Plato famously pronounced, “Death is not the worst that can happen to men.” Perhaps he had in mind something that my grandmother Verna used to say, “Don’t grow old, it is not for the faint of heart.” She lived until she was ninety-seven, so I consider her an expert. In those final years, she said that more than age one should concern themselves with only two things: travel and romance. Loudon Wainwright has certainly had plenty of both over a long career as a musician and actor.
Proclaimed early on to be another of the Next Dylans, Wainwright has always been a different sort of songwriter. Where Dylan was sage, Loudon could be goofy. From his college days to his move to Los Angeles, through to his marriages and the birth of his children, it was as if he were always fascinated by what was happening around him. His reaction to Zimmerman’s lyrical and personal obscurity was to be frank and open about his own life. And now, with his most recent release, he is contemplating the implications of surpassing his father’s age at death.
As a toddler, I danced around to “Dead Skunk,” and I remember seeing Wainwright on MASH re-runs. But it wasn’t until later that I started paying attention to his whole oeuvre, a dense catalog full of songs that are consistently engaging and brilliant. He is gifted not only with a powerful sense of language, but further his sense of song is insouciant. Though, his only set up was a microphone each for him and his guitar, there’s nothing spare about Loudon. While playing, he still stomps around and sticks out his tongue. There was, a special subtext to the performance, however, as he read selections from his father’s Life Magazine column between songs from his most recent release, “Older Than My Old Man Now.”
The songs bear the insightful twinge of sad truth, the humor of which comes from their resonance. He played a few old tunes, taking an audience request for “School Days” from his 1970 debut, declaring, “In Delaware when I was younger I would live the life obscene. In the spring, I had great hunger; I was Brando, I was Dean.” To hear these songs interlaced with a tune humorously accounting his dependence on medications (“My Meds) reminds one of flipping through a lifetime’s collection of photographs.
Between songs, he described grandbabies and the upcoming nuptials of his son Rufus. He even shared a beautiful song written for Rufus and his partner Jörn. Reflecting on the gay marriage issue he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get there.” As generations unfold, babies are born and he sings of this epic joy on “All in the Family,” where he concludes, “All families are insane.” Loudon retains the ghost of his father, admitting on the titular track that only with his own passing will the haunting be complete. The poison dart of eloquence is honesty, the truly fearless stance against the madness of existence. As he has throughout success, failure, youth and now old age, Wainwright continues to find the words to describe the unique phenomena of life, whether “Bein’ a Dad” or dedicating an angry tune to an airline representative who destroyed his Martin guitar. For forty years Loudon Wainwright has continued to entertain us with hard truths and funny observations that get stuck in our heads and enrich our lives.