I first heard The Weakerthans in 2002, when we were in school in DC for the semester, working on this record — I mean studying. One of Steve’s roommates convinced us to go with him to a show at the Black Cat, and I figured it would be cool to get out and do something with other people, since I had been in college for two years at that point and never tried that.
It’s always weird to see a band you don’t know anything about but like immediately, particularly if that band is The Weakerthans, and a decent chunk of their appeal comes from their lyrics (which you don’t know, and can’t really understand live unless you do know them). So I thought — hey, this band is actually really good — and then went home and promptly forgot about them.
Very soon after that, the band released “Reconstruction Site”, which I found on the rack at the radio station doing our weekly show back in Richmond. It was really good; immediately accessible, simple but well-thought out arrangements, and of course, really deep, interesting narratives. I had no idea just HOW deep and intricately constructed all of that was at first (read the wikipedia page), but figuring it out just made me like the record even more over the years.
Reconstruction Site is also one of those very rare albums where it feels really long, but never boring. Obviously that’s no small feat, and they completely avoid the eighth/ninth-song-doldrums that I always have trouble getting past when I make albums. Anyways, the point is that I really, really like this thing, and as the time goes by, I only like it more. Four years later, they released a follow-up, called “Reunion Tour”, which — being lazy and cheap — I never bought until about two weeks ago when I needed something new to do work to. After a week of listening, I’m actually a little disappointed. I definitely like the album, but it’s a shorter, more experimental record and probably by necessity, it’s just a different, less epic experience than its predecessor.
… except for one thing. On Reconstruction Site, there is a GREAT song from the perspective of a depressed person’s cat, called “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute”. Musically, it’s super catchy and upbeat, easy to follow, and one of my favorites on the record, with a giant climax of a bridge, and basically everything you could really want from a non-pretentious, energetic indie rock song. I knew all this when I first heard it, and of course back then, I had never had a pet, let alone a cat.
But man, if you DO get a cat, and you actually like him, this song takes on a whole new significance. As I’ve written many, many times, I spent most of 2006-2007 jobless and lying on the floor in my smelly, cold basement being depressed and talking to young Coby the Cat, an experience that is probably a way more influential part of my life than anything like that really should be. Keeping that in mind, here are some lyrics, verbatim, from the aforementioned song:
“Why don’t you ever wanna 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.”
If Coby could speak English, this is exactly what he would have said in 2006.
“And listen… about those bitter songs you sing, they’re not helping anything. They won’t make you strong.”
WHAT THE… DID MY CAT WRITE THIS SONG???? He then goes on to describe this awesome party they should have, and all these people and animals they should invite, how he would cater it by killing birds and mice, and how much fun they could be having if they’d stop just moping around and feeling bad for themselves. But despite the silent pleading, I — I mean, the guy — doesn’t seem interested, leading to this harsh accusation:
“All you ever wanna do, is drink and watch TV… frankly that thing doesn’t really interest me. I swear I’m gonna 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.”
First of all, I have this song cued up on iTunes, but I just pulled that entirely from memory, which should give you some indication how welded into my brain this song is. Secondly… wow. No, I wasn’t drinking in Cleveland, but I specifically remember sitting there, watching Judge Judy at two in the afternoon while my wife was in some God-forsaken pre-industrial country for three weeks at a time, and Coby would literally sit there on the table and stare at me, meowing what I assume was the cat-equivalent of “can we do something else?” The little dude was my own personal combination of Lassie, Jiminy Cricket, and Wilson the Volleyball from “Castaway”. It’s very hard to properly express just how much the combination of complete social isolation and pet ownership can affect a person. My wife and I decided together that it was eventually time to get out of Ohio and do something more satisfying with our lives. We didn’t consult Coby the Cat on that decision, but the scary thing is, I spent SO much time alone talking to myself through him (yes, out loud, like a crazy person), that functionally, his seemingly irrelevant cat actions actually had serious influence through me. And I never forgot that this song, at roughly the same time that I figured out what it was about, was LITERALLY HAPPENING TO ME IN REAL-TIME.
That brings us to the next record, which contains a follow-up song about this same cat, entitled “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure”. Loving the original, I eagerly listened and paid attention to everything, wondering if (though not necessarily expecting that) this song would reflect my current situation as well as the original had.
It does not, although it’s a really good song. In fact, taking all this into consideration, it is currently the saddest song I’ve ever heard in my life. I honestly have trouble listening to it, because instead of reflecting my successful escape from (unofficial) depression and apathy, it’s a story about the worst-case alternative. In the sequel, the pleading cat eventually gives up trying to reach her owner, leaves home, and thinks about how much she loved him, and all the good times they had, until she FORGETS THE NAME HE GAVE HER. Oh yeah, she is also very cold, because she lives outside now. And all of this is done with typical Weakerthans imagery, and cat-ownership experience (my wife eventually met the Weakerthans, we can confirm that at least some of them own, and really like, cats), making it all the more horribly authentic.
Now, I could handle a sad song about a cat. Lots of people have cats. Many cats are unpleasant, and irrelevant to other people’s lives. No problem there. But it’s not really about the cat, per se; it’s the whole story — the idea that there’s another, unbelievably more depressing way someone like me could have reacted to the situation I was in. That there’s a colder, less caring alternative to the response I had to Coby the Cat (“oh my God, my cat is more motivated than I am, I have to get out of here”). It’s not just sad, it’s jarring, and scary, AND sad.
“after scrapping with the ferals and the tabby, let you brush my matted fur. How I’d kneed into your chest while you were sleeping, the shallow breathing made me purr. But I can’t remember the sound… that you found for me… but I can’t remember the sound… that you found for me…”
OH MY GOD, ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? The thought of that poor little dude out there, cold and scrapping with ferals, because I couldn’t get my @#$% together and he just had to give up on me after spending his entire life trying to get me to do something, is utterly devastating. I am immune to standard issue artistic emotional plays (ask my wife; there’s nothing funnier than watching some dramatic “Parenthood” scene or something with her, and she looks at me crying and is like “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? DO YOU EVEN HAVE FEELINGS??”), but this is different. This is like a customized series of songs, over multiple albums, designed specifically to make me feel terrible.
And it’s just really, really well-done. Congratulations, Weakerthans. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to race home and hug my cat for forty minutes.
(Postscript from the future… my God, it’s a trilogy now, and I’m a wreck. Good context here. I don’t know what to say, except that I really, really miss Coby the Cat. He passed in 2018 and I think about him a lot.)