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Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

The Tragically Hip at Canada's Juno Awards in Vancouver BC in 2009.

The Tragically Hip at Canada's Juno Awards in Vancouver BC in 2009.

Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip

On May 25th, 2016, Canada awoke to the news that one of her beloved sons, Gordon Downie, frontman for The Tragically Hip, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. During a news conference the previous day, the group's managers and Downie's oncologist disclosed that Gord has already undergone surgery, chemo, and radiation therapy. But this cancer, glioblastoma, has no cure. It will be back.

If there is any good news in this, Gord is currently healthy, and the doctors have given him the green light to go out on the road. Nobody is calling this a farewell tour, but that's essentially what it will be. And like pretty much every Hip show for eons, it will be sold out. This time though, there is a real poignant reason to go and see this band…one last time.

Who Are The Tragically Hip?

To try to describe to a non-Canadian what makes The Tragically Hip – simply “The Hip” – so quintessentially Canadian would be impossible. They are like mosquitoes and blackflies, maple syrup, and Mounties. They are part of us, and we are part of them.

The boys hail from Kingston, Ontario, a place that was once the home of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald. This university town on the shores of Lake Ontario is known for its gardens, 19th-century buildings and now closed federal penitentiary. In 1984, the band got its start here when Downie, Rob Baker, and Gord Sinclair met at school, and like so many other young men in those days, decided to form a band. They played their first gig at a party in Kingston, and by 1986 were on the road, part of the club scene playing dances and small venues all over Ontario. They were discovered by an executive from MCA records during a gig at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern and signed to a multi-year deal.

The frontman Gordon Downie performing live in 2003.

The frontman Gordon Downie performing live in 2003.

Hip Songs

In 1987, the guys released their debut, an EP that featured the song “Small Town Bringdown.” Though the song got some airplay, especially on university FM stations, it really didn't have much commercial success. That was to change when the band released its first full-length LP called Up To Here, featuring the songs “Blow At High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking.” The album sold over one million copies, and earned the guys their first of 14 Juno awards, Canada’s version of the Grammy Awards.

"New Orleans Is Sinking"

This song, from the group's first album, was the one that really put them on the map. It still gets a lot of airplay in Canada and is one of the band's most instantly recognized songs. If you say, the words "New Orleans Is Sinking" to a Canadian, chances are they will come right back with "I don't want to swim."

The song was actually voted one of the best Canadian songs ever, coming in at #16 in a list put together by the CBC in 2005. So, why is a song about New Orleans one of the top Canadian songs ever? It's complicated...

Performed live, the song morphs into an opportunity for Gord to explore other songs and stories. The live version is always an extended version, often having other songs kind of stuck in the middle of it. Often, Gord will tell a story. Sometimes, you get a song and a story. We eat it up, either way.

After hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in 2005, Canadian stations temporarily stopped playing the song out of respect for the people impacted by that terrible tragedy. The song took on a life of its own when relief sites for the disaster started playing it.

"38 Years Old"

Another hit from the album Up To Here, this single from 1990, is about a prison break in Kingston. It is based on a true story, though the boys took some artistic license with the story and changed some details so the lyrics would rhyme.

The song tells the tale of one of the escaped convicts paying a visit to his family's home in the middle of the night. A tap on the glass lets the family know that Mike is home after 20 years in jail for killing a man who raped his sister. But the Mounties are in pursuit and take Mike back home to the prison.

"He's thirty-eight years old, never kissed a girl."


This is one of those songs that is simply identified with summer in Canada, right up there with Max Webster's "Million Vacations." Named after one of the major cottage areas north of Toronto, the song just fits with time at the cottage, though the lyrics really have nothing to do with that. Like so many Hip songs, this one is a bit of a mystery and references the checkerboard flooring at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern and a local band called "The Men They Couldn't Hang" that used to play the club scene in that city.

The Hip performing in Aspen, Colorado on October 16, 2007.

The Hip performing in Aspen, Colorado on October 16, 2007.

"Ahead by a Century"

This much-loved song is from the band's fifth studio album, Trouble at the Henhouse. It contains references to being stung by a hornet, the resulting feverish dream, and then getting rid of the hornets' nest by "smoking it out," best done at night. The video contains images that help tell the story best.

See? I told you it was complicated.

"Little Bones"

The name of the song that declares "Happy Hour is Here" is taken from the name of a cat in a book Gord was reading when he wrote the song. The little bones reference also came from a taxi driver warning Gord to eat his chicken slowly because of the little bones. Gord loved the double reference and worked it into a song.

The song also has references to New Orleans, a place Gord has always been intrigued by.


Gord's death was announced on October 18, 2017. The news said he was surrounded by family and friends.

I hope Gord knew we were all there with him too.

"...'Cause these are the days worth livin'
These are the years we're given
And these are the moments
These are the times
Let's make the best out of our lives..."

© 2016 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 26, 2016:

Tickets will go fast I'm sure...I am also going to try to grab some.

CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on May 25, 2016:

I use to have it on a mixtape someone made for me years ago, and at one time I had it in Mp3 form (before iTunes, and lost it when my computer got reformatted). But I just checked, it is definitely posted on YouTube. Gord's improvisations, along with his manic energy during live performances will definitely be missed. I noticed tickets go on sale June 3rd, so I'm going to try to get tickets to at least one of the shows. I've only seen them a couple of times, but it was a real treat each time.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 25, 2016:

Hi spartucus, I was hoping I would hear from you. I was devastated when I read this in the National Post before the birds were even up this morning. I have seen these guys so many very memorable show was in St. Louis in 1995? opening for Page and Plant. I think there is at least a bootleg of the Killer Whale version, if not an official release. Wishing Gord and his family all the best...sad, sad.

CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on May 25, 2016:

I heard the news the day it happen because I noticed that Gord Downie was trending, and I clicked on it hoping that he didn't die. Even though he didn't die, I was devastated by the news he had terminal cancer. Shortly after cliking on that, I noticed that #CourageForGord was trending. Gord, along with the Hip are true Canadian icons. At least there will be one last opportunity to see them live before Gord goes.

Also, concerning Gord's improvisations of "New Orleans Is Sinking", I absolutely love the "Killer Whale" live version of the song. I don't think it ever been officially released, but I know some radio stations use to play it and I know it was well circulated.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 25, 2016:

Oh my gosh Jodah, my heart goes out to your and your wife. After I read about Gord in the newspaper at 5:00 am this morning, I googled glioblastoma and was saddened by what I read. This seems to be a particularly virulent cancer, as when it returns, it is in a new form that the drugs and chemo don't kill. They have made so many strides, but this disease is so sinister.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on May 25, 2016:

A wonderful tribute hub, Kaili. This is very close to home for me as my wife's younger sister died from glioplastoma stage 4 at 44 years of age, and recently her older brother has been diagnosed with the same incurable condition.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 25, 2016:

Hi Flourish and thank you for reading the hub...I just tested the video for "New Orleans Is Sinking" and it seems fine now; maybe youtube was overloaded.

Gord was diagnosed in December, and went through treatment. Can you imagine performing after that? I think, for him, touring is how he will live life to the fullest.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 25, 2016:

I've never heard of The Tragically Hip but enjoyed the videos. (I had a problem playing the first one; got a message that it was unavailable.) It's so sad that someone so vibrant and loved has been stricken with brain cancer. I hope he lives his life to the fullest in the time remaining.