The Summer of Gord Is Upon Us

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that The Tragically Hip will be setting out on the road this summer. Hearing the Hip in the warmer months is as natural and normal as lingering on porches and calling in to work with an exaggerated cough to spend just a few more hours outside while the sun’s shining and the water is calling.

But this tour will be different. We’ll likely be saying our farewells, to the band and its frontman Gord Downie.

Dr. James Perry, a neuro-oncologist with the Odette Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, made it clear Tuesday morning in a press conference that Downie’s cancer, while responding well to treatment, “will come back.” Some day. It could be in a year, it could be in five years, but it’s a terminal diagnosis.

This is the same cancer that felled Sen. Ted Kennedy and Beau Biden, the son of the US vice president, he said, plainly and simply. It doesn’t matter who you are, your status in life or the role you play in society.

What’s particularly cruel is not just that this cancer didn’t start elsewhere in Downie’s body or that it will take him away from his family, including a wife, Laura Usher (herself a breast cancer survivor), and four children,  to say nothing of legions of fans. Downie’s cancer, a glioblastoma, in the left temporal lobe of his bran. That’s a region often associated with language and memory.



But as Perry asserted in Tuesday morning’s press conference, memories are stored in many ways and in various locations across the brain. Each memory is associated through neural networks with other regions and can be accessed in various ways. When asked by a reporter whether Downie is likely to have any trouble remembering the lyrics to songs he’s written over the past 30+ years, Perry seemed confident that, as of today, he’s not concerned Downie will face that challenge any time soon.

Of course, it’s uncertain. But let’s not spend too much time on that worry today.

The good doctor even made a little joke and referenced work on The Hip’s new album, due out next month, which the band’s management says was completed before Downie’s diagnosis. Perry said that Downie’s treatment, which included six weeks of radiation totaling 30 treatments followed by chemotherapy, left him “tired as you-know-what.” One track on the new album is titled “Tired As F**k.”

The response to the news on social media was openly sad and shocked but also full of love, support and admiration for The Hip and Downie, from fans and musicians alike.

A great and more wide-ranging list is available here.

The band is set to announce their tour dates today (Wednesday, May 25) and have promised to stick with Canadian cities.

There’s at least one border town hoping to be granted honourary Canadian inclusion, however.

The Tragically Hip have played shows large and small, venues massive and tiny, in Buffalo, a city that views the band as one of its own.

James Kurdziel, director of content and programming at Cumulus’ 103.3 The Edge in Buffalo, played three Hip songs back to back at the top of his show Tuesday morning. The station, like so many in Canada, peppered more Hip songs into the lineup than usual in light of the news.

The Hip resonated in Buffalo more than other bands because “when other bands were singing about drugs and doing the typical Gen-X things, The Hip sang about Canada, their friends and working hard. Buffalo connected with that,” he says. “They were our secret. They also had real support in Buffalo.”

In 1995, as The Edge took over programming from The Fox and focused more on alternative and newer rock bands, it was “not only the first American station to play them, but the first station to really build itself from The Tragically Hip out,” he adds. “Over time, the ‘Buffalo thing’ happened… Buffalo was their adopted American home and they never forgot.”

The most requested song of the day? “It was simple and thoughtful: ‘Courage.’”

As for Gord Downie himself, the affinity is simple and deep-rooted.

“He’s ‘our guy,” Kurdziel says. “He’s not from here but he belongs to Buffalo in a way. Or maybe it’s that Buffalo belongs to him. Either way, it’s close and it hurts.” He points to Downie’s young age – just 52—and compares the news and the accompanying sadness to the loss of other musicians this year, while somehow this one hurts more, cuts a little deeper, has more weight to it, in Buffalo as in other cities where The Hip have been mainstays for 30 years.

“It makes us feel a bit more helpless,” Kurdziel says. “Suddenly, all of us are 14 again and hearing them for the first time. And now he’s not going to be here and we have to sit here and wait for it to happen. It’s really hard to do that.”

Illustration by Chronicle Herald cartoonist Michael de Adder


In the meantime, in preparation for this summer’s tour, it’s time to brush up on our dancing.


Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

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