The House of Gord
Like many, I’ve spent the last few days thinking about Gord Downie, and all that’s happened since he went public with his diagnosis in 2016. I wish I’d taken the time to write down my thoughts back then. I didn’t. Now that he’s gone—now that the public journey he chose to take is over, and everyone is again sharing stories about how much Gord and the Tragically Hip meant to them—it feels like something I need to do. To honour his memory, but also to acknowledge how important he was to me, not just as an icon, but in terms of the roof over my head.
My Gord story starts the way I’m sure Gord stories start for a lot of Canadian kids who came of age in the 1990s. I first caught onto the Hip through near-constant radio play on my rock station of choice, 97.7 HTZ FM. At first, the band confused me. What was that voice? Why so warbly? Wasn’t it a little gross to sing about buttery cue fingers and eating chicken slow? But as the depth of even the band’s early material emerged and I started paying close attention to the lyrics in songs like “Cordelia” and “Three Pistols,” I discovered that there were little treats in there for me, references to Tom Thomson and Shakespeare. Having chosen to attend a high school where I knew almost no one, it was convenient that a lot of people around me liked them, too.
Around grade ten, I started hanging out with a new group of friends, one of whom had a cottage that served as a kind of secular temple for us—a place to worship the lake and root one’s identity as a good Canadian, eh? I spent many weekends driving up to the place, which was near Apsley, Ontario. (The drive would sometimes take us past Bobcaygeon.) The typical crowd at the cottage was made up of a lot of older guys, my friend’s brother’s buddies. I was often the youngest guy there, barely qualifying as an accepted member of a club that had its own code of cottage rules. I was an “artsy” kid. I didn’t have a lot in common with the athletic dudes whose particular version of masculinity was centred on competitive waterskiing, Labatt 50 and ridiculous hoser nicknames. But we all, of course, loved the Hip. (OK, I liked the 50, too.) No matter how awkward I felt at times, it was always possible to find common ground talking about “Gordie”. Already, we were on a first name basis with him—an illustration of what Justin Trudeau mentioned in his tearful tribute: “Gord was everyone’s friend.” He wasn’t just a musician. He was a pal who spoke to us through his songs, a unifier, a campfire sage, a sonic necessity on humid summer nights on the deck with cold beers in hand, “Boots or Hearts” playing somewhere in the background behind buzzing mosquitoes. I never felt like a full part of that cottage group, but it was okay, because Gord was a poet who sang about painters and novelists, and he fit just fine. He was my foothold, my promise that you could be a good Canadian kid and an artist, too. When I had to choose an ambition to list in my high school yearbook, I chose a quote from Gord Downie: “bring on the brand new Renaissance.”
When I finished high school, I went to Queen’s University in Kingston, which was also, of course, part of the Hip’s mythology. The band haunted that town. But, at that time, there was an air of disappointment on campus: word had it that Gord had moved to Toronto. You might see some of the other band members around (Bobby Baker, especially, with the hair) but you were unlikely to run into Gord. My friends and I had to content ourselves driving out to Kanata one night to see a show on the Hip’s Trouble at the Henhouse tour—the only show of theirs I ever caught, which seems like such a treasure now.
Like I said, that’s probably a pretty typical experience for a lot of kids at the time. It’s the second part of my Gord Downie story that, in light of his death, has been so shattering to me—both because it happened at all, and because of how much I wish I’d valued it more at the time.
After university, I moved to Toronto myself, and moved away from the Hip, too. I bought Music at Work on CD, but that was the last one. There was a lot of other music I was interested in, and the Hip seemed like a fading preoccupation, Gord more and more of an eccentric. Coke Machine Glow, his first solo album, confused me. Was it a book? A record? Orange and pink?
Eventually, I found myself getting into a career in screen media. With a couple friends from Queen’s, I ran a website called FilmCAN, where the idea was to explore our takes on Canadian cinema. One day, through some talks we had on Toronto Island, some others in Montreal, we got to thinking how it would be great to try and make a series of films with our favourite Canadian musicians and filmmakers, by taking them out to work in nature—specifically in national parks. We took the idea to Parks Canada, who were interested in the project as a way to mark their centennial. Eventually, they committed to supporting it, and contributed a sum of money that, at the time, was astronomical to me. The National Parks Project was born.
Still, the Parks Canada money wasn’t enough to do the whole project. So we opted to look for broadcasters who might be interested. We went to Discovery, and, on their advice, partnered with an experienced production company, Primitive Entertainment, to develop the idea into something that would be a good fit for their network—something more like “factual TV” than straight-up nature films. As is the case with these things, they wanted a recognizable narrator. So, who do you look at when searching for the quintessential Canadian voice? Gordon Pinsent? Maybe for our parents. The choice for us was clear. If we wanted an iconic Canadian storyteller, someone millions of Canadians identified with both music and nature, we had to have Gord Downie.
We’d already approached Gord in a different context, as one of the featured musicians. He was interested. But, being Gord, he wanted to do something a bit different. He said he’d like to take a poet and a dancer up north. We were intrigued, but also inexperienced, nervous and stuck on our format. So we turned him down, because “that wasn’t the idea.” That’s right—we said no to Gord Downie. I remember one of our producing partners, an old-school Canadian doc-maker, being flabbergasted. “You don’t say no to a guy like Gord Downie,” he told us, shaking his head. But we did.
Mind-blowingly, when we asked Gord to narrate the show anyway—which, by then, had been established as thirteen half-hour TV episodes, documenting the creative process of our 52 chosen participants—he agreed. It was a huge get, which helped lock our deal with Discovery and made the project happen. Great news!
Except, here’s the thing: Gord wasn’t going to write the narration for the thirteen episodes. I was. Holy shit.
So it was that in the second half of 2010, I found myself gearing up to write scripts that Gord Downie would read, and to help direct the recording sessions that would take place at The Dark Studio on Dupont Street—a small space, where I’d be face-to-face with this outsized legend of Canadian music. I remember telling my wife, “High School Me would never believe this.” It was a way to deflect the truth, which was that my adult self, despite not having lost track of the Hip, was also completely bowled over that this was going to happen.
When the time came to do the sessions, and I finally met Gord, the first thing that struck me was how tall he was. The second, how quiet. Here was the guy who’d towered over my formative years as a music fan, writer and Canadian, standing in a room, snacking on croissants, getting ready to read a bunch of words I’d written. Over a few sessions, we recorded scripts for the thirteen episodes. Occasionally, Gord would stumble over a word (“Kouchibouguac”) or an awkward phrase, and we’d simplify. His voice was deep and warm. He wore glasses and a toque in the recording booth. When we were done, he got into his station wagon to drive home.
I think it was a station wagon, anyhow. I wish I remembered more specifics from those sessions. I remember him saying to me, once, that I’d done a good job—“That’s a lot of words.” I remember him telling my producing partners and me that we’d “really done something,” that people had been trying for years to make a project like this work. It was huge, knowing something in what we’d done had impressed Gord Downie.
But the truth is, Gord didn’t say much else about what he thought of the show or of my writing. And that’s the thing that, in retrospect, is so staggering to me. Here was Gord Downie—already enshrined as the philosopher-poet of Canada, the country’s most popular bard fronting the country’s most popular band—helping a bunch of green, idealistic producers make their dream happen, by showing up and doing the work. There was no ego in it. None. Gord, who loved words and knew how to write them in ways that could move millions, could easily have come in and asked me to rewrite whole scripts. He could have said, “This isn’t my voice.” He could have done the show on the condition that someone he knew and trusted wrote for him. Instead, he came to the studio, shook our hands and went about elevating everyone else’s work. He was like a monk, sitting in the glow of the recording booth, looking out through the glass at a screen showing images of mountains and canyons and lakes, pouring the warm smoke and soul of his voice into the microphone, adding weight and depth to my lines.
I thought the other night about how, when we talk about “making space,” this is what we mean. The ability to bring a presence to the room, even one as formidable as Gord Downie’s, and use it to draw out the best in everyone there. To speak in actions, and to be kind and warm in essence. To allow others to be themselves. It’s what Gord did in that recording studio, but also what he did on stage, when thousands of people would look at him and grin and think, “My buddy Gord.”
After the National Parks Project came out in 2011, I was able to buy a house. It’s a semi on Lansdowne, in the Wallace-Emerson area. It’s not too far from the Dark Studio, where my high school hero did me the honour of reading my words, the first stuff I’d ever done for TV, dozens of pages of worked-over lines about places like the South Nahanni River, Gwaii Haanas, the Tablelands of Gros Morne—lines that aimed at, but couldn’t even begin to approach the mystery and heart of Gord’s own words, which had been so crucial in making me want to write in the first place.
So, as artists go, the one who’s had the biggest impact on my life by a long shot is Gord Downie. In high school, Gord gave me friends, and dreams of what I might be. In university, he gave me an enduring myth and a model for how to be a poet in jeans. As an adult, I live in a house that I literally could never have bought without Gord Downie, in that his participation helped sell the NPP and the money I earned on it went into my down payment.
It strikes me as an apt metaphor. In a sense, so many of us live in a house that Gord built. He gave us a blueprint for our identities, a map with place markers for the tangled lines in us that are supposed to make up “Canadian.” Gordie was at all the dock parties, all the hockey games, all the backyard barbeques, all the club shows, all the poetry readings. In Canada, in a roomful of hundreds, there’s probably always someone in the room singing a Hip song in the back of their head.
It’s also the reason the final phase of Gord’s work, his legacy project, is so astonishing and humbling in its generosity. When he spoke about Indigenous rights, at the final Hip concert in Kingston and with his Secret Path project telling story of Chanie Wenjack, he did it knowing how many people lived in houses he’d helped build. He knew how many people that message would reach, and what it would mean, coming from him, even if it shook the foundations of those houses.
I wish I’d sent these thoughts to Gord before he died, even if they never got to him. That’s on me—I never saw him again after the recording sessions, and when they announced his diagnosis, I figured he’d have more than enough people getting in touch, people he was close with. Now, I keep reading that one of the things about Gord was that he remembered everyone. Of course he did. It breaks my heart, that I didn’t take my chance to tell him he’s the only artist my life would look completely different without. But a lot of us have broken hearts right now.
One of my favourite Hip lyrics is from a song that doesn’t usually get featured in the greatest hits. It’s from “Thugs,” track 8 on Day for Night, my favourite Hip record. I’ve never known why I love it so much. But maybe it’s because of everything it says, and everything it doesn’t.
“I do the rolling, you do the detail.”