When it comes to live music, Loudon Wainwright is one of the greats. He’s funny and charming, able to banter with ease, soothe drunk hecklers with a well timed joke, then launch into his repertoire of songs that will alternately split your sides and break your heart, usually on opposite ends of the same chorus.
I once told Loudon Wainwright III that I loved him, right to his face. I was about 15 years old and I had just seen him in concert for the first time. After the show, he signed autographs in the front lobby of the Birchmere. I lined up with my dad and when we reached the table, Loudon was a slightly sweatier, more subdued version of his stage self: charming, quick to offer a quip and a broad smile. He looked at me and said “I bet your old man dragged you this show, huh?” and I blurted out “What! No! I love you.”
This outburst was… embarassing. Seriously. For both of us, and I’m not talking about my dad (who, to his credit, waited until we got to the car to say something along the lines of “Wow. You be straight crazy.”) Loudon looked at me like I had three heads, or, to be more precise, he looked at me like “Who is this big eyed, frizzy haired teenager and why isn’t she at a Hanson concert?” (I love Loudon, but I’m going to guess his pop music references are a little off)
But that’s what he does—he gets under your skin. He’s honest, incredibly vulnerable, periodically hilarious, and an impeccable songwriter. You feel like you know him, or like he knows you, and though both things are certainly false, his music creates a connection with the listener that is real.
“New Paint” on Album III
Loudon offers a pretty picture of early romance, when walks in the park and dancing are still par for the course, when lips are first kissed and parents first met. It’s a sweet song about early love with a nice girl—and, you know, waning youth and nascent feelings of mortality. In interviews, Loudon talks about how “New Paint” is proof that he has always been obsessed with mortality and age: he makes reference to it repeatedly throughout the song, until it becomes a sort of second chorus, and he wrote this song when he was 25.
When I was 19, there was a guy in my French class who was 30. One day he told a lengthy story about how when he was 25, he figured out that he wasn’t going to age backwards, and he started to rebel. He went out to bars every night, he threw punches, he bought a motorcycle. None of it mattered. He wasn’t old, not by a long shot (not even when he was telling this story, five years later), but he wasn’t going to get younger. I’m 25 now, and I understand how French class guy felt. I imagine Loudon was in a similar place, and based on later songs, I think it took him more than five years to move on to a new place. But that’s another post.
“The Swimming Song” on Attempted Mustache
In “The Swimming Song,” Loudon strikes a perfect balance between cheer and doom. It starts off upbeat with a twangy, bluegrassy feel, and focuses in on a typically pleasurable activity: Swimming. He swam in public and in private, did backstrokes and butterflies, wore a swim suit or went suitless. I think the line “At the latter I was informal/At the former I wore my suit” is a demonstration of his economy when it comes to words, and his intelligence when it comes to sound composition.
In the midst of all of this twang and splash, there is something dark creeping around the edges. The second line is “This summer I might’ve drowned,” and later he calls himself “A self-destructive fool” after chlorine gets in his eyes, and salt gets in his wounds. The song closes with him doing a cannonball when no one is looking. You could say it’s another meditation on mortality, but I think it’s something simpler: It’s hard for him to be happy, even when he’s supposed to be. The swimming settings highlight his unhappiness in happy situations.
“The Acid Song” on More Love Songs
Loudon Wainwright is hilarious. Seriously. You might already know this, since he was a consistently funny part of the Apatow crew on “Undeclared,” and made a brief humorous appearance in “Knocked Up.” Here, Loudon drops acid at a bar with five of his friends after 12 acid-free years. Things almost immediately go wrong: They get kicked out of the bar, the sidewalk starts sweating, they blow the joint to go listen to the Grateful Dead. That’s when the dialogue starts: “Wow, I’m really glad we did this, this feels great. Just like the old days. Yeah I know my hair is on fire” and “Hey you want to hold some fruit? Hold some fruit! It breeds, it really does.” They hit the road again and head to the country, and Loudon gives a laugh out loud funny tutorial on how to drive on acid.
The song features all the classic fun Loudon vocal tics: The wailing stretched out words, the stuccato moments mid song, the scattered bits of dialogue. The whole song is hysterical without being an obvious comedy song or a trying-too-hard novelty song.
“White Winos,” on Last Man on Earth
A haunting song about the end of Loudon’s mother’s life, when he and his mother reflected on their shared past over several glasses of white wine. It manages to contain everything I love about Loudon: family history, heavy themes delivered with a sonic light touch, a bit of sardonic humor. All of this is housed in a song which has a repetitive flow that is reminiscent of a drawn out villanelle.
“Grey in L.A.,” on Strange Weirdos
If there were a Grumpy Old Man Song Hall of Fame, this one would definitely come out on top. It’s too sunny. The weather is too good. Your house is going to smell like a wet dog. Your car is killing the planet. LA is a sad sack cesspool. Everything is just the worst! But because it’s Loudon, the message is delivered in a light, catchy package. I hum it to myself on rainy days in San Francisco, when I want to pretend that a break from the perfect weather is a nice change of pace. (Sorry for the crappy video on this! If you find a better version, send it my way and I’ll swap it in—Charmcityjukebox@gmail.com)