I first heard John K. Samson’s uncertain, defiant voice blasting from the speakers in my friend Eric McCloud’s van, driving across our small Ontario hometown on a sunny afternoon in late winter 2005. The song was “Exiles Among You” from 2000’s Left and Leaving; it was on a mixtape interspersed with tracks from Alexisonfire, The Tea Party, Arcade Fire, The Wrens. I still remember how the bitter ennui of the last stanza – “she shoplifts some Christmas gifts, and a bracelet for herself, and considers phoning home. Has some quarters in her hand. But she sits down on the sidewalk and bites her bottom lip, and spends the afternoon willing traffic lights to change” – seemed so strange, juxtaposed against the fast, upbeat major chords that surrounded it. I remember the delivery of it being the most shocking part. I was sixteen years old, and I wanted my music (whether it was pummelling me or seducing me) to have a certain arrogance. I listened to a lot of Let it Bleed era Rolling Stones and had the entire Led Zeppelin discography. And yet, there was something in that image of wasting time staring at traffic lights which narrated back to me my own life at that point.
“We’re talented and bright. We’re lonely and uptight. We’ve found some lovely ways to disappoint, but the airport’s always almost empty this time of the year, so lets go play on the baggage carousel, and set our watches forward like we’re just arriving here from a past we left in a place we knew to well.”
Even when I moved to Winnipeg a few years later and getting into The Weakerthans was almost a residency requirement, it wasn’t until I went treeplanting in the summer of 2008 that I began to understand what was going on with that music. It all came down, for me, to John K.’s voice. I was at first repulsed by the plaintive, earnest, vulnerability of it, seeming to suggest as it did that defeat was a more constant companion than success, that we were going to lose way more than we ever gain. It was unsettling next to the swagger of my other musical heroes at that time. But it also spoke to me in a language of experience I was starting to understand.
“I’m lost. I’m afraid. A frayed rope tying down a leaky boat to the roof of a car on the road in the dark, and it’s snowing. If I’m more, then it means less. Last call for happiness.”
I was sitting on a Greyhound bus heading from Calgary to Edmonton watching the rain streak the windows and listening to “Everything Must Go!” when I began to get the point. I’d just turned my back on the first relationship I’d had that involved love or something like it, and felt like a failure. I was driving north for my second season of treeplanting, unable to muster up the idealistic sense of adventure that had made the first one manageable. The thin, high voice singing “I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills” began to mean something. And later that summer, sitting in a truck one night up in the Babine Mountains and listening to John K. sing “I hate Winnipeg” over and over again I started to understand what it meant to really love a place.
“And up above us all, leaning into sky, our Golden Business Boy will watch the North End die.”
It was only after seeing him play a set of songs from his newly-released solo album Provincial at Music Trader in Winnipeg that I decided to sit down and try to articulate exactly what it is about this man’s music that keeps me coming back again and again. I think I have an answer.
“Somewhere there’s a box full of replacement parts to all the tenderness we’ve broken or let rust away. Somewhere sympathy is more than just a way of leaving. Somewhere someone says ‘I’m sorry.’ Someone’s making plans to stay.”
In an almost theological way, Samson makes weakness and vulnerability the grounds from which any positive claim must be made. The characters who populate his songs are the defeated, the lost, those whose attempts at happiness have been thwarted, those who find themselves motionless in a world of speed. But these characters are not without hope; rather, it seems that true hope (as opposed to self-denial) can only exist after a complete loss of faith in the innate goodness of the world. Like the pamphleteer whose cause is as outdated as his gestetner but who finds strength to continue by calling upon another, like the one in “Fallow” who wants to “dig a hole and bury all we could not defeat, and say we’ll stay for one more year” whose hope remembers nonetheless that “sympathy is cruel”, like the one dying in the Ninette Sanitorium whose hope exists in a good life for another who is told to “stand up straight in the place you’re longing for, and don’t write to me anymore” – their sights are set beyond optimism, which tries to suggest that somehow things will turn out the way you want them to after all, to a space that can only be described as faithfulness: we do what we can because it is good.
“And if they remember me at all make them remember me as more than a queer experiment; more than a diagram in their Quarterly. Make them remember me.”
I think that stories are in constant danger of committing one of two sins. The first sin is the happy ending which resolves all disquiet, and the second is the nihilism which allows for no redemption. I think these two endings are inadequate because both assume a sense of arrival for which I have no stomach; to arrive in either way is to close the story off from alternatives, to shut down the conversation, to claim an absoluteness that is beyond our ability to control. Art since the second world war seems to be moving towards the second sin, and in response to this there are many who want to retreat to the first sin, preferring a sedated, sanitized, triumphalist vision of the world to one that is without hope. John K. Samson seems to be charting a course between these two metaphysical worlds by appealing to concreteness, to everyday experience, to particular cities and particular streets, to characters who, because they remind us of ourselves and the people we know, also remind us that small redemptions are possible though not assured, indeed that small redemptions might be even more important than great ones. The site of hope, though, is never the redemption itself. Only the possibility.
“Got more faults than the state of California, and the heart is a badly built bridge. Seems the most I have to offer doesn’t offer much. Make it something somebody can use. Make this something somebody can use.”