Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III's confessional style opens channels of feeling
Loudon Wainwright III fought against his late father, and seeks to vanquish him still — even as he tries in vain to please him with every song. Wainwright is haunted by his personal failures, by a longing to redeem himself. He sometimes thinks of himself as cruel and foolish and vain, a dubious father and unreliable romantic partner in his own right, not nearly as wise or self-aware as he appears in his own music.
Wainwright feels the imminence of death, his mother and father both gone now. He takes walks in the cemetery to acquaint himself with the sensation of his own passing. At 65, he articulates rueful regret in the face of his own mortality: “I thought I was immortal — immune from my own sin. Nothing used to get to me, but now something’s moving in.”
Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III rarely shares such complex feelings in casual conversation or in an interview or, apparently, with his own family. But it’s all there in his music. Wainwright opens all shutoff valves of repression and regret, lets it all pour out. In his best songs, he accomplishes what most of us — including Loudon Wainwright himself — find hard to do in the ordinary light of a mundane day in our tightly wound world. That is: Feel, deeply. Grieve, deeply. Examine, deeply.
I love the confessional artistry of Loudon Wainwright III — which explains, in part, why I’ll be in line for his shows at the Cactus Cafe on Saturday and Sunday nights. And I know I’m not alone among men of the baby boomer generation in declaring that Wainwright’s songs have changed my life, opening channels of feeling, validating the importance of personal and social self-examination. Wainwright kicks down the door of denial, takes a close look at the life around and within us. He cries “foul” when the people we love fail us. Especially when that person is looking back at us in the mirror.
Goodness knows I have little in common with the man. I didn’t attend boarding schools in the Northeast, for example. I don’t have that playboy streak, and I’ve never been a parent. I have never slapped a child and then written about it, as Wainwright did in the song “Hitting You”: “I said I was sorry; I tried to clean the slate / But with that blow I’d sown a seed; I saw that it was too late.”
Yet you and I have everything in common with Loudon Wainwright because the notions of regret and shame, remorse and disbelief expressed on “Hitting You” are universal. When Wainwright writes about mortality and death and doubt, when he longs for a second chance — as he does on his fine new album, “Older than My Old Man Now” — those songs aren’t just his songs. They’re our songs, too.
Loudon Wainwright III is not Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. He’s never attained that level of fame or critical acclaim. No question: He’d love to be more famous. Ironically, however, he’s lived in the shadow of a famous father (Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr.) and a famous son, singer Rufus Wainwright, for much of his life.
Over the span of “40 Odd Years,” Wainwright has recorded more than two dozen albums for a dozen different labels. He’s charted one hit song in his lifetime — the 1972 novelty tune “Dead Skunk,” which hardly reflects his depth as a songwriter.
“I guess you could refer to that as a body of work,” says Wainwright, having a laugh at his own expense. “It’s a beat-up body. But it is a body.”
Wainwright won a Grammy Award — finally — in 2010, for “High, Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project,” an album devoted to the songs of another writer, another artist. In a perfect world, however, he would have been honored for “History” (1992) or “Last Man on Earth” (2001), each one a masterpiece, each linked to the death of a parent. “Older Than My Old Man Now,” about “death and decay,” is right up there. If only the Grammys had a category for Best Oedipal-folk album based on themes of mortality, loss and dysfunction ...
Wainwright prizes directness in writing, whether the tone is humorous, irreverent or earnestly confessional. But that’s not to say he can’t be poetic. On “History,” for example, he places his song “Between” in the exact center of the album. The tune, sung a capella, is a rumination about father and mother explained through figurative imagery. It begins: “Between the forest and the ocean is a lonely strand / The ocean is your mother, the forest fatherland.”
But Wainwright goes deeper, considering “father” and “mother” in a spiritual context: “In between the earth and sky, there is an atmosphere / Feet on the ground your head up high, but you are stuck right here. / You’re in between your whole life long. What happens when you die? / Down below is Mother Earth, your Father dwells on high.”
Wainwright’s masterful tune “4 x 10” is about walls, “10 feet tall and four feet thick” that men erect to keep their feelings at bay. The tune is about his father, about so many fathers, about the legacy of men building walls, and how it has doomed his own romantic relationship at the center of the song. The climactic lines, presented as prose:
“Every Harry, Dick and Tom, gets all of his (pain) from his mom — who was unhappy, mom was sad, because of a wall that dad had. And once it’s up, it won’t come down. And mom’s a queen, and dad’s a clown. So it’s not strange, no mystery, why you and I are history.”
Wainwright’s albums of the past 25 to 30 years document a ragged march through middle-age angst and loss. The best songs are desperate, naked, sublime. They echo the process of therapy in the sense that they identify an unpleasant condition and then go deep in the quest to get to the heart of the matter. Examination, again.
No singer-songwriter in America can touch him here — maybe because such work demands that the songs’ protagonist come clean about his failings. In “Father-Daughter Dialogue,” Wainwright invites his daughter Martha Wainwright to vent against him, citing the emotional contradiction between father and artist. In “Dead Man,” he describes the ghostly sensation of trying on his late father’s clothes two decades after his death. On the “Last Man on Earth” album, Wainwright not only grieves his mother’s passing but also examines their relationship to the point of confessing a wisp of physical attraction. At the depth of grief: “I feel like I’ve faked all that I ever did / And I’ve grown a gray beard but I cry like a kid.”
That old “Dead Skunk” song? It never did anything for me. But it does fit the story, in a sense. Loudon Wainwright III has always looked at the stinky stuff and written about it. A lot of men can look hard at the dead skunk in a Texas highway — even crack a joke about it — yet deny the truth about fathers and sons, death and dysfunction. Even though it’s “stinking to high heaven. ...”
Deep in the heart
Loudon Wainwright lives in Long Island, has spent most of his life in New York and California. But there’s a lot of Texas in him, some deep Austin connections. He’s close to a lot of singer-songwriters in town, including Eliza Gilkyson — who, like Wainwright, writes deeply personal songs with rich psychological nuance.
“The very first guitar I ever had was given to me by Eliza’s dad, Terry Gilkyson, a very successful songwriter and singer,” says Wainwright, recalling that both families lived in Los Angeles for a time in the 1950s, when his father ran a Life bureau in L.A. “It was a beautiful old guitar, nylon string, kind of a light brown. He got it in Mexico, I think. My dad tried to play some chords on it, couldn’t get his callouses going — so they gave it to me. That was it, my first guitar.”
Eliza Gilkyson remembers they were tight friends, the two fathers. “They body-surfed in Malibu together when there was only a dirt road leading to the beach,” says Gilksyon, via e-mail. “They ran in the same circle, a small group of solid, intelligent, ‘man-out-of-time’ guys who didn’t fit the 1950s mold but who could never really escape the rigid structures of their time, though god knows they tried.”
As a young singer-songwriter, Wainwright spent a lot of time in Austin. He hung out with the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a while and wrote a song, “I’m Alright” with the T-Birds in mind. He performed at the Armadillo World Headquarters throughout the 1970s and played one of the final shows in December 1980. Wainwright remains good friends with Eddie Wilson, the founder of the Armadillo.
“I don’t know what I remember about the Armadillo except that it was fun, they fed me well, and I got into all kinds of trouble,” Wainwright says with a bit of a nervous laugh. “I remember Eddie, in those days when we were young and strong. He used to drive me. I would do a show at his club, then we would get in his car and drive down to Liberty Hall — another, whew, crazy place.”
Austin singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, who has toured with Wainwright, has deep respect for the man and his craft. She’s wowed by the new tune “In C,” recently dubbed one of the top 50 songs of the year by National Public Radio. In it, Wainwright considers piano — and the key of C — as a lonesome and somewhat helpless vantage, a place to compose songs of meaning as his family splits apart.
“These things he talks and writes about — family, having kids, imperfection, the great unknown — are very, very deep,” says Colvin. “He puts (things) in his songs that I would never put in mine. Very vulnerable stuff.”
“When I listen to Loudon’s music,” adds Gilkyson, “I think here is the place where the natural gift of deep artistry and the need to survive the hammer blows of living as a sentient being in a complex, intoxicating and brutal world meet years of hard-won, elegant craftsmanship and plain old miles on the tires, creating a perfect storm of musicality.
“There’s obviously therapy involved in the confessions and fearless self-inventory, but the songwriting skills, the rhymes within the rhymes, the heart attack melodies and devastating roller coaster rides of ruin and salvation are much more the measure of the man, in my book.”
You can’t fail me now
Loudon Wainwright’s catalog is not confined to songs of naked self-inventory and impending death. He likes satire, novelty tunes. Clearly the son of a journalist, Wainwright writes a lot about language. He once wrote about the vacuous use of “like” in American English without using the word once in the song. He never intended to write about the 2001 terrorist attacks. But a random subway ride beneath the lost World Trade Center inspired a haunting lament, “No Sure Way.”
For the past 15 years, I’ve made it a point to play Wainwright’s “Social Studies” album on Christmas Day. The CD is a compilation of Wainwright’s NPR “commentary” songs from the late 1980s through “Y2K.” It’s not a naked, personal record. It’s funny. It’s witty. Yet it ends with a prayer for humanity, “Pretty Good Day,” one of Wainwright’s finest songs, inspired by the seige of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. My, how the album stands the test of time.
“Christmas Morning,” for example, was written before the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War. Some of those lines, in prose, from 20 years ago:
“The prince of peace was born on Christmas Day / in the little town of Bethlehem not so far away / From where a multitude has gathered in a warlike way / on Christmas morning.
“So we watch the buildup, here we go again / There is sand, there are camels — but where are the wise men? / Are they in Baghdad? Are they in Washington? / On Christmas morning. ...”
My favorite Wainwright tune these past few years is “You Can’t Fail Me Now” — co-written by Wainwright and Joe Henry, from the “Strange Weirdos” album of 2007 — a song so perfect I’ve shared it with other songwriters, as if to say, “Here. This is as good as it gets.” Wainwright inhabits the song as a desperate man in the most crucial moment of his life — summoning, obliquely, a lover? ... his own broken, better nature? ... the God within or the God beyond? ... to pull him through, to deliver him to real love.
“We’re taught to love the worst of us — and mercy, more than life,” Wainwright sings sparely, nakedly. “But trust me: Mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow. I live for yours — and you can’t fail me now. I live for your mercy — and you can’t fail me now.”
Man: Who cares about fame, or Grammys, when music hits the vein of life so purely?
Loudon Wainwright III