This morning, at breakfast, I had the following exchange with my husband.
Me: You know what I think about Gord Downie?
Him (without taking his eyes off of his computer screen): He's the poet of our generation?
(This is true. That is my position. I have claimed it and defended it a thousand times.)
Me: Yeah, yeah. Of course. No. I was thinking, he never throws a line away. Never. You know that song, On the Verge? You know that line: The Man, the Legend, the Goat, the Satyr? How perfect is that? Just that tiny little line. Could have been anything. With Gord Downie, it is never just anything. It is always the exact thing. No song, no line he has written could have been written by anyone else.
I remember hearing Paul Simon say, in an interview -- I am paraphrasing from memory -- that his ambition was to write songs where you never knew, lyrically, what was coming next. You know songs where you can predict what the next line will be? Paul Simon was not interested in that kind of song.
For me, this is what identifies The Great in songwriting: not knowing what will come next and then when it comes, knowing it could not be anything else. Jeff Tweedy is like this. Elvis Costello. Van Morrison (though you can usually bet on some rain). David Bowie. Lou Reed. And Gord Downie is like this.
Of course he has made some of the greatest, most moving, most defining Canadian stories into beautiful songs (38 years old and Wheat Kings, Fifty-Mission Cap, Born in the Water, etc.) but his triumph is more than content. It is perfect form.
I am thinking not only of the obvious home runs,
(like boots or hearts, oh when they start, they really fall apart
fingers and toes, fingers and toes, the forty things we share
forty-one if you include the fact that we don't care
Famous last words taken all wrong, wind up on the very same pile
2.50 for a decade, and a buck and half for a year)
or the heartbreakers and haunters about love gone wrong,
(Now that we've hammered the last spike and we've punched the railroad through, thought there'd be more to say, thought there'd be more to do
And happy days of electrical smiles and loving evenings falling down in piles and not imagining a restlessness that could keep us apart
And me cake-drunk in the middle, crying what could never happen to us is happening to us.
or simply: you are ahead by a century and disappointing you's getting me down)
about the terrible vulnerability of being a parent
(And if you're trick-riding out in the rain, don't expect me to watch, don't ask me to explain)
or about getting older
(when are you thinking of disappearing? when there's nothing but heartache in your social life?
But the magical and ominous
(she was always like that, even as a kid, secret and apologetic, quiet like a deer
There's a cruel, crumpling sound from over yonder by the steeplechase. It's a sound of coming down like horses slamming on the brakes.)
And the just astonishingly good. How about this?
"Crazy daisies and wooden stars, the threat of oxygen on Mars, marching armies in the night, smiling strangers riding by on bikes. Children smoking, sloganeers on mics, just a few things most vampires don't like."
How could that be more perfect? It is a list of things vampires don't like. Even better, it is a list of things most vampires don't like. So, some vampires don't mind these things. And the precision of the list lends some qualities to vampires you might not expect: care for children's health, queasiness about life on other planets, etc. It is pretty, funny, absurd, entertaining and its rhythm and rhyme is flawless.
I could go on all day.
The song, Pillform, is an absolutely perfect poem that appears to concisely summarize all of human history. The song, Chancellor: also perfect.
He says he is dying. I try not to believe it. There will not be another one like him. I am grateful for every word.