|Gordon Edgar Downie would have made this album eventually. “Eventually” just came to Gordon Edgar Downie with inconsiderate haste.
This is it, however. This, as decreed by fate, is the last one. Away Is Mine is Gord Downie’s final solo recording, a characteristically questing and idiosyncratic piece of work steered to life by “my oldest Toronto friend,” guitarist and co-writer Josh Finlayson, that holds fast to its author’s unwavering artistic spirit, deft hand with words and forever inscrutable sense of humour even as he locks eyes head-on with the Great Inevitability. Like all of the music and the poetry and the memories and the mad genius with which Gord gifted us during his 53 years on our planet, it is immortal. And yet it took a fearless reckoning with his own mortality to get us here.
Don’t give into the “sads,” though. There’s joy to be found within Away Is Mine despite the grim undercurrent gnawing away at its conception and its unguarded lyric sheet: joy in friendships, joy in family, joy in collaboration, joy in writing, joy in music and joy in mystery. Also, you hold in your hands right now another superb Gord Downie record – one as singular and unpredictable and challenging and worthy of your prolonged, scholarly appraisal and/or simple enjoyment as Coke Machine Glow or Battle of the Nudes or The Grand Bounce or Gord Downie, The Sadies, and the Conquering Sun or Secret Path or Introduce Yerself – and that, in itself, should be cause for joy. Everyone involved in the making of Away Is Mine refers to it as “a gift,” and rightly so; if you were fortunate enough to have your imagination captured by Gordon Edgar Downie during his lifetime, rest assured these recordings will capture and captivate it again.
First, some context: Gord Downie, longtime frontman for a rock-‘n’-roll band of some repute from Kingston, Ontario, called The Tragically Hip, allowed it known to the world on May 24, 2016, that he had been stricken the previous December with an inoperable form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma. Despite having already weathered two cranial surgeries and enduring regular, debilitating radiation and chemotherapy treatments to prolong his life, he nevertheless then embarked against all good medical advice that July on a history-making cross-Canada tour with his friends and bandmates of more than 30 years – unflinchingly dancing in costume astride the Jaws of death onstage each night – in support of The Hip’s final album, Man Machine Poem, that concluded with a hometown show at Kingston’s K-Rock Arena on Aug. 20 watched live via the CBC by roughly one-third of the Canadian population.
During that epochal performance Gord called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance, to finally do something about the Canadian government’s historically dismal institutional and physical treatment of the country’s Indigenous peoples. He had an ace up his sleeve, too: Secret Path, a searing song cycle about the short, doomed life of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishnawbe boy who froze to death next to a Northern Ontario railway line in October of 1966 while trying to walk 600 kilometres home to his family from a residential school in Kenora. Recorded in 2013 but set aside for just the right moment of impact, it was released in October of 2016 along with a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire and an animated CBC special to ensure that a much-needed national conversation about reconciliation knocked onto the mainstream-media radar in Kingston wasn’t going away. If you happened to catch one of the shattering Secret Path shows he subsequently performed in Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax that fall, you’d be forgiven for thinking Gord Downie might actually be that one superhuman being able to draw sufficient strength from his commitment to his art and his music and his message to defy the odds stacked against him.
The downtime after this period of furious activity was, in reality, somewhat darker. Gord had busied himself though the winter immediately following his diagnosis in late 2015 by penning the 23 heartfelt farewell letters to loved ones, Lake Ontario and the Boston Bruins that would become Introduce Yerself – an emotional deluge of a double-album that younger brother Patrick Downie views in hindsight as “kind of the ‘freakout’” – well before the nationwide mania over The Tragically Hip’s unspoken “farewell” tour and the Secret Path phenomenon took over. But, as the lights faded and the calendar ticked over to a new winter in 2017, his plan to perhaps pen a book before his eroding memory and mental capacities gave out was proving unfulfilling.
“He was working on what was loosely a book although, in classic Gord fashion, there was a spin on it that was unique. But I think, ultimately, he found that a little too isolating – ‘too much time with himself’ was what he said to me,” says Finlayson, who met and grew “easily” close with Gord after opening for The Tragically Hip in Ottawa and Montreal with The Skydiggers in 1990 and eventually went on to play a vital role in 2001’s Coke Machine Glow and pretty much every other Downie project to follow. “So we talked about making a record, just to do some more of what he loved to do. I knew it was a great distraction and I knew he was happy working.”
“He worked to stay sane, but he always worked to stay sane. It was just about the work, always. He was just a workhorse,” recalls Patrick. “He had this really crazy energy. He was in a sort of ‘fight’ mode and really gung-ho to work and then the disease and the treatment kinda kicked in and then he came back from that, rehabilitated himself enough to get up and do a whole tour with the Hip and then kept that momentum going into Secret Path and that gave him something. And that’s when Joshie came along, not really trying to force anything but knowing that was his only source of strength, I guess. It was just something to work on and not stare out the windows contemplating when the bus was gonna come, which was always the subtext.”
Finlayson served in the Secret Path touring band alongside the album’s co-creators, Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene and Dave Hamelin of the Stills, as well as Barenaked Ladies’ Kevin Hearn and Charles Spearin of BSS and Do Make Say Think. Two of the songs in that set list, “The Stranger” and “Son,” had required an “open-C” guitar tuning, a musical device employed by everyone from Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith to Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden over the years that’s no more complicated than it sounds: the six open strings of the guitar are tuned to play a C-major chord when strummed.
Simply because “I have too many guitars,” Finlayson had left one sitting around his place tuned to an open C ever since the tour wrapped up. He kept picking it up, increasingly intrigued as a guitar player and a songwriter by the complicated potentialities lurking behind the open C’s uncomplicated facade. So, during one of his regular trips to Gord’s place to check in and listen to records and talk music after the holidays, he floated the idea of using that very same tuning as a creative parameter for some new songs. Gord was game and, in late April of 2017, “we just started.”
“I’d get up, I’d come up with an idea and I’d send it to him from my phone.They were all short, typically just three parts and under two minutes because, y’know, you do one or two songs in an open tuning and then you’re, like, ‘Okay, what the fuck do I do now?’” chuckles Finlayson. “And usually, anywhere from within 30 minutes to two hours, he’d send something back with a lyric and a melody. There really wasn’t a plan to make a record. The whole thing was that I knew this was a great way to spend time with Gord – listening to music, talking about music, talking about things that we’d always talked about – and this just evolved pretty organically. And I think once the open-tuning idea came along it gave it a sense of purpose and gave it a context. Half the lyrics were already there and he wanted to use them.”
The pair knocked out 10 tunes on Finlayson’s phone and Gord’s laptop over little more than a week and that could have been that: a homespun, lo-fi DIY record in and of itself. But then Gord suggested they head to The Tragically Hip’s lakeside Bathouse studio and turn it into a real record with the help of in-house engineer Nyles Spencer, who’d proven himself something of a sonic savant during the sessions for Secret Path, Introduce Yerself and Man Machine Poem. And that’s exactly what they did over four days beginning on July 17, 2017.
Welcome to the results.
Away Is Mine is presented to you in both “electric” and “acoustic” versions. They could be mistaken for two entirely different recordings, and yet they are actually one and the same. “They are the same record,” avows Spencer. “Just different mixes.” Finlayson asked for the “acoustic” versions after the fact “purely for selfish reasons,” as personal mementos, but their standalone value has since grown clear to all who’ve heard them. They stand on equal footing. And that is why they are presented to you here in electric and acoustic versions.
Here, laid bare, is the process. Here is a document of an artist disappearing into his art, essentially becoming his art, through that process. Although Gord Downie was the lead singer for arguably the most celebrated rock act in Canadian history, he was always just as willing to egolessly dissolve into “the band” – be it the Cancon-indie “supergroup” convened as the Country of Miracles for Battle of the Nudes and The Grand Bounce, longtime pals The Sadies on ...And the Conquering Sun or the studio and stage combos that brought Secret Path to life – in his solo adventures as he was in The Tragically Hip.
He and Finlayson re-recorded the 10 tracks comprising Away Is Mine in a burst of multiple live takes over roughly a weekend, completing four songs on the first day, four more on the second and two more on the third. Spencer was given license to do what he would with the raw material at hand, transforming it all – often in real time – through judicious application of drum loops, atmospheric synths, vocal effects and, as Finlayson puts it, the general “madness that he was getting going there in his kitchen” into the otherworldly end product at hand. The Sadies’ Travis Good, another cherished friend and “go to” accompanist trusted implicitly since the Coke Machine Glow days, rode out to Bath to sprinkle fiddle, mandolin and various guitar parts over the original recordings, while longtime Bathouse overseer Dave “Billy Ray” Koster and Gord’s then-teenage son, Lou Downie, were invited to contribute live drum parts further sliced and diced by Spencer into the final mixes. The songs went where they would. As Spencer puts it: “Because of the amount of pure instinct being utilized, there was a lot of flying by the seat of our pants, I guess.”
A simple, phantasmal folk tune like “Useless Nights” – wherein Gord modestly requests that history or the Unknown or whatever nebulous arbiter he had on his crowded mind at the time “Please, be good to me” – could thus wring an honest-to-goodness, swaggerin’ earworm from a head-on appraisal of the ultimate existential question “What am I here for?” once a little Keith Richards swing was dropped, via Good, into the picture. “About Blank” could coax even more sardonic bite from its ambiguous “Come be surrounded / By those who love you the most” refrain as it morphed from a plaintive bluegrass picker into a bizarrely upbeat electro-hoedown that nevertheless still takes an unsettling dive into the ether as quickly as it erupts. “The Least Impossible” could gild its central mantra of “I try not to try / I try not to know / Up until thought itself / Asks ‘Where do you go?’” with an unexpectedly nihilistic industrial
buzz. “I Am Lost” could find dub-like buoyancy in naked acoustic blues pondering “whether you hate, hate me or not” against “the waste, the glory, the vast debris,” the lullaby “River Don’t Care” a similarly deceptive and easygoing groove through which to accept that the river of time “don’t care” what any of us “write for it” or “cast into it.” And “Untitled” ... well, “Untitled” will ruin you in the final dissolve either way you approach it.
“A lot of it was in the moment, and that was a major goal – to just roll the dice and then be, like, ‘I like it’ or ‘No, that doesn’t work.’ There was effort on my part to try to remove myself from making thought-based decisions and go on natural instinct more,” says Spencer. “I felt that was important, especially when Gord wasn’t there, to just do/be/act and then, with perspective, just vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a part or a sound after it had been there for a minute.
“Mind you, there was one thing that I was keeping in my mind as we worked on this: I really thought it should sound like it’s coming from the future. My thinking behind that was, for one thing, I had no idea when it would come out and thought it probably wouldn’t come out for awhile so I should try to make it sound ‘ahead of the times’ somehow. But I also wanted it to sound like it was coming from another world, from the future, from a place we don’t know...”
The elephant in the room was never expressly acknowledged during the sessions, as much as it might have been expressly addressed in the poetry spilling forth from Gord’s pen. You have the lyrics at your disposal. “No one says ‘goodbye’ anymore / For fear that’ll be ‘goodbye.’” “I don’t want the dark / I don’t want the end / Don’t even want the dark preview.” “Fighting’s going nowhere.” “You’re walking me to the door / For what was it again?” Live with them as you will. Perpetually overwritten, they were never cast as absolutes in the first place.
“Gord and I started right away as soon as we arrived and we didn’t totally know what to expect, y’know?” says Finlayson. “Certainly with his short-term memory through all of this, the Hip tour and the Secret Path shows, he’d have days where he’d forget arrangements or whatever. But we just kinda went straight into it and, remarkably, that muscle was so well developed and so incredible – well, we’ve all seen what he did – that I think it gave him a real purpose. We just got to work, and that was also a familiar place for us. In a lot of ways, it was very workmanlike. It’s not like we were burning incense and lighting candles and having drum circles out in the driveway of the Bathouse. It was just like any other record or tour or whatever I would have done with Gord. It was all there. You just had to be present. And that was a real gift from him. When it mattered, he was very present. And I remember thinking of that when we were recording this record, saying that very thing to Billy Ray: ‘Gord could very well be the one who defies this.’ But lo and behold, we were there for four days, and really the next week things changed. His health changed.”
“I found him to be pretty quiet. And now, looking back, it was kind of the ‘last gasp’ almost because when Gord got this one done, Gord went irretrievably downhill,” concurs Patrick. “Almost to the day we got back to Toronto, there’s no way he would have been able to do it. Things just went really far south, just in terms of that kind of function.
“In the moment, I can’t really know how I felt, but I know in retrospect it’s magic how all these things fell into place. At a certain point, we knew. And that was the toughest part, right? You just don’t know. The odds are not great, you try not to focus on the stats because, as cliché as it may be, it really is: ‘Today and right now, he’s fine, relatively speaking. He can function as if things are normal.’ But looking back, when I listen, I’m thinking about his state of mind when all this was going on and there were a lot of dark days. He didn’t want to be on any kind of, as he would say, ‘death watch,’ either. So I think he was kind of unknowingly doing a bit of an ‘Irish exit’ and keeping the people that he wanted or needed or felt he needed to keep in his orbit by working or setting up the potential of working together.”
Gord Downie left us on Oct. 17, 2017. He really didn’t stop throwing all he had at that uncaring river, stop trying to make sense of all the “ineffable shit” until the end. Here is the proof. Away Is Mine is an open-ended invitation to contemplation – an invitation to think about the creative process, to think about the nature of creation from every angle, to think about things you maybe don’t want to think about. All of these songs end abruptly. But all things end abruptly. History will be good to Gordon Edgar Downie.
Ben Rayner, August 2020