The Tragically Hip, Facing a Terminal Diagnosis for Singer Gord Downie, Forges Ahead with Summer Tour

Gordon Hawkins
Tragically Hip

Iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip will perform what is expected to be their final tour this summer, following lead singer Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. 

The quintet, together since 1984 and whose Canuck-centered songs are as integral to the nation’s identity as, yes, hockey and maple syrup, will be touring behind their 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem (out June 17 on Universal Music Canada). Produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and The Stills’ Dave Hamelin, it was written and recorded before Downie’s illness.

“This is what these guys do,” said co-manager Patrick Sambrook at a May 24 press conference held at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “So when this started to happen, [the tour] was certainly a goal. The band had a new record that they’re really proud of and, knowing Gord, he was like, ‘I want to go play these songs for people.”

News of Downie’s illness and grave prognosis was made public earlier that morning on The Tragically Hip’s website in a joint statement from guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, drummer Johnny Fay and Downie. "Hello friends. We have some very tough news to share with you today, and we wish it wasn’t so,” it begins, before revealing Downie's diagnosis. “In privacy along with his family, and through all of this, we’ve been standing by him. 

“So after 30-some years together as The Tragically Hip, thousands of shows, and hundreds of tours…We’ve decided to do another one. This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.

“What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and it’s magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans. So, we’re going to dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet.”

As word spread, tributes, well-wishes and Hip stories flooded social media. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years,” adding the hashtag #Courage after one of the Hip’s best-known songs.                                               

At the press conference, neurologist Dr. James Perry, and The Hip’s managers Bernie Breen and Sambrook provided more information and took questions from the media for a half-hour and said these would be the only public statements going forward about Downie’s health.

“It is my difficult duty today to tell you Gord Downie's tumor is incurable,” Perry said, explaining that it’s a primary brain tumor that begins in the brain and is “infiltrative by nature, so they’re impossible to remove completely by surgery.” 

Downie, 52, learned of the tumor in December when he suffered a seizure while visiting his hometown of Kingston, Ontario. A subsequent MRI revealed the diagnosis in his left temporal lobe. Dr. DJ Cook at Kingston General Hospital removed the majority of the tumor and Downie was then treated with radiation and chemotherapy.  Called glioblastoma, it is the same form of brain cancer Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden’s son, Beau, had, said Perry. 

“The post-treatment MRI shows substantially less brain swelling…[and] only minimal amount of residual tumor visible on the scans at this point,” said Perry, who then cleared the way for Downie to return to work.

“You can imagine what a position I was in to give advice to one of the most iconic individuals in the country and a task such as a tour across the country,” said Perry. “He’s doing very well. They’ve started rehearsing. I was lucky enough to see a few of those and they’re very good.”

Presented by Live Nation and booked by The Feldman Agency, the 11-date arena tour starts July 22 in Victoria, B.C. and ends in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ont., on Aug. 20. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Sunnybrook Foundation.

Sambrook said Downie’s headspace going into the tour is what it’s always been: “We want to blow people’s minds.”