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December 8, 2008

I wasn’t certain whether I was in Winnipeg because of the Weakerthans, or whether I cared about the Weakerthans because I care about Winnipeg.


The bar downstairs at Wellington’s on Albert Street in Winnipeg wears its history on the walls. It has a sunken dance floor surrounded by glowing purple neon tubes from the club’s disco days. The fake spiderwebs draped over the wrought-iron chandelier near the bar are from when it was a goth place. Before that, twenty years ago, Wellington’s was where local punk bands played; there are probably still some holes in the walls from back then.

On the February night I visited, Winnipeg was in the middle of a mild spell, only a few degrees below zero outside; T-shirt weather for Winnipeg. I was sitting at a square black table with a square black ashtray on top of it, watching a band go through their sound check. Behind me the bartenders were setting up, unloading cases of beer and jamming quick-pour nozzles into bottles of whisky and rum.

There were four people on stage, four white men in their late twenties and early thirties playing electric guitar and bass and drums. The shortest and skinniest one was standing in the middle, in front of a microphone, a guitar strapped around his neck. He was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans rolled up at the bottom in a single wide fold, like a farmer. His hair was dyed blond, or at least part of it was, and he had a smile on his face that sometimes seemed confident and sometimes seemed nervous. His name, I knew from reading the back of the cd, was John K. Samson, and the band was called the Weakerthans.

At the back of the room the sound guy adjusted some knobs and the band launched into a song called “Left and leaving.” It starts with a finger-picked guitar and a single voice singing:

My city’s still breathing
(but barely, it’s true)
through buildings
gone missing like teeth

Back in my tiny apartment in New York City, those lyrics are written in ballpoint pen on a scrap of yellow lined paper and stuck to the side of my refrigerator with a souvenir magnet of the World Trade Center. When I wrote them down and magneted them up last fall, it was because they felt to me as though they were about New York during its season of loss, though even then I knew that they were not; they were about Winnipeg. Every Weakerthans song is about Winnipeg.

Winnipeg matters to me because my sister lives there. As I have moved from city to city and job to job over the last decade, she has stayed put, a minister and a homeowner, drilling roots down into the permafrost. Listening to the Weakerthans in my apartment last winter, I found myself wanting to visit. Now I wasn’t certain, sitting at my table watching the band warm up, whether I was in Winnipeg because of the Weakerthans, or whether I cared about the Weakerthans because I care about Winnipeg. But I knew I was trying to figure something out about home: what it means to love or hate where you live, how to write about a place, how to claim a home with words.

Toward the end of my Winnipeg trip, I came across this passage in a book by Joan Didion:

Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner, and one hot July week in Oxford I was moved to spend an afternoon walking the graveyard looking for his stone, a kind of courtesy call on the owner of the property. A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.

Reading that, I wondered if my visit to Wellington’s was a courtesy call, too, though the owner of this property is still alive: in fact, John Samson is only twenty-nine. When the sound check was over, I introduced myself and asked if he had a moment to talk about Winnipeg and the Weakerthans and he said, all right, let me just get a light. We found a table in a back room that looked as though it dated from yet another Wellington’s incarnation: it had mirrors and purple neon lights just like the dance floor, but all along the walls, up high near the ceiling, there were vaguely erotic drawings of cartoon cats with large breasts, wearing space suits.

I first heard the Weakerthans in the fall of 1999, when Dave Bidini, the Toronto author and musician, gave me a copy of Fallow, their first CD. But I didn’t get excited about them until last year, after my friend Craig put “Left and leaving” on a CD he burned and sent me. I think the song meant something similar to Craig, a Canadian living in London, and to me, a Canadian living then in San Francisco and now in New York: it’s about the pull of home, and its equivalent push: about leaving and coming back and deciding to stay away. I listened to it over and over.

My enthusiasm quickly snowballed, the type of immersive musical attachment that had happened to me a dozen times before—with Prince, Bob Dylan, Jane’s Addiction, Lyle Lovett—but not for several long, vacant years: the kind of attachment where you play someone’s records into the ground, hunt record stores for obscure EPs, search lyric sheets for hidden clues. So it felt familiar, falling in love with the Weakerthans, although they are a band that almost no one I know has ever heard of, a band that measures its record sales in tens of thousands, not millions, a band from Winnipeg.

The word Winnipeg never appears anywhere in the songs on the Weakerthans’ two albums, but the idea and the fact of the place infects them. The lyrics for Fallow are printed over a faint, close-up map of the city (you can make out the corner where my sister used to live, at Wolseley and Evanson, under “Diagnosis”); there’s the “all night restaurant, North Kildonan” where “lukewarm coffee tastes like soap”; there are “clocks stopped at the corner of Albert St.”; there’s the Disraeli Bridge, which takes you over the Red River to East Kildonan and which also ends up, in the song “Fallow,” right here:

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December 8, 2008