Mortality and Loudon Wainwright III’s “Older Than My Old Man Now”
Loudon Wainwright. First heard of him via his legendary “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” back in the day. He’s a musician that has always been on my radar but it hasn’t been until the past few years that his star has risen by leaps and bounds in my own musical world. I won’t bore you with all the accolades (and there are many including 22 albums, including a Grammy Award, film and TV appearances, and concerts at some of the most prestigious venues in the world). Your mileage may vary but hearing Loudon’s latest recording, Older Than My Old Man Now, was a revelation to me. A startling one. I have not yet achieved the age of either of my parents when they passed but I have reached an age where the years ahead are fewer than those already lived. Loudon’s words and music resonated with me in a profound way the other morning when I innocently put my iPod on in the car on my way to the office. Yeah, I had listened to the album before…but something was different on this particular day. It was like Loudon was singing just to me…telling me a story with each and every song. I was moved in a very unexpected way… Maybe it’s the fact that there has been a lot of illness and death surrounding me lately. It seems like nearly every week this summer, I’ve heard some sad news about someone I know—news that they are facing dire diagnoses and not so cheery futures. So it was with all that in mind that I heard Older Than My Old Man Now with new ears.
To me this album is a true masterpiece. I don’t use that word often. Trust me.
The album starts off with the bluesy autobiographical song “The Here and Now”—detailing many of the details about his life thus far…complete with background vocals by his many talented children and some fantastic licks by guitar great, John Scofield. The perfect way to begin this recording. It’s fun. It’s joyful. It’s Loudon.
The next tune, “In C,” may be one of my favorites, if not my very favorite. It’s a simple yet elegant piano-based song about Loudon’s favorite “protagonist” –himself. It’s a fragile, heartfelt song that hit me hard. It’s about failed relationships and about the after effects—about grieving the past and how our worlds sometimes fall apart. The cello accompaniment by Erik Friedlander adds to the depth of emotion of the song as Loudon sings about how easy it is to blame ourselves for our foolishness. He sings, “sometimes a guy has to sit and sing about the heavy s**t.” The great unknown is there for all of us….and it’s lovely that Loudon can sing a song in C for us.
The short spoken word reflection that precedes the title tune is another poignant piece written by Loudon’s own father, the much lionized Life magazine columnist, about his own ghost father who comes to visit and what a presence he’s been his entire life. Forty years of disembodiment but a presence nonetheless. The harmonica laced bluesy tune is upbeat despite the subject matter. That’s the brilliance that is Loudon Wainwright III. He puts a spin on Wainwright history in a most memorable way. What a legacy.
A delightful duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot on “Double Lifetime” is a lot of fun. It’s a ditty about wishing for more time on this crazy planet. Ramblin’ Jack is the perfect partner on this tune. “Dateline” is another jazzy tune about time—past, present, and future.
“All in the Family” is a lovely homage to family —made all that much nicer by the addition of Loudon’s daughter , Lucy. The perfect accordion accompaniment by the late great Rob Morseberger adds the perfect element to the song. Father and daughter opine “what family Is not insane”? If everyone is honest, no truer words were spoken or sung. “My Meds” follows with honky tonk hilarity. Loudon describes a long laundry list of medicinal antidotes needed to make it through the day in order to eat. sleep, piss, crap, shtup, and breathe. His sense of humor is beyond evident here. If you don’t giggle during this song, you’re not alive.
Just when you think the tone of the album is heading toward more fun and games, Loudon surprises us with a magnificent instrumental “Interlude.” Heavenly. Gorgeous. This song brought me back into a reflective space—akin to sitting in a majestic cathedral being serenaded by the most gorgeous string section ever. Lump in my throat goodness.
“Over the Hill,” co-written with Loudon’s late ex-wife, Kate McGarrigle is a profoundly beautiful song punctuated with harmony vocals by their daughter, Martha Wainwright and Loudon’s longtime musical partner, Chaim Tannenbaum. It’s the only song that Loudon and Kate wrote together and they wrote it before they were 30. They were old souls and for that I’m thankful. The songs written by old souls stand the test of time.
“Ghost Blues” continues down that track—it’s a look at what’s going on from a ghost’s perspective. “Hanging around but you’re not really there / you’re hovering around your own old easy chair” and all that fun stuff that ghosts do. Your dog misses you but knows you’re there at the foot of the bed. I like it. I’ll take it. I’ll rattle those chains and sing along with Loudon. Good stuff.
“I Remember Sex” is a campy number with guest Dame Edna contributing to the witty lyrics about one’s past sexual antics. As one music critic says, who else but Loudon Wainwright could pull off a song like this? “Somebody Else” is another one of those songs that hit me hard. Chris Smither adds his talents to this song…and the fact that these two veteran songwriters are singing it together… wow. Makes me recall my dad reading the obituaries in the local paper and I always wondered what it would be like to start losing friends, coworkers, neighbors, those who were my age. Back then it seemed like so far away in the future. We all know we were immortal when we were kids. Now mortality is staring at me and I’m staring back. I’m not necessarily scared but time has a way of keeping on moving…and the present becomes the past real fast. So listen to this tune and feel okay about the whole thing.
“The Days That We Die” includes a monologue written and recited by Loudon with sparse piano accompaniment that allows him the opportunity to reminisce about years past and his hopes for reconciliation. He says “change is possible.” Yes, it is. It’s never too late to connect with those we fear are lost forever. Loudon’s son, Rufus, takes center stage on this one. The back and forth lyric exchange between father and son is beyond poignant.
The next song, “10” changes it up a bit—a scat-filled tune about looking back—about former lovers, kids who have flown the coop and being ten—a golden age. It’s a straight forward tune about being remorseful and not having what one once had. But life goes on….as is noted in the last song on the album “Something’s Out to Get Me” in which Loudon compares life to an elevator: “You punch a lot of buttons but what goes up comes down.” The sax solo slithers around this cautionary tale—something’s out to get us all. Death. The spectre that is around every corner.
As many music writers have noted, writing autobiographical songs is something that the Wainwright clan does well. Older Than My Old Man Now is a musical mirror for all of us—especially those of us who are a certain age. Well worth exploring. Well worth listening to with full attention. Two thumbs way up and if I had more thumbs, I’d give it more.