Day 6

Spirit of the West's Geoffrey Kelly on farewell tours and Gord Downie

This week The Tragically Hip revealed that lead singer Gord Downie has terminal cancer. The news hit home for Geoffrey Kelly because his band, Spirit of the West just wrapped up its own farewell tour, motivated by his friend and band-mate John Mann's diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip announced this week that the band will embark on a farewell tour this summer following his diagnosis with terminal brain cancer. The news hit home for Spirit of the West, who wrapped up a similar farewell tour last month. (Chris Wilkinson/Spinphoto )

"We're going to dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet."

That's what The Tragically Hip promised on their website this week as they announced their plans for one final tour, a gesture to fans reeling from the news that lead singer and band co-founder Gord Downie has terminal cancer.

Going deep has never been a problem for The Hip. Consistently popular, unfailingly generous to their fans, the songs that define their long career are still full of mystery and enigma. And there are more songs to come. The soon-to-be released album Man Machine Poem, will be their 13th album .

Downie's doctors say they've been treating him for months and so the songs from Man Machine Poem, which will undoubtedly be played on the summer tour, will be interpreted through Downie's illness.

On the first single from Man Machine Poem, "In A World Possessed By The Human Mind", Downie sings:

Everything is quiet

A little super dangerous

Quiet enough to hear God rustlin' around in the bushes

Oh, but it was you

Girl, I was so afraid

You said, You shoulda seen the look on yer face.'

Neurologist Dr. James Perry, who has been treating Downie said at a news conference he is impressed by the decision the band made to tour and said he believes it will fight the stigma around brain tumours. 

"For most of my patients it's daunting to reveal your diagnosis," Dr. Perry said, "let alone somebody who is truly a national treasure."

A public person, a public decision

Gord Downie has not spoken publicly about his illness so we don't know how difficult it was for him to make the decision to say a public good-bye. But he's not alone.

When David Bowie was dying of liver cancer, he chose to share his ruminations about dying on his final album, Blackstar. Bowie didn't tour, but with the video to "Lazarus", he literally brought his fans to his bedside.

Artists who've lived their lives in public, who've thrived before a live audience, find themselves asking a difficult question: how do you say good-bye to the people for whom you created your work, who bought your albums, who love your music?

John Mann, co-founder of the band Spirit of the West, faced the same tough choices. In 2014 Mann revealed he'd been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. Last year the band announced they would play a series of final shows as Mann's condition made it harder for him to perform. It signaled an end to over three decades of music making.

John Mann, frontman for Canadian Celtic rock band Spirit of the West, is grappling with early onset of Alzheimer's at the age of 52. (Hot Docs/Bell Media)
The end feeling, I would say for all of us, was just one of, kind of euphoria. Which maybe sounds strange when something so wonderful is coming to an end, but it couldn't have ended in a more beautiful way.- Geoffrey Kelly, co-founder of Spirit of The West

Geoffrey Kelly, co-founder of Spirit of the West says he can imagine the conflicting emotions running among members of The Tragically Hip.

"There's just so many layers, for all the fellas in the band. It's the end of something that, like us, has been going for 30 years. That's a really long time to be together as a band," he tells host Brent Bambury on CBC Day 6.

"They've just been this great little band of brothers."

A compulsion to play

Kelly says he understands why The Hip would want to play their new songs live and points out that Downie is a compulsive creator, a generous artist who often performs on other people's albums. He doesn't imagine Downie simply walking away.

"Thirty years of his life has been with that band and I'm sure he does not want to go quietly."

But a final tour is difficult. For Spirit of the West, sensitivity to things like scheduling and time zones had to be exercised so John Mann didn't become overly tired. Remembering his experience, Kelly predicts The Hip will have an emotional summer.

Spirit of the West played their final shows in Vancouver this past April in the midst of lead singer John Mann's very public struggles with early onset Alzheimer's disease. (Alec Watson)

"It was sad at times, it was also incredibly uplifting and I think The Hip will go through all of that as well. They''ll find this undercurrent of sadness but in the end it will be the most uplifting thing."

"The end feeling, I would say for all of us, was just one of, kind of euphoria. Which maybe sounds strange when something so wonderful is coming to an end, but it couldn't have ended in a more beautiful way."

The Tragically Hip's final tour opens in Victoria on July 22nd .