Gord Downie is gone. Gord Downie will all the time be right here. There’s a brand new solo album, Away Is Mine, which is able to come out this month—three years much less a day after he died of mind most cancers on Oct. 17, 2017. It’s not the final we’ll hear from him, however it’s the very last thing he did; it was recorded with the Skydiggers’ Josh Finlayson a mere three months earlier than Downie’s demise.
Although Downie turned extra well-known in 2016-17 than he had been throughout his 30 years fronting the Tragically Hip, many followers don’t notice simply how productive Downie was in these closing two years of his life, post-diagnosis. There was the Hip tour in the summertime of 2016, clearly. There was a small collection of exhibits that fall to advertise his Secret Path mission. And there was the elegiac, piano-driven document he made with Kevin Drew, Introduce Yerself: an idea album by which he wrote a collection of affection letters to household and shut pals (and one to Lake Ontario). It was launched per week after he died. Many followers discovered it too uncooked to take heed to on the time. Many thought of it an epitaph.
However Downie had additionally made new recordings with eclectic Toronto roots-rock group the Sadies, following up a full-length 2014 album they did collectively. He improvised vocals over a livid and wild recording by his pals in avant-garde noise-rock band the Dinner Is Ruined, all of whom have been a part of Downie’s solo band, the Nation of Miracles. He went by means of a number of iterations of writing a memoir, which he discovered too solitary a course of. Downie wasn’t within the temper to be alone together with his ideas. The workaholic wished to work, debilitating mind situation be damned. “It was his language, it was the place he lived,” says Finlayson, of his pal’s drive to create new music. “He didn’t enable the sickness to take that away from him, despite the fact that it compromised him and his reminiscence. Proper to the tip.” Within the phrases of the late Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt, “It’s simpler than simply waitin’ round to die.”
Away Is Mine was co-written and carried out with Finlayson, one among Downie’s oldest pals. When Downie assembled a band for his first solo album, Coke Machine Glow, recorded in June 2000, Finlayson was the primary particular person he known as. Equally, when assembling a band to current Secret Path dwell in 2016, he requested Finlayson to affix a bunch of in any other case newer collaborators.
Throughout his closing yr, Downie saved in fixed contact together with his prolonged circle of pals. “He was a person of letters,” says Finlayson, “like individuals who used to spend the morning simply corresponding with folks.” In April 2017, Finlayson despatched Downie some acoustic sketches he’d recorded on his cellphone. Downie responded inside hours with lyrics and melodies. Three months later, they have been within the Hip’s studio making a document over the course of a weekend. The one company have been the Sadies’ Travis Good (one other relationship relationship again to Coke Machine Glow); Downie’s greatest pal, Dave “Billy Ray” Koster; and Downie’s eldest son, Lou, on drums. Engineer Nyles Spencer added synths, drum machines and textures that make it not like the rest in Downie’s catalogue. That stated, it shares some similarities with the work Downie made after turning 50 in 2014: the reverb-drenched vocals ship lyrics displaying humility and self-doubt. And although there’s an added aspect of mortality on Away Is Mine, it’s removed from a sombre document. The closing observe, Untitled, speaks of a “good journey, good discovery, an excellent plan for what’s forward.” His daughters Willo and Clare did the art work.
For the final three years, followers who knew concerning the closing inventive spurt have puzzled when the wealth of Downie materials could be launched. Patrick Downie was in no rush. “I didn’t need him to be a caricature,” says Gord’s youthful brother, who, three years later, remains to be struggling to talk for the sibling he grew up idolizing. “I didn’t need folks to be sick of Gord Downie. On the similar time, it is very important me to point out folks the depth of his expertise. He isn’t simply the factor that’s typically related to him. I wished to be respectful and time it proper so folks can hear it in the appropriate approach, and never be compulsively turned off by it. I wished folks to be in a spot the place it’s okay to treasure him. All I knew is that if I received this one out first, the remainder will make extra sense.”
Patrick Downie has a novel tackle his brother’s closing years. Each males cut up from their long-time companions in 2015, the identical yr their beloved father, Edgar, who’d had Parkinson’s for years, succumbed to most cancers at age 84. (“Edgar handled it in probably the most zen approach,” says Patrick, “despite the fact that he had no concept what that phrase meant.”) Days after the funeral, Gord had his first seizure, which led to the glioblastoma prognosis. Patrick moved from Boston, the place he’d lived for greater than 20 years, to change into his brother’s roommate and sherpa of types within the strangest of journeys—one which culminated in Patrick singing a Secret Path track at Massey Corridor, with Damaged Social Scene’s Kevin Drew on piano, lower than a month after Gord died. “That was Kevin’s concept,” says Patrick, who made his vocal debut in Canada’s most hallowed corridor. “I used to be below a bizarre spell. I nonetheless look again and may’t imagine I did that. I didn’t actually exist earlier than any of these things. I used to be a credit-roll man. I used to be by no means out in entrance of individuals. I’m not snug with it in any respect. Whenever you develop up within the shadow of Gord,” he laughs, “measuring up is sort of robust—so why hassle?”
Gord Downie was extremely seen in his final years. It helped that he all the time wore a uniform of a denim jacket, denims and a baseball cap from the Minneapolis music venue First Avenue. “We had paparazzi, virtually,” says Patrick, who, together with their different brother, Mike, turned Gord’s spokesperson earlier than and after his demise. They’d continuously be approached in public by followers and acquaintances. “When he began to get sicker, I didn’t wish to be another person’s gossip,” Patrick says. “That was difficult. It was all the time a little bit of an journey once we went out. Generally very humorous. We noticed a variety of music. That was nice. However when there was no present to go to, there have been a variety of darkish days—lengthy and heavy days. Not lots of people have been coming over. Lots of people wished to return over; he was in fairly heavy demand. However he hated the concept, even on the home, that he was being visited.”
Simply as the times have been getting darker, Finlayson entered with the spark for the Away Is Mine materials. “Gord wasn’t considering, ‘I gotta make one other document earlier than I die!’ ” says Patrick. “I imply, Introduce Yerself was a rush [for that reason], as a result of he didn’t know what else to do. That’s the way in which he communicated, that was his language, and he thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve all these folks to thank, all this gratitude.’ That document got here quick and livid.” So did Away Is Mine, however with out the emotional weight concerned with its predecessor.
“The world might use this sort of story, this sort of power,” concludes Finlayson. “This album has been an incredible companion for me. Coping with Gord’s sickness, his demise, having all these items and being with him and making this document, it was an excellent grieving software, a solution to honour him, and it continues to be that. It’s been three years now [since his death], which looks as if a very long time in some methods, but additionally the right time to place it out—world pandemic be damned. It’s like an previous pal checking in.”
Excluding the game-changing Secret Path, Gord Downie’s solo information are extremely underrated, and unheard even by some large Hip followers. In business phrases, they paled subsequent to the Tragically Hip’s gross sales figures. Oddly sufficient, there are some followers who nonetheless wish to see a Downie entrance the Tragically Hip. “I can’t inform you how many individuals inform me I ought to exchange Gord,” laughs the soft-spoken Patrick. “It was even Gord’s concept! In the beginning [of the diagnosis], when he was so scrambled, he was so fearful about [the Hip’s] profession ending, and cash and every little thing. Then he instructed [his daughter] Willo, who can actually sing.” Neither have been remotely . Nor was the band: the long-lasting Canadian band is completed, for all intents and functions, even when most of them joined previous pal Hugh Dillon of the Headstones on stage at a 2019 profit in Kingston, Ont., to carry out a number of Hip tunes, and even when guitarist Paul Langlois sang a wholesome dose of Hip materials as a visitor of the Skydiggers at a collection of dates that very same summer time.
That stated, the vaults are opening. The Hip reunited with authentic supervisor Jake Gold earlier this yr, they usually’re able to unearth all types of treasures, beginning with outtakes from 1991’s Street Apples. There’s additionally a decade-in-the-making solo album Downie made with producer Bob Rock, which is someplace on the singer’s arduous drive. We’ve hardly heard the final of him but.
Gord Downie is gone. Gord Downie will all the time be right here.
This text seems in print within the November 2020 challenge of Maclean’s journal with the headline, “Gord Downie returns.” Subscribe to the month-to-month print journal right here.