After the long weekend, Canadians dragged themselves back to work with heavy hearts, hearing that The Tragically Hip frontman, Gord Downie, has terminal brain cancer.
For a man who’s talked and written about his Canadian love for hockey, it was more than appropriate that the opening montage for Hockey Night in Canada this week paid tribute to Gord Downie:
I’ve been watching musicians and media comment with their personal stories and here are two notes that stood out to me.
My memoir, “Cornered,” was written with the help of Kirstie McLellan Day and published in 2011.
It took three years and 16 drafts to complete. It’s 307 pages. My favourite page is the last one. On the final page we collaborated to say, “When I think about retirement, it usually leads to thoughts of my mortality. We all ponder it, I guess. I tell myself that when the diagnosis comes, I hope I deal with it well.”
After daydreaming through a paragraph about post hockey broadcasting career ideas, I concluded with, “If all else fails, I can always open a little bar attached to a silk screening T-shirt shop on a beach in the Caribbean and call it The Wherewithal. Then we’ll see what happens next.”
“The Wherewithal” is a song by The Tragically Hip. My personal connection to it is the Gord Downie lyric, “I always loved that guy and he’s not on TV anymore. To get out before, he had the wherewithal.”
It was always a self-styled anthem of mine. I adopted those words, and invented a streak of defiance. A puny hope that I’d somehow never be slave to the trappings of my profession. Never “Cornered” by anyone.
“Beer” listening I suppose.
When I awoke to the news that Gord Downie had cancer, and he and The Tragically Hip were about to embark on a summer tour, I thought to myself, “Thank God.”
Gord’s doing what I hope I will do when confronted with such news. He’s playing on. I’m scared because another powerful writer in my life, Nuala O’Faolain of Ireland, did not receive her cancer diagnosis in the same manner.
O’Faolain, who penned two brilliant autobiographies, “Are You Somebody?” and, “Almost There,” said in a stunning interview with Marian Finucane of RTE Radio Ireland in April 2008, when told of her own tumours, “As soon as I knew, the goodness went out of life. It amazed me, Marian, how quickly life turned black.”
As always, Nuala was putting herself out there, and while it was not the message I wanted to hear, I knew it was vital. Nuala did the radiation, but refused chemotherapy. She lost the joy once found in her favourite author, Marcel Proust, and could no longer appreciate nature.
But there was one salvation.
“Music,” she said, “is not gone, but I’m afraid it will if I overdo it.”
She moved to New York City to access live music. She then thanked God that her heart still responded when listening to music. The very essence of the cancer experience is aloneness and I feel a bit guilty writing about Gord’s or Nuala’s plight. But this is death. We are all the same. Schubert’s quartet, “Death and the Maiden” left Nuala elated, and in time, she learned how to say goodbye.
I can place Gord Downie’s music in my lifetime, especially around the rink.
I was with NHL players Cam Russell and Glen Murray after we spun “Phantom Power” for the first time in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I adored the song “Escape Is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man.” Justin Rutledge’s cover of that song was on my car stereo while driving home from Hockey Night in Canada on the May 24 weekend. Buffalo Sabre Darryl Shannon played me his favourite song, “The Luxury,” on the jukebox at Mother’s Restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y.
I was at a hockey banquet in Saint John, New Brunswick and had just stepped out of Vito’s restaurant when I heard “Little Bones” for the first time. It was cranked on the stereo of a car idling at a red light.
Kirk Muller and I were at Air Canada Centre in Toronto as he explained his top concert song was “Locked in the Trunk of the Car.”
Don Cherry and I introduced The Hip for a show at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga. Don was mesmerized by Gord’s stage presence. In 2008 I attended Brad Richards’ Golf Gala in Charlottetown. After a night of listening to “World Container” I got on an early flight to Toronto, drove to Don Cherry’s home near the airport to fetch a few silent auction items and carried on to Elmira, Ontario to play golf and help host the Dan Snyder Memorial Tournament.
I had slept for maybe three or four hours and was in rough shape. I arrived just as the golf began, so organizers whisked me out to the hole where my foursome was set to tee off. I steeled myself to be a good citizen.
Then came a moment of divine intervention.
On a cart coming the other way was Gord Downie. He had that peaceful smile of his, those electric eyes. His kids had painted his toenails with turquoise polish and small daisies. For some reason I immediately recalled how Gord once toyed with the word catharsis in one of his on-stage, non sequiturs, moving swiftly to “my arse is,” and I said to myself, “Ron, even if you are the biggest arse for staying up all of last night, at least the guy you were singing along to, Gord Downie, is actually here. Surely it will be OK.”
And it was.
We raised a lot of coin. And Gord coined a lot. Gord Downie is our William Shakespeare. Will had a 21,000-word vocabulary when most of his contemporaries were working with roughly 2,000.
Gord will be putting himself out there this summer, playing with words, his music at work, demonstrating why he will remain fully and completely in our present forever.
He has the wherewithal.