SOMETHING’S OUT TO GET YOU

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.

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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.

[“In C”]

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”).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

For now.

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ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT AT 55

 

Landfill waistline

Deforestation hairline

Extinct bloodline

Natural gas

 

Stomach: acid seepage

Ears: white noise

Lungs: smog alert

Unleaded pencil

 

Brain: gridlocked

Arteries: silted

Spine: corroded

Recycled fantasies

 

Depleted optimism

Eroded courage

Littered ideals

Reconditioned affection

 

*

 

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.

 

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16 comments

  1. I didn’t exactly do this justice, listening to your posting of LW lll on a contact speaker bluetakcked to to the desk. But somehow the crumbling sound suited the moment.

    Thanks.

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    1. Worth a better run sometime, maybe?

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      1. Yes, a much nicer sound; makes me want a double lifetime too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed this one, although something stops me liking LW3 – I do like his more trivial, funny tracks though. I’m probably far too shallow.

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    1. In the past I’ve not been a big fan either. But this one really hit the spot: funny and poignant and less arch (smartarse?) than some other work in his catalogue.

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      1. By some cosmic coincidence I just caught the end credits of ’40 Year-old Virgin’ in which he played the priest. Cosmic.

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        1. Last rites for virginity?

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  3. Wow, you sold me completely on this album! Gotta hear the whole thing now. And listen to dead skunk again too, lol.

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    1. I’m glad, Marie. It’s an album of songs that hangs together well and tackles serious topics with humour and insight.

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  4. Midnight Toker · · Reply

    My daughter and I were at Cape Paterson in March 2009 and called in to see friends who lived down there. Kate was keen to go to the Mossvale Festival that day but couldn’t convince her husband to go. So the three of us headed off to Mossvale, just outside of Leongatha in Gippsland. It’s a fabulous location, a huge circle of massive 100 year old trees creating a natural venue. Stage at the northern end, food vans and the obligatory face painting, henna tattoos and tie-dye clothes tents at the southern end and a couple of hundred people of all shapes and sizes in between. It was a glorious day, cloudless blues skies and temperature in the low 30s. We found a spot in the shade, put out the blanket, esky and beach chairs and settled in to enjoy the show.

    There were eight acts on the day, we missed the first couple but the rest were all good, mostly folk-oriented with the notable exception of The Backsliders delta blues. The headline was Loudon Wainwright III. I didn’t know any of his work apart from ‘Dead Skunk’ which I vaguely remembered from my childhood. He came on in a pair of long shorts, Hawaiin shirt and straw hat and proceeded to put on a very entertaining performance. As he got went through the set he relaxed more and was really enjoying himself. He told stories between songs, funny and poignant, giving an insight into his life and the way it informed his songs. ‘Primrose Hill’, ‘Grey in LA’, ‘Last Man On Earth’ and ‘White Winos’ were standouts. The crowd really got into it and there was conversations back and forth and he claimed that he hadn’t played ‘Dead Skunk’ in years but was having such a good time he’d give it a whirl.

    It’s funny how songs effect people differently. Your description of ‘White Winos’ as touching and funny made me ponder. I’ve always found it slightly uncomfortable with its incestuous overtones. That’s the implication isn’t it? I played it to a mate of mine recently and he asked me to turn it off before it was done – his mother loved a grog and it was way too close to the bone.

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    1. Thanks for your response and detailed description of the mini-fest at Mossvale. Gippsland is a lovely area of Victoria, though I don’t know the particular place you describe.

      I’d always heard ‘White Winos’ as a song about a mildly alcoholic mother being humoured (and protected) by a son, both having been abandoned by the father. The ‘red’ reference in the context of the marital war evoked anger, maybe blood, perhaps a hint of violence…

      But actually reading the lyric as a result of your comment, I can see the hints of a mother-son relationship that is, perhaps, unhealthily close. i’m sure there are adult children who might connect with such a complex relationship. Just as there are those for whom any ‘lightness’ around alcoholism would be upsetting indeed – your friend springs to mind.

      For my part, your comments are a reminder that songs – especially ‘confessional’ ones – often get uncomfortably close to life and that this would have a strong impact on any entertainment value for some listeners.

      As they have been saying on the ABC this week (and in all sincerity), if anything in this program has caused concerns, please contact appropriate agencies for support.

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  5. Man this has got to stop Bruce. Have a lot of his early albums and was listening to a latter one the other day. ‘Human Cannonball from ‘Grown Man’. Man do I dig that song.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you’re enjoying the meeting of tastes, CB. I really really like this LWIII album.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One last thing. Back before everything was at our finger tips, David Sanborn had a cool show “Night Music’. Was a good chance to see great musicians if they didn’t come to your town.. Seen Loudon on there. It was like seeing a rare sighting of a Sasquatch.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] SOMETHING’S OUT TO GET YOU […]

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