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Singing in Public

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Last night, I saw and heard John K.Samson (of The Weakerthans) perform for the second time this year, at the studio theatre of the Chan Centre at the University of British Columbia, where he has been appointed writer-in-residence in the Creative Writing program for this school year, 2012-2013. The first had been on May 12 at the Biltmore, on tour with a band (including Shotgun Jimmie) supporting the release of his solo record Provincial. Both performances were remarkable, not least for his ability to connect directly and feelingly with his listeners. The May show was high-energy and electric, and turned me into a fan, if I wasn’t one already. The previous fall, I had started supervising an undergraduate thesis by Bronwyn Malloy on Samson’s lyrics, and the enthusiastic conversations I had been having with her had really affected my growing belief that Samson was an undeniably powerful poet with a startlingly original sense of line and voice; Bronwyn’s essay turned out to be one of the best pieces of creative criticism I have read in my twenty-odd years as an academic, and I’m happy to admit that many of the better insights into Samson’s work that I want briefly to outline here must derive from my interactions with her writing and her thinking.
To start with, “powerful” is probably the wrong word to apply – at least, without some qualification – to Samson’s art, despite how unreservedly laudatory I’m trying to be here. The actual power of his songs and lyrics derives, I think, from their ability to tap into a pathos of powerlessness, of the social and linguistic disenfranchisement that the characters both represented in and speaking through his texts all seem to share. He voices the weaker than. At the Biltmore, he closed out the set by unplugging himself from the PA – my ears, I have to tell you, were ringing that night; some of those songs, casting back to Samson’s early days as a Winnipeg punk, still asked to be thrashed – closed out the set by unplugging himself and his guitar, climbing up onto one of the monitors, and doing a stripped-down acoustic version of “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” That song is the sequel to the “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute,” a song about his cat composed in response to a request, as Samson explains it, from Veda Hille. The subject-matter might at first glance seem incidental and patently lame. (A catsong? Really? Two cat songs?) But this veneer of weakness is belied not only by the cat’s Latinate moniker – derived from the motto on Winnipeg’s civic coat-of-arms– meaning “strength,” but also by both songs’ reach into a common human experience, the tenuous uncertainties around returns on our investments of affection: both lyrics ventriloquize an anthropocentric projection of meaning onto a mute and vanished animal – the cat pleads and explains. But those explanations are hardly conclusive or satisfying, and the latter song ends with the cat’s detachment from language, from meaning, and from human connection, as it struggles to recall what its unusual name might even have been: “But now I can’t remember the sound that you found for me” (Lyrics and Poems 80). The attachment to a name, to a verbal guarantor of a distinctive personhood, reduces to semiotic dehiscence, to sound and sense coming apart. But, what was amazing at the Biltmore show was that, as Samson reached the song’s close, his audience – many of whom had his words by heart and were singing along anyway – turned this line into a choral refrain; unplugged, he became for a time a kind of latter-day balladeer, singing with not just to the sum total of his listeners. Undifferentiated by the electric trappings and apparatuses of performance or broadcast, Samson became a part of his public. (Became his admirers? At last night’s event, he talked about the influence of W. H. Auden early in his life. Maybe so.) And there was nothing saccharine or maudlin, and more importantly nothing cynical, about singing for a lost cat; instead, what he managed was genuinely affective: feeling, shared. He closed out last night’s performance with the same tactic, a version of this same song delivered standing on a chair, unplugged from any amplifiers. Reaching quietly out.
Still, Samson’s songs often doubt, or at least call into question, their capacity to cross through this daunting alterity, this public divide we all seem to share. In “Pampheleteer,” he repurposes a line from Ralph Chaplin’s famous 1915 union anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” turning political call into a lament for lost love:
Sing, “Oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one” like me remembering the way it could have been. (37)
As tempting as it might be smart to re-appropriate Herbert Marcuse’s collision of revolution and Eros to explain the doubled trope here, I think it’s better to see the feeling represented in these lines as an unsteady amalgam of alienation and community. The inherent weakness of failed or failing desire becomes what binds us, erotically and socially becomes a name for the absence we all appear, in a kind of contingent solidarity, to feel. In this song and in “Virtute,” that strength in weakness depends on the shortfall not only of memory – of knowing for certain what might have been – but also of re-membering, of picking up the disparate pieces of a civic body in disarray: cats, friends, acquaintances, lovers . . . all the inhabitants of a particular home or place or city, whether hated or great.

          Last night’s concert included two on-stage interviews with John K. Samson by novelist Keith Maillard, the current chair of UBC’s Creative Writing program. When Maillard asked about how he composes his songs, Samson remarked on his slowness, on the agon-like struggle he goes through writing and finishing songs. He said something close to: “The process of trying to remember how to write a song is how the song gets written.” Again, it’s the sometimes effortful reconstituting of failing memory that’s key in his conception. Samson’s songs both thematize and enact the approach of expression, of saying something, to the constantly retreating and collapsing edges of language, the unsayable. Part of his humility, I think, is a recognition of a pathos of the failure of meaning at the core of the lyrical. As one of his characters, a broken-hearted dot-com entrepreneur, puts it in a one-sided overheard plea to an former lover, “So what I’m trying to say, I mean what I’m asking is, I know we haven’t talked in a while, but could you come and get me?” (77). A lyricism of the colloquial emerges in these lines through missed connections, through tentatively expressing the desire to be heard and to make contact with someone else. Community, that is, starts to consist in desire rather than realization, in the mutual recognition of our absences, as both speaker – or singer – and listener. We start to empathize across, and because of, our mutual distances. When in another lyric Samson obliquely defines his poetics, his practice of making, in terms of utility and labour (“Make this something somebody can use” [86]), the insurmountable ambiguities of everyday language convert into common weakness, into lyric public address.
           (I have left out specifically discussing the deftly crafted, mercurial imagery and evocatively kiltered phrasings that are hallmarks of his style. Most of what I’ve cited above are examples of moments of colloquial diffusion rather than of poeticism. But he’s great, trust me. Take a close look at any of his lyrics. You’ll see what I mean.)

Book
Samson, John K. Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2012.


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