by Theo Markou
Edited by Erin Pehlivan
When I told my friends and co-workers that I was going to spend my one week ration of summer vacation in Winnipeg, Manitoba, most gave me the same muted glare of disbelief. "Oh...good for you," they would say. What they actually meant was; there is no compelling or rational reason for a tourist to travel to Winnipeg.
The real reason I chose to visit Winnipeg was for my itching desire to experience a city that I feel close through song. John K. Samson, front man of the Winnipeg-based Weakerthans, writes the most evocative and illustrative lyrics that I’ve ever heard. Samson masterfully works emotion, sentimentalism, nostalgia, longing and political commentary into intelligent lyrics, without every becoming trite or obscure.
Listening to the album Fallow transports me to a bitterly cold prairie expanse and a lonesome Winnipeg cityscape. Using lyricism as a form of cartography, Samson maps the city in short vignettes from the chaotic march of investment bankers beneath Portage Avenue to aggressive urban renewal effort in the city’s North end, all the while declaring, "I hate Winnipeg". Scattered across Samson’s lyrics are references to landmarks throughout Winnipeg. My goal was to visit as many sights of lyrical representation in one week with a map. On this adventure, my only sources of direction were the Winnipeg skyline and the vague itinerary presented to me by Weakerthans lyrics.
"The airport [is] always almost empty this time of the year, so let’s go play on a baggage carousel..."
Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport (YGW): 200 Wellington Ave.
Arriving from Toronto’s Pierson International Airport, it’s only by default that my first official stop would be the baggage carousel mentioned in "Aside". My suitcase was one of the first to come out the shoot and onto the carousel, but I hung back and let it cycle while a throng of people wrestled for the few square feet of space at its curve.
"A spectre [is] haunting Albert Street..."
48 Albert Street
Some believe that Samson, in reference to the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto, pays tribute to Winnipeg’s tradition of leftist radicalism, specifically the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. In the last decade or so, Winnipeg’s leftist radical tradition has spawned an overt anarchist tendency which has declared part of Albert Street to be an "autonomous zone". Albert Street is a part of this long and still evolving history. In this sense, a spectre is haunting Albert Street – the spectre of the working class.
"Wellington’s Wednesdays" (song)
The St. Charles Hotel: 235 Notre Dam Avenue
Wellington’s is, or perhaps was, a bar located in the basement of the St. Charles Hotel at Notre Dam and Albert Street. Whether or not the bar remains in operation is open for debate; not once did I see any activity on the street to suggest the raucousness described in Samson’s tribute. The lyrics "curtains never open, faces never show" hit upon this. However, the elders of the Winnipeg music scene know that, during the 1980s, Wellington’s was the prairie capitol of goth, punk and new wave; the Cure performed there in August 1981.
Be sure not to miss the vintage advertisements that still remain on many buildings throughout the city; few cities in Canada can claim such a collection of colourful murals. As Winnipeg continues to grow and renew, it seems almost certain that these murals, or the structures that serve as their canvas, will go "missing, like teeth".
"Let’s plant a bomb at city hall..."
- Confessions of a Futon Revolutionary
Winnipeg City Hall, at the Winnipeg Civic Centre: 510 Main Street
Would-be futon revolutionaries take warning – Winnipeg’s city hall is located directly across from its police headquarters. This and because it’s in Winnipeg makes it a less than ideal target for revolutionary direct action. That’s not to say that the intimidating building wouldn’t benefit from being razed.
"A thousand sharpened elbows in the underground..."
- One Great City!
Underground concourse: Vicinity of Notre Dam & Main Street
When visiting Winnipeg during its sunny summer days, it’s easy to disregard the unforgiving winter months. Evidence of winter’s treachery can be found in the enclosed footbridges that connect buildings to one another, as well as the hermetically sealed glass bus shelters. Still, the most telling evidence is the underground concourse which begins just on the edge of the Exchange and connects many of the downtown office towers and hotels, mostly for the benefit of those who work within them. During rush hour, it is not difficult to imagine the cramped marble quarters being filled with agitated business people, making their way to lunch or waiting chauffeured cars.
"All-night restaurant North Kildona..."
- None of the Above
Salisbury House: 759 Pembina Highway
Some years ago I decided that, if I ever found myself in Manitoba, I would make a point of eating at the all-night restaurant mentioned in "None of the Above". In the end, this plan was only partially met. Given the suburban layout of the neighbourhood of North Kildona and the rumoured historic taste of its coffee, the lyrics seem to describe the scene inside of a Salisbury House restaurant.
Salisbury House, or simply Sal’s to the locals, is a regional chain that could best be described to outsiders as a Denny’s-type chain. After a Saturday night performance at Freud’s, the party wasn’t quite over. At 2:30am on the weekend, finding food means leaving downtown Winnipeg and heading to the suburbs for either late-night Chinese or "Sal’s". With eight all-night locations scattered across the city, it’s just a matter of selecting one. But at North Kildona, the pancakes apparently tasted like rubber and the service was really slow. Between this review and that contained in "None of the Above", perhaps the location isn’t worth visiting after all. We ended up a nondescript plaza at the side of the Pembina Highway, which my hosts assured me was more or less identical to the one in North Kildona.
"Out under the Disraeli, with rusty train track tires..."
9 Rover Avenue
(Photo from The Uniter: Winnipeg’s Weekly Urban Journal)
"The Disraeli" refers to the Disraeli Freeway and by extension the Disraeli Bridge. Despite warnings from locals that the area wasn’t safe, even in daylight, I studied the incomplete bus route map I grabbed from the airport. Parts of North Winnipeg remind me of a forgotten city where once populated streets abruptly turn desolate and confrontational. The street that I was walking on at around 2pm transitioned from an industrial strip of auto repair shops to a small neighbourhood of older homes.
Judging by the images that I looked up on Google Street View after the fact, the Disraeli Bridge is hulking, rusty and utilitarian; not much of a sight to look at. Yet there is still something charming about it. "It’s the best place in all of Winnipeg to watch the sunset," insists a former co-worker. If you’re more daring than me, you can watch the sunset and then use the cover of night to head south to the train yard that Sampson references. Just don’t go alone.
"I love this place, the enormous sky..."
The best adventures change something about the individual; my changes were both emotional and physical. All of the walking and a largely vegan diet led to some weight loss. When modeling my souvenir t-shirt, my mother commented that she could see my ribs through it. Similar to a lyric in "Aside", all of this wandering wore holes into a brand new pair of shoes that I "got for free" shortly before leaving for Winnipeg. In a short time, I had worked my way into the dialectic of the city’s complex social landscape. While I cannot articulate its specifics, I can appreciate how Samson is able to draw so much inspiration from it.
Winnipeg and the landmarks discussed are tantamount to Graceland for Weakerthans fans. Since visiting Winnipeg, the experience of listening to their recordings has been altered; I now have a more intimate relationship to some of the raw lyrical material. The visions that were once simply the product of my imagination have been replaced by memories of what actually is there, in the endearing city of Winnipeg.
To contact Theo Markou, email him at email@example.com and be sure to visit his tumblr thisblogcouldbeyourlife. His original Weakerthans Guide to Winnipeg is 25 pages long and deserves to be published in all publications relevant to Canadian and non-Canadian music. This is an edited version only for the purpose of Too Rude Magazine. And if this doesn’t get published elsewhere, I hope the members of the Weakerthans stumble upon it in pride. Thank you for sharing, Theo.