“Forget your perfect offering”—that is the hang-up that you’re going to work this thing out. Because…we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture, which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit a solution of perfection. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, nor in your work, nor anything, nor your love of God, nor your love of family or country. The thing is imperfect.
————Leonard Cohen, interviewed on “The Future” Radio Special
What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
——–——Ralph Chaplin, “Solidarity Forever”
Listen to a Spotify playlist of every song mentioned in this essay, in order.
BEFORE IT IS POSSIBLE to write about the Weakerthans, you must invent the universe, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. Matter must exist. Sound and hearers. Language and listeners. Love and procreation. Mosquitos; phytoplankton; the three smallest bones in the human ear; a million other tiny things that seem inconsequential but are not. Writing must emerge, cuneiform and pictograms and alphabets. Cultures and economies must rise and fall before an electric guitar is designed or a rock club is opened. Land must be stolen, borders drawn. Headphones have to be invented. The Beatles must form and dissolve. Leonard Cohen must be born, bar mitzvahed, ordained a Buddhist monk, and die. The Guess Who and the Winnipeg Jets must come, leave, and eventually return, however dubiously. Innumerable children must be born and grow up in the middle of what we call Canada and learn how to play their instruments. Propaghandi must write “Stick the Fucking Flag Up Your Goddamn Ass, You Sonofabitch,” and their bassist must leave the band.
The Weakerthans, a Winnipeg-based band ostensibly named after the above excerpt from the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever,” released their first album twenty-five years ago this December. Their music seems to give the lie to that line, though: by shedding light on the frailty, particularity, and contingency of the many feeble “ones” in their songs, the band illuminates their value—flipping that dismissive quip about weakness. No longer denigrating the lone wolf in favor of big-upping the pack, the phrase becomes a celebration of the sheer, precarious belovedness of the individual. What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? Nothing, maybe. But if your view of the world, your entire cultural schema, could be reoriented around weakness—protecting the marginalized, cultivating humility, speaking truth to power, standing up for the bullied, loving the discarded—nothing could be worth more.
There’s a rare and heartbreaking specificity to the music of the Weakerthans; these are songs not simply about a city, but a specific intersection, a crack in an apartment floor, a toothbrush, an empty beer bottle. A litany of real objects, the Weakerthans catalog is bursting with things. It’s not only the focused attention of poetry and prayer that songwriter John K. Samson brings to the band’s lyrics; there’s a musical attention as well. The deft, nimble suggestion of a guitar solo from Stephen Caroll on “Left and Leaving,” the muted split-second cymbal crash from Jason Tait right before the second verse of “Reconstruction Site,” the way the bass and guitar echo each other on “Night Windows.” The tiniest things are treated with exquisite care.
From the opening of 1997’s Fallow, the question of what exactly the Weakerthans are doing asserts itself. First of all, they seem to be answering the question “what if a skinny, shy, sad dork was a rock-and-roll front man?” The band was made up primarily of former hardcore punk musicians from a Manitoba scene that was divided between left-wing “PC punks” and rowdy “drunk-punk,” “fuck-the-world” redneck bands (so called by interviewees in Sheldon Birnie’s entertaining Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock 1990–2001). The album starts with an acoustic ballad called “Illustrated Bible Stories for Children” and moves into a proto-emo song bemoaning a “foreign frame of heart” before finally settling into a pop-punk rager that seems both to incite political violence and lament civic laziness: “Let’s kill an MLA / or talk the night away,” sings Samson in his plaintive prairie croon (an MLA is a member of a provincial legislative assembly—the Canadian equivalent of a state representative or state senator). The same song declares “I swear I way more than half believe it when I say / that somewhere love and justice shine.” Before even getting to side B, we’ve entered numinous, utopian territory. What seemed like just a punk-rock record starts to feel like a grand political or religious statement, a declaration of how the world should be.
Samson’s voice is unusual for pop-punk (if the Weakerthans are in fact a pop-punk band), but it’s a perfect match for his lyrics, which are less political than personal, small not big. “Anchorless,” a song Samson originally performed with the punk band Propaghandi, didn’t sit easily on that band’s 1996 album Less Talk, More Rock, next to songs like “The Only Good Fascist Is a Very Dead Fascist,” which ends with guitarist Chris Hannah screaming “Kill ’em all and let a Norse god sort ’em out!” But “Anchorless” feels right at home when rerecorded by the Weakerthans for Fallow, its original chunky, palm-muted intro replaced by a reverb-laden, chorus-enhanced guitar riff. Its preoccupation with the sadness and beauty of small-town prairie life comfortably rubs shoulders with eleven other songs about what the title track calls “a city for small lives.” Fallow manages to integrate folk, pop, and even something approaching country into the punk idiom (Samson admits he stole the chords for the shuffling, shambling “None of the Above” from “some dumb country rock star”). Surely the band’s politics are still in the neighborhood of PC punk, but on Fallow and most subsequent albums, they have become a micro-politics. And a poetic punk micro-politics ends up looking something like empathy or mercy or grace—not simply an ideological resistance to fascism, but a fierce, loving attention to the small and forgotten.
This micro-focus continues on the 2000 Left and Leaving, probably the band’s best album, which opens with a prayer disguised as a garage-sale ad, a plea for “a sign recovery comes to the broken ones.” The broken ones show up in most of the songs. “History to the Defeated” offers hope where Auden’s poem from which it borrows its title does not: “there’s a light left on / there’s a pace to our direction.” In “Exiles Among You,” a narrator empathizes with a young runaway (“wish on everything / pray that she remains / proud and strange and so hopelessly hopeful”) but is rebuked by a chorus of backing vocals (“wishes and prayers are the way / we leave the lonely alone / and push the wounded away”). The record has a through-line of lament for the inability to fix what’s broken about the world, tempered by a thread of faith that comes to something approaching a hopeful climax halfway through, on “This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open” (a warning familiar to Canadians), in which Samson doesn’t exactly belt, but sincerely intones:
So tell me it’s okay
Tell me anything
Or show me there’s a pull
That will lead you there from the dark alone
To benevolence that you’ve never known
Or you knew when you were four and can’t remember
Where a small knife tears out those sloppy seams
And the silence knows what your silence means
And your metaphors, as mixed as you can make them
Are linked like days, together
The beatific eschatology is nearly palpable here. There’s a sense that, as Bakhtin wrote, “nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.” Or, as another great modern Canadian pop band, Stars, asserts on its 2014 dance-inflected album of the same name, “No one is lost.”
The music on Left and Leaving is the thickest and deepest the band has recorded, electrical thunderstorms of guitars sweeping across big-sky production. “Aside,” one of the band’s best-known songs, due to its unlikely placement in the credits of the frat-bro comedy Wedding Crashers, is a truly wonderful sloppy pop-punk artifact, one of the genre’s catchiest and best, despite its lack of a conventional chorus and a hook that is really only two notes. Its final lines—“I’m losing / but I’ll try / with the last ways left / to remember / sing my imperfect offering”—seem to be the key to the whole album, and maybe the band’s entire oeuvre. In the fall of 2021 I spent several weeks in bed at my in-laws’ home in Denver, languishing in a Covid fever dream with a paperback copy of Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997–2012 and attempting to diagram that sentence; I have a notebook filled with questions—what is being lost? Is it “try, with the last ways left to remember” or “try, with the last ways left, to remember,” and what does that matter? What is being remembered? However the grammar shakes out, it’s those final few words—“sing my imperfect offering”—that linger. The band dares to answer Leonard Cohen’s exhortation, on his 1992 easy-listening gospel single “Anthem,” “forget your perfect offering,” with a broken but beautiful punk attempt to strengthen the things that remain.
Reconstruction Site (2003) takes this even more literally. Consider the title alone. Amid its liturgically minded songs (“Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call,” “Hospital Vespers,” “Benediction”) there’s a sense of shoring up the ruins. The most obvious repudiation of deconstruction is “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961),” in which the speaker politely declines the gift of a “book by Derrida” because he “must be getting back to dear Antarctica.” The song “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” introduces a character who will haunt Samson (and his fans) for years: Virtute the cat, named from the city of Winnipeg’s motto (Unum Cum Virtute Multorum: one with the strength of many), whose pep talk to her alcoholic owner might be the album’s thesis statement. It’s a bouncy, joyful, open-hearted song: the bemused cat sees her human in a state of depression and offers words of advice, comfort, and gentle admonition. Over buoyant, chunky power pop, she suggests that a party might cheer him up and tells him to stop drinking and watching television. The song’s instrumental apex—right after the line “I know you’re strong”—builds to a frenzy of optimism and positivity, clumps of scrambling sixteenth notes all over the drums, cat-scratch swatches of guitar. It feels good.
The production is crisper on this album; the chaos of Left and Leaving’s darker tracks is mostly toned down, and though the album ends with an acknowledgment of “plain fear you can’t extinguish or dismiss,” it’s shot through with hope. Samson acknowledges the uncoolness of this sentiment on a song with a relentless one-chord hook, “The Reasons”: “I know you might roll your eyes at this / but I’m so glad that you exist.” (Maybe this is in fact the record’s emotional center.) Like graphic novelist Craig Thompson’s travelogue Carnet de Voyage, in which he desperately attempts to sketch every child, animal, plant, woman, and building he encounters, frantically screaming “I love you!” as his drawing hand cramps, Reconstruction Site is full of tender portraits: of the Elks lodge, “a little boy under a table with cake in his hair,” a praying patient in what seems to be a mental hospital, and on the last song, “Past-Due,” faces in the newspaper obituary pages whose lives cannot be known through photographs but whose bodies and possessions are “the tools to be bereaved with, be beloved.”
Reunion Tour (2007), the band’s ironically named final album, continues in the elegiac mode. (The Weakerthans made this record before they broke up, ahead of a coming trend of nineties-band reunions.) The memorials to loss pile up: a bus driver fondly recalls the dissolution of a relationship that took place along his route; a businessman loses his fortune in a stock-market crash; a barfly remembers his former glory and laments his life in a series of curling-related metaphors; David Reimer (a real Winnipeg man raised as a girl after a botched circumcision on the advice of a controversial psychologist) offers a final prayer before killing himself in a grocery-store parking lot; and Virtute the cat runs away, leaving her owner calling for her, finally unable to remember that she once had a home.
(The weight of that last song alone is almost unbearable. I have listened to it maybe four times in fifteen years, and I don’t even like cats, but everything after the guitar solo and drum-fill crescendo causes me to sob until I can barely breathe. I once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with two hundred people at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver and sang it a cappella, like we were at the world’s saddest church camp, Samson leading us in worship with his guitar unplugged, offstage, away from the microphone. Somehow it felt almost okay, all of us together like that.)
Reunion Tour continues to refine the band’s sound, mostly stripping out the distorted guitars of the earlier records in favor of a more polished, delicate balance of sounds. The album’s second half begins with a pair of songs named for Edward Hopper paintings dealing with absence and death, both featuring the interplay of Samson’s melancholy lead vocal with a sort of Greek chorus of background vocals from the band. The album’s final song, “Utilities,” opens with swirling guitar effects and faraway pedal-steel chords before breaking open into a bluesy gospel. Its simple guitar solo is played by Samson, not lead guitarist Stephen Carroll. In concert, Samson often self-deprecatingly drew attention to his lack of virtuosity, hammering the simple notes with outsized bluster. The song seems to be the Weakerthans’ final imperfect offering: a simple melody, played with sincerity and reflexive awareness of its own inadequacy. It’s the musical equivalent of the prayer with which the song and album conclude:
Seems the most I have to offer
Doesn’t offer much;
Make it something somebody can use
Make this something somebody can use
That final, subtle pronoun shift has always moved me. As the song builds to its conclusion, the object of supplication changes—at first, “it” refers to “the most I have to offer,” but the change to “this,” which has no clear grammatical referent but the deixis of its existing in a musical setting, suggests that the singer is now asking that his song itself be something somebody can use. I can only speak for myself when I say this prayer has been answered.
Take off your headphones for a minute. Look at the world and the people in it. All the horrors, the mundane indignities, the wars and rumors of war, the falling apart at the seams of our homes and families and countries. What can keep us alive? Who can save us from this culture of death, the one that Samson’s former band Propaghandi would stirringly interrogate with the blistering protest anthem (and love song to hockey) “Dear Coach’s Corner”? The real answers do not come easily, and those that do come are likely to be too loose and abstract to be true.
Only an embrace of the weak things of this world, a focused attention on the least of these, feels like a way to conscientiously object from what Matthew Arnold called the ignorant armies who clash by night. A holy refusal to cede power and attention to the bad that is purported to be stronger than good. A song, a story, a guitar solo, a garden, an affectionate embrace, Sunday night at the pub or the park, a dollar for the man in front of the drugstore, a letter to your grandmother, a sparsely attended morning prayer at a monastery, a turtle covering its eggs with dirt, your kid’s math homework. No trace of the maudlin is intended when I say that these things may matter more than a law or a dictator or a bomb. If anything is worth living for, worth singing an imperfect offering to, it is the low and the small.
If Virtute is the band’s mascot, and virtute means strength, it might seem like ultimately strength is being valorized. But recall that Winnipeg’s motto means “one with the strength of many,” and that the labor unions sing of the weakness of the “feeble strength of one.” Recall Saint Paul writing to the Corinthians of the Lord telling him “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Recall the epigraph in the liner notes of Fallow from British Columbia poet Tom Wayman: “Only the weak are truly free / of the temptation to dominate, to harm.” Maybe this was never about a cat whose name means strength; maybe this is about how we can carry on only when we embrace our weakness, and the weak things of the world, to shame the strong. I swear I way more than half believe it when I say that listening to a rock and roll band from Winnipeg can help us do that.
Image: The Weakerthans performing on December 22nd, 2007 at Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Joel Heng Hartse is a senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University. His books include Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll; Dancing About Architecture Is a Reasonable Thing to Do (both from Cascade); and TL;DR: A Very Brief Guide to Reading and Writing in University (On Campus/UBC Press).