The little blurb in the Austin American Statesman South by Southwest supplement described Loudon Wainwright III as a “humorous songwriting legend.” But anyone who went to Wainwright’s showcase that night expecting funny-bone frolics had another thing coming.
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Wainwright sang songs about his father’s death, about conflicts with his children, about breaking up with women, about the strangeness of living alone, about growing old, losing your looks, losing your fire.
Ever since Wainwright’s early days, there have usually been at least a couple of tunes per album (or concert) that punch you right in the gut. But on this night, the punches hardly ever stopped. In fact, Loudon’s demons seemed to have him on the ropes. Even his comic-relief songs seemed to have an edge. He opened with a new tune about dead rock stars; funnier, though more pointed, was “Look Like Shit”, a wicked acknowledgment of thinning hair, wrinkles and broken blood vessels.
Some of the songs, such as “Being A Dad” (from Wainwright’s new album Little Ship), start out innocent enough. The singer fondly recalls getting paperweights and aftershave lotions from his offspring. But by the end of the tune, all sentimentality has soured. “Bein’ a dad can make you feel sad/Like you’re the insignificant other/Yeah right from the start/They break your heart/In the end every kid wants his mother.”
“OGM” (Out-going Message) could be considered Wainwright’s version of the Replacements’ “Answering Machine”. Here, he realizes a relationship is finished when his lover changes the greeting on her machine. The most uplifting number — though sad in its own way — was “Primrose Hill”, an atypical Wainwright song in that it’s not autobiographical, but rather is the story of a guitar-playing bum he observed living in a park in London. It’s obvious Wainwright identifies with this guy. “There’s two things keeping me from going ’round the bend,” the protagonist sings, “I got my music/And this dog for a friend.” And though there’s a trace of pity, there’s also envy for the homeless man’s detachment from society.
For nearly 30 years, Loudon Wainwright’s works have helped me through lost love, divorce, fatherhood, deaths of loved ones and all sorts of dark April Fool’s Day morns of the soul. But at this SXSW show, Wainwright’s material showed little comfort, no glimmer of dawn. It’s obvious he’s not going to be taking the latter phase of his middle-age years very gracefully. But it’s also obvious that his songwriting has become more jarringly honest through the years.