In the last week two deaths have affected me quite deeply, though in extremely different ways. The first was of someone I never knew or met, and although he was greatly revered and very famous I was not a fan of his art. The other passing, a considerably more personal loss, meant a significant part of my youth died at the same time.
The Tragically Hip was a big enough band that I had heard of them in the UK, but they never had any hit albums or singles. I had listened to them over there, but the Hip's music did nothing for me, and I was not a fan of the dude's voice. Since moving to Canada the band obviously became much more visible to me, obviously especially in my workplace, where I sell their CDs (and now recently reissued vinyl) pretty much every week. As a 'new' Canadian keen to learn as much as I can about the history and culture of my country I have tried listening to lots of music that means a great deal to Canadians, and to this end I have heard plenty that were new names to me that I now love - Lighthouse, Five Man Electrical Band, David Francey and lots more - and I have heard even more that, although I appreciate their cultural significance, is really not my bag, such as Spirit of the West and, indeed, The Tragically Hip. I have tried, but they are simply not for me. However, as the "most Canadian of all Canadian bands"' I can understand the great love for the latter, especially via my friend Justin Rutledge, who grew up listening to the Hip and loves them so much he released an entire album of their songs, entitled Daredevil.
Just as, for example, I can appreciate Marilyn Manson as a valid rock star and find him a fascinating, intelligent human being while his music leaves me cold, when it comes to the Hip's Gord Downie I am fully aware of Downie the activist and his amazing philanthropic, environmental and humanitarian work, especially in respect of First Nations people. Downie looked beyond the generally speaking happy-go-lucky Canadian outlook and natural wonderland that Canada is viewed as around the world and, to quote CBC, he was "...inspired by headlines, history books, personal experiences...to paint a picture of a country that was equally fascinating and flawed. Downie's Canada was anything but perfect, but in his attempt to honestly capture it over a 30-year career he taught a nation how to confront its darkest moments and dare to not repeat them."
That is the Gord Downie I love: musician or otherwise, it matters not, but a man working tirelessly and bravely to do good and effect change in this world, and to inspire others to follow suit. As this world seems to be spiralling out of control in so many ways, as our humanity seems to be further eroded day-on-day, we need many, many more like Gord Downie to step up to the plate and teach us how to learn from the mistakes we have made and continue to make. So, when such an important figure should be taken from us at just 53 - almost four years younger than I - it is heartbreaking. Feeling the country's grief - seeing our Prime Minister in tears on live national television - really affected me, as this is the first death of its kind that I have experienced as a new Canadian. When Leonard Cohen passed - at the grand old age of 82, remember - it seemed to be greeted with a reverent quietude, rather than the outpouring of national sadness that followed Downie's passing. I felt it, too, vicariously as someone who feels more Canadian by the week, yet not as a fan of his music. In my way, then, I will miss him as much as the most hardcore Tragically Hip fan, but for entirely different reasons.
And in the same week, I learned of the death of my youth-hood friend, Gordon. He actually passed in 2014, but the news somehow did not reach me, and I found out completely by accident just a week ago. This came as a huge shock. Gordon played a big role in what I guess should be termed my formative years, as in fact did his brother, James, and his wonderful parents. Gordon is the first person I got stoned with - while listening to Jethro Tull in his bedroom, I seem to recall - and it was with Gordon that I queued overnight to bag tickets for the very same band at Birmingham Odeon. That remains the only occasion that I have done that, and that it was with Gordon makes it very special. We also saw Black Sabbath together at least once, but perhaps more times than that (it was a long time ago). As you shall read, this fact is important.
Gordon was a BIG man - probably 6'5" and 25o pounds - and I felt like a Hobbit in his considerable physical presence. One enduring memory of this man-mountain that I treasure was following him as he thundered at top speed down a Birmingham Odeon aisle, towards a startled-looking security guy, swatting him away like a paper doll in our (successful) efforts to reach the mosh pit. (Don't worry, security guy was fine and, like his colleagues at that show, in a pretty futile role.)
We hung out together for many years, getting into all kinds of scrapes and drinking way too much at our local boozer. They were heady, often wild days when we thought we could take on the world and frequently tried to, but despite our 'spirited shenanigans' we never really overstepped the mark into total idiocy. We just had a lot of fun, as young people tend do.
We kind of lost touch when Gordon joined the Royal Navy and I moved to Brighton, but reconnected many years later, sporadically emailing and reminiscing therein. I also lost touch with his beautiful, spiritually-inclined brother, last seeing either of them something like sixteen years ago, I would guess, but again later reconnecting with him by email. Pointed there after thinking about the obscure prog-rock band Druid, it was by dropping in on James' pagan rock band Druidspear's website last week that I learned of Gordon's death from a beautifully written, heartrending statement on the homepage. My blood turned to ice for a time when I read the words, "I have been asked to deal with loss on a frequent basis. The greatest loss being that of my brother Gordon who passed away in 2014."
It took me several days of introspective grief before I could summon the strength to email James, and his reply shattered my heart. Gordon passed of cancer - such a colossal, foul presence in my life - and I also heard from James of his own awful health issues and the passing of his and Gordon's gorgeous mother. This has all hit me very hard, and since this sad discovery my mind has been a projection screen for a non-stop reel of my adventures in youth with Gordon and James, some excerpts making me cry and others making me laugh. The biggest laugh of all, a bittersweet piece of news to receive if ever there was one, came from the conclusion of James' extraordinary email, in telling me that at Gordon's funeral his coffin slipped through the curtains to the strains of Black Sabbath's Fairies Wear Boots! That is about the most 'Gordon way' he could have left us all, and I love him all the more for it.
What a star.
Every time I hear that song, which will be plenty more times before my own day to go comes, I will think of my dear friend, and smile like the Cheshire cat. And the beautiful big bastard will know it, too.