Tribute: Gord Downie
Gord Downie Tragically Dead at 53, but the Hip’s tune Courage will endure through The Sweet Hereafter, as will the frontman’s legacy for compassion
By Katherine Monk
(October 18, 2017) — The song is stuck in my head. No doubt, there are others stuck in a similar loop of Gord Downie lyrics as they process the loss of the Tragically Hip’s iconic frontman today.
According to the band’s website, Downie passed away last night surrounded by friends and family. He was 53.
Downie succumbed to the brain cancer we learned about last year, after his oncologist held a news conference releasing the terminal diagnosis. Ever since, we’ve been waiting to hear the worst. And ever since, the words to the song Courage have been churning through my head.
Yet, it’s not Downie’s voice I hear — though his gut-clenching vocals are familiar enough to be conjured at will. I hear the whisper of Sarah Polley’s soft soprano from The Sweet Hereafter.
Mychael Danna’s score formed the haunting acoustic landscape, but Courage was the emotional melody behind Atom Egoyan’s throbbing narrative about loss. Polley’s character sings it in a pivotal scene, ushering in a great silence that permeates the film — echoing our sense of impotence against the existential crush.
Polley’s character, Nicole, embodies the very essence of the word courage as she deals with survivor guilt and a debilitating injury in the wake of a school bus crash. The way she sings it, bringing surprising shifts to the chorus and the key, doesn’t just feel true to the character and her headspace, it fleshes out the song’s meaning. Or, more likely, the song’s attempt to reconcile the potential of no meaning at all.
…So there’s no simple explanation
For anything important any of us do
And yeah the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure.
Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it doesn’t matter,
Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Honestly. I’m not sure I really even understand the song at all. And until I looked it up, I didn’t even know the word ‘piss’ was in the lyrics. I think I heard ‘miss’ all these years. But it’s the song that won’t stop playing in my head. It’s part of my hardwiring now, popping up at seemingly random moments until I realize it cued a feeling — something familiar. Quickly familiar.
A mix of melancholy and grace, Courage is the perfect song for a soundtrack. In fact, many of the Hip songs are, yet few were ever used.
Their first film credit is in 1993, for A Man in Uniform, David Wellington’s creepy wannabe cop drama with Tom McCamus. Their appearance on Saturday Night Live followed in ’95, along with an episode of Due South that included At the Hundredth Meridian. Their filmography reads as Canadian as a Mel Hurtig entry, with contributions to Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy, Being Erica, The Movie Out Here, Anne with an E, and Men with Brooms.
Their most recent film credit is their own Long Time Running. The concert film directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier chronicled their final tour across Canada, culminating in two big shows in Toronto and a broadcast farewell from Kingston last summer. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and was slated for broadcast on CTV in November. Today, the network announced it would bump that up to this Friday — giving everyone a chance to see Downie at his best as he contemplated the worst. It’s a stirring portrait of the man and his profound friendships with his bandmates. It’s also a testament to a word that won’t stop peeling through my head, and a song that will probably never leave my soul. Courage. Downie had plenty. It was in his poetry that put feelings into words. Most of all, it was in his epic desire to be human, to be creative, to never diminish our infinite capacity for love.
Photo Above: Gord Downie bids adieu in Long Time Running, airing on CTV Friday.
THE EX-PRESS, October 18, 2017