City Still Breathing: Listening to the Weakerthans

Paul Tough

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:

Out under the Disraeli,
with rusty train track ties,
we’ll carve new streets and sidewalks,
a city for small lives,
and say that we’ll stay for one more year.

Images of revision and reconstruction—of tearing up streets and pulling down buildings and planting a bomb at city hall and spray-painting construction sites—are all over John Samson’s lyrics. It’s as if he’s saying that the only way to stay sane and stay put in a frozen, isolated, broken- down city like Winnipeg is to re-imagine it, to rip it up and put it back together in your head.

Two nights before the Wellington’s show I had gone with my friend Miriam Toews to another Weakerthans concert. That week, at the end of February, was the band’s fifth anniversary, and they were celebrating by playing four concerts on four consecutive nights at four different clubs. Miriam and I went to the first concert, at the Royal Albert Arms Hotel—which Dave Bidini in his book calls “the grotty, cursed Royal Albert Arms”—just a few doors down Albert Street from Wellington’s, past a tattoo parlour and a Chinese restaurant. It was the night that the women’s hockey team won the gold medal in Salt Lake City and Miriam and I waited for the concert to start in a coffee shop around the corner and talked about that idea of remaking and re-imagining a city. The lyric that was buzzing in my head that night was from a song called “This is a fire door never leave open,” a song, like so many Weakerthans songs, about memory and leaving and childhood and silence (it talks about “forty years of failing to describe a feeling,” which Miriam says is a very Winnipeg kind of experience). It’s a loud, fast, guitar-heavy song, and this is how it ends:

And I love this place;
The enormous sky,
And the faces, hands
That I’m haunted by,
So why
Can’t I forgive these buildings,
These frameworks labeled “Home”?

Miriam and I had talked about the enormous Manitoba sky, its epic flatness, and how you can love a city and resent its buildings, but I still didn’t get what those lyrics meant, exactly. So after Samson found a match and started smoking his cigarette and we sat down under the pornographic cartoon characters in the black light of the Wellington’s back room, that’s what I asked him about.

“That’s one of those lines that I thought I understood when I first wrote it,” he said. “But I keep changing my understanding of it.”

He sat and thought for a few long seconds and then he started telling me a story about writing another song, “Left and leaving,” the one with the buildings that have gone missing like teeth.

“I used to live two doors down from here, on Albert Street,” he said. “I had been away on tour and I came home and went up to my apartment, which at the time was just a big room with a bed in it. I was getting back after six weeks of travelling around and I was feeling really disconnected to what my place was here, and therefore what my place was anywhere in the world.

“And I went out for a walk. It was a summer evening. I walked down Albert Street and across Exchange Park. And as I reached the far side of the park—the site of a huge amount of history, the place where the General Strike gathered in 1919—there was a hotel that was burning to the ground. People were just standing around watching. I kept trying to picture what the building had looked like. I couldn’t. It suddenly struck me that I had never paid any attention to this building, but that I was profoundly sad that it was burning down.

“And I think that that relates a lot to this place. It’s quite a meta—”

He stopped himself, uncertain whether he really wanted to use the word “metaphor” in the back room of Wellington’s. After a second he decided to press on.

“It is a metaphor for this place. Maybe a crude one. But it’s that idea that there are stories and there are people in my life here that are like that building. I think it’s the point of what we do: to try to express those stories and to make the lives of those people relevant if we can. That ties directly into the idea of loving this place and not being able to forgive the buildings. Because they are imbued with such history.”

One of my favourite Weakerthans songs is about politics, or maybe about the limitations of politics. It’s called “Pamphleteer” and it’s written from the point of view of a weary, discontented activist standing on a street corner at rush hour, handing out leaflets. The song borrows nicely from the literature of the left; it ends with the line “A spectre’s haunting Albert Street,” echoing the first line of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe.” And it quotes from the protest hymn “Solidarity Forever,” like this:

Sing “Oh what force on earth could be
Weaker than the feeble strength
Of one” like me remembering
The way it could have been.

The quote is from “Solidarity Forever”— there’s a footnote in the lyric sheet that says so—but what I love about it is the way that the lyrics subvert the anthem, so that it’s no longer about political struggle but about lost love.

I had to resist the urge to ask him for explanations of any more songs. When you’ve been listening to Weakerthans songs as much as I have, all you want John Samson to do, if you’re sitting down with him, is decode his lyrics, which tend to be allusive and elusive and elliptical, full of unexplained images of dead men’s neckties and snow fences and a puke-green sofa—but presumably he’s written them elliptically for a reason.

I had just read an article, in fact, about Neil Young at a taping of the VH-1 show “Storytellers,” with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The idea of the show is that songwriters tell the stories behind their best-known songs. In the article, Neil Young is pacing the halls of VH-1 like a caged animal, and he says, “I thought the song was supposed to tell the story.”

Neil Young is from Winnipeg, too. There’s something muted in the songs of both men, though maybe it’s more implicit in Neil Young’s songs and more explicit in John Samson’s: the ache of silence and miscommunication, of leaving things unsaid and then regretting it later. It’s that “forty years of failing to describe a feeling” that Miriam likes; in another song, relying “a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony”; in others, references to letters that aren’t sent and lists of things you meant to say.

An unmistakable feeling of deep-seated civic regret flowed through my conversations with both Miriam and John: a sense that when you live in Winnipeg, the city’s entire twentieth-century history is present in every moment, from its golden age of promise and prosperity as the railway-and-wheat hub of a growing nation, to its current status as a misplaced and impoverished city, off the radar, what Miriam calls “the coldest nowhere nothing mosquito-ridden barren bleak and desolate city in the world—the punchline of every joke about hellholes.”

There’s something magical about a city in decline. Especially in moneyed times like these on a moneyed continent like this one, cities like Edmonton and Buffalo and Pittsburgh and Winnipeg feel protected from a certain type of urban degradation: the erasure that goes along with giant malls and theme restaurants and off-ramps and luxury boxes at baseball stadiums, even as those crumbling cities embody an apparently harsher, more tangible decline.

What is hopeful about those cities is that new and original art and ideas often grow in them in unexpected ways. “There is a lot of potential in places that are removed from the centre of power,” Samson said. “I have this feeling that that’s where a lot of interesting things are going to emerge—things that have the potential not to be sullied or defeated as soon as they’re created. They can be ignored for a while. They can hover in between.” In between success and failure, I guess he meant; fame and oblivion.

At the same time, there is a small-town resentment that often gets expressed as a complicated kind of self-loathing. When I got to Winnipeg the day before the first Weakerthans show, I had picked up a few local newspapers to see if I could read anything about the concerts or the band, since I really didn’t know the first thing about them except for what was on the CD. There were a few articles—a photo of the band appeared on the cover of the local weekly, and there was an interview on the arts page of the Winnipeg Free Press—and even though the articles were generally enthusiastic, there was an odd backhandedness to some of the compliments, an subtle accusation that maybe the band was getting a bit too big for its britches, doing four straight days’ worth of shows. “I can’t help wondering if this February carnival of sorts is really just grandstanding—a way of demonstrating a measure of greatness by seeing how much the band can take on, and get away with,” the rock music columnist, James Turner, wrote in Uptown. In every interview I read, the band downplayed the importance of this four-concert home stand: In the Winnipeg Sun, Samson described the shows as “some little project, something fun to do in February”; in Uptown, he said they were “not a big deal” and insisted, “We’re just doing this for kicks, man.”

When I asked Samson about those interviews, he laughed right away and nodded his head. Of course it was shtick, he said. “That’s playing the Winnipeg press game. There’s a self-deprecation inherent in anything you do here. You can’t just go out and say, ‘We’re fucking awesome.’ That’s one of the things that I find beautiful about art and music in bigger cities. You’re allowed to have a persona there. I would never be able to have a persona here. I’m a hayseed.”

I asked him if he ever thought about leaving Winnipeg, and he answered, “Of course. I’ve always had the urge to leave. I still have it. In fact, it’s become more a part of me than an urge. It’s a fact of who I am now, living here, that I don’t want to be here all the time, because sometimes it’s not a great place to live. It is a small town and it has the mentality of a small town, but with all the social and economic problems of a bigger city.”

It’s the deepest relationship you can have with a place, I think: hating it and staying. It’s the flip side of officially sanctioned civic pride—something I’d seen plenty of, living in Toronto— which always feels lightweight, defensive, insubstantial: a cheap substitute for a real relationship with a place. Samson may think about leaving, but that only makes him more at home here: everyone in Winnipeg thinks about leaving, all the time.

A few hours later, the Weakerthans took the stage again. Wellington’s was sold out and pretty packed, but even packed it only held three hundred people, tops. The band started off by playing every song on Fallow, in order, which was an interesting idea, but which had the effect of subduing the crowd a bit; we wanted to hear the band’s more recent songs.

After Fallow they left the stage for a while, and then came back for an encore. They passed around a bottle of fifth-anniversary champagne to the fans up front and they handed out curling trophies to various people who had helped the band—the director of their video, the two young girls who do all their postering—and then they started to play some new songs.

I was thinking about Winnipeg as I listened, of course, because of the band but also because I was leaving the next day to go back to New York. I was thinking of something Neil Young says at the beginning of “Journey Through the Past,” his song about leaving Winnipeg and moving to the United States: “This is a song about a home.” And I was thinking about a quotation by Alden Nowlan, the New Brunswick poet, that the Weakerthans use as an epigraph in the “Left and leaving” lyric booklet:

for those who belong nowhere
and for those who belong to one place
too much to belong anywhere else.

From the stage, John Samson said he wanted to play something brand new, a song called “One Great City!” after the slogan adopted by Winnipeg a couple of years ago, which still appears on highway signs as you approach, always with exclamation point included. The song was arranged for a single guitar, a single voice, and handclaps, and it started out with an image of a dollar store where

The clerk is closing up and counting loonies.
She’s trying not to say
I hate Winnipeg.

Weakerthans songs don’t usually have a chorus, but this one did: “I hate Winnipeg.” The song alternated between the chorus and these little vignettes—the golden statue that sits on top of the provincial legislature looking out over the city, “watching the north end die”; a car stalled in the turning lane in front of you—and each time the chorus recurred, more of the audience would join in, and we’d sing it louder and louder each time. By the time we got to:

The Guess Who sucked
The Jets are lousy anyway.

“I hate Winnipeg” was practically a shout.

After a few more new songs the band left the stage and I thought they were gone for good, but then they came out one last time and made my day by playing “Pamphleteer” and then ending with “This is a fire door never leave open,” and when they sang about loving this place and the enormous sky I knew what they meant, and when they got to wondering why they couldn’t forgive these buildings, these frameworks labelled “Home,” I thought I might know what they meant by that, too.

After the concert I said goodbye to John, who apologized for playing so long, and then Miriam and her husband Cassady drove me home in their minivan, and they apologized for owning a minivan. A few hours later, at the airport, I felt the wind and realized that it had finally turned cold, seriously cold, Winnipeg cold, the kind of cold I couldn’t take for more than a few days, let alone months. It was 6 a.m. and pitch black. I hugged my sister in the wind and waved as she drove away, back into the frozen night of her hometown, and then I walked into the terminal and flew south to mine.

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Paul Tough

Paul Tough is a contributing editor of Geist, a story editor at the New York Times Magazine and the editor of Open Letters. His piece "City Still Breathing" appears in Geist.


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