Manitoba·Analysis

Gord Downie's terminal-illness disclosure an act of decency

There was something thoughtful about the manner in which The Tragically Hip chose to announce lead singer Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer.

Musicians don't have to burn out or fade away

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip sings during the band's perfromance at the Concert for Toronto at Skydome in Toronto Saturday June 21, 2003. The concert is to try and attract people to the city in light of the economic fallout from SARS (CP PHOTO/Kevin Frayer) (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
It's better to burn out
Than to fade away
My my, hey hey.

-- Neil Young, from Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Not long ago, it seemed like there were only two ways for rock stars to depart this planet.

You could die violently and prematurely, like Tupac Shakur, Amy Winehouse and other members of what Kurt Cobain's mother called "that stupid club." 

Or you could enjoy success for many decades, age gracefully and then suddenly succumb to an illness few, if any of your fans, were aware existed. For recent examples, consider David Bowie and Prince, although the cause of death has yet to be determined in the latter's case.

While this is a gross oversimplification — it wouldn't be fair to suggest either Bowie or Prince ever receded from view during their latter years — both the burn-out and fade-away scenarios are tough on fans. Simply put, sudden departures prevent people from saying goodbye to their favourite recording artists.

This is why there was something thoughtful about the manner in which The Tragically Hip chose to announce lead singer Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer. On Tuesday, the Canadian band announced that Downie, 52, has been treated for glioblastoma, an aggressive form of tumour that usually kills people within 15 months of diagnosis.

In other words, The Hip frontman is going to die some time in the near future, but likely not in the immediate future. The relatively early disclosure of Downie's illness gives his band a chance to conduct another tour and give their fans an opportunity to say goodbye.

On one hand, this could be seen as little more than an attempt to cash in on Downie's illness and drive up sales of Man Machine Poem, The Hip's forthcoming album. But that would be an exceptionally cynical take, given that dozens of performing acts made up of perfectly healthy musicians have conducted phony farewell tours over many decades. The Who, for example, went on its first farewell tour in 1980 and effectively spent the majority of its existence as a band saying goodbye — and thanks for all the lovely money— to its fans.

Even if there is a profit motive behind the timing of The Hip's announcement, it remains an act of decency. Had the band failed to disclose the fact Downie will soon warble out his final rendition of Little Bones or Ahead By A Century, fans who failed to buy tickets to The Hip's final tour would forever kick themselves for failing to do so, or express resentment they never got the chance.

The early disclosure gives Gord Downie and his fans a chance to express affection for each other while they're both capable of appreciating the sentiment. This is the very opposite of morbid, as it amounts to a celebration of Downie's music while he remains alive.
Gord Downie in an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on June 4, 2010. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The Hip are not alone in taking this path. In 2014, Spirit Of The West continued to tour after frontman John Mann disclosed he is dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. This allowed Mann and his fans to say goodbye to each other and also raised awareness about the degenerative brain condition, which does not only afflict older people.

Likewise, British guitarist Wilko Johnson — formerly of Dr. Feelgood and perhaps better known in North America as the executioner from Game Of Thrones — raised awareness about pancreatic cancer in 2013, when he continued to tour after his own terminal diagnosis.

By mere virtue of the publicity surrounding his illness, Gord Downie has already made millions of Canadians more aware of glioblastoma and its symptoms. That may serve as little comfort to his friends and family, but the medical profession ought to be encouraged, as the disease can be treated even if it can not be cured.

More importantly, fans of The Tragically Hip now have the option of seeing him off. They have time to prepare, unlike the many millions of Cobain, Winehouse, Bowie or Prince fans who never had another crack at seeing their own favourite recording artists before they burned out or faded away.

The decision to disclose an illness is a very personal one for a public figure. Gord Downie's decision to do so, at a relatively early stage to boot, could be seen as more generous than selfish.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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