Rob Mair looks back on his eighteen year relationship with The Weakerthans’ classic record.
By Rob Mair
In the title track to 2003’s Reconstruction Site, John K. Samson says that he intends to throw away his misery and disassemble his despair, stating defiantly that “It never once bought me a drink”.
Left and Leaving – the Weakerthans’ second album and precursor to Reconstruction Site – is without doubt Samson’s saddest work: filled with characters facing hardships, on the breadline or worse. This July it celebrates its 18th birthday, finally old enough to get a round in.
Left and Leaving is an album of time, place and people. It starts with ‘Everything Must Go!’, a song about a garage sale filled with broken pocket watches and stolen coffee cups. The irony that I bought a discarded promo in a Southampton record fair back in the summer of 2000 is not lost on me, just as I’m sure it wouldn’t be on John K. Samson, The Weakerthans’ literary heartbeat.
The Weakerthans were not a new band to me. I’d heard ‘Diagnosis’ (found on the group’s debut, Fallow) on Hopeless Records’ Cinema Beer Belly compilation, where it sat nicely alongside scratchy indie-rockers Superchunk and emo/punk outfit Samiam. Getting hold of Fallow was somewhat trickier though, so it felt like fate to find Left and Leaving whilst browsing racks of CDs. By the end of the summer, I can confidently say that no other album has had such a profound impact on my life.
Much of Left and Leaving is wrapped up in nostalgia. For Samson, it’s the ghosts that haunt the streets of Winnipeg. For me, it’s the transient nature of student life in a city 150 miles from my Midlands home. When Samson describes buildings gone missing like teeth on Left and Leaving’s haunting title track, I can fully appreciate the sentiment. I still go back to Southampton and it is forever changing; spectres of the past haunting every corner and abandoned building.
Many students (myself included) know a thing or two about being broke, too. Maybe not the heart-breaking destitution of the narrator found on ‘Exiles Among You’, but enough to know and appreciate the value of money. The dilemmas she faces, such as being forced to shoplift Christmas gifts, or the humiliation of making a collect call home, are so vivid and poignant that the whole story feels heartbreakingly visceral. The frustration as she sits down on the sidewalk and wills traffic lights to change – right before Jason Tait’s wild drumming punctures the grey mood like a thunderstorm – is an enduring image of resignation and defeat, perfectly outlined and expertly drawn. It is Samson’s prose, and the power of Left and Leaving, in microcosm.
Of course, I was never in real danger of those things, but as a child to lower-middle class parents from a West Midlands coal-mining town, there’s a realness to life that Samson captures perfectly. My father – like my grandfather and most of my uncles – started his working life in the mines, before spending 30 years working on the railway. My mother spent 20 years working as a civilian for the police. They divorced when I was about 12, but both made considerable sacrifices as single parents to help put my twin brother and I through university.
And it’s Samson’s empathy for these sorts of characters that shines throughout Left and Leaving, painting life – very often that found on the fringes of society – with compassion and understanding. His more recent charitable work and drives to improve adult literacy in prisons, or with the community of Churchill following the closure of the town’s port (Churchill’s Hungry Bears Food Bank) shows such songs are far from empty platitudes.
The beauty of Samson’s writing is that he makes many of these struggles and challenges relatable. In turn, this makes the world seem smaller – a reminder that everyone has their own shit to deal with and is muddling through as best they can. Samson is the absolute master of these miniature character studies, and for a journalism student interested in the minutiae of life, Left and Leaving was revelatory.
Like the best albums, I’m still working it out as I get older too, rewarding my repeated investment and continued rumination. It’s only over the last few of years that ‘Elegy for Elsabet’ made sense, being as it is about a young deaf woman. It’s a song that focuses on sound – grass swishes, rain clatters, horses bray – yet it hits you with the devastating line that these are sounds “Betta never heard”. It’s gorgeous and poetic and elegant, but so subtle in its use of language that the result is strikingly powerful. The inspiration for the song actually lay close to Samson’s home – Elsabet was his great aunt, who was partially deaf, and who stayed on the family farm to look after her parents when the other children departed.
Unsurprisingly, it’s an album I go back to it with fervent regularity. It may be an album of comfort and nostalgia, but it’s also one of devilish excitement and wanderlust. No record has made a foreign place sound so alluring, even if there’s not a rose-tinted lens in sight. It’s a warts-and-all depiction of a city at odds with itself; creative and artistic but buried by bureaucracy and inefficiency. While Samson’s writing would grow to reflect real-life people – and be consistently excellent – the affection for and disappointment in his hometown elevates Left and Leaving to another level, marrying personal insight with picture-book imagery and coded messages.
In the limbo that you experience after university ends but before you get your results, I got sick; sicker than I’d ever been before or since. I’d moved out of student accommodation, yet planned to spend the summer working, so took up the rent on my mate’s student flat. All of my possessions, save a portable CD player and a handful of CDs, were sent on to my new home in London.
Semi-delirious and dithering, I dragged myself to the doctors. It was results day, the culmination of three years’ hard work. I was hoping they’d take one look at my pasty complexion and clammy skin and see me in a heartbeat. Instead, I was turfed out onto the streets as they closed shop for lunch. I’d have to come back later in the afternoon.
Without the strength to move too far, I found a curb, sat down and just played Left and Leaving on the CD player over and over. Or more precisely, ‘This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open’. Through the fog of illness (a particularly nasty dental abscess in my jaw, since you ask…), everything fell into place. “I love this place, the enormous sky; and the faces, hands I’m that haunted by / so why can’t I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labelled home?” he asks and it perfectly captures three years of my life in a five-minute pop song.
Even now, it’s a song that takes me back instantly. For all that was good and bad, Southampton was home, and over that three-year period I’d grown up and matured with this album as the soundtrack. It was where some of my strongest friendships had formed, and where one or two relationships had gone astray. It was success, failure and optimism all wrapped up in a single song.
And while nostalgia may play a significant role in my love for the album, it’s still a timeless piece of work. The political songs – such as ‘Pamphleteer’ and ‘My Favourite Chords’ – have taken on greater meaning as I’ve gotten older. The former, referencing writer and activist Ralph Chaplin’s ‘Solidarity Forever’ union anthem (“Oh, what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one”), and which Samson now ends with a rallying cry of “Solidarity forever!” when played live, is a perfect case in point. There’s a steely undercurrent of defiance to much of Left and Leaving – be it against personal struggle or the larger political system – yet together it works harmoniously, showing the strength that can be found in one person and that ability to either carry on when hope is lost, or to stand up and make a difference.
Samson may indeed have thrown away much of the misery that punctuates Left and Leaving, but for me it remains a life-changing album, filled with resilient characters and an underlying sense of stoic optimism.