Monday, October 30, 2017

A Local Death

I was not surprised when I heard that Gord Downie died, I mean, he had terminal brain cancer which he publicized extensively in the 18 months before his death. But it shook me. He's not my one-true musician, but for most of my life, he's occupied my domain. I remember the first time I heard the Hip on CIUT when I was 15, his strange voice, set to bar guitar, was the musical equivalent of a frayed nerve. The band really hit in the late 80s - back when I would visit friends at Queen's (in Kingston, Downie's hometown, where they often played). Of that era, there are few hits I dislike more than Blow at High Dough - a song I always thought was irritating and played in such high-rotation that one could scarcely scan the airwaves without landing on it (in Toronto, that is). But the sound was easy and jangly, very of the time.

When I was at university, an acquaintance got a sweet gig taking photos at concerts and she needed some extra assistance. We were scheduled to shoot the Hip at the Horseshoe only, somehow, wires got crossed and we ended up seeing The Grapes of Wrath instead. I was so disappointed - though I do recall loving that gig. I felt very Rolling Stone that night. I finally saw the Hip in concert in my 20s, where I don't even remember...

No doubt, Gord Downie is part of the Ontario lexicon, but he's also a trade-marked creature of Toronto-proper. I remember, after M was born, the first time I left the house to go food shopping. We'd been having groceries delivered because I was a total mess but finally Scott convinced me to walk the 3 minutes to the Dominion (yes, we used to have a grocery chain with that hilarious name) where I promptly proceeded to run into GD in the most literal fashion. He was quite gracious and I was so sleep-deprived that I didn't notice it was him until he walked away with his two young children and Scott said, way to smack into Canadian royalty. I remembered thinking, if Gord Downie slums it at Dominion with his kids on Sunday morning, then so can I, not that I made another trip of that sort for many months afterwards. 

Our paths were interwoven though he hadn't the slightest idea of who I was. My daughter parties with his older son. My oldest friend's son is his son's best friend. He was always on the radio, supporting a cause. He was a facet of my locale. Take that Sunday I went to get yarn at the now-defunct Lettuce Knit in Kensington Market. The streets were closed while the band played an impromptu concert, and one that was dearly embraced by a pop-up crowd.

The last time I felt this sort of shaken was when Natasha Richardson died. I was not a particular fan but I was so horrified by the pathos of it all, that a woman in the prime of her exciting life, could be cut down by something as moronic as a bunny-hill ski-fall. This was no Michael Shumacher event. A young woman took a silly tumble, while holidaying with her teenaged son, and then she freakin' died. I obsessed about this for weeks. I was vaguely afraid to walk down stairs for a month.

Here's the thing: we're all very here until we're not. I think about this often. I think about it as I walk to work and I see the quotidien vistas that define me. This place is my village and I'm watching it age and change - and, some things, die. Every day I walk past Hart House, where I got married in the chapel. I walk past the building where I was meant to have an economics exam but, traumatically, messed up the timing. I walk past the restaurant where my parents met the first guy I lived with (I still go to that restaurant, albeit infrequently). It was also the place that my child last saw a de facto uncle, sacrificed at the alter of divorce. 

I can't take a step without inhabiting this place. I mean, when Scott and I met on the streetcar (do y'all know that fun story?) Day for Night had just been released and we bonded over (the truly brilliant) Nautical Disaster. There's a reason the media refer to the soundtrack of one's life.

When my grandfather died I was in my early 20s. He died quickly and I didn't know what to make of death at that point. At some sparky philosophical moment in my thirties, I decided that he was effectively still alive because I am alive (as are all of his children and grandchildren). We recreate him in our activities. We're guided by his former methodology. In some empiric way he's with me when I drink Cinzano, when I eat certain food, when I craft. During a conversation, in my teens, I completely horrified him, an old, traditional southern Italian man, by disclosing that I would never change my last name if I got married - because my last name is mine and why on earth would I give it up for somebody else's? I stood by that pledge. But what about when I'm gone? How will he be here? (Note: I'm not so meta that I can get with the idea that every generation justifies the last. My child never knew my grandfather, just as I never knew countless family members of the recent and distant past. I cannot vouch for them. I don't know how or if they live in me.)

I didn't know Gord Downie but he knew me. Sure, he didn't know me - he got me, like he got millions of others, through the mystical lens of poetry and music. He got me in that he was a dyed in the wool southern Ontarian (and it's hard to make this sound epic or deep but, much as Billy Joel has elevated the bridge and tunnel set, Gord Downie gave us sonic credibility - a way to grasp our dangerous landscapes and emotions). This morning, as I walked to work, I saw the remnants of a bakery,  twenty years gone. I got coffee at Sam James where everyone knows me. I took pictures of more homes being demolished and rebuilt, and I listened to Gord Downie's posthumous release, a love letter to his family and band mates, to his dog, to Lake Ontario. I cried and cried, not because a mortal person died of illness too soon, but because this world is ever-changed for every such loss.

I really don't know what it means to have been here and I wonder if I ever will.


  1. If I connect this beautifully written post to my feelings on hearing that HBC is selling its main Vancouver store, is that okay? Piece by piece, building by building, death and birth by death and birth, our landscapes and contexts change. And somehow we go on. . . . until we don't. . . Thanks for your post. Sorry for the distortion.. .

  2. Well said. I had to have a good think on this post before I replied. Perhaps it is my age, but I did not "know" the music of the Tragically Hip" the way you did. There are two important Gords in my life. My dear brother who passed away at 52, far too early in my opinion. He was the family adventurer and storyteller and I miss him very much. The second is Gord Lightfoot, whose music always reminds my of my teens and twenties, and who I always listen to on a road trip.
    To ponder our own mortality, and what we will leave behind is heavy indeed. Take care.