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'We should all aspire to be like him': Haligonians mourn the passing of Gord Downie

'He died far too young, and he had so much more to give,' said Mike Campbell
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Tragically Hip backstage passes, concert ticket stubs and other memorabilia collected by Kirk Lahey. (photo contributed)

It's been a rough few weeks for local music expert Mike Campbell.

Earlier this month, we lost Tom Petty, Campbell's favourite musician, and now he's dealing with the death of Canadian music icon Gord Downie.

"He died far too young, and he had so much more to give," said Campbell.

The beloved Tragically Hip frontman died at the age of 53 after being diagnosed with an incurable brain cancer.

Campbell, a former MuchMusic VJ, interviewed the Hip several times and described Downie as a caring and down-to-earth person.

"As a human being, he was exactly what you'd hope and expect him to be, except he was a lot smarter and a lot funnier than virtually everybody else," he said.

Over the years, the band has ingrained themselves into Canadian culture, their music becoming the soundtrack for our road trips, parties and camping weekends.

"They united the country in a way that no other has, specifically because he had such great love for the country," he said.

"He didn't just write about how beautiful and wonderful it is, he wrote about the warts, and I think as Canadians, sometimes we forget about that."

Downie devoted his last years highlighting Indigenous issues, which Campbell said is a huge part of who he was.

"I don't see anybody who is going to step in and be the next Gord Downie, there's no such thing," said Campbell. "We'll never see anyone like him again."

'Truly inspirational and quite iconic'

There aren't many Canadians who have seen the Tragically Hip in concert more times than Halifax's own Dr. John Gillis.

He's been to around 80 shows all across North America, from huge arenas in southern Ontario, to an 800 person venue in San Francisco.

He also caught the Hip three times during their 15-date high-demand Man Machine Poem tour, which hit the road shortly after it was announced Downie had been diagnosed with glioblastoma.

Gillis' own father died of the same type of brain cancer that took Downie's life.

"My father was older and got very frail and weak pretty quickly," said Gillis. "Gord went on the road and toured for his bandmates, his fans, the country even, and made a significant impact in the fight for social justice for our Indigenous population."

The last time Gillis saw him perform live was when Downie brought his Secret Path project to the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium last November, the album honours 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont.

The next day Downie made a surprise appearance at WE Day Atlantic Canada, taking to the stage at the Scotiabank Centre to sing  "The Stranger," it would be one of his last public live performances.

Gillis said the Hip has a unique way of crossing all demographics, with a fan base that ranges from teenagers to retirees.

"People say he was a poet, but there was such a complexity in what he would write about and what he would say, often coupled with references to people's lives, their humanity, sometimes negative dark things, sometimes positive things, and almost always tied back to Canadiana," he said. 

"If you wanted to dance, if you wanted to jump, if you wanted to sit around and feel sorry for yourself, it was all of the above."

That night in New Brunswick over a Scrabble board game

Kirk Lahey of Universal Music Canada is a big fan of the Tragically Hip and has had the pleasure of working with the band on several occasions.

The first time was in the mid-90s when he headed to a hotel in Saint John for a media promotion.

Lahey said late one evening he ended up playing Scrabble with Gord Downie.

"He made these great long words, and I would come in with a word like 'fox' and get 90 points on a triple word score," he said. "I ended up beating him."

Lahey said every time they came to town, it was like seeing old friends.

"I'm going to miss not doing any more Tragically Hip tours."

New Downie music expected next week

Gord Downie didn't let his diagnosis stop him from making music, his new solo project comes out next week.

The 23-track double-album was recorded over two four-day sessions in January 2016 and February 2017.

"This is my solo record, each song is about a person," said Downie in a promotional video.

'Introduce Yerself' will be released October 27th.


Meghan Groff

About the Author: Meghan Groff

Born in Michigan, raised in Ontario, schooled in Indiana and lives in Nova Scotia; Meghan is the editor for CityNews Halifax.
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