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Gord Downie, singer for Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, dies at 53

Gord Downie, singer for Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, dies at 53
Gord Downie, shown in Toronto in 2016, has died at 53. (Chris Young / Associated Press)

Gord Downie, the singer for the Tragically Hip and one of Canada's most beloved rock musicians, died Tuesday night, according to an official statement from the band. He was 53.

Downie had been previously diagnosed with glioblastoma, an incurable brain cancer. The disease was discovered after a 2015 seizure.

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The band, one of the most popular and defining Canadian groups of the last 30 years, embarked on a goodbye tour after the diagnosis, playing its final sold-out show in its hometown of Kingston, Ontario, last summer.

"Gord knew this day was coming — his response was to spend this precious time as he always had — making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss … on the lips," the band said in its official statement.

"Gord said he had lived many lives," it continued. "As a musician, he lived 'the life' for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one."

Formed in the mid-1980s by then-university students Downie and guitarist Rob Baker, the band took their name from a comedy sketch in former Monkee Michael Nesmith's oddball experimental film "Elephant Parts." After signing to MCA Records a few years later, the Tragically Hip released its eponymous first EP in 1987.

The band quickly rose within the ranks of Canadian rock bands. Its first album, "Up to Here," sold over 100,000 copies in Canada, and its follow-up, "Road Apples," surpassed 300,000 copies.

In those years, the Tragically Hip relentlessly toured Canada and made jaunts to Europe, but never seemed too concerned with breaking into the U.S. scene.

Unlike chart-busting Juno Award winners of the time including Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Rush and Alanis Morrisette, while the Tragically Hip was earning Junos — its first was as most promising band in 1990 — Downie and company waited until they were established up north before dipping down to test the waters.

The band's multiplatinum 1996 album, "Trouble at the Henhouse," earned them their first album of the year Juno. As with most of his lyrics, Downie on "Henhouse" found beauty in the tiny wonders of life while exploring big questions of existence.

"Gift Shop" views the world from above, a macroscopic ode to what he describes as "the beautiful lull, the dangerous tug" of life. Singing as if soaring in the clouds, he adds, "We get to feel small/From high up above/And after a glimpse/Over the top/The rest of the world/Becomes a gift shop."

The group was a favorite across Canada for its mix of hard-swinging rock and Downie's allusive lyrics that remained focused on Canadian identity and issues even as the band saw international success. In his last months, he remained an outspoken advocate for indigenous rights, addressing injustices in songs like "Now the Struggle Has a Name."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the edge of tears, read a statement after Downie's death, saying, "For almost five decades, Gord Downie uncovered and told the stories of Canada. He was the frontman of one of Canada's most iconic bands, a rock star, artist, and poet whose evocative lyrics came to define a country."

"Gord's command of language was profound. He painted landscapes with his words, elevating Canadian geography, historical figures and myths," Trudeau continued. "When he spoke, he gave us goosebumps and made us proud to be Canadian. Our identity and culture are richer because of his music, which was always raw and honest — like Gord himself."

For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

2:25 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the history of the Tragically Hip.

This article was originally published at 10 a.m.

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