Ailing Rock Heroes Leaving Gifts Before They Go

gorddowniebanner“And nothing in this life that I’ve been trying / Could equal or surpass the art of dying”– George Harrison


You may have heard that The Tragically Hip ended their “farewell” tour last weekend in Kingston, Ontario. The final concert was broadcast live across Canada and almost 12 million Canadians watched, which is equivalent to about 110 million Americans. The night was billed as a “National Celebration” of the Hip, and it definitely was that.

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The tour was not called a farewell tour because nobody could be 100% certain that it was. But when the band’s frontman Gord Downie announced in the Spring that he was suffering from inoperable brain cancer, everybody understood what this tour likely represented. Most of us are uncomfortable talking about death, but when it comes to our Rock heroes, we better start getting used to it.

We’ve seen a spate of Rock artist deaths this year, and since most classic rockers are well into their seventies, I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot more soon enough. This will certainly include a lot of terminal illnesses leading to death, which is a terrible situation for anybody, and even more complicated when you’re an artist in public view.

There’s no right or wrong way for an artist to deal with a terminal illness. Already this year we’ve seen two very different approaches, both shining examples that only enhanced the dignity and the grace of each artist.

David Bowie’s approach was to keep his illness completely secret. I suspect most artists would choose to go this route when their number’s been called. Stay out of the spotlight, don’t let people see you (you don’t want to talk about it anyway), concentrate on treatments and stay close to home, friends and family.

For Bowie his diagnosis also triggered a flood of creative energy and the desire to get as much done as possible, while he still could. He recorded a ton of material, including an album that dealt head-on with life and death. Blackstar ended up being a beautiful gift to his fans, and to the world, and there may still be more new Bowie material coming. What a generous and honorable way to leave us.

Doing what you love, and giving as much of yourself while you still can, are surely two major considerations for those artists whose time on this planet is limited.

Gord Downie’s response was completely different than Bowie’s: Tell the truth matter-of-factly – nothing maudlin, no fishing for sympathy – and then prepare to get out there and perform the best fucking concert tour of your lifetime, while you still can.

It’s all about doing what you love, right? Bowie’s real home was in the studio. Gord Downie seems truly at home when he’s on the concert stage. When he’s performing he looks like an unhinged clairvoyant meticulously editing the collective unconscious of his audience. You can tell he’s in his element.

It takes an awful lot of courage and resolve to perform a swan song tour. You’re running the risk that you’re not going to be as good as you want to be, especially if you’re dealing with health issues. As it was, Downie had to take 5-minute breaks every half hour during the shows to save his strength, and his doctor was always at hand.

Well the tour was a massive success by any measure, selling out large arenas multiple nights in cities across Canada. A big chunk of the proceeds are going to brain cancer research. Most importantly, the band left absolutely everything they had on the stage, and it was magnificent. What a beautiful, unforgettable gift for their fans.

The last concert was a powerful experience. After the second encore the rest of the band left the stage while Downie stood alone for a minute or two in front of the wildly cheering crowd, not smiling, not weeping — more like a calm expression of relief, and gratitude, and love.

As he left the stage he said to the crowd “Have a nice life”. Under any other circumstance that’s a line tossed off and forgotten. But on this night, this was classic Canadian understatement that said so much. What a generous and honorable way to leave the public stage — at the very top of your game.

i’m sure there were other Rock artists who decided to get busy and get out there and do everything they could after receiving diagnosis of a terminal illness. Warren Zevon comes to mind, who set to work on his beautiful and poignant album The Wind, and made a memorable, one-hour appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Again, the man was a beacon of courage and generosity when faced with death.

So help me out here. Can you think of any other artists who prepared to leave the planet in such an honorable way?

Photo – Gord Downie; credit: By Sarah Naegels from Ottawa, Canada ( – image description page) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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