My city’s still breathing (but barely, it’s true)
through buildings gone missing like teeth.
The sidewalks are watching me think about you,
all sparkled with broken glass.
— The Weakerthans, “Left and Leaving”
the destruction, construction and reconstruction of the city of Winnipeg are key themes influencing the music of the Weakerthans and their principal songwriter, John K. Samson. Their 2000 album Left and Leaving cryptically evokes Winnipeg in twists and turns without ever mentioning it by name, yet it is bold enough in its imagery that it captures the enduring spirit of the city. The album poetically describes the interconnected lives of the crumbling city: a city stung by its isolation, alienated by its reluctance to change and complicated by its tenuous grasp of the present.
The Weakerthans lyrically place the listener in a setting identifiable not only to a Winnipegger — who could pick out the specific locations in their mind, such as Albert Street or the old Wellington’s Bar — but to anyone who has ever lived in a city that has become stagnant, a place that one has left or longs to leave. Left and Leaving is full of images of a broken city, sewn together in a haphazard way, still working but not thriving, and certainly not “like new.” In the world of Left and Leaving, the city becomes what the old-timers might call a “farm fix,” patched together with “duct tape and soldered wires.”
In Left and Leaving, John K. Samson’s words are about the fragility of the things that normal people see and hear and think. The concrete, bricks and mortar are the structural elements that hold the city together, but they are also metaphors for the ties that bind people together. Although it seems as though Samson’s lyrics are personal, sometimes intensely so, on closer examination there is a detachment from the personal and a focus on the “other lives” that surround him.
Although the role of “one who relies on alcohol and irony” has been cast, any one of us could play the part. The point then can be made that the Weakerthans’ lyrics are a type of “evocative ethnography,” or culture writing.
Brianne Selman, in her dissertation “I Hate Winnipeg: The Weakerthans Write Home,” writes that Samson’s lyrics are “poetic and incomplete,” the starting point for free-associations of the idea of home, whether “home” is a city, a building, a person or a place within one’s self. Important in her analysis of Samson’s lyrics is the idea that they are not merely an autobiography, and they are also not necessarily just a narrative. Each song connects to the next, and the album Reconstruction Site composes an intensely personal and subjective metaphor for Winnipeg, a preservation of the feeling and history of a city rendered insignificant.
In his article “City Still Breathing: Listening to the Weakerthans,” Paul Tough interprets Samson’s lyrics as an attempt to maintain sanity by imagining the devastation of the city. The city is not torn down in a literal sense, but its personal bonds are continually broken and reconstructed, separating “who’s left and who’s leaving.” The weight of the constructed environment causes one to re-imagine the entire city as an abandoned house, with “rooms that too much has happened in.” In the song “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open,” Samson writes:
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”?
— The Weakerthans,
“This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open”
In Tough’s early 2002 interview with Samson, he asked him what loving a city and hating its buildings entails. Samson suggests that the “frameworks” are the constructed social reality of the city, and that the fragility of our connection with history, people and stories is compounded by the shortness of our memories. In this way, the “buildings gone missing like teeth” of the song “Left and Leaving” are like friends who have left and networks that have dissolved, leaving the one left behind with a profound sense of loss and loneliness. These depictions of fragmented relationships are meant to serve as a reminder of the importance of the social bond in a geographically isolated city such as Winnipeg.
The song “My Favourite Chords” is a specific example of how Samson uses architectural metaphors effectively in his narrative. In this song, the world-weary protagonist is observing the demolition of a streetscape, wishing for a “socket set, to dismantle this morning.” In the midst of the destruction, the reconstruction is beginning to take place already because “they’re building a new hotel.” Even in the broken city, the landscape is full of tentative optimism, because there is something new coming, and perhaps it is something better than what was there before. This process of tearing down and rebuilding starts a new thought process in Samson’s isolated anti-hero, and he realizes he is searching for a common thread to connect him to something or somebody.
You are a radio,
you are an open door.
I am a faulty string,
of blue Christmas lights.
You swim through frequencies,
you let that stranger in,
as I’m blinking off and on
and off again.
And we’ve got a lot of time,
or maybe we don’t,
but I’d like to think so,
so let me pretend.
Well, these are my favourite chords,
I know you like them too.
When I get a new guitar,
you could have this one.
And sing me a lullaby,
sing me the alphabet,
sing me a story I
haven’t heard yet.
— The Weakerthans,
“My Favorite Chords”
Sometimes change isn’t just inevitable, it is necessary. The other person in this tale is functional, yet he is broken and pretending, unable to change and stuck in an infinite loop. Through all the uncertainty, the common thread between the two characters becomes the favourite chords, played just the same and just as well by himself or someone else, on a new guitar or an old one. The Weakerthans’ songs are full of this type of imagery: the need and desire for radical changes in our lives, while still recognizing the individual’s inability to do just that. The characters in Samson’s songs need the past and the present to collide in order to make sense of where they are and where they are going. They need to make the distinction between those who are left and those who are leaving in order to maintain a sense of continuity. After all, it’s not just the bricks, mortar and concrete that construct a community, it is the ever-changing and ever-present social thread that links us to each other and our shared history.