12 April 2007

Wish I Were Going To This

Just got a note about the Núna(now) Festival up in Winnipeg, advertised as "an eight-day convergence between two faraway but not dissimilar places," and featuring, among other things, performances by the Weakerthans and Weakerthans leader John K. Samson doing his solo singer-songwriter thing.

I've been to both places several times, and while it's true that Manitoba and Iceland are "not dissimilar," they're not all that similar, either. For one thing, Manitoba, as desolate and lonesome as it can seem anytime you get more than a couple miles outside of Winnipeg (and sometimes in the middle of Winnipeg, for that matter), is practically Manhattan-like compared with the vast emptiness that constitutes about 97% of Iceland.

But they both have that haunting and haunted quality that seems to accrue to far-flung northern places, suffused with a grim melancholia that teeters on the edge of heartbreaking beauty. You can feel it, too, riding past the miles of failing or abandoned farmsteads in North Dakota, or past the decaying grain elevators of Saskatchewan, or even to a degree in the ruined industrial centers in the north of England; the first time I felt its full effect was in the sad old streets of Eureka, California, back in the days when Old Town meant Skid Row rather than multi-colored Victorian boutiques and the acrid, billowing clouds of pulp mill smoke would block out the sun for weeks at a time.

There's an air of futility and defeat in such places that heightens the sweetness of small victories - starting a band, writing a song, finding a furtive moment of connection or joy - making what might be the stuff of everyday mundanity in New York or London or LA seem downright triumphant. Not everyone can see or feel it, but I've met a fair smattering of people who knew exactly what I was talking about when I referred to the feelings of exultation and just plain ecstasy I've experienced from simply standing on some utterly drab street corner in Regina or Akureyri, or looking out over a few thousand miles of the Northern Prairies under a sky darkening with the promise of floods, tornadoes, blizzards, a plague of locusts, or very possibly all of the above in the space of an hour or two.

I once flew up to Winnipeg in the middle of February to see a series of Weakerthans shows, and when asked by the customs agent what the purpose of my visit was, I breezily answered, "I'm here for a holiday." She was so incredulous at that idea that I got to spend an hour getting my luggage taken apart and assiduously gone over. Even when she didn't find anything and had to let me go, she was still shaking her head at the idea that someone would spend a week in Winnipeg in the dead of winter with no purpose other than pleasure. "I can't prove it, but I know you're up to something," her eyes said as I left the airport.

It was during that trip that I first learned about the Iceland-Manitoba connection, that there were probably more Icelanders or people of Icelandic descent living in the Greater Winnipeg area than in all of Iceland. John Samson took me for a tour of his home town and gave me a crash course in its history, how it had once been slated to be "The Chicago of the North," before it occurred to people that the Chicago of the South served the same function much better and in a comparatively far more benign climate. He also told me how his immigrant grandfather had founded one of Winnipeg's two daily newspapers published in Icelandic, something I still marvel over today, when most large cities barely manage to support one daily paper in English.

So anyway, I love Iceland, I love Winnipeg, and I love the Weakerthans; why am I not even now booking my tickets for this affair? Well, it's too soon. I'm still getting settled into Brooklyn, and frankly, I don't feel much motivation to travel anywhere outside the five boroughs for a good little while yet. Maybe it's me getting old, maybe I've just been out on the road too often and for too long, but for now, I just want to pick a place, call it home, and stay there for a while. Any of the rest of you, though, whether you've got itchy feet or are crazy for the Weakerthans, or want to spend some time soaking up Icelandic culture in a city that's not quite like any other in North America, well, there are worse places you could spend a week at the end of April.

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