Heaven is a better place today: Remembering Gord Downie

In October, a little more than a year after he and his bandmates captivated Canadians with a dramatic final farewell cross-country tour, Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, passed away from a rare form of brain cancer. Downie’s courageous last days have been well documented, and his career widely celebrated – including by two earlier articles in the pages of Christian Courier. In this brief remembrance, however, I’d like to take a somewhat different angle and try to sum up Downie’s poetic ethos using just a few of his own words.

‘We were never more here’
This line is from “The Dire Wolf,” a song about a rough channel crossing during a storm at sea. It exhibits Downie’s interest in heightened experiences, when everything else recedes beneath the immediacy of some particular moment. It also showcases his attention to the particulars of place, in this case the waters off Isle Aux Morts, Newfoundland, where “The desultory sea grew more so through the night / And made one think of tawny ports / And aspen tremblin’ in tomorrow’s thorough light.” Much of the commentary on Downie’s work has focussed on its Canadianness, and this is not inappropriate. By covering an array of shared iconic moments and local particulars such as the one quoted above, Downie gave us both permission and a template for how to celebrate Canada in an ostensibly post-national age. There is nothing compulsive or chauvinistic in Downie’s observational nationalism, and the poetry with which he gave recognizable pieces of Canada back to us made it all the more memorable and resonant.

‘As makeshift as we are, we still are’
While it’s understandable to suggest that Downie was trying to save the nation, at heart his concern was for people. Let me be explicitly clear that I am not talking about salvation in the transcendental sense made available exclusively through Christ. Rather, by suggesting that Downie wanted to save people I mean something more mundane but nonetheless valuable (and surely enabled at least by common grace). Downie wanted to give people hope, to help them look on the bright side, to see that – even when things get dark – the world is full of beauty and blessings.


The quotation above isn’t exactly a lyric, but the way that Downie introduced the song “As Makeshift As We Are” during the 2004 That Night in Toronto show. This little phrase sums up the unrelenting hopefulness and optimism of Downie’s worldview almost perfectly:  though our lives are provisional and often painful (“as makeshift as we are”), the best existential answer is to marvel and celebrate the fact that “we still are.” “Ain’t life a grand,” Downie sings in “World Container,” “I’m in awe of your awe,” and the same could be said by thousands of appreciative fans about Downie himself.

‘Intimate, inaccurate, a family, in a way / We made the trip to Vulnerable and back / On the same day’
In keeping with his existential optimism, one of Downie’s central themes is the importance of human relationships and connection. This evocative, sidelong description of getting to know someone well from “The Completists” is a perfect example of this, and illustrative of Downie’s ability to amplify such connections by coming at them circumspectly. Relationships are the central theme of Downie’s work, and love is ultimately the most important thing. “It’s the longest thing that we do,” he asserts in “What Blue.”

Another such emblematic moment, equally illustrative of Downie’s Canadian inflection, occurs in “Fireworks,” which flawlessly executes on the difficult premise of mapping the 1972 Summit Series hockey games between Canada and Russia onto the experience of falling in love. The whole song is a notional gem, but one moment in particular resonates in the context of Downie’s later struggle with cancer: “You held my hand and we walked home the long way / You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.”

During his final months, Downie made a point of telling people in his life that he loved them, no matter how difficult or awkward this may have been with casual acquaintances. So, when Bobby Orr, the great Bruins defenseman and Downie’s ultimate hockey hero (loosened grip notwithstanding) called to wish him well after his cancer diagnosis, Downie made a point of saying “I love you” into the phone. Take a second to fully consider this. I’ve met a few of my heroes, and each time found myself awkwardly stumbling for words. The almost unbearable gravity of a cancer-stricken Gord Downie saying “I love you” to a suddenly bashful Bobby Orr is an amazing and beautiful thing, and a profound summary of the spirit of Downie’s work.

‘Heaven is a better place today because of this / but the world is just not the same’
Nearly 12 million Canadians watched the final Tragically Hip concert, which was broadcast live on the CBC. That’s about one third of the nation. The last song they played was “Ahead By A Century,” the final line of which is “And disappointing you is gettin’ me down.” This is the last thing that Downie chose to say to us, publicly and collectively, and I take this to be the apotheosis of his selflessness and generosity. Here was Downie, it seemed, apologizing – albeit obliquely but thoroughly in character – to all of us for the pain and sadness that his impending death would bring. Downie made his ultimate swan song about us rather than him, despite the fact that he was the one staring death in the face.

Let me be clear that I don’t intend the above quotation from “Heaven is a Better Place Today” – a song Downie wrote about the death of a young NHL hockey player – as a literal theological comment. I don’t presume to know Downie’s spiritual convictions, nor the full extent of special grace. What I do know for certain, however, is that without Gord Downie “the world is just not the same.”  

  • Michael is a CC Contributing Editor. He has a desk job in technology and product development, but loves to get outside.

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