udon Wainwright III is one of music’s great iconoclasts. He put his trademark wit, intricate songwriting, and unique personality on display recently at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java. He introduced a lengthy prose piece by saying, “I’ve been thinking about my inevitable memorial service.” He asked, “Why leave it to others to make the important choices?” and described what followed “not so much as last wishes as preemptive guidelines.”
What followed was a strangely morbid and very funny sketch of a scenario in which Wainingwright skewered his own turbulent family history. He described his two ex-wives at the memorial, bereft, turning to one another, saying, “I like the idea of my two ex-wives leaning on each other for emotional support.” He also described how all his ex-girlfriends would be there, looking beautiful and mysterious.
I can’t do it justice, and you have to know a little more about Loudon to get just why this was so funny.
Wainwright is something of a musical patriarch: His kids, Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, have followed him into the business. While he was pleasant enough with the folks at the venue on Nov. 5, he has a well-known reputation for being a difficult father. Martha once wrote a song about him called “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole.”
As Lucinda Williams recently observed about one of her past boyfriends, when someone has “III” in their name, there’s bound to be some interesting family dynamics. The idea of all of the many women who have come through Loudon’s life coming together to mourn him is both laughably egotistical and self-centered, and he clearly knew that and was playing it up. This was clearly satire, and I respect someone who can have a bit of fun at his own expense.
As you might have guessed from this bit about the memorial service, Wainwright is getting up in years. At 77, he’s been recording music for over 50 years, having released his first album, appropriately titled Album I, in 1970, and his most recent, Lifetime Achievement, came out last year. On the album, he reflects on his age with “How Old Is 75?” which he wrote with Adam Liptak. The album has the sharp observations on the stresses of family we’ve come to expect from him in “Family Vacation” — or “Fam Vac.”
Watch Loudon Wainwright III perform “Fam Vac” live at The Paris Review on YouTube:
Wainwright was born in Chapel Hill while his father, who I have to assume was Loudon Wainwright II (it’s not strictly necessary, but it’s most likely), was studying at the University of North Carolina. When he was 2 years old, his family moved to New York. “Does anybody know what a bonneker is?” he asked the audience, then explained it’s a native of East Hampton. Though he didn’t spend a lot of time there, he still considers himself a Tarheel, and was honored to be inducted recently into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. “James Taylor’s been in there for fucking years,” he joked.
Before playing “Older Than My Old Man,” Wainwright shared that he’d visited his old boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, earlier in the day. “I hated it there,” adding that his father, who also went there, hated it, too. This reminds me of how I went back to summer camp for a second summer after having a miserable time, for reasons I’ve never been able to fully articulate.
An actor as well as a musician, Wainwright gained exposure through his appearances on the extremely popular series MASH in the early ’70s. In 1972, he scored his biggest hit with the novelty song, “Dead Skunk.” Introducing the tune during his encore, he mentioned how the song was especially popular in Little Rock, Arkansas. (I won’t suggest what this says about roadkill in that state’s capitol.) He managed to bring this around to the time he met Bill Clinton, who would’ve been living in Little Rock with Hillary at that time. In typical Loudon Wainwright fashion, he drew a verbal sketch of the pair getting steamy in the back of a car to a song about the odor of a dead skunk. He did ask Clinton if he had any memory of the song, which Clinton denied.
The show opened with “Suddenly It’s Christmas,” a song about how the holiday season lasts from after Halloween to the first of the year. He followed that up with an intricate poem about how parents conspire to trick their children into believing in Santa that turned into a broadside against the concept of God and organized religion.
Stream “Suddenly It’s Christmas” by Loudon Wainwright III on YouTube:
While he mostly played the original songs he’s loved for, Wainwright did sprinkle a few covers into the set. There was Richard Thompson’s decidedly melancholy “Withered and Died.” While Thompson’s material is darker than Wainwright’s, they share a similar biting wit. A cover of a song about the Greek mythical figure, Oedipus, by Tom Lehrer, a humorous singer-songwriter whose ’50s records were in his father’s collection, made clear to me just how big of an influence Lehrer is on Wainwright’s songwriting. I was stunned to learn that Lehrer is still alive — he’s in his 90s — though he’s long retired from music. Wainwright asked him to play piano on one of his records, which he politely declined. By request, Loudon also played Peter Blagvatt’s “That My Daughter.”
In addition to his songs and stories, Loudon engaged with the crowd, taking requests. One of those was for “Road,” and he said, “That might be the last time I play that song.” In addition to Christmas, Wainwright also celebrated “Thanksgiving.” Alcohol appears throughout his catalogue, in “Heaven” and “White Winos.” But perhaps his most affecting, sincere tune is “Swimming Song,” which he played on the banjo.
With lyrics that draw from literature and express hard but humorous truths about our lives and struggles, Wainwright is a unique character and musician. He’s certainly not for everyone, but if you get it, you really get it, and his show is a great time.