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A few years ago, Rolling Stone did a feature on fathers and sons in music. The two-page spread featuring Loudon Wainwright III and his son, Rufus, portrayed the two men in a back-yard landscape, Loudon sitting in a lawn chair, wearing old-guy shorts, a fishing hat and a crotchety puss. Willowy Rufus stood sulkily behind his pa, daring the camera to make the two of them look comfortable together. It's a rather awkward -- albeit far from candid -- snapshot of a filial relationship that may or may not offer insight into the nature of the bond the two share. These days, however, Loudon Wainwright is documenting his position in the family sphere in no uncertain terms.
Time marches on, and as Wainwright the elder has become more, well, elderly, he has begun to stare down familial ambiguity, tackling his feelings about his place in the interpersonal continuum, his experiences as father, son and lover on his latest record, The Last Man on Earth, released on Red House this year. Wainwright released his first album, Loudon Wainwright III, in 1970 and has added eighteen more to the canon over the past thirty years. He is well known for his whimsical tunes celebrating his son's infantile fondness for the breast ("Rufus Is a Tit Man") and birthday wishes to Elvis ("Happy Birthday, Elvis"). Fans looking for novelty songs in the vein of "Dead Skunk" won't find such fare here: This is confessional songwriting in its purest form, definitely a three-hankie record.
Wainwright's mother passed away in 1997, right around the time that a relationship he was involved in in London was headed south. After returning to the States to bury his mother and settle her affairs, he moved into the tiny house she owned in Westchester County, New York. He was sleeping in her bed, using her dishes, sitting in her chair. Suddenly a motherless child whose love life was in shambles, Wainwright found himself unable to write.
"I thought that I might not be able to write anymore," he says. "It wasn't a writer's slump; I didn't even want to try to write songs. It was like being in a car accident or something, where you don't have the use of your limbs, in a sense."
With time and a little therapy, however, he was able to ply his craft again, penning some of Last Man's most heartbreaking songs while occupying the "mouse house." "White Winos" tells the story of his mother's love of white wine -- not red, for that's what you use with women you want to take to bed -- and how much of their bonding took place over a glass or five of Chardonnay while both mulled over careers and failed marriages. A photograph in the liner notes depicts a younger Loudon and his mother at the dinner table, smiling comfortably, with huge goblets of white within arm's reach. It's a warm image that speaks volumes and makes one long for home.
For proof that even guys in their fifties want their mommies, skip forward to the last track on the record, "Homeless." This is where Wainwright really twists the screws and earns The New York Times's accolade of "most candid diarist": "They say in the end/Your good friends pull you through/But everyone knows/My best friend was you." It's enough to make the steeliest chin quiver.
"It pleases me. That's what I want to do with these things," Wainwright says when asked how he feels about eliciting extreme emotional responses with his music. Is it better, though, to make someone laugh or cry? "I think they're both equally as valid. I think making 300 people laugh at the same time when you want them to is, in a way, harder. This album is a very serious one, [but] in the past I've had novelty songs, and in my show, I enjoy eliciting laughter. I think of myself as someone who can hit left- or right-handed, can do both things, ideally. If you were affected by it, that means I did my job right."
Given the emotional wallop that Last Man packs, however, it's obvious that Wainwright uses his art to process life's events. In addition to dealing with his mother's death, Wainwright's topics include his father (in the textbook-Oedipal "Surviving Twin") and failed relationships (everything else on the record that doesn't involve his mother). Woven into the mix are meditations on death and regret, sleeping alone, and pondering the future while sitting in a graveyard. Every word is placed so precisely, it's almost as if the songs are engineered for maximum emotional effect.
"I work hard on the songs. The tunes are very simple: three guitar chords, simple little melodies -- certainly not as sophisticated as Rufus, who's very melodic," says Wainwright. "I work a great deal on the lyrics of the songs. Ideally, you want someone to be affected or moved by the songs, but there certainly is a lot of work involved." Does this finely honed wordsmithing skill, this ability to speak so candidly and clearly about one's personal life ever get him into trouble? "I'm aware of the fact that sometimes they are personal and autobiographical and concern people in my life," he says, "but I check it out and decide that if it's a good song, there's nothing gratuitous or dishonest in it. I don't think any of the songs attack anybody in particular; they just talk about situations and my take on them."