The Non-Canadian’s Guide to Understanding Gord Downie

On October 18, 2017, Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip received more American-media attention in a single day than they had in their entire 30-year career. There was the front-page placement in The New York Times’ Arts section, an extended feature at Rolling Stone, and an essay on Vulture, to name a few. Sadly, the newsfeed blitz wasn’t spurred by a new album release or some reissue that triggered an overdue reappraisal of the Hip’s back catalog—the band’s lead singer, Gord Downie, had passed away at age 53 from brain cancer, unleashing a tsunami-sized outpouring of tears across Canada that couldn’t help but seep into newsrooms south of border.

Of course, posthumous appreciation for unsung artists is a storied rock ‘n’ roll tradition. But the sight of Downie’s photo in major U.S. publications was especially bittersweet, given that so much of the Hip’s history was tied up in their inability to translate their decades-long domination of Canadian rock radio into widespread stateside success. North of the border, the band are unimpeachable icons, with nine No. 1 albums, 16 Juno Awards, and six million records sold (in a country of 30 million people where sales of just 100,000 earns you a platinum disc). They’re the sort of band whose songs you know verbatim even if you’ve never owned one of their records—because when you grow up in Canada, an encyclopedic knowledge of The Tragically Hip catalog is just something you naturally acquire, like a regional accent, or an inferiority complex.

Sure, their fist-pumped riffs made them the go-to band for backward-baseball-capped bros across the land, yet as Downie’s latent eccentricities came to the fore, he became a magnet for misfits as well. The Hip’s songs have been covered by pop stars and punk bands and name-checked in rap tracks; even the 6 God bows before the Gord. When Downie publicly revealed his cancer diagnosis in the spring of 2016, the Hip embarked on a final cross-Canada arena tour that summer, the final show of which—on August 20, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario—was broadcast live by national broadcaster the CBC, was attended by Prime Minister/super-fan Justin Trudeau, and sparked massive public-viewing tailgate parties from coast to coast. I half expect that date to eventually become a new statutory holiday up here.

Trying to explain the Hip to Americans is something of a parlor game for Canadians, one whose goalposts have shifted over the years. Initially, they were sort of like Crazy Horse fronted by an extra-spastic Michael Stipe, or a Rolling Stones greased by Midnight Oil. Then they became more like a hoser Pearl Jam, and in their later years, a Canuck cousin to Wilco. (Lately, I’ve come to think of them as a proto-National.) And in terms of celebrity stature, Downie was effectively our Springsteen, but with the jean jacket and bandana replaced by a hockey jersey and toque. He was a rock star with blue-collar blood, whose intimate portraits of Canadian life could stir a patriotic fervor with a simple small-town namedrop.

But Downie’s hyper-specific local references and invocations of obscure Canadian history were probably as impenetrable to casual American listeners as, say, Mike Skinner’s bloke-speak. The closest the Hip came to breaching the border was in 1995, when, at the insistence of host/fellow Ontarian Dan Aykroyd, the band appeared as the musical guests on Saturday Night Live—a performance watched with bated breath across the nation like parents at a child’s first piano recital. Alas, the Monday-morning sales spike wasn’t to be. Never quite angry and abrasive enough for the post-Nirvana age, but too cerebral for the Black Crowes blues-rock/jam-band set, the Hip would resign themselves to being the biggest band in Canada, and Canada only.

It certainly didn’t help that The Tragically Hip came up in a pre-internet age when being a Canadian musician made you tragically unhip, long before the web-boosted likes of Arcade Fire, Drake, Grimes, et al. cemented the country’s international cachet. But where that lack of American recognition always seemed to append the Hip’s considerable legacy with an asterisk, over the years, it’s become more a point of pride. In a country whose pop-cultural identity has historically been caught in a tug-of-war between our patronizing parents in the U.K. and our boorish big brother south of the border, the Hip’s contained domestic success affirmed that there is, in fact, an ineffable Canadian sensibility that exists independently of our superpower relations. And in Downie, we had a uniquely Canadian rock star—which is to say, someone too humble and self-effacing and peculiar to ever fully embrace the job.

Downie always seemed uncomfortable with the flag-waving hysteria the Hip’s music inspired, and seemed eager to steer their music beyond the beer can–crushing bruisers of their early records. While his band epitomized mainstream Canadian rock, Downie had long sought solace among the country’s indie cognoscenti. He collaborated with Eric’s Trip alumnus Julie Doiron (among other Canadian avant-indie veterans) for a string of solo albums through the 2000s; cut an entire record with Toronto roots-rock rebels The Sadies; guested on hardcore dynamos Fucked Up’s 2014 album, Glass Boys; and tapped Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and The Stills’ Dave Hamelin to apply their sound-collage aesthetic to the album that would become his Tragically Hip swan song, Man Machine Poem.

But his desire to challenge audiences went beyond mere music. After spending the past three decades making his fans proud to be Canadian, Downie spent his last year forcing them to grapple with what that really means, and confront the fact that the romanticized version of Canada that people like to associate with The Tragically Hip is a construct built on shaky—read: stolen—ground. Mere days after the Hip’s final show last August, with Canada still abuzz in a national love-in, Downie forcefully redirected the spotlight that had been fixed upon him onto the country’s heinous historical mistreatment of its Indigenous people. He announced a new solo album/graphic-novel project, Secret Path (also produced by Drew and Hamelin), based on the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old First Nations boy who escaped the notoriously abusive residential-school system only to die trying to find his way home.

The conception and recording of Secret Path actually predated Downie’s cancer diagnosis by a couple of years, but when the album finally surfaced last fall, it felt like a suitably elegiac send-off for an artist long defined by his sense of compassion and generosity. Amazingly, as his condition worsened over the past year, Downie threw himself into the most ambitious recording project of his career. Just a week after his death, we saw the release of his Drew-produced double-LP Introduce Yerself, and like David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, it’s an album that will be inextricably intertwined with its creator’s passing. But it’s not the typically grim meditation on mortality we’ve come to expect from an ailing artist: Each of the record’s 23 songs were written about a specific person in his life. It’s a suitably selfless final gesture from Downie, providing a portal into a personal life he had closely guarded.

In the same spirit, here’s a playlist of 23 songs to introduce non-Canadian newcomers to Downie’s deep discography. While it includes some Hip hits, these aren’t necessarily the band’s most popular songs. Rather, they’re ones that mostly venture beyond the band’s bar-rock roots and don’t require an Encyclopedia Canadiana to decode. And they’re the ones that most directly communicate Downie’s singular combination of outsized passion, white-knuckled intensity, sly humor, absurdity… and grace, too.