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Gord Downie, poet laureate of Canadian rock music, dies at 53

Gord Downie, singer and songwriter of Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, performs in Toronto in 2016. (Arthur Mola/Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Gord Downie, the frontman and lyricist for the Canadian rock group the Tragically Hip — whose songs about that country’s small towns, hockey heroes and frontier history made the band a source of national pride and devotion for more than two decades — died Oct. 17. He was 53.

The cause was complications from glioblastoma, a terminal brain cancer, according to a statement on the band's website. Mr. Downie revealed his diagnosis last year through a message on the Tragically Hip's website.

To the groups’s fervent admirers, Mr. Downie and his band were as closely linked to Canada as the Beatles are to England or the U2 singer Bono is to Ireland. In the months after Mr. Downie’s cancer was announced, music writers described him as his nation’s unofficial poet laureate, a rock-and-roll bard who spoke to blue-collar workers and urban intellectuals alike.

His final show with the Hip, as the band is known to fans, was broadcast live in August 2016 to an audience of millions and attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Gord and the Tragically Hip,” Trudeau told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. before the show, “are an inevitable and essential part of what we are and who we are as a country.”

Formed in 1984 by five high school friends from Kingston, Ontario, the Tragically Hip mixed guitar-heavy classic rock with elements of blues and country, establishing an alternative-rock sound that drew comparisons to R.E.M. and the Black Crowes.

The group won 16 Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, and sold more than 8 million records. Nine of their 13 studio albums topped the Canadian charts, and their two No. 1 singles — the 1996 coming-of-age song "Ahead by a Century" and jangling 2006 pop hit "In View" — have become radio standards in Canada.

Unlike Canadian rock exports such as Rush, Nickelback and Arcade Fire, the Hip never managed to break through in the United States. The closest they came was in 1995, when the Ontario-born comedian Dan Aykroyd brought them on “Saturday Night Live” to perform songs from their fourth album, the somber “Day for Night.” (The album still failed to crack the top 100 in the United States.)

Perhaps it was because so much of their music was colored by maple-leaf imagery — references to hockey or, in at least one song by Mr. Downie, the beloved Canadian fast-food chain Tim Hortons. Or perhaps, as Mr. Downie and his bandmates sometimes suggested, American music publications such as Rolling Stone just chose to ignore a band that was so Canadian it featured two members named Gord.

“It used to be a sore point,” bassist Gord Sinclair told the Associated Press in 2001, when asked about the band’s lack of exposure in the United States. “And now it’s a matter of pride.”

Gordon Edgar Downie was born in Amherstview, Ontario, a Kingston suburb, on Feb. 6, 1964. His father sold real estate with Mr. Downie’s godfather, Harry Sinden, a semipro hockey player who later coached the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup.

While in high school, Mr. Downie sang in a punk group before falling in with his blues-loving classmates Sinclair and guitarist Rob Baker.

The Tragically Hip — named after a sketch in “Elephant Parts,” a 1981 collection of comedy and music videos by former Monkees member Michael Nesmith — was formed as a cover band while all three attended Queen’s University in Kingston. Mr. Downie graduated in 1986.

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The Hip, which also included guitarist Paul Langlois and drummer Johnny Fay, built a following through its energetic live performances. Mr. Downie played the role of ringmaster, dancing across the stage and improvising monologues in the middle of songs.

The group's debut album, "Up to Here" (1989), sold well in Canada, aided by the popular blues-rock anthems "Blow at High Dough" and "New Orleans Is Sinking." Two years later, "Road Apples" topped the Canadian charts.

With the album "Fully Completely" (1992), Mr. Downie seemed to more fully find his voice as a songwriter. In a departure from the Hip's previous records, many of the album's songs featured Canadian lyrics and themes — inspired, he said, by the use of Canadian imagery in the 1991 Rheostatics song "Saskatchewan."

The album featured two of the band’s most enduring songs. The hard-driving “Fifty Mission Cap” coupled the seemingly unrelated image of a hat given to elite Allied pilots during World War II with the story of Toronto hockey player Bill Barilko, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Maple Leafs in 1951, disappeared on a fishing trip soon after and, in 1962, was found dead from a plane crash that occurred during the trip. That year, the Leafs won their next Cup.

On the record’s next track, the acoustic ballad “Wheat Kings,” Mr. Downie lamented the wrongful imprisonment of David Milgaard, who months before the album’s release had been freed from prison after serving 23 years for a Saskatchewan murder he didn’t commit.

With a touch of irony, Mr. Downie sang:

Late breaking story on the CBC

A nation whispers, “We always knew that he’d go free”

They add, “You can’t be fond of living in the past

’Cause if you are, then there’s no way that you’re gonna last”

Mr. Downie continued incorporating Canadiana into subsequent albums, crafting songs that were by turns playful and surreal. He was adept at fitting obscure or unusual Canadian names into the Hip’s music, rhyming French explorer Jacques Cartier with “right this way” and the small Ontario town of Bobcaygeon with “constellation.”

Reviewing the Hip’s 1996 record “Trouble at the Henhouse,” the Canadian magazine Maclean’s singled out the singer’s “rabid imagination, which seems full of strange imagery snatched from a vivid nightmare” in tracks such as “700 Ft. Ceiling,” about the nighttime flooding of an outdoor ice rink.

He and his wife, Laura Leigh Usher, had four children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In recent years, Mr. Downie maintained that he was less a rock star than a poet — or, to be more precise, “a goalie/poet or a hotel guest/poet or a father/poet,” as he told the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2001. He cited the short story master Raymond Carver and poet Wallace Stevens as influences, and in 2001 he released a book of poetry, “Coke Machine Glow,” alongside a well-received solo album of the same name.

Alongside his inclination toward poetry was an apparently undiminished love for performance. Although winded at times during his most recent tour, Mr. Downie seemed to delight in whipping out a white handkerchief and dancing across the stage in a metallic suit and feathered fedora.

“I throw myself on the altar of song,” he told Maclean’s in 2009, “and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colors and sounds, and I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there like Howling Wolf or Otis Redding or David Bowie with a mic in my hand and an audience that’s ready.”

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