The story goes that, in front of some journalists in 1992, Bob Geldof and Bruce Springsteen got into an argument over Loudon Wainwright III’s new record called History. Both agreed that it was the best album of the year, so that wasn’t the contentious issue. Rather, the problem was that each one claimed the sole copy in the room as his own. Here were two of the biggest rock stars in the world (for wildly different reasons, mind you) arguing over who got to throw this folk-singing troubadour’s CD into his bag after the press conference.
Such is the rabidity of followers of the man who refers to himself, in song anyway, as the consummate “One Man Guy”. And I get it. The first time I heard Wainwright (or LW3 as he is sometimes known) was as a kid—my father has been a fan since the ‘60s—and I recall being, even at that young age, impressed by his utterly daring, almost frightening, honesty. He was funny, for sure, but what he was being funny about wasn’t really all that funny. Actually, most of it was pretty nightmarish: broken marriages, alienated children, failed dreams, death, dying, loneliness, addiction, depression. Or, as he put it in his wonderful mid-life summary “Career Moves”:
It’s been 20 years now that I’ve written songs
Over a hundred, and still going strong
About drinking and hockey and flying above
Again and again about unhappy love
Over and over, unhappy love.
Even a seven-year-old could tell that he was being staggeringly funny when he felt horribly sad, and there’s nothing so tragically compelling as that. From Richard Pryor to Bill Hicks to David Foster Wallace to Spalding Gray, the motivating current for honest humour has been truthfulness about despair. And no one, not even those guys, has ever been as honest as Loudon. Consider a song like “Red Guitar” (about a drunken rage in which he destroyed his perfectly good instrument “as Peter Townshend might”) and the way it reveals itself in waves that are simultaneously amusing and unsettling. For as goofy as the set up can feel—the mindless demolition, the folky’s reference to rock star heroics—the thing suddenly turns on you and you lose your ground. When he thought he was alone, this indifferent act of recklessness didn’t have much power, much meaning. But, when his wife arrives on the scene (“Kate, she started crying when she saw my sorry smile”), it’s enough to remind us of the familial consequences of such personal excesses. As a metaphor for their failing relationship—his drunken self-abuse, his symbolic trashing of his own art, his isolation from those who love him, and their unbearable sadness at watching him fall apart (Kate, she said: “You are a fool, you’ve done a foolish thing”)—“Red Guitar” couldn’t be more apt, or more stark.
Throughout his oeuvre, this simultaneity of darkness and light is a persistent trope, or theme. Indeed, coming up with a short list of songs that don’t fit this bill, that fall clearly on one or the other side of the happy/sad ledger, is pretty tough. Even at his most ribald, there are hints of something underneath that threatens, that creeps. And he has no song that I hear as devoid of comedy, even if it is only laughter in the dark. Certainly all of his most affecting songs, albums, and performances have been those which embraced the authenticity of pain, and tried to articulate it, whatever the cost. At times, that has made for some pretty tough material to stomach. He has an extraordinary song, for example, about smacking his young daughter “with all my might” and immediately realizing that “it was too hard, and I would never make it right.” He has another about waking up single and hungover and not killing himself (“I’m Alright”) about which, let’s just say, the implicit message sure isn’t that he’s not suicidal. He has another (“Motel Blues”) in which he complains to a prospective (but reluctant) sexual partner about the awful loneliness of life on the road, admonishing her to “never mind them desk clerk scowls/ I’ll buy you breakfast [so] they’ll think you’re my wife/ Come up to my motel room, save my life?”
Certainly his finest material has been about his troubled relationship with his family. This was the central theme of the History record that precipitated the rock star royalty tug-of-war I mentioned earlier. The songs that date back to his brief but torrid marriage to Kate McGarrigle (of the Canadian folk duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle) in the 1970s remain particularly vivid today as shattering portraits of a failing, impossible situation. But, as the distance between the two former lovers has expanded, and as their two children have matured, the songs he continues to write about their now-dead union have taken on new power and ever more depth. And, as his children have grown into two formidable sparring partners—they are now both highly regarded musicians in their own right, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, respectively—his songs about their problems have become album highlights. I don’t think, for example, I’ve ever heard a more accurate song about hereditary obstinacy than “A Father and a Son”, dedicated to Rufus, with its terrific final stanza:
Now you and me are me and you
And it’s a different ballgame although not brand new
I don’t know what all this fighting is for
We’re having us a teen-age/middle-age war
It never really ends, though each race is run
This thing between a father and a son
Maybe it’s power, push and shove…
Maybe it’s hate, probably it’s love
Maybe it’s hate, probably it’s love
And when his second marriage (to Suzzy Roche of the folk group the Roches) fell apart in the early 1980s, and he was forced to face up to his role in yet another broken affair, a new crop of unhappy love songs appeared, some of them even more revealing than those which had arrived ten years prior. “Unhappy Anniversary” is a stand-out from this period with its pithy zingers “I tell my mind to forget you, but my heart disobeys” and “we fell in love and we fell out, both times there was no net”, but in some ways his most indelible composition from these years was the one he wrote to explain this break-up to his new daughter Lucy. “Your mother and I are living apart / I know that seems stupid but we weren’t very smart” remains, for me, the most heartrending opening line of any song I know.
In the years since the early 1990s, LW3 has continued to impress as each new record reveals a little more well-earned insight than the last. Plus, the one man guy has managed to attract the collaboration of some of the most interesting session (and jazz) musicians in the business, from Bill Frisell to Richard Thompson to John Pattitucci to John Scofield to Greg Leisz to Jim Keltner. Though his subject matter has shifted somewhat now that he’s happily married, and enjoying better relationships with his children, Wainwright’s newer material emphasizes the glorious struggle that is getting old. And why not? He has always been a self-centered songwriter—in both the precise and the pejorative senses of the word—so it wouldn’t make sense for us to expect him to neglect the reality of his drooping body, his numerous prescriptions, his apprehensions about the afterlife, or his own impending absence.
In what was an inspired decision, he recently re-recorded several of his earliest compositions and released them on the 2008 record Recovery, infusing the words and melodies of a young man with the depth and perspective of age. Perhaps due to his slight mellowing with age, the former acting school drop-out has found himself getting ever more opportunities to work as an actor in his 60s than he had ever received when a young man (though he did manage a three episode gig as a singing surgeon on M*A*S*H in the early ‘70s). Famously trumpeted (and frequently hired) by Hollywood go-to comedy director Judd Apatow, and featured in bit parts in a surprising array of films by other big-time fans of his music, the 2000s have seen a real resurgence in interest in all aspects of LW3’s artistry. And then in 2009, after 40 years in the business, Loudon won himself the Grammy he’d always wanted—see his 1983 tune “The Grammy Song” for more info—for an idiosyncratic concept record about the life of an obscure musician from the 1920s named Charlie Poole. Go figure.
Perhaps that recent success is why Loudon Wainwright III’s career has finally been given the box set treatment. This highly welcome collection of four CDs and one DVD from the impressive Shout! Factory is a truly definitive and fairly exhaustive accounting of this singular artist’s career moves. Lovingly compiled by Loudon and Apatow (who offers a benediction of sorts in the lengthy and informative insert booklet, claiming that whenever he is stuck while writing a script he listens to LW3 for inspiration), plowing through the discs in succession makes for a deeply informative retrospective. It pulls at least a couple songs from every record he’s released (though it draws more heavily from his undisputed masterworks like Fame and Wealth and, of course, History) and offers a complete disc’s worth of unreleased material (some of it recorded live) that is worth the price of the set alone.
Surprisingly enough, the biggest thrill here lies in the DVD collection of various televised performances Loudon has given over the years alongside a particularly moving Dutch documentary made during his 1993 tour. While the numerous performance videos are all worth watching – if only so that one might experience the jutting tongue and maniacal foot stomping that define his bizarre but kinetic stage presence—the one hour documentary manages the impressive feat of opening a window onto the bruised egos and broken hearts shared among the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan circa 1992. As the teenaged Martha and Rufus speak frankly about their shitty father, and Loudon looks on, smiling through what must have been some truly difficult stuff to hear, the effect is pretty overwhelming. Here are these two beautiful, creative young people, sitting alongside their troubled and troubling father, all interwoven with one another, tangled up in the very artistry that has served to separate them from each other for so much of their lives, and both of them refusing to do anything but tell the truth.
As it has always been with their father, their bravery is as undeniable as their pain. Some lessons, they say, are hard-earned.