In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: For Pets Week, we’re featuring songs written about or inspired by pets.
The Weakerthans, “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute” (2003)
I can’t say for certain when Yellow Cat started coming around, but it was shortly after we moved into the back unit of the triplex on Jim Hogg Avenue. Among the items the previous tenant left behind was a cat dish, and there was a time when my wife (who was then my fiancée) and I gave into the dark thought that the orange tabby had been left behind with her dish. To make matters more confusing, the guys who lived in the middle unit had their own, similar looking cat, named Kush because we were living in Austin, man. But Kush had tags and Yellow Cat had none—Yellow Cat didn’t even have any of her namesake color in her fur. But she was sweet, and she was good company on a sunny day, and we laid out water and ice packs to help her cool off in the summer heat. Never in that left-behind dish, though, because the possibility that the dish belonged to Yellow Cat was simply too sad to consider.
From an early age, pet dander has made my eyes water and my sinuses swell, so this outdoor cat is the closest I’ve ever come to sharing my home with an animal. Second-closest: The narrator of The Weakerthans’ “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute,” a song I stupidly referred to as “Plea From A Cat Named Virtue” until the last time I wrote about a Weakerthans song in this space, which prompted a polite correction from The Onion’s copy editor post-publication. It’s an important distinction: “Virtute” is a Latin predecessor to “virtue,” but virtute stands more for strength and support than honor and integrity, a word plucked from the coat of arms for The Weakerthans’ hometown, Winnipeg. (“Unum cum virtute multorum,” or “one with the strength of many.” Much better than the subsequent motto appropriated by the band’s anti-homage to Winnipeg, “One Great City!”) In front of hammer-ons and palm-muted chords, Virtute nudges her owner toward recovery, a conquering of unnamed loss given flight by John K. Samson’s poetic observations of cat life and the traps of human self-pity.
Strength recognizes strength, and there’s tremendous poignancy in the way Samson sings the final lyric of “Plea From A Cat Named Virtute,” one last reminder before Virtute saunters off into the next room: “I know you’re strong.” In her companionship and the tender way she’d butt her forehead up against our legs, Yellow Cat gave those types of reminders. But the relationship went both ways, and my wife and I could just as easily play Virtute, worrying about what Yellow Cat ate or cursing the fat gray cat who usurped her backyard kingdom for one long night of sustained hissing and yowling.
There’s a heartbreaking sequel to “Plea,” “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure,” and even though she didn’t belong to us, per se, I felt like we owed a similar explanation to Yellow Cat as we prepared to leave Austin. It turns out that was unnecessary: The day before we left, I looked out the sliding glass door to find Yellow Cat looking right back at me. At her feet (and a little bit in her mouth) were the remains of a freshly killed bird. It was simultaneously sweet and gross, and I chose to take it as a sign. I know you were strong, Yellow Cat. I hope you stayed that way.