Make this something somebody can use.”
“Utilities” by The Weakerthans
Those are quite possibly the last words The Weakerthans will ever share with us, and of all the carefully-curated, universally insular poetic sentiments frontman John K. Samson wrote for the Winnipeg rock band, it’s the most appropriate swan song. It’s the last song on Reunion Tour, the prestigious, underappreciated final record from The Weakerthans. Released 10 years ago, it stands as an affectionate, patient document of empathy and imagination from a band destined to remain a cult-classic.
The Weakerthans always seemed to exist in some cosmic tumbler where everything happened for a reason, even if that reason was the song that came of it. No clearer is this fate than on their final record. While Samson and The Weakerthans released only four records, the value crammed into those four records is staggering.
The Weakerthans’ unmistakeable sense of place was always an indelible part of their sonic identity, but it was on Reunion Tour that they hung an entire record, front to back, on their Canadian prairie identities. The first words on record opener, “Civil Twilight,” recall Winnipeg’s notorious intersection at City Routes 42 and 62, affectionately called Confusion Corner. The next track names two French-Canadian districts in the city, St. Boniface and St. Vital, reimagined as deities that the protagonist pleads with. The Scotties Tournament of Hearts, a Canadian curling tournament that takes place every February, isn’t local to Winnipeg, but the Winnipeg Jets didn’t exist in 2007, and the city’s CFL franchise hadn’t won the Grey Cup since 1990, so the competition was one of the premier sporting events that involves the city.
Whether it’s a legitimate association or fetishizing prairie culture, “Tournament of Hearts” works because although there’s a distinct, singular sadness to drinking alone anywhere, drinking alone in a curling club feels like, if not a celebration, at least an acknowledgment of Winnipeg’s identity. Besides, relaying a dysfunctional, brown-bottled love-lost-story in curling metaphors is a feat rarely, if ever, replicated.
Reunion Tour also spans more explicit cultural and thematic ground than any previous Weakerthans record (which is an accomplishment amongst a discography that sees protagonists dining with Michel Foucault and refracting heartbreak through Marxist communiqués). “Hymn of the Medical Oddity” is written about, and from the perspective of, David Reimer, a Winnipeg man assigned male at birth, reassigned female after a botched circumcision, and transitioned back to living as a man at age 15. He died by suicide when he was 38. “If they remember me at all, make them remember me as more than a queer experiment, more than a diagram in their quarterly,” Samson mourns. Later, he details the life and times of NHL goalie Gump Worsley over barely-there banjo and whispered bass (it was the second “Elegy” the band released). On “Bigfoot!” Samson lends his voice to Bobby Clarke, a Manitoban who allegedly captured footage of the titular creature, and was subsequently hounded and mocked by the media and public. “Won’t go through it all again, watch their doubtful smiles begin, when the visions that I see believe in me,” Samson sings in character as Clarke, rejecting interviews as he imagines a bond between he and Bigfoot.
These are not traditional songwriting fare, and Samson has hardly been a traditional songwriter. In fact, the argument could be made that he isn’t a songwriter at all, but a poet whose texts were put to melody (an assignment that seems most astute for a man dubbed, “the prairie poet voice of my generation,” by Miriam Toews.) But what’s unquantifiable (a quality that seems constant through Samson’s work) is his ability to extract and extrapolate the throbbing humanity at the core of these stories. Samson saw what might have been a tidbit on the news or a blooper on the internet, and peeked behind the narrative veneer to embrace something most of us wouldn’t: a complex, thinking, feeling human. He connected to them, and then, in song, he connected us to them.
“That’s perhaps the cost for bands like The Weakerthans and fellow Canada-core icons The Tragically Hip: they celebrate their communities without shame or restraint, even if it means those are the only communities they reach. These were songs that the people they cared about could use, and they cared about everyone.”
What The Weakerthans did on Reunion Tour was challenge us to broaden our perspective of humanity and personhood. Whether it were a quirky professional hockey player, or a washed-up businessman who just got fired, or a bus driver in the dead of winter, or a fucking homeless cat, Samson’s ability to kindly and compassionately imagine these characters is itself a message. Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of these stories is that they’re not shooting in broad, buckshot terms; they’re almost alienatingly specific. The Weakerthans spoke to realities on Reunion Tour that were never sung about on the radio, supporting and validating them in a way that few ever have. In a culture that celebrates Type-A red carpet personalities and narratives, The Weakerthans were tinkering in alleys and run-down apartments, probing the lives lived between those overlooked places. That’s perhaps the cost for bands like The Weakerthans and fellow Canada-core icons The Tragically Hip: they celebrate their communities without shame or restraint, even if it means those are the only communities they reach. These were songs that the people they cared about could use, and they cared about everyone.
It’s astonishing that Samson could present these conflicts and stories in a way that universalized them, and invited everyone to connect with them. In his essay, “City Still Breathing: Listening To The Weakerthans,” American writer Paul Tough said he wrote Weakerthans lyrics on a scrap of paper and hung them on his fridge because they felt strangely applicable to his life in New York City: “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.” It’s easy to understand why people were (and still are) so eager to examine, almost microscopically, these seemingly unremarkable stories and existences in an isolated prairie city. They acknowledge everyone’s humanity; even if it wasn’t yours being discussed, you were awed and inspired and encouraged by the empathy and generosity of spirit with which The Weakerthans spoke. Samson’s imagination and curiosity were rays of light in a cold, shuttered reality. You began to believe that if you could just look at the world with Samson’s eye, maybe it could be as beautiful as a Weakerthans song made it out to be.
The Weakerthans loved epigraphs, and the one that came with Reunion Tour was a selection from the work of late Canadian poet Mark Strand:
a city she had been in before the war, a room with two candles
against a wall, someone dancing, someone watching.
We began to believe
the night would not end.
Someone was saying the music was over and no one had noticed.
Then someone said something about the planets, about the stars,
how small they were, how far away.
Those eight lines contain an essential truth that The Weakerthans distilled beautifully on Reunion Tour: the fleeting peculiarity and breathless importance that characterizes, and thereby unites, every lived experience. Reunion Tour was fluent in the belief that every human life was wondrous and fantastic. 10 years later, it continues to implore us to believe it too.