On the day Canadians digested news that Gord Downie is terminally ill, Paul Loewenberg reminisced about the first time he saw the Tragically Hip perform.
Downie, 52, announced that he has a form of brain cancer that is treatable in the short term, but is incurable and will eventually kill him.
Loewenberg, the longtime artistic director of Northern Lights Festival Boreal, said he first saw Downie and the Hip in 1988, when they were an up-and-coming, but still largely unknown band, performing at the Campbell Street Station in Sarnia.
"They were a young bar band at the time," Loewenberg said. "They were still at the point where they were the guys sitting to the left of the stage drinking a pitcher of beer before they went on stage."
From those humble beginnings, the band has become Canadian cultural icons. They have performed in Sudbury several times, most recently in 2013. Loewenberg said he spent some time with Downie in 2010.
He was touring with the Country Miracles, and brought the band to Northern Lights. Loewenberg picked him up from the airport and drove him to his hotel.
"That was the time I actually got to sit in a van with him and talk with him," he said. "He's such a normal guy."
Downie was curious about how the fishing was in Sudbury, whether the lakes were water warm enough for swimming.
"Then he took a call from his wife and talked about his daughter's soccer game,” he said. “He wanted to know if she scored a goal and why she wasn't in bed yet. It was very, very normal, suburban dad conversation.
"But his day job happened to be write eloquent poetry and entertain the country."
One of the keys to his success, Loewenberg said, is Downie tells great stories about life in Canada – the good and the bad.
"He doesn't glorify it at all ... he writes about the Maple Leafs — so he doesn't just pick the winners," he laughed. "Whatever it is, you want to tell a good story. And he tells a good story. Whether it's glorious or sad, he tells it like it is."
His favourite album is 1991's Road Apples, which he describes as “a good soundtrack to my young adulthood."
As far as favourite songs, Loewenberg said it's hard to pick just one.
" 'Fiddler's Green,' 'Courage' or 'Bobcaygeon.' They're the next best thing to Canadian anthems."
Music aside, he said Downie is another person stricken by cancer, and all the trauma and tragedy that comes with it that people here and everywhere know all too well.
"It's just a terrible thing all the way around," he said. "I wish him and his family all the best."
The band is doing a final tour this summer in support of their new album, and while dates and cities haven't been announced, Loewenberg is hoping Sudbury will be on the list (unfortunately, it isn't. See our story here).
"It would be nice to see them one last time — I'm sure that would be a show that sells out pretty quick."
He's not surprised that Downie is keeping on with his music, despite his terminal diagnosis.
"I think that's something Terry Fox taught us," he said. "It's very Canadian."