The Weakerthans: An Examined Punk Life

Music Features The Weakerthans
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Maybe it was the brutal Winnipeg winters. Maybe it was the crushing boredom.

Whatever it was, John K. Samson’s old agitprop punk outfit, Propagandhi, came out of the gate spewing more vitriol and bile than any band since The Sex Pistols, and its discography may contain the highest FBD (F-Bomb Density) of any band in history. You certainly don’t write songs with titles like “Stick the Fucking flag Up Your Goddamn Ass, You Sonofabitch” and expect to win any sensitive singer/songwriter laurels.

But a funny thing happened shortly before the turn of the millennium. Samson emerged with a new band, The Weakerthans, and the monochromatic, balls-to-the-wall punk anthems grew more textured and nuanced. Keyboards and (gasp!) acoustic guitars appeared. The angry young man developed a conscience, and the finger-pointing rants grew more introspective, literary and surprisingly tender. The brash, foul-mouthed punk somehow, impossibly, became a great songwriter:

Doctors played your dosage like a card trick
Scrabbled down the hallways yelling Yahtzee
I brought books on Hopper, and the Arctic
Something called “The Politics Of Lonely”
A toothbrush and a quick-pick with the plus
You tried not to roll your sunken eyes and said
“Hey can you help me, I can't reach it”
Pointed at the camera in the ceiling
I climbed up, blocked it so they couldn’t see
Turned to find you out of bed and kneeling
Before the nurses came, took you away
I stood there on a chair and watched you pray

I first heard this song, “Hospital Vespers,” during a season of my life when too many friends and loved ones were dying. I visited hospital rooms where the antiseptic smell could not mask the sickening stench of flesh rotting from the inside, and I held on to that song like a life preserver. Samson perfectly captured the helplessness and the hope, the one small but infinitely significant, defiant gesture that strikes a blow for humanity in the face of such unremitting, bureaucratic gloom. In slightly less than two minutes he managed to extend a raised middle finger to the impersonal nature of death in the 21st century that was far more powerful than any handful of Propagandhi albums.

He’s a slow worker, this compassionate John Samson. His band has released a grand total of three albums in 10 years. The latest, Reconstruction Site, was released in 2003, and the wait for new music is, at least metaphorically, killing me. It’s quite evident that Samson knows a thing or two about metaphors himself, and if his literary exhibitionism occasionally gets in the way of straightforward communication, he still wraps his English-major sensibilities around some sturdy riffs that manage to roar and rumble.

But when he’s on—and he’s on most of the time—John Samson writes songs of brutal beauty, little rock ’n’ roll vignettes that perfectly capture the malaise of the peculiar, disorienting times in which we live. Like John Cheever and Eudora Welty, Samson adorns his literary tales with tiny, telling details. Although he’s not above making grand but quirky philosophical statements (witness “Our Retired Explorer Dines With Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961,” a song that attempts to come to grips with both colonial expansionism and postmodernism), he’s at his best when his imagery dances around the conundrum of the soul’s weariness in the midst of constant stimulation and sensory overload:

Buy me a shiny new machine
That runs on lies and gasoline
And all those batteries we stole from smoke alarms
And disassembles my despair
Never took me anywhere
It never once bought me a drink

Novelist Walker Percy once wrote that the hardest thing in life is to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. The wedding days and funerals carry their own hypercharged momentum; it’s the crushing weight of the ordinary, the routine, that deadens us to meaning. That’s the territory this punk with a thesaurus has chosen to explore, trying to fill the vast expanse of an inconsequential day with a reason to live. He does so with unfailing humanity—with compassion, wit and humor. But there’s no mistaking that this is a journey into the heart of darkness.

It would be great stuff as pure poetry or a philosophical tome. The fact that Samson can convey this poetry through the medium of electric guitars, the fact that he can do a credible, updated take on Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre while summoning the proto-emo heartbreak of Elliott Smith and the ragged, shambolic glory of Paul Westerberg, is nearly miraculous. He tells his story using images of scaffolding and wrecking balls; it’s a human life under construction—and reconstruction. It’s an examined life, a work in progress and, astonishingly, you can pogo to it. I’ll take that combination on any routine day of the week, including Wednesday.

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