Citizens of Canada and America have a shared sorrow this month and it has nothing to do with NAFTA. No, like us in the USA, our friends from north of the border loss their musical rock poet laureate this month as well. Gordon Downie, lead singer and primary songwriter of The Tragically Hip passed away after a year battle with brain cancer. America’s rock God Tom Petty died unexpectedly a few days before from an apparent cardiac arrest. They both represented more than music for their homelands.
The two song makers shared an inner compass of their country’s history and current events. The masses engaged them as their own. When Downie passed away, their nations’ prime minister Pierre Trudeau appeared visibly upset and declared, “We are less of a country without Gord Downie in it.” (President Trump did not tweet nor comment on the leader of the Heartbreakers passing- he choose a fine time not to be petty). They sang about us, they reflected us they were us. Petty sang about America in a symbiotic way. Downie packed a dead on punch, but their results were similar and cherished by their fellow countrymen.
Before their passing both rock poets engaged on a raucous concert tour- a celebration of their accomplishments-one was known the other not even hinted. In December of 2015 Downie announced to a stunned nation that he had inoperable brain tumor and his days were indeed numbered. He embarked on a 15 date tour of Canada highlighted by an emotional final night in their home town of Kingston. The show, broadcast nationwide, stirred a comment from the Toronto police-“Dear world. Canada will close at 8:30pm tonight #TragicallyHip.” Petty ended his last tour at the Hollywood Bowl as iconic American imagery of the Statue of Liberty played on the video screen, a visibly exhausted Petty said “I want to thank you for 40 years of a really great time.” Fans at The Hip show were clad in maple leafs, while Californians at The Heartbreakers finale wore the stripes of the US Flag. These two are hard to separate.
They both spoke to the common man and woman. Petty’s genius was in his ability to reflect popular culture at the time and make it rock. Downie mostly relied on his nation’s history to inspire his fans with awareness and reflection while gyrating Jagger-like across a concert stage. Petty sang of yuppies and corporate greed, Downie wrote the best hockey songs ever while dissing Canada’s treatment of its First Nation peoples. They lured you in with danceable beats then hit you with a life lesson of compassion and truth. Petty was the American dream he sang about. Downie loved every inch of our Northern neighbor’s geography and stories.
It’s certainly sad to say goodbye to either on these men of music and words. Though their joint passing will forever be linked in my mind as two men who rocked our worlds while shedding light on them at the same time. I was able to catch both men and their bands in concert more than once and was transfixed by their performances. I also had the distinct privilege of meeting Downie and sharing a conversation in much the same way I feel I had a similar talk with Petty just be listening to his music. Both countries were blessed to have both of them to guide us through. The night of The Tragically Hip’s last show, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, performing in Chicago, dedicated a song to Downie. One whose lyrics resonates on both of our fallen heroes. From “Light Years, “Your light’s reflected now, reflected from afar/ We were but stones, your light made us stars.” For Canadians and Americans alike, Gord and Tom reflected us, they were us, they made us the stars.