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Family Values

Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III marks his spot in the circle of life.

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.

Perennial singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is still climbing.
Perennial singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is still climbing.

"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."

Wainwright's take on his failed relationship is just as moving and devastating as his reflections on his sainted mother. In songs like "Out of Reach," he depicts the poignancy involved in tying up the loose ends in a failed relationship. "Missing You" and "Living Alone" address the almost universally terrifying prospects of waking up alone and growing old(er) alone. Seeing "Our parents are dead now/And your kids are full grown and/You're fifty-three now/ You're living alone" on paper can send chills down a lonely spine, but these lines are delivered in such a jaunty, cheerful way, it's almost easy to overlook the darkness of the fear involved in aging.

"Aging is powerful and a big drag, and [it's] very interesting what happens, but it's happening to anybody. It's a big part of the human condition. I refer to it and have been referring to it for quite a while. I've always been aware of my age and the realities of it and the fears about it, and it's a topic that I've been referring to and written about since I was young," muses Wainwright. Any tips on aging for those whose personal odometers haven't reached fifty yet? "Everything they say about growing older is true." Stock up on those Centrum pills, kids. It's not going to get any easier.

It can't be all bad, though, to watch your kids grow up and come into their own, seemingly following in your footsteps. Son Rufus (28, currently on tour supporting Tori Amos) has established a name for himself as a sort of postmodern troubadour. Twenty-five-year-old Martha, Loudon's other child with ex-wife and Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle, also channels the same sort of sensitivity exhibited by her parents. And while Loudon played a role in Rufus's demo landing in the hands of DreamWorks exec Lenny Waronker a few years back, he is quick to deny stage-fatherhood, and even that he's much of an influence.

"I'm quite happy that they're in the family business, so to speak. I think they're very talented," he says. "As far as being a mentor goes, certainly now I'm not much of a mentor. They lived with their mother and were raised mostly by their mother in Montreal, so I wasn't around to be much of a parent."

Wainwright is getting a second chance at fatherhood, sort of, in his casting as the dysfunctional dad on the new Fox series Undeclared. (Wainwright's other acting credits include a stint on M*A*S*H* as Captain Calvin Spaulding, a doctor and protest singer, and a role as a depressed-looking fellow in the Sandra Bullock vehicle 28 Days.) Wainwright's character is the quirky, beer-bong-hitting father of a college-age son -- a role that provides a stark though comic counterpoint to the image of Wainwright as a virile young man in the early days of his career. How strange it must be to have that kind of transformation documented in such a public way.

The upshot to aging, though, is that (in a perfect world) there's a certain sense of authority that's gained in the dusky years: You become a sage, someone people turn to for wisdom. Younger generations can look to The Last Man on Earth for insight into dealing with the loss of one's parents, something we all have to contend with eventually, as well as sailing smoothly into the AARP years. This wisdom, recorded artfully, has the potential to make us all feel a little more connected, a little more human, a little more forgiving of the mistakes we make as children, parents and lovers.

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