Obituaries

Gord Downie, 53, lead singer of Canada’s beloved Tragically Hip

Mr. Downie was described as his nation’s unofficial poet laureate.
Canadian Press via AP/file 2016
Mr. Downie was described as his nation’s unofficial poet laureate.

WASHINGTON — Gord Downie, the frontman and lyricist for the Canadian rock group the Tragically Hip — whose songs about that country’s small towns, hockey heroes, and frontier history made the band a source of national pride and devotion for more than two decades — died Oct. 17. He was 53.

The cause was complications from brain cancer, according to a statement on the band’s website. Mr. Downie revealed his diagnosis last year through a message on the Tragically Hip’s website.

To the groups’s fervent admirers, Mr. Downie and his band were as closely linked to Canada as the Beatles are to England or the U2 singer Bono is to Ireland. In the months after he disclosed that he had cancer, music writers described him as his nation’s unofficial poet laureate, a rock ’n’ roll bard who spoke to blue-collar workers and urban intellectuals alike.

Advertisement

His final show with the Hip, as the band is known to fans, was broadcast live in August to an audience of millions and attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

An emotional Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wept in Parliament Wednesday while talking about Mr. Downie on national television in a statement to reporters.

‘‘We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it. We all knew it was coming but we hoped it wasn’t,’’ said Trudeau, his voice breaking. ‘‘I thought I was going to make it through this but I’m not. It hurts.”

Formed in 1984 by five high school friends from Kingston, Ontario, the Tragically Hip mixed guitar-heavy classic rock with elements of blues and country, establishing an alternative-rock sound that drew comparisons to R.E.M. and the Black Crowes.

The group won 14 Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, and sold more than 8 million records. Nine of their 13 studio albums topped the Canadian charts, and their two No. 1 singles — the 1996 coming-of-age song ‘‘Ahead by a Century’’ and jangling 2006 pop hit ‘‘In View’’ — have become radio standards in Canada.

Advertisement

Unlike Canadian rock exports such as Rush, Nickelback, and Arcade Fire, the Hip never managed to break through in the United States. The closest they came was in 1995, when the Ontario-born comedian Dan Aykroyd brought them on ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ to perform songs from their fourth album, the somber ‘‘Day for Night.’’ (The album still failed to crack the top 100 in the United States.)

Perhaps it was because so much of their music was colored by maple-leaf imagery — references to hockey or, in at least one song by Downie, the beloved Canadian fast-food chain Tim Hortons. Or perhaps, as Mr. Downie and his bandmates sometimes suggested, US music publications such as Rolling Stone just chose to ignore a band that was so Canadian it featured two members named Gord.

Gordon Edgar Downie was born in Amherstview, Ontario, a Kingston suburb, on Feb. 6, 1964. His father sold real estate with Mr. Downie’s godfather, Harry Sinden, a semipro hockey player who later coached the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup.

While in high school, Mr. Downie sang in a punk group before falling in with his blues-loving classmates Sinclair and guitarist Rob Baker.

The Tragically Hip — named after a sketch in ‘‘Elephant Parts,’’ a 1981 collection of comedy and music videos by former Monkees member Michael Nesmith — was formed as a cover band while all three attended Queen’s University in Kingston. Downie graduated in 1986.

Advertisement

The Hip, which also included guitarist Paul Langlois and drummer Johnny Fay, built a following through its energetic live performances. Mr. Downie played the role of ringmaster, dancing across the stage and improvising monologues in the middle of songs.

The group’s debut album, ‘‘Up to Here’’ (1989), sold well in Canada, aided by the popular blues-rock anthems ‘‘Blow at High Dough’’ and ‘‘New Orleans Is Sinking.’’ Two years later, ‘‘Road Apples’’ topped the Canadian charts.

In recent years, Mr. Downie maintained that he was less a rock star than a poet — or, to be more precise, ‘‘a goalie/poet or a hotel guest/poet or a father/poet,’’ as he told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2001. He cited the short story master Raymond Carver and poet Wallace Stevens as influences, and in 2001 he released a book of poetry, ‘‘Coke Machine Glow,’’ alongside a well-received solo album of the same name.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.