Winnipeg Tragically Hip cover band singer battles terminal cancer

When Darren Sawchuk sings “There’s no dress rehearsal, this is our life,” the words hold a new meaning.

Darren Sawchuk says iconic Canadian rock band wrote soundtrack to his life

Winnipeg musician with terminal cancer hopes to get on stage with the Tragically Hip

6 years ago
Duration 2:28
Darren Sawchuk says the iconic Canadian rock band has been the soundtrack to his life

When Darren Sawchuk sings "There's no dress rehearsal, this is our life," the words hold a new meaning.

The Winnipeg lawyer plays in Tragically Hip cover band 59 Divide, but he has more than a melody in common with his musical idol: Sawchuk also has untreatable cancer.

"When you hear lyrics to Ahead by a Century … really, those that are given a warning signal that you only have a certain amount of time left, you do what you can during that time to make the most of every day," he said.

In May, the band announced on its website that Gord Downie, the lead singer and lyricist of the iconic Canadian rock band, has terminal brain cancer. The band nevertheless went ahead with planning a cross-country tour in support of their album Man Machine Poem and will play in Winnipeg on Friday.

Darren Sawchuk sings in a Winnipeg-based Tragically Hip cover band. (CBC)
Sawchuk hopes he can get on stage and sing with Downie, although he'll be happy to just watch from his front row seats, he said.

The show will be memorable for many reasons, including the shared journey through terminal cancer.

Sawchuck was told in March that his cancer couldn't be treated.

"There is a certain connection that you have with other people who have received that kind of diagnosis, and I immediately felt for his close family and friends and for what they are going through."

Sawchuk was hooked with the 1989 release of the Hip's first full-length album, Up to Here.

"They were kind of like Canadian grunge, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll with rhythm and blues underneath it and great lyrics," Sawchuk said.

As each album came out and Downie and the boys told great Canadian stories with songs such as Bobcaygeon, At the Hundredth Meridian and Ahead by a Century, Sawchuk followed along. It wasn't enough just to listen; the Winnipegger also had to play. He formed the cover band with friends and it became an anchor through all of life's changes. 

"The soundtrack of my life has included the opportunity to play their music with a great group of friends, so every time we get a chance to get together, we celebrate their music," he said.

Drummer Kristjan Kristjansson says he was a hair metal guy listening to Van Halen when Darren Sawchuk introduced him to the Hip. (CBC)

Drummer Kristjan Kristjansson said he was a hair metal guy listening to Van Halen when Sawchuk introduced him to the Hip.

"Truth is that Darren's our [Gord] Downie, so my relationship with the Hip was through Darren," Kristjansson said.

"We had built our relationship based on this music, so it adds to the importance of this week."

Holding back tears, Kristjansson said he's proud of the strength his friend has shown. Although their cover band might just seem like a hobby, it is so much more, he said.

"We are just playing music and having fun, but it's important," he said.

Kristjan Kristjansson hopes to see Darren on stage with Gord Downie

6 years ago
Duration 1:51
Darren Sawchuk is the lead singer of a Hip cover band that is battling terminal cancer. His bandmates hope he can share the stage with the Tragically Hip when they perform in the city on Friday.

Sawchuk said his dream is to sing harmony when the Hip launch into Wheat Kings at the concert, but he's "not counting his chickens."

As he prepares to watch his hero with whom he shares so much, Sawchuk said it's important to always have hope.

"I'm not counting Gord down and out, and I'm not counting myself down and out. I hope that there are lots of these last tours to come," he said.

59 Divide will host a cancer treatment and research fundraiser for Sawchuk at Jekyll & Hyde's on Osborne Street at Stradbrook Avenue on Thursday at 8 p.m. CT.