Confessional songwriters have never been a particular favourite round these parts. I have a tendency to snap, “Speak for yourself!” followed by the chastened acknowledgment, “Oh, you are.”
Yet for a while I’ve been yearning for an artist to tackle the themes we citizens of a certain age are confronting. Not global warming or China’s emergence as a world power; not even the re-emergence of vinyl as a popular music medium. What I want is something human, something honest, preferably something hopeful amidst the gently stifling dandruff of middle-ageing. I even had a crack myself via the medium of poetry, not a literary form I’m especially comfortable in as a rule.
So it was with some excitement that I read of the 2012 release of a new Loudon Wainwright III album with the generationally charged title Older Than My Old Man Now.
This autobiographical collection showcases the wry wit and sly humour of a man whose fame peaked with the unexpected Top 40 novelty hit “Dead Skunk” back in 1972.
With a CV that includes over two dozen albums, several marriages, a couple of musically gifted children (daughter Martha and son Rufus) and a considerable amount of therapy, you would imagine there was abundant material for an entertaining memoir. But no. Rather than typing 350 pages of reminisce, LWIII set himself the challenge of encapsulating his life in a 3 1/2 minute song. It’s “The Here and the Now”, first track on the album.
Help is needed for such an ambitious task and in this instance it comes from family. Despite some very public spats over the years, a goodly number answered the call: all four offspring, his current spouse plus an ex-wife join Loudon for “The Here and the Now”. It is funny, touching, and as neat an encapsulation of a life in popular song as you are ever likely to hear.
“In the 70’s I made it big –
Skunk time, fame & wealth – you dig?
I took a wife, we had some kids,
Screwed that up and went on the skids”
[“The Here and the Now”]
It’s the disarming candour about his own failings and short-comings that make this such an endearing song. (John Scofield’s liquid guitar fills help too). The writer has lived, loved, and royally stuffed up but he doesn’t take the easy road of excuses or pointing the finger.
I could blame it on the great unknown,
Or as a kid what I was told and shown.
But I blame myself and I blame her –
The cruel and foolish people that we were.
The richness lies in shining the light of reflection and self-awareness on those flaws and imperfections. What family is not dysfunctional? A bit crazy? Though he may have contributed more than his share to the strife and rupture, some sort of wisdom has arrived, eventually: No-one wins in a family war (“All in a Family”).
Yet for all their importance, relationships and family life are just features of the landscape we pass through on the way to the ultimate destination: death. Mortality is the core theme in Older Than My Old Man Now. All the songs mentioned so far allude to death, as do the title track and several others.
“Double Lifetime” is a duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott where the nudge-wink bravado of the protagonists fools no-one. We may want another ride on the life carousel, but we ain’t gettin’ one. In “Ghost Blues” the singer muses on his funeral and the life that preceded it, but it’s seeing how his dog misses him that makes him wish for oblivion.
But it’s not all gloom and despondency. There is a mordant humour in “My Meds” that evokes Tom Lehrer… and then you read Loudon’s entertaining track notes to find that he asked the venerable satirist to join him on the song. Sadly, Mr Lehrer declined.
Music Hall duet “I Remember Sex” pairs LWIII with Dame Edna Everage. Some of the lines are very funny indeed…
“I remember sex – I started on my own.
When you and I stopped having it, I tried it on the phone”
… yet there is something slightly unsettling about Loudon and the Grand Dame of Drag singing about sex together, even in the past tense.
One other miss is “Date Line”, a strained song about time zones that doesn’t gel with the prevailing themes. I’d have substituted a re-worked version of “White Winos”, a touching and funny song about sipping wine with his mother that appeared on 2001’s Last Man on Earth. I suppose “White Winos” might have diluted the male-centred focus of Older Than… but perhaps that would not have been a bad thing.
Knowing the relationship tension between Loudon and son Rufus adds piquancy to their collaboration “The Days That We Die”; it is notable that they alternate verses rather than sing together. Yet recording the song at all speaks of hope for further repair. I hope so, for both their sakes, because as Dad reminds us, the hour-glass sands only run one way and that’s towards the album closer “Something’s Out to Get Me”. Yep, it’s that other Father, Time, with whom no negotiation is possible.
Even with the musical dexterity of Mose Allison, the wit of Tom Lehrer and the vocal phrasing of Hoagy Carmichael, Loudon Wainwright III is still singing about death. What’s more, he’s letting you know that your number will inevitably come up too. So what are you going to do about that?
Well, Under 30s will shrug and find something relevant to listen to. Under 50s will mutter, rather like Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh, ‘Yes, yes, I know, but I don’t have time for that now’. But if you are pushing towards Loudon’s age (or beyond), it is a damn sight harder to bury your head in the sand. The prospect that the rest of you will join your head is inescapable.
So don’t turn off, tune out, or drop dead. Join LWIII in his wry, poignant yet ultimately hopeful quest to embrace the life you have had, and still have.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT AT 55
Stomach: acid seepage
Ears: white noise
Lungs: smog alert
A version of this piece first appeared at The Delete Bin, Rob Jones’ excellent music blog. I’m grateful for Rob’s support of both the article and Vinyl Connection in general.