This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Death is at the end of every road. Sometimes it comes like a thief in the night to steal the young in the prime of their life, and sometimes you can see it standing silently in the corner of an old man's room for months and years before it strikes. But whether death appears to you in plain view from miles and miles away or blindsides you like a passing train, whether you have lived your life standing tall on your own two feet or spent it shivering on your knees, its bell inevitably tolls. All we can do is try to face it on our own terms, and pray that it is kind to us in our final hour.
If there is any silver lining to the awful wasting disease that took Gord Downie last night, it's that he knew he was living the last chapter of his life, and that he used that time wisely and for a noble purpose. We should all be so lucky to live and die with the strength he showed in that final show, sobbing and screaming in the face of death—to give our power, in our final days, to the pursuit of greater justice.
I don't have any personal stories about Downie. I saw the Canadian artist live a few times, but I never met him. All I have is the music and the memory of Downie's voice and poetry as a constant companion across different episodes of my life. I suspect you do, too, which speaks more to you than any eulogy ever could.
But I will share one story. When I was 24, I moved across Canada, from St. John's to Edmonton. I didn't know many people, and my girlfriend still lived back home. I was generally an anxious wreck, so I spent most of that first year alone. I spent the darkness of that prairie winter depressed, unmedicated, clinically alcoholic, broke, and alone in an apartment with a malfunctioning heater. On at least two occasions, I skipped school because I didn't trust myself to stand on the train platform near my house without throwing myself onto the tracks.
Long walks helped jar me from the depths, but my old iPod had been stolen some time ago, and walking around without music in a strange city made me feel really vulnerable. So I bought some really cheap and shitty MP3 player online one day. It didn't have a lot of space, so I had to pick and choose carefully: a lot of the Cure, some Devo, and the entire Tragically Hip discography. Now for Plan A had dropped the year before, and I remember the first day in March I stepped outside with the new machine and "At Transformation" hit me like a lightning bolt. I can't really explain it, but the song started snapping me out of wherever I had been. "When the student is ready the teacher appears," I guess.
Anyway, I don't think I listened to anything but the Tragically Hip for most of 2013. On transit, walking around the city, shopping at the grocery store, cooking in my kitchen, doing whatever. Downie's voice followed me everywhere like a personal life coach. Even now the music takes me back to that feeling of crawling out of the darkness and into a new spring day.
All great music, I think, serves as a method of emotional time travel. No other artist takes me to that place of power and optimism and light quite like the Tragically Hip.
Goodnight and Godspeed, Gord Downie. You were a star—a cosmic flame, a gravitational force, a soft map of light through the darkness of the night sky—to more people than you can ever know. Rest easy now, in Canada's heart forever.
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