The first time I met Gord Downie, I had a beer in my hand – appropriate for a nervous 20-year-old who had worked up the courage to climb the stairs at the old Town Pump in Vancouver and knock on the band-room door.
The Tragically Hip had just rocked the Gastown bar and I wanted to meet the guys who would, it turns out, create a soundtrack for the next 30 years of my life.
I was there that August night of 1988 with Paul Clarke, a drummer I’d jammed with and a budding photographer. He took some amazing photos of the Kingston quartet, whose gritty, guitar-riffy sound was a revelation, and Downie, the singer, was the mad scientist, front and centre.
“It looked like you were having a really good time out there,” I remember a long-haired Downie telling me with a laugh as he sat next to me on a couch.
Yes, I did.
Gord Downie at Town Pump in Vancouver, summer 1988, the night I first saw the band live and became a huge fan. (Photo: Paul Clarke) pic.twitter.com/UYsxgF6IJk
— Tom Zillich (@TomZillich) October 18, 2017
I talked to Downie a few more times over the years – a phone interview or two when I became a music journalist, a quick backstage handshake and “hi” at Another Roadside Attraction and other big concerts the Hip would do in the mid-1990s. By then, Downie had become a Canadian music icon.
Not surprisingly, his death on Tuesday night is mourned by millions of people across the country who knew it was coming but still feel the sting.
In the early 2000s, the Tragically Hip’s music became even more personal for me when I played bass in a tribute band called Totally Hip. The experience almost killed me, for real, but that’s another story.
Thunderbird Stadium at UBC, the Railway Club, Pacific Coliseum, Seabird Island in Agassiz, some sweaty bar in Portland the night sprinter Donovan Bailey won Olympic gold, GM Place/Rogers Arena, Burnaby’s Deer Lake Park, the Commodore Ballroom three or four times during the Road Apples days – all are venues where I saw the Hip perform, nearly 20 times in total.
Here in Surrey, those good memories came rushing back on the night of Aug. 20, 2016, when local fans of the Tragically Hip gathered at a huge backyard party in Port Kells to celebrate the band’s final concert in a most Canadian way. I was there with close to 200 other people – laughing, singing along, crying and, in one memorable moment, having the opportunity to play bass on “Fifty Mission Cap” with The Hip Show, one hell of a tribute band.
The previous October, I was in Las Vegas with seven friends to see the Hip at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay. It was a great night of music, a really good time, but something didn’t seem right with Downie. He wasn’t his usual charismatic self. We’d soon learn why: brain cancer, the disease that killed him two years later.
Today, I mourn the man who had, yes, the courage to play one final concert tour last summer, despite a failing memory for lyrics that have meant so much to me and millions of other Canadians. He was a national treasure, of course, and radio stations across the land will no doubt be blasting “New Orleans is Sinking,” “Ahead by a Century” and other gold-standard Hip songs for many years to come.
More than anything, I just want to say thank you, Gord – for the music and the memories.
You will certainly be missed.