The Saga of Virtute the Cat: Canadiana, Folk Punk, and John K. Samson

Oh hey friends.  How are you doing this week?

Now that Halloween comes closer and closer, and the days have really begun to get colder, the chill of the Christmas season begins to grip tightly to the frigid air.

This piece is going to be a little different than the other stuff that I write about here on DIAG, because this one is something special.  October 21, 2016 marked the ending of a Canadian saga, and one that many people may not be aware of.

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My cat Ripley with her favourite record.

The Weakerthans were a Canadian folk punk/indie-rock act from Winnipeg, Manitoba and were fronted by John K. Samson, a former member of Propaghandi.  Debuting in the time when folkish punk and intelligent rock was burgeoning, I found the Weakerthans when I needed this type of music.

I was fresh out of the psychiatric ward at seventeen.  I had tried to commit suicide by downing a bottle of Valium, following it with a bottle of vodka and cutting my wrists in a gutter.  The scars from the stitches were still apparent when I applied at my local college radio station to get my own radio show.  My hands were thin and fragile like bird bones when I was sorting haphazardly through a pile of Canadian content.  At this time, there was a requirement for each DJ to play a certain amount of Canadiana.

I always struggled with this, if only because it was hard to find appropriately dark material that was Canadian..  at least where I wasn’t playing the same handful of bands over and over again.  I found the Weakerthans “Reconstruction Site”, a cardboard digipak with some decidedly creepy artwork on it.  The nurses on the cover drew me to the record initially.  Following six months in a hospital, I had grown fascinated with the comings and goings of these women, the nurses.  The first song I heard by the Weakerthans was the creepy track, “Hospital Vespers”, and the stark and harrowing lyrics mirrored my own stay in the psych ward where I had felt abandoned not only by god, but by my friends.

This record became a staple on my show and I ran down the track listing and one Sunday night I ended my show with “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute”.

I queued up the record and swapped stations with the oncoming DJ, and went out to the car parked outside and listening to my own recorded voice and the Weakerthans, I had to pull over because I cried so hard at the plight of a cat trying to cheer up a depressed owner.

Was this what my cat Einstein had felt like watching me spiral into madness and insanity before the age of twenty?  Life seemed a lot simpler when examined from the point of view of a cat.

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

And listen, 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 the 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 disappointment
Lie down; 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

Plea from a Cat Named Virtute became something of my anthem while I underwent cognitive behavioural therapy, went to weekly group therapy sessions as an outpatient.  Reconstruction Site never left my car.  From songs about the Elks Lodge, weird nurses, hospitals, a cheerful cat..  this sound became so indicative of who I was, but who the people around me were.  This put into such great perspective the connected kindness and yet ultimate bleakness of what it was to live in Canada.

As I recovered, I moved on with more music to fill up my life, but a few years later, working at the radio station still, I came across the new Weakerthans release – “Reunion Tour” and the first song I noticed was the sequel to the Virtute story and this one had the ominous title of “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure”.  Fuck.

I played the song, fittingly as my last song of the night, and ended up crying again in my booth realizing that Virtute had left her owner.

It had something to do with the rain
Leaching, 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 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 watch 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
I’d let you brush my matted fur
How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping
You 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

So, unless you have no heart, hate cats or are otherwise some type of unfeeling lump, that song should be enough to break your heart into many many pieces.

I can’t hear this song without sobbing.  I listen to it around that special time of the month when I get really bloated and eat chocolate (period).  I think what is so crushing about this song is that Virtute tried.  She tried to support her owner, help him get his life back on track, and he became such a drunken shitpile that he probably neglected her (“When the winter took the tips of my ears”).  The line, “I scratched at the empties..  desperate to hear you make that sound that you found for me” tells me that the owner checked out of their relationship.

When Virtute leaves, she forgets her name.  She remains connected to her owner through their good memories, and yet her life as a stray runaway seems preferable to living with an owner who isn’t able to care for her.

Isn’t this really just a retelling of every relationship I’d ever had where someone tried to support me through my ugliness and substance abuse and I pushed them away until they left?

I felt like this was a warning and this song has continued to haunt me.

Now that I’m 30 years old, it’s been 13 years since I first met Virtute and she told me I was strong and told me to shake off my problems.  Knowing that she left has been a point for me.  When the Weakerthans broke up, I kind of assumed that that was the end of the story, something unfinished.  When John K. Samson embarked on a solo career, his debut album “Provincial” didn’t talk about the whimsical cat and her drunken owner.  But his new album, “Winter Wheat”, does.

Early this summer the tracklisting was released, and I noticed the final song on the album is called, “Virtute at Rest” and I swear I went into a tizzy about this for weeks.

I had this sinking feeling that I knew what “rest” meant, and that it wouldn’t be her resting comfortably with her companion, and that it would be her resting in the ground.

It’s hard to explain to others that don’t get it, people that claim they don’t bother listening to music what these pieces mean to me and how grateful I am for them.  Virtute found me when I needed her and this music, this bleak and hilarious connectedness that is the music of John K. Samson has maintained itself as a steady soundtrack to my life for thirteen years.

I knew that October 21st 2016 would finish off a chapter of my life that was painful and introspective, and ultimately so very rewarding.

A few days ago the CBC released streaming for “Winter Wheat” and I was able to hear the final two songs in the Virtute saga.

The first song, “17th Street Treatment Centre” is sung from the owner’s point of view.  The first one that seems to tell his side of the story.  It looks like the court intervened and made him attend rehab to dry out.  Virtute admonishes her owner in “Plea From..” and tells him that “those bitter songs you sing, they’re not helping anything”, and after that we don’t hear anymore about her owner singing until “Explains Her Departure” when she can hear his “anger pleading in an uncertain key..  singing the sound that you found for me”.  I think we can assume that he was so far gone into his addiction that he gave up singing altogether, and so the mention of him singing “The one about the spring, the cat ran away” is very important here.  He is in recovery, but he starts to sing again.

As he talks about all the various people in rehab along with him he says that they probably aren’t getting better, but a small bit of hope comes into the final line..  “but we’re not getting better together”.  The word together is key here.  In “Plea From..” Virtute suggests her owner throw a party and have some fun and become connected to someone or something even if only for a brief time.

Virtute’s owner sounds like he has been through hell, but hitting rock bottom had him doing some looking up.

On the 21st day
The sun didn’t hate me
The food wasn’t angry
The bed didn’t sigh
The ceiling said it’s possible
I might get my looks back
On the 21st day of my stay here
On the 21st day
Danced to the twelve step
Examined, admitted I’m powerless too
I sang the one about the spring
The cat ran away
On the 21st day of my court ordered stay here
The punk and the priest
And the real estate agent
The girl with no teeth and the shaky marine
The Serbian deadhead who wears his sunglasses
So no one can see at my eyes
In for three weeks
Or in for forever
Here at the 17th street treatment centre
Most of us probably not getting better
But not getting better, together

 

The final track on “Winter Wheat” is the one I was most afraid of – “Virtute at Rest”.

I was scared because I didn’t want this saga to end, and I didn’t want it to end in sadness.

Bitterly crying in my radio station booth over a fictional cat is difficult to explain at 22, and would be harder to explain as a working professional at 30.

I was at home in bed when I played the song.  Both of my black cats, one a sour natured version of Virtute, and the other a kitten who would happily suggest a party if I was sad were sitting on top of me.  A fitting way to play the final song in this saga.

The final word from Virtute clocks in at only 1 minute 40 seconds and it is a succint ending to this saga that is so ultimately Canadian.

Now that the treatment
And antidepressants
And seven months sober
Have built me a bed
In the back of your brain
Where the memories flicker
And I paw at the synapses
Bright bits of string
You should know I am with you
Know I forgive you
Know I am proud of the steps that you’ve made
Know it will never be easy or simple
Know I will dig in my claws when you stray
So let us rest here
Like we used to
In a line of late afternoon sun
Let it rest
All you can’t change
Let it rest, and be done

 

Virtute is dead.  When she passed isn’t specific, but she died without her owner, and here in this song she is resurrected in his mind through their happy memories.  She remarks that the treatment, sobriety and medication have “built me a bed”, and I think that this means the owner is finally able to reflect on who he was and the good things in life and one of those good things was Virtute.  She tells her owner she is proud of him for changing, proud of the steps he’s taken and she knows it won’t be easy for him and she will “dig in her claws when you stray”.

The song finishes beautifully with a memory, of the cat with owner having a rest in the late afternoon sun, and she asks him to put away his sad memories – “all that you can’t change”, and to allow them “to be done”.

I think this ended the best possible way it could have.  While I wish that Virtute and her owner had been reconciled and that they could have found peace together, I understand that this isn’t really the point of the Virtute saga.  If this was a happy relationship, the original song could never have been written.

I think this is a comment on how we hurt the people who love us the most.

And sometimes those people have to leave us because of it.

That doesn’t mean they don’t love us, it just means they need to love themselves and take care of themselves.

The line that is so key in this song is “Know I forgive you”.  I think pet owners can feel a lot of guilt for not taking care of their pets, maybe not being able to care for them the way our pets care for us.  I have yet to find a friend that waits for me at the door everyday like my cats do, and I can’t count how many times I’ve picked up either of my cats and cried bitterly into their fur.

I wish I could tell you that my heart hasn’t been broken by this bittersweet series of songs, but it has.  Shortly after I was fired from job as a radio station DJ, I got a rabbit, named her Bunnicula and she was with me through all my substance abuse, through all my bad choices, and all my good ones.  She died on Valentine’s Day this year, and she was almost ten years old.  I feel a great guilt that maybe I could have something, taken better care of her, bought her more expensive food, or even, been able to show her how much she meant to me.  Now that I have the cats and a new rabbit friend, I feel even more about this song series that we connect so deeply to things, animals, and people.

We need this connection.

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today i learned that photographing kitty paws is hard work

What I’ve learned in my healing process..  is that we are complex creatures.  One of our most basic needs is connection and yet, in this time of plenty and social media..  we are so disconnected from each other.

I’m guilty of it.  Guilty of preferring a screen over a person.  Or a pet.

Or anything.

I think this is why this music is so powerful for me.  Not only do I love cats, but I still find myself longing for connection.

So..  John, if you’re reading this.

Thank you.

I met John Samson twice, and both times I was so tongue tied I wasn’t able to say much more than that.  I don’t know what my life would be like without this beautiful noise.

I’m glad to say that I don’t want to know.

virtute

the new merch design for winter wheat is perfect

20 responses to “The Saga of Virtute the Cat: Canadiana, Folk Punk, and John K. Samson

  1. Surprised to see no one commented here. Thank you for sharing your personal story about this incredible series of tunes. I haven’t been through the same exact things you describe, but as someone with manageable depression I can start to try to appreciate it. I’ve loved following this story since I first heard the track on Reconstruction Site, a funny song, which the follow-up tracks take in unexpected directions. I shed some tears with you tonight. Requiescat in pace Virtute.

  2. I had no idea until finding this posting that he’d finished the story…I had gone through my own share of issues a few years ago, that my own little furball helped push me though, so the first two songs carried a fair bit of meaning to me as well. Having to leave home, I had to leave her in the care of others, so I often wonder if she “remebers the sound I gave to her..” Thanks for sharing your story…and i’m off to open a new box of tissues.

  3. Don’t feel guilty about Bunnicula. We’ve lost 3 cats and after each felt so guilty. It’s a natural reaction. From reading your post it’s obvious you are a deep-feeling person who reflects. Animals can feel the love from people like you, who are rare. Thanks for taking time to write this beautiful post. My partner and I LOVE Virtue and found your blog by googling “winter took the tips of my ears” and we both loved your post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences honestly. xo

    • It is so sad, but I think, that sadness is built into the very bones of all relationships. Death Cab for Cutie once said, “love is watching someone die”.

  4. That was a beautiful article. I wasn’t aware of these last 2 songs in the Virtute saga, so thank you.

  5. I was googling Virtute and was brought here.

    Thank you for writing and sharing this piece, not only about the Virtute saga, but also about yourself. These songs have pieces of all of us in them and I’m always glad to read how they have also touched other people’s lives as they have my own.

    My girlfriend and I lost our cat this year and, while I can’t bear sharing the finale of the Virtute saga with her yet, that song brought me some comfort.

    Anyway, I hope you’re well and, once again, thanks for sharing. It was a great read.

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment and I am very sad to hear about the loss of your dear pet. Take care of yourself. ❤

  6. And I thought the first song wrecked me.. the saga just gets harder to listen to. Beautiful, but oh the tears. Thank you for this article.

    • Oh I know, I can’t even listen to “..Explains Her Departure” without crying hysterically.

  7. Are you me? I also fell in love with The Weakerthans after my stint in the psych ward, became a college radio DJ and continued to struggle. I wound up moving to Winnipeg and got to sit on the floor of tiny venues crying and watching them play. I just saw them in my new city last night, I still cried and I felt like I was home. Glad to hear things have improved for you and that you have such a great family of pets.

    • I never thought that anyone would read this article, let alone relate to me and my love of cats, so I very much appreciate your kind words and the kind words of others who have commented here. I hope you are well!

  8. Thank you for sharing, your writing is wonderful, and Virtute’s tale moves me as well. It’s amazing how a story set to music can be so powerfully compelling and feel like a punch in the gut at the same time. Best of luck to you.

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