Gord Downie remembered as 'kind, gentle person'

Nova Scotia's Joel Plaskett, who toured with the Tragically Hip, calls Downie an inspiration.

'I think he represents something collective to everybody but also something different to everybody too'

Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie takes part in an honouring ceremony at the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly in Gatineau, Que., in December 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When Nova Scotia's Joel Plaskett would watch Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie on stage, he would relish how someone could create music with mass appeal that stayed true to their "unusual" artistic idiosyncrasies.

But behind the scenes, he also knew Downie as a man with a gentle way, someone who wasn't a big talker but who usually had something interesting and insightful to say when he did.

Plaskett is one of the countless Canadians paying tribute to Downie, who died Tuesday at 53, nearly two years after he was first diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable brain cancer.

"What I find so remarkable is just how Gord has spent the last year of his life, the last several years," Plaskett told CBC's Maritime Noon.

Despite his diagnosis, Downie and his band announced in May 2016 the ambitious Man Machine Poem Tour, with more than a dozen stops last year.

He also spoke out about the plight of Canada's Indigenous people, and last fall released the multimedia project Secret Path

Secret Path project told the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home from a residential school near Kenora, Ont., 50 years ago.

Mike Campbell, owner of The Carleton in Halifax, says being in the public spotlight during his final months took courage and stamina.

"As Canadians, I think we can all agree that if that is what someone like Gord Downie has decided to spend his final working months doing, then we should be paying attention to it," he said.

Gord Downie performs during the first stop of the Man Machine Poem Tour in Victoria, B.C. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Campbell met Downie while he was working at MuchMusic, and later booked the Tragically Hip for a show on Canada Day in Ottawa in 1987.

More than being a "spectacular lyricist" and performer, Campbell said Downie always looked out for the next generation of Canadian songwriters.

"They didn't just sort of revel in their own performance experience. They tried to make sure they brought others along for the ride," said Campbell. 

"He was a quintessential Canadian. He spoke to Canadians the way few artists have and I can't really think of anyone who was like him before he came along, and I don't really see anyone on the horizon who's going to have that sort of impact."

On Wednesday, cartoonist Michael de Adder shared what's become an iconic image of the band — a Canadian flag made up of Tragically Hip lyrics. 

"They wrote about things that only we got. I don't think many Americans would write a song about Bobby Orr and your first girlfriend. But Gord Downie did," said de Adder, who followed the band for years, starting with one of their first concerts in Moncton, N.B., when there were just four people at the bar. 

He said it didn't take long to come up with the concept for the cartoon.

"I wanted to reflect on what he did for Canada, and I guess the lyrics are what I came up with," he said. 

Plaskett, who has toured with Downie and the Tragically Hip, said he heard the news of Downie's death after flying home from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L.

"I think it's a hard day for a lot of people," said Plaskett. "Didn't want it to be inevitable, but that diagnosis was there and we all knew he was up against that."

Plaskett remembers Downie as an artist with an "unusual" style.

"I think he represents something collective to everybody but also something different to everybody too, you know, everybody's got their favourite song full of memories," he said.

"I think that the word gentleman was kind of invented to describe people like Gord Downie. He was a really kind, gentle person."

With files from Emma Smith and Carolyn Ray