Hoo-boy, this is going to be a long one.
So sitting on the bookshelf right next to my bed in Michigan is a whole lot of books, a digital clock with an alarm I don’t think works anymore, (but it’s ok because I wake up, instinctively, 2 minutes before it would and turn it off almost every day) and exactly 1 magazine: a copy of punk planet number 44. The cover is gone, carefully cut off and taped to my/a bedroom wall back in Jersey. The issue means a lot to me, and every time I wake up twenty minutes before my alarm, listen to the birds for about thirty seconds, wondering how long they’ve been awake, then resign myself to starting another day, I pull off the issue of my shelf and read its centerpiece interview. It’s an interview with The Weakerthans, my favorite band, the band whose CDs I buy sometimes as presents for close friends, the band who, honest to god, have stopped me from doing things I certainly am better off having not done (see: the name of this blog).
Before I get into the meat and potatoes, I want to warn that is going to be long (even by the standards of this blog), and gushy (even by the standards of this blog), and that other excellent writers have tackled their love for this band in more coherent ways in places like this and this . I’m not sure what form this will take, because I think about and value The Weakerthans in any number of different ways. So we’ll see.
1. A Hello
It started with a hot topic in the mall, if you must know. It stated with a Hot Topic which might still exist, but certainly did back in the year 2000. One which blasted Korn and Pennywise into a corridor in the garden state plaza in paramus. It started with me in a Hot Topic in Paramus shelling out a few bucks for the first volume of the Sub City Take Action sampler, which I bought because I was at the mall with Harlan, and didn’t have enough money to buy a real CD, so I bought one of those cheap punk samplers. I bought it because it had cool cover art.
It’s not the kind song that makes most people fall in love with a group. It sounds like a rehearsal, which it might have been, right down to the cough at the end. The whole thing sounds warbly, and when I bought the album, I don’t think I mail ordered it and then had to check my blood pressure every day that it didn’t arrive. I think I ordered it and forgot all about it until it arrived. I didn’t expect miracles from this band, not at first.
2. A Sound
There was a concept in Romantic poetry, one which has largely faded from our culture since then, of the sublime; the sensory overload so extreme it goes beyond language. Language can build it a house or a cage, but still, it sits there, inside whatever words we build up, and its smiling, because we still can’t SAY what it looks like. It’s an idea which certain musical artists have taken advantage of; Mogwai reach for it sometimes, Calexico get close sometimes, Sonic Youth too. But on the Weakerthans second album, Left and Leaving, There is a moment of sublimity that flooded me.
What’s funny about the time The Weakethans saved my life (if there can be anything funny about such an occurrence) was that it was the music that did it, not the lyrics. There was a time when I was feeling pretty low, sophomore year in highschool. Now it seems insignificant, back then it probably did as well, but i’m not and wasn’t one to let that get in my way. So I told myself that if I didn’t feel any better in a month, that I was going to kill myself. I feel like I should say something else after that last sentence, but I can’t think of any other comment. I had a Simpsons calendar that year. I didn’t mark anything on it because I didn’t want my parents to know. I had unbelievably loving parents, an amazing support network of friends, people who loved and cared and would’ve been frayed and speechless and terrified, had I followed through with my plan. Like I was saying with sublimity, the angst, pain, all the weight I was feeling wasn’t exactly something I could verbalize, everything just felt dark and I felt like I wasn’t very good at living, and so I internalized it all, and ticked off the days of December in 2001. And I was terrified that I might follow through, because it was the 24th, Christmas Eve, and I wasn’t feeling even a little bit better. That night was the kind of cold that leaves scars, that turns your skin bedsheet white and bedsheet thin. I went for a walk, as I did throughout highs chool, college, as I still do when i’m feeling especially restless. Left and Leaving, the Weakerthans second album, was in my discman. I was walking across the Cedar Lane Bridge over the mud slathered Hackensack River as Exiles Among You, the album’s third to last track, played and by the section I’m going to attempt to describe began, I was walking in front of the student housing across from my old dentists’ office, a 1970’s glass building that always felt like it was sinking.
The song “Exiles Among You” is probably the loudest song the Weakerthans have ever recorded. Every song on that album sound like winter, and this song is the snowfall so thick it’s not actually falling anymore, it’s just taking up space in the air. it’s Distorted guitars, undistorted guitars, sticks slamming cymbals, the most enunciated and pronounced vocals on the album. And Samson basically yelling, not screaming but yelling for the only time in recorded song “CAN SOMETIME CLARIFY WHY THERE’S NO STRUCTURED NARRATIVE, NO NEAT STORYLINE TO EXPLAIN.” And I said, yeah, that’s right, that is absolutely right, but that wasn’t what did it.
3:40- sound rips wallpapers off the walls, it scuffs up the floor so bad you can’t see the wax coating, it starts pouring gasoline. It’s crying, but you can’t tell why, and it won’t tell you why. I start crying because I can’t tell whether those are chords or not. 4:16, sound lights itself on fire, but it keeps telling you, as calmly as it can, that it wants to hold you. Sound tells you it’s ok as its burning, 4:50, sound’s lost its voice as this point, you lunge towards to hear what its saying, to save its wallet so you can remember what it was, but its just a pile of logs at this point, strung together with fire and drum sticks. It won’t stop, it can’t because at this point it means to much to me for it to stop, it’s can’t st…
and then it does, and I open my eyes and stop choking on breath through a now-unlocked jaw, and realize that the 2 minutes of song that just saved my life also almost lead to me being hit by a car turning into a driveway I was standing in.
The end of that song still leaves me gasping. The next song slowly replaces the places left by exiting sound with words, and people and life. Download them both and listen to them in succession, always.
3. A Few Words
If that were it, that’d be fine. It’d be more than enough. The Weakerthans would still be a vitally important band to me. But the reason they’re my favorite and the reason I’m writing about them so passionately here, is not just because they helped me, but because even if they hadn’t they would still have composed and performed some of the most powerfully written songs I know. As I’ve shown, hopefully, The Weakerthans are a band who can make powerful music, but a large part of the appeal of the band is John K Samson, who, quite simply, is a storyteller and a poet. It’s easy to call songwriters those two things and really mean “they’ve got a way with words and sometimes they turn those words into narratives,” but Samson’s lyrics are honest to god poems that happened to be seamlessly set to music. What Weakerthans lyrics have the capacity to do is what the best poetry should do, present words you’re used to in a way that makes them exciting, moving, and relevant. It doesn’t hurt matters of poetry that on occasion, his songs are written in perfect sonnet form.
But there’s even more than that, because a good writer who only writes love songs can grate after a while. Samson’s not afraid to write a good love song every now and again, or a song or two from the point of view of a cat named Virtute (he’s got two stellar ones) but as I hear it, his chosen topic, the one that acts as floorboards for most of his songs, is home (c’mon, go read the Paul Tough piece, he’ll say it better than I will). He writes about it in obvious ways, like the ode to the collective drunken warmth of a local bar, “Wellingtons Wednesdays (“The night’s a spill, a permanent stain” it begins.).
He writes about home being a place you can’t leave, so all that’s left is to try to find some way to change within it, in the song “Fallow” (“We’ll carve new streets and sidewalks, a city for small lives. And say that we’ll stay just one more year.”)
He writes about it being a place you can’t forgive for not letting you change in “This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” (“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.”)
He talks about temporary homes, boxed up and repainted and now empty, and the desperate wanting for some kind of memory to last past the damage deposit in “Sun in an Empty Room” (“Parallelograms of white in rooms that we repainted white”).
He talks about home as a place where the only way to leave is to die, but not even that works, because just as the idea of home seems to haunt Samson, so do the people who once made up home, even after they’ve long died. His song “Night Windows” is about such ghosts, and Samson’s ends with a bunch of half finished things he would say, were he to pass one of those specters on a fall Winnipeg night: “Remember When I’m Sorry That I Miss The Way It Could Be.”
I think it appeals to me because I’m obsessed with the idea of home, Of producing roots and lacerating them, of when home changes and whether you grow with it or wriggle out it. Of civic pride in towns where most residents don’t know the name of the guy who founded their town. But you’ve all got homes, and these songs might make you think about them a little more. That’s what I can hope.
Or just go read this.
4. A Few More Sounds
I just can’t let the band begin or end on Samson, because while he stands as one of my favorite writers, this isn’t his show. The band’s first album Fallow is amazing and sounds like it was recorded in early spring with the door open, with the equipment on loan from a college music program and the songs written during breaks of day jobs. The band’s next album, Left and Leaving, is amazing and feels like winter nights, where playing music was all they could do to keep circulation going. The band’s next album Reconstruction Site, is amazing and feels like a short story collection written by a very specialized scientist who always wanted to act. The band’s most recent album left me feeling conflicted, but even it has many songs composted of intense, heart rattling beauty. It’s called Reunion Tour.
put quite simply, the weakerthans are my favorite band, because their songs are beautiful and hope-filled, songs made of best intentions, slush, steam cleaners, held hands and waking up.
I’ve given you guys a whole bunch of songs by the band, but i’m going to make a plea, perhaps, redundant enough, but absolutely vital to the nature of this post. Please, if you like what you hear, go buy the band’s albums. They’re not expensive, they’ve got great album art, and this is a band who matter to much to me for me to have people steal their music.
Now that I’ve said all that, I can happily report that there are bunch of good shows in Detroit over the next months (more on that later), that Clem Snide have a new album coming out (more on that when i find a copy), and that I’m going to Indiana in 3 days to see The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice play at my Alma Matter.