Yerself" was about a person, demonstrating the irreducible nature of the human relations to the essence of a person and their final set considerations. Speaking generally of his children, he explained that "they inspire everything. Everything I do, everything I eat, everything I don't eat. You settle into the fact that you let these kids affect you in their great and positive ways, and that can only affect your work in great and positive ways."  Now I urge you to open whatever music client or app you use, and listen to "Bedtime" -- a song which begins with the words, "I held you, I rocked you to sleep, It'd take a long time, Eventually you'd go" -- from "Introduce Yerself" while you read the rest of this post. Heads up, you should probably grab some tissues.

I always deeply revered how, unlike many popular musicians in the contemporary world, Gord was able to write songs about issues other than his own feelings. Instead of being self-obssessed and repeating catchy lines about personal heartbreak, he instead told stories that could be reinterpreted again and again, the subjects of which were often mistreated and forgotten figures in Canadian history, or broader themes in Canadian culture and geography. He reminded us that art should bring us beyond ourselves into a world shared with others, in which we are pushed to explore interesting and controversial messages and meanings. Indeed, the event of Gord's death seems to have launched a miraculous learning curve for Canadians as we realize how many of the Hip's songs, while wonderfully deceptive with their beautiful chorus lines which pull at our heart strings, actually concern political issues. Those of us who are used to swaying with our best pals as the chorus of "Wheat Kings" flowed from our hearts ("Wheat kings and pretty things, let's just see what tomorrow brings") are now discovering that this song wasn't in fact written about anything we associated with it. It actually concerned David Milgaard, a young man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder at 17. Another example -- "Locked in the Trunk of a Car," a song admittedly less enigmatic in its title -- wasn't about our individual depressions or feelings of being misunderstood and trapped. It rather recounted "the abduction and murder of Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte by the FLQ in 1970."

But if we are to be guided by Gord himself, we shouldn't condemn our positive associations with these songs as disrespectful or ignorant. The artist claimed he concocted different meanings for his songs in the midst of interviews, and that he often blended fact with fiction (as in the above example of 38 Years Old). However we deciphered his songs to fit into our lives, it is indisputable that Gord invited us into other worlds with him -- carried us away with comfort. Even as he died. This gesture towards collective transcendence was often a shared experience at the Hip's live shows. Imagine -- or rather, remember -- a somehow simultaneously energized yet relaxed Gord, enticing us to come along with him, but also recognizing us:  "you know what I'm doing now don't you...I'm in your long grass...I can't find you....I can't find you...Whew, there you are...there you are...of course...of course...there you are...a nice crowd like you...out in the long grass...lazing away the afternoon, staring at the sky, a nice crowd like you, just slippin' out for a little while."

Gord not only facilitated my enjoyment of stream-of-consciousness art at 17 before I was ready for Virigina Woolf and James Joyce, he also recognized me. He recognized me as a kid whose absolute first priority was stopping pucks as an ice hockey goalie (Gord was also a goalie), and his words directly recognized me as a Newfoundlander. The Hip played countless concerts in Newfoundland, and also referenced the province in numerous songs. Every time they would play "Fly" live, I cherished the moment that I could scream NEW-FOUND-LAND! as loud as possible when the moment of recognition finally hit. There's a shock and sadness in thinking I won't have any of those moments any longer. However, there's comfort in knowing Gord and the Tragically Hip's legacy has prompted history teachers and the CBC alike to reconstruct the stories of their songs to teach people about Canada. It is gratifying to click through the CBC's interactive Hip map, knowing that I am learning, together with other Hip-loving Canadians, about the hidden corners and buried stories of the vast land we inhabit together in an uncertain yet peaceful way.

But after Gord's wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and subsequently in the wake of his own cancer diagnosis, the focus of his songwriting seemed to shift. He opened his lyrics to more personal themes (in the case of the former diagnosis, specifically to "fear, impatience, love"), demonstrating his commitment to -- to use his word -- reality. If you've made it this far, turn on Gord's song about his wife, "The Lookahead," which expresses the confidence that she would persevere through the treatment and how much he needed her.

Concerning dying specifically, Gord said something in a recent interview with Peter Mansbridge that stuck with me. He described death as the door. The "door, where you can say 'it's cool man, you can go, everything's cool, don't worry.'" He claimed that he said this to his grandmother, and never forgot it, suggesting he would repeat it to himself upon the appearance of his own door in the months to come. Once again, Gord welcomed us into transcendence with him with that statement, but this time in an immediate, honest, personal and somber context. Nevertheless he always maintained a sense of humour through it all.

It is often said that to philosophize is to learn how to die. This statement has of course been interpreted in countless ways. But, as my friend Saitya Das has made clear, learning how to die does not need to mean learning to master death on the one hand, or abandoning earthly existence with a dogmatic certainty of an either atheist or theist position on the other. Rather, learning how to die can mean learning "how to exist" or, more precisely, how to "accomplish existence." This interpretation is not as nihilistic of a position as it may seem. Rather, Das is clear that it pertains to what he calls an "advent of releasement," which he attaches to concepts such as remembrance, melancholy, hope and mournfulness -- all of which are at least partially captured in language. When we formulate these experiences and the possibilities of the future into words, we, in a sense, extend our presence in the world beyond our own single, finite lives. If there was someone who did this with exquisite linguistic and artistic prowess, it was Gord Downie. And beyond his words, the legacy of Gord's life continues with his lasting work on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada and the "Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund" (on a side note, it is particularly politically salient that this fund provides small grants for grassroots, community-based projects on the issues of truth & reconciliation). In this context, we might also find some solidarity in our grief through the reminder that "in many indigenous cultures, grief is often a collective experience. Through sacred rituals and praise, grief is expressed out loud as a uniting force of remembrance." 

As Gord passed, we were left with the task as Canadians to sensitively work towards reconciliation. He additionally left us with the message to commit to the issues we care about in a publicly. For example, during his final battle, he raised awareness about brain tumors as he dealt with his struggle in the public sphere. Unbeknownst to me prior to writing this post, there is actually a “Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research,” which has now reached $1.8 million. This fund will contribute to the Gord Downie Fellowship in Brain Oncology.

Indeed, Gord gave us the impression that he was ready to die. But at the end of that same Mansbridge interview in which he described the door, he said what scared him most was to leave his ten year old son behind. Gord's deep concern for the future of his children seemed to be the one element of this world of which he wasn't sure he would be able to let go once the door appeared. Not unlike the great philosopher Socrates, whose words also brought hope and comfort to his friends as he was about to die (see The Apology), the multiple interpretations of "learning how to die" mentioned above nevertheless do not free us of the lasting concern for the lives and futures of our children. After reasoning that death is either annihilation (entering a great, "dreamless sleep," which in fact could represent blissful happiness, or at the very least, eternal peace), or a "migration of the soul" to be with the gods, in the last lines of The Apology (the dialogue in which Socrates defends himself against the charges for which he will be put to death), Socrates' preoccupation with the future of his children protrudes:

"When my sons grow up, gentlemen, if you think they are putting money or anything else before goodness, take your revenge by plaguing them as I plagued you; and if they fancy themselves for no reason, you must scold them just as I scolded you, for neglecting the important things and thinking that they are good for something when they do for nothing."

I am thinking of Gord's children as I write this.

A photo I took of Gord as the Hip played in Montreal, 2011