Punk Poetry

Acclaimed songwriter John K. Samson weighs in on some of punk rock's greatest storytellers.

The libraries and city archives of Winnipeg, Manitoba, may seem like an unlikely place to find one of indie rock's most singular voices. But John K. Samson, singer/songwriter of the Weakerthans, spent two and a half years researching the songs for his debut solo album, Provincial, which focuses on four roads in his home province. Like his work with the Weakerthans, these songs swell with the tiny moments that fill our lives, which, when zoomed out, reveal larger truths about the human condition (or at least hockey).

"I wanted to illuminate a sense of the history and place and landscape of each location," Samson says, which drove him headfirst into research, a process he enjoyed. "It was interesting to know exactly what the songs would be about, but not know how to write them."

Samson gained inspiration partly from friend and fellow songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who encouraged him to push through his writer's block simply by working through it. "Factory workers don't get factory-worker block," Darnielle told him.

"I think that that's a really valuable thing that people have to remind me of," Samson said. "That it's work. I'm so honored and lucky to be able to do it. And to have other people listen to it is a privilege that I should take seriously."

Samson's penchant for penning compelling narratives has earned him a reputation as a sort of punk laureate, a thoughtful writer with roots that stretch back to Propagandhi, the radical left-wing punk band he once played bass in. With this in mind, we asked Samson to give us his take on lyrics by some of punk rock's other notable writers, past and present. Here's what he told us:

"1000 More Fools," Bad Religion (lyrics by Greg Graffin)

I heard them say that the meek shall reign on earth

Phantasmal myriads of sane bucolic birth

I've seen the rapture in a starving baby's eyes

Inchoate beatitude, the Lord of the Flies

Samson: This band was huge for me. Their vocabulary, first off, is huge. It can sometimes seem a bit much, but to me it was always a thrill to hear those four-syllable words in a punk-rock song. It really encouraged thoughtfulness and intelligence.

The first song I ever covered with the first band I was ever in was "The Voice of God Is Government," which is off one of their first records. They're still a touchstone for me lyrically.

Bad Religion were teacherly, and that was great and necessary, but I just don't write that way. People have to write to their strengths, and I do believe that you have to write as natural as possible. As much as I admire it, I can't really write a song like that.

"London Calling," The Clash (lyrics by Joe Strummer)

London calling, now don't look to us

Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust

London calling, see we ain't got no swing

'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

That's a classic. They were a huge influence on me as well. It's one of those songs that I can't imagine the lyric without the voice. The voice and the lyric are the same thing in the case of Strummer. It's inseparable and unique.

"Rock and Roll Nigger," Patti Smith

Those who have suffered understand suffering and thereby extend their hand

The storm that brings harm also makes fertile

Blessed is the grass and herb and the true thorn and light

She is a poet. It's one of those cases that is rare, where she's as powerful on the page as she is in the air, in the ether.

"The Idiots Are Taking Over," NOFX (lyrics by Fat Mike)

Darwin's rolling over in his coffin

The fittest are surviving much less often

Now everything seems to be reversing, and it's worsening

Someone flopped a steamer in the gene pool

Now angry mob mentality's no longer the exception, it's the rule

I think Mike isn't given enough credit for some of the subtleties in his writing. He definitely does illuminate some moments in life that are pretty unique and interesting. I'm not familiar with that tune, but I do think that he's a pretty interesting writer.

"Straight Edge," Minor Threat (lyrics by Ian MacKaye)

I'm a person just like you

But I've got better things to do

Than sit around and fuck my head

Hang out with the living dead

Snort white shit up my nose

Pass out at the shows

I don't even think about speed

That's something I just don't need

I've got the straight edge

A piece of the canon for sure. I listened to it when I was a kid, and I loved those records. They're fascinating writers as well. The progression that all those D.C. bands made is a remarkable thing to watch and a remarkable testimony to the power of a community to create art that develops in a really remarkable way.

"Be My Fucking Whore," by GG Allin

Sit on my face, cunt, 'til I get off

When I'm done I light a cigarette and piss in your mouth

And then I'll kick you the fuck out you little piece of worthless shit

[alternate lyric: And I'll kick you, you fucker/You're just a piece of worthless shit]

You're nothing to me

Just get down and suck it

I was never a fan of this sub-genre of punk rock, but I understand it. I always shied from such things. Crazy, amazing figure.

"Room Without a Window," by Operation Ivy (lyric by Jesse Michaels)

The position being taken is not to be mistaken

For attempted education or righteous accusation

Only a description, just an observation of the pitiful condition of our degeneration

The pure adrenaline and thrill of that band is a rush for me as a writer. I wanted to imitate that thrill in "Sound System." That song to me is pretty much the manifesto for why people make music.



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