At some point, all of our hearts will stop beating. Most of us will be tossed in a box, thrown underground, and become a bone pile. It’s not a pleasant thought – I’ve never seen anyone do cartwheels in the cemetery. Generally, we try to avoid focusing on our fragile mortality. In this way, most of us are not like Loudon Wainwright III.
In April of this year, Loudon released “Older Than My Old Man Now,” his second (or third) death concept album. However, before we get to the here and the now, let’s take a look at Loudon’s history.
The second Loudon Wainwright (LW, Jr.) worked as a writer for “Life” magazine at a time when the magazine was one of the most successful periodicals in the United States. Raised in a privileged environment in Westchester County New York, Loudon the Third played football, swam in the country club pool, and pursued an interest in acting. His strained relationship with his father and his emotional dependence on his mother would later provide a wealth of material.
Influenced by Bob Dylan, LWIII performed acoustic singer/songwriter material, with a sharp edge. In 1970, he released his first album on Atlantic. “Dead Skunk,” a novelty tune, hit the Top 40 in 1973 and he continued working as an actor, making a few appearances on “MASH.” A marriage to the popular Canadian folkie Kate McGarrigle produced children and future musicians Rufus and Martha Wainwright. (Wainwright wou ld later marry and divorce singer Suzzy Roche). Everyone in the Wainwright family became fair game for Loudon’s often acerbic music. Martha received a parental divorce notification in “Your Mother and I” and a birthday song for “Five Years Old.” His breast feeding son was the subject of “Rufus Is a Tit Man.”
Aging and mortality were early themes. “School Days,” track one of his first album, is a reminiscence of younger days. The most remembered song on “Album II,” the desperate “Motel Blues,” is not just a plea for sex from a groupie. It’s a request to save the man’s life. (I wonder if he scored.) Smashing guitars, drinking too much, loneliness, suicide requests, detachment, and the endless pursuit of fame were chronicled in the 1970s. Song after song, Wainwright would stab you in the gut and shock you with his wit.He has confessed to actively enjoying creating discomfort in his audience.
By the 1980s, he was a commercial non-entity, making albums for Rounder and Silvertone Records, frequently supported by Richard Thompson. He continued to mix the comical (“Dump the Dog,” “The Acid Song”) with the melancholy (“One Man Guy,” “Career Moves,” “Unhappy Anniversary”). And in 1992, after 22 years of making records, death appeared on his doorstep. He made his first superlative album.
Loudon Wainwright, Jr., passed away in 1988. Loudon reflected upon his life in every possible direction for the “History” album – his father’s death (“Sometimes I Forget”), his struggles as a parent (the impossibly brilliant “A Father and A Son” and the wince inducing “Hitting You”), his artistic mentor (“Talking New Bob Dylan”), the impact of divorce (“Between”), dysfunctional relationships (“4 X 10”), and wearing women’s clothes (“When I’m At Your House”). While many critics loved the record, fame and wealth were not forthcoming.
Undeterred, Wainwright released “Career Moves” in 1993, a striking live album that cherry picked his best 1980s material and included four excellent new songs. This record is a good starting point for new fans.
While the death of his father earned a few songs in 1992, the passing of his mother Martha warranted a complete album with 2001’s “Last Man on Earth.” Wainwright adjusts to being orphaned, works out his Oedipal Complex, and completes his organ donation card in song. It’s a haunting and painful and adroit effort that will never be played at a dance party.
Loudon got into the public eye again through some acting gigs – in the movies “The Aviator,” “Big Fish,” “Elizabetown,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and “Knocked Up,” as well as a small recurring role in the television series “Undeclared.” His cover of Peter Blegvad’s“Daughter” for the “Knocked Up” soundtrack has become a well known parental tearjerker without creating the discomforting nausea of “Butterfly Kisses.” Wainwright became a Grammy award winner in 2010 for “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.”
And now we’ve had our long walk back to “Older Than My Old Man Now” in which our hero reflects on living longer than his father survived (“I guess that means I kicked his ass”). Another excellent effort, Loudon ruminates on aging ills in “My Meds” and “I Remember Sex.” He boisterously teams with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to wish for one lifetime to learn and one lifetime to live in “Double Lifetime.” “In C” tackles his history of broken families with humor and honesty. Death is always on his doorstep, but beyond the pathos,humor and strength prevail.
Go out and enjoy some interesting, challenging, and tuneful music by Loudon Wainwright III. Do it before you die.