The “New Dylan” tag has been the kiss of death for more than one aspiring singer/songwriter, and it probably didn’t help the young Loudon Wainwright III that he was touted as a songwriting genius, favorably compared to His Bobness, and signed to a big contract with Atlantic Records when he was still in his early twenties. He scored a Top 20 hit with his 1973 novelty song “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road,” a decidedly mixed blessing that saddled him with the unfortunate reputation as a musical comedian (he’s funny, but he doesn’t play the Weird Al Stupid Parody game), a reputation that he’s never entirely shaken. In any event, he hasn’t, uh, sniffed mainstream success since “Dead Skunk.” All he’s done – over the course of a thirty-five year, twenty-album career – is provide a running musical commentary on his marriages, the births of his children, their nursing habits (“Rufus is a Tit Man” was the title of one of his early songs), his extramarital affairs, his divorces, his besotted nights, his woeful parenting skills, his ambivalence toward the music industry, his dread of growing older, and his grief over the loss of his parents. Those who know Loudon only from “Dead Skunk” are merely missing an entire life.
It’s a life that has been captured in all its tattered glory and frank ignominy, complete with clear-eyed, unflattering appraisals of his own role in its frequent relational disasters. Other great songwriters have chronicled the devastating effects of divorce on their psyches, and on the psyches of their loved ones – Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Bruce Cockburn’s Humans, Richard Buckner’s Devotion + Doubt. But there may be no songwriter who has so fully plumbed the depths of his own voracious appetites, of his own wretched libido in contributing to the relational rubble.
On “April Fool’s Day Morn,” a song from the 1983 album Fame and Wealth, Loudon finds an archetype in having emerged from the womb ass-first, and then spins a tale of a drunken night of partying. The “fool” in the title finds himself staring back in the mirror:
I tried to take a woman down
Right there on the bathroom floor
She refused, I threw her out
Screaming “bitch” and “whore”
It is hard to love a musician you want to slap silly. But there are compensations everywhere in Loudon’s music – the moments of heartbreaking pain where an unfaithful father tries to explain to his small children why their parents are no longer living together, the 3:00 a.m. stare-at-the-ceiling sorrowful clarity of having thrown away the deepest of human connections, the awful inventory of perusing a dead parent’s photograph collection, the after-the-fact generosity of “Father/Daughter Dialogue” where he gives his daughter Martha the last word:
You can't undo what has been done
To all your daughters and your son
The facts are in and we have found
That basically you're not around.
There are also moments of staggering, transcendent beauty. On “Thanksgiving” from the 1989 album Therapy, Loudon recounts a typical holiday gathering -- the underlying tensions, the words not said, the important topics meticulously avoided. His words will resonate with anyone from a dysfunctional family:
Give us the strength to stomach as much as fast as we are able
Then, the final verse:
I fall asleep I have a dream in it is the family
Nothing bad has happened yet and everyone is happy
Mother and father both still young, and naturally they love us
We’re all lying on a lawn at night watching the stars above us
The moments of regret and remorse, the wistful, yearning memories of a bygone innocence, are what finally tip the balance in his favor. The asshole has a heart and a soul. Loudon Wainwright III is a poet of brokenness, and there may be no contemporary songwriter who examines the shards more closely, who recognizes that the missing piece from the shattered puzzle is himself. Thirty-five years down the line, he remains infuriatingly great.