One of my favourite bands is the Weakerthans from Winnepeg, Manitoba. I first came across them a year or two back when they did an acoustic version of Civil Twilight on Toronto’s 89X. It’s the story of a bus driver whose route takes him regularly past the house where his love affair ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Most times he distracts himself, but whenever civil twilight falls over the icy streets of a Winnepeg winter he finds himself remembering what he lost. The song really spoke to me: I briefly dated a woman in Waterloo, and her apartment building was on Weber Street, which is one of the main drags of the city. Every time I passed her building, I felt a heavy sense of regret at a lost opportunity. I resolved to collect The Weakerthans entire discography, and I listen to it regularly.
They have a number of great songs that are worth a listen. One Great City is an homage to their home town, and the chorus goes ‘I… Hate [always said with a sigh]… Winnepeg.’ From the YouTube videos and bootlegs I know this to be a crowd favourite. Another of their songs is Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961), in which an eccentric Antarctic explorer regales a dinner guest about the forbidding land he’s come to love. At one point he asks, “Say do you have a ship, and a dozen able men, that maybe you could lend me?” You can see that this band really has a way of telling an unusual story.
I could talk at much greater length about the Weakerthans (and maybe some day I will), but this post is going to focus on an ongoing project the Weakerthans have indulged in: Writing from the perspective of a cat named Virtue. A teacher friend of mine was so taken with the idea that he plans to use it in a grade-school classroom as a teaching aid on viewpoints in stories.
Anyway, they’ve written two songs so far, and I’d be very surprised if their next album doesn’t include another one. They’re both dynamite, as the videos and lyrics will show.
A plea from a Cat Named Virtue
Why don’t you ever want to play?
I’m tired of this piece of string.
You sleep as much as I do now, and you
don’t eat much of anything.
I don’t know who you’re talking to
I made a search through every room,
but all I found was dust that moved
in shadows of the afternoon.
about those bitter songs you sing?
They’re not helping anything.
They won’t make you strong.
So, we should open up the house.
Invite the tabby two doors down.
You could ask your sister, if
she doesn’t bring her Basset Hound.
Ask of things you shouldn’t miss:
tape-hiss and the Modern Man,
The Cold War and Card Catalogues,
to come and join us if they can,
for girly drinks and parlor games.
We’ll pass around the easy lie
of absolutely no regrets,
and later maybe you could try
to let your losses dangle off
the sharp edge of a century,
and talk about the weather, or
how the weather used to be.
And I’ll cater
with all the birds that I can kill.
Let their tiny feathers fill
lick the sorrow from your skin.
Scratch the terror and begin
to believe you’re strong.
All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV,
and frankly that thing doesn’t really interest me.
I swear I’m going to bite you hard and taste your tinny blood
if you don’t stop the self-defeating lies you’ve been repeating
since the day you brought me home.
I know you’re strong.
– – –
I’ll admit I’m still not completely sure what is happening to Virtue’s owner, although I’m sure Virtue doesn’t know either. Something has thrown Virtue’s owner into a great depression, and Virtue’s attempts to cheer him up –self-centred as only a cat’s can be- are beautiful and heart-warming. I think anyone who has ever been owned by a cat can appreciate this song on a few levels.
(My apologies: The next video has a 23-second intro from the guy who made the animation, but the alternative would be a live concert.)
Virtue the Cat Explains Her Departure
It had something to do with the rain
Leeching loamy dirt
And the way the back lane came alive
Half moon whispered, “Go”
For a while I heard you missing steps in the street
And your anger pleading in an uncertain key
Singing the sound of you that you found for me
When the winter took the tips of my ears
Found this noisy home full of pigeons and places to hide
And when the voices die
I emerged to watched abandoned machines
Waiting for their men to return
I remember the way I would wait for you
To arrive with kibble and a box full of beer
How I’d scratch the empties desperate to hear
You make the sound that you found for me
After scrapping with the ferals and the tabby
Let you brush my matted fur
How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping
Shallow breathing made me purr
But I can’t remember the sound that you found for me
I can’t remember the sound that you found for me
I can’t remember the sound
– – –
This second song seems to be a continuation of the first. Virtue escapes from the back yard, and her owner tries to find her. ‘Singing the sound that you found for me’ has to be the most roundabout way of saying the cat’s name, and I love it. I also suspect much of the song is told through flashbacks once Virtue is safe at home, ‘allowing’ her owner to brush her, and then kneading his chest while he sleeps, purring all the while. I suppose we’ll find out for sure with the next song.
The Weakerthans are a Canadian indie band fusing punk rock and folk rock in an absolutely unique and amazing way. All of their stuff is insightful, but also wry, and even the melancholy songs have an undertone of beauty to them. I haven’t seen them live yet, but they’re on the top of my must-see list. Hope you enjoyed them!