I’ve written before about the parallels I continue to find between my own life and Loudon Wainwright III’s, as he expresses events and feelings in his autobiographical songs. He’s written about his persistent regret over episodes of inappropriate anger, the difficulties of dealing with marriage, romance, the death of loved ones, the joys and heartache of fatherhood, and many other topics that have touched me greatly over the years. When I interviewed him the first time in the mid-seventies, he seemed much older than I, although now I’m aware he’s got only 5 years on me. I feel as if he’s a scout who surveys the terrain ahead of me and lets me know what’s in store before I’m aware of it myself.
I’ve seen him perform many dozens of times over the years, and have taken my kids, friends and lovers to hear him as well, and often find myself squirming with recognition as Loudon aims another dart at what he wryly calls his “demographic” and hits me again. Last night at the re-established Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California (new location, new patrons Bob Weir and Phil Lesh), Loudon reached into his back catalog (“The Swimming Song,” “White Winos” and “Guilty Conscience and a Broken Heart” among them) as well as previewing a number of songs from his next album Older Than My Old Man Now, which he describes as revolving around “death and decay.” I was again emotionally entangled in his sardonic, sad, and just-barely-hopeful worldview.
The title tune of the new collection (due in April) relates Loudon’s combined triumph and guilt at achieving the age of 64, a year older than his dad managed. At first playfulling referencing McCartney’s “When I’m 64,” the song quickly becomes darker, as Loudon wonders if longevity is all it’s cracked up to be, and what “winning the race” against his father means. (I was reminded of Spaulding Gray’s meditations on the same subject; his mother committed suicide at age 52, and thereafter Gray used 52 years as a goal and a challenge, eventually living much longer than his mom but nonetheless also taking his own life.)
My mother died at age 63, and I’ve noticed myself wondering, as I approach that number, if my lifespan will exceed hers, and what that will feel like. That Loudon has written a song on this subject is another eerie connection between us.
I was less triggered by “My Meds,” in which Loudon enumerates all the drugs he takes (this I hope was exaggerated for comic effect) so he can continue to “eat and sleep and crap and piss and schtup and breathe.” The lyrics are characteristically verbose and witty (“if the side effects don’t kill me, they just might save my life” and “those acupuncutre needles don’t hurt a bit/in point of fact those acupuncture needles don’t do shit”). He also did a song in tribute to his two grandkids (Rufus Wainwright’s daughter Viva turns one year old this month, and Martha Wainwright’s son Archangelo will be three in November). Not having a piano available on stage, he omitted one of his most impressive new songs, “Another Song in C,” which I hope will be on the new album. It’s another striking meditation on the dynamics of his family and the death of his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, who died January 18, 2010 and continues to show up in Loudon’s compositions.
For comic relief, Loudon tossed in another new one that doesn’t fit the “death and decay” theme, “Unfriendly Skies” about a baggage-handler who trashed his Martin guitar in Durango, Colorado. Hilarious and angry.
“I know the demographics of my audience” Loudon said from the stage. “I can’t see you out there, but I’m pretty sure you look a lot like me.”