[18 April 2005]
Loudon Wainwright III achieved a brief period of popularity during the early ‘70s for his role on the anti-war television sitcom M*A*S*H. The guitar-toting soldier (Capt. Calvin Spalding) would regale Hawkeye and the rest of the crew with his humorous, topical tunes. M*A*S*H always began with the sound of a helicopter bringing in the wounded for treatment and then merge with the soothing instrumental theme song “Suicide Is Painless”. Perhaps that’s why Wainwright’s new disc, Here Come the Choppers! arrives as such a sonic shock. Wainwright may still be a pacifist; he’s a clever enough lyricist to give to give his words more than one meaning, but he’s outwardly aggressive whether his subject is war, family, love, or contemporary society.
Consider the title cut, “Choppers”. The narrative concerns a terrorist assault by air against Los Angeles, where no store, restaurant, museum, neighborhood or even the La Brea Tar Pits is safe. As Wainwright builds his narrative, just who is bombing the city gets confused. The story resembles the rationale of the Bush administration to invade Iraq. Wainwright sings, “Here come the attacks/the inspectors found nothing/that’s just not right/Whole Foods and K Mart are targets tonight/The Meridian Health Club has machines/of torture it will be blown to smithereens.” Meanwhile the music builds in intensity, thanks to Bill Frissell’s frenetic electric guitar playing and drummer Jim Keltner’s hard percussion. Wainwright is more than satiric, he’s afraid-of terrorists, of his own government, of his own brutal and vengeful impulses. These themes find themselves imbedded all over the disc’s other songs.
Wainwright discusses the destruction of the World Trade Center in muted terms as he tells of a pilgrimage he took to the site via the subway. He describes the other passengers, the uneventfulness of the ride, the various stops along the way, until he finally emerges at Canal Street and looks at the ruins. For once, the prolific songwriter seems at a loss for words. Wainwright doesn’t know what to say, except that he is more confused about what’s right and wrong, good and evil, than he once used to be. This is the one song in which Wainwright refrains from any comedic references.
Wainwright comes from a well-known family. His father was a famous Life magazine editor. Wainwright was married to Kate McGarrigle (of the musical McGarrigle Sisters). His own kids have successful musical careers. His son is on a major label and has been written about everywhere from Spin and Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine. His daughter Martha just released her first effort on Rounder Records. Even his sister Sloan has put out an album. Wainwright delves into his family mythos on several songs, including the sweet memory of his grandmother “Nanny”, the sarcastic dig at domestic drama “Make Your Mother Mad”, and the powerful “Half Fist”, a song that concerns the first Loudon Wainwright, who died young long before the birth of his grandson. Wainwright looks at the old pictures and recognizes something of himself in the snapshots… the impulse to violence. He has previously written about being physically abused by his father, as well as hitting his own children. He just takes the subject back one more generation.
Despite the serious tone, the man who once turned a “Dead Skunk” into a hit record still offers a few weird tunes. On “Hank and Fred” he sings about visiting the grave of Hank Williams in Montgomery, Ala. on the day Mr. Rogers died. As a singer/songwriter Wainwright’s grief for Williams seems appropriate, but it’s difficult to tell if his homage to the children’s entertainer is sincere. Wainwright links the two together by the fact that they both knew how to make the sound of a train. The singer who once cajoled women with a song about being a musician so they should sleep with him (“Motel Blues”) now makes fun of his lack of celebrity in “My Biggest Fan”, about a 400-pound man who ranks him third after Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but continues to be the biggest fan Wainwright has. Still, Wainwright isn’t complaining. He makes it clear that he’s happy just to be alive and playing.