Tony Peyser's "Blue State Jukebox"
July 21, 2005
Loudon Wainwright III's "Here Come The Choppers!"
Review by Tony Peyser
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In my music writing, I'm generally upbeat and positive as I only pick albums I love to share with you loyal readers. I don't believe in petty attacks on artists that often have no basis in fact. However, I'm making an exception:
I'm not talking pot, cocaine or heroin. I mean the performance-enhancing drugs that professional baseball players have been taking during the last ten years which turned every damn major league game into a home run derby. The most coveted substance was Androstenedione, which is an androgenic steroid. (I don't know what an "androgenic steroid" is and neither do you.) I even believe that Wainwright has stolen so much Androstenedione that needy sluggers like Barry Bonds just can't get any of the damn stuff. (The San Francisco Giant home run king isn't having any knee problems; that's the cover story while he's trying to find a way to get his hands on some of Wainwright's steroids.)
Where's my proof? Well, how else can you explain two sensational albums of new material in the last four years? Wainwright's in his late fifties and this is precisely when a singer-songwriter's quality should skid right off the proverbial rails. He's supposed to be phoning it in with something annoyingly retro like a collection of rockabilly or doo-wop tracks. Or, more likely, a live album of his early songs. (Uh, Wainwright did do So Damn Happy in 2003, which had a lot of his early songs on it. But I'm on a roll here, so forget about that.) Wainwright could even pull a page from the Ry Cooder playbook, find some old world music fellas from a sweaty banana republic and get them onto vinyl before they start dying off like Democratic bills in the GOP-controlled House to provide health care for poor people.
On the other hand, maybe it isn't performance-enhancing drugs. Last Man On Earth was produced in 2001 not long after Wainwright's beloved mother died and those kinds of earth-shaking family events can inspire much grief, soul-searching … and creativity. On the title track of that release, I loved these lines as he wryly philosophized from the depths of his mid-life crisis: "I'm the last man standing/Save the last dance for me/I've taken the last train to Clarksville/I'm the fifth Monkee."
A pair of songs on Here Come The Choppers! reflect the familial aftershocks still going on with Wainwright since the death of his mother. "Half Fist" is about his grandfather, Loudon Wainwright I, and "Nanny" is about his grandmother. The former has a more melancholy tone as his namesake died young at 42 in 1943. Wainwright portrays a man who clearly liked to smoke and drink. But he also intuits that his grandfather felt trapped and zeroes in on a wedding picture where he held his hand in a half-fist. Wainwright concludes this tightly-coiled figure still looms mysteriously atop his eccentric family tree. "Nanny" is a much more upbeat song with its look at his no-nonsense grandmother who preferred being called Nanny to Granny. It's a genial portrait of a tough old gal who didn't go for senior activities like knitting or baking. However, she did like her afternoon gin and tonic and spoke as freely as she drank: "Nanny had opinions, Nanny wasn't prissy/She said that men were queer who just drank beer/And ginger ale was for sissies."
After listening to the album several times, some things occurred to me that were happening between the notes and lyrics. First of all, the only thing pretentious about Wainwright is his name. Second of all, you're going to have look for quite a while to find anyone who crafts songs as literate as these. Third of all, Wainwright sings these compositions in a colloquial and conversational manner. Last of all, there's something very intimate about the whole process. Wainwright is happy to share what he's thinking with the rest of the class, even on a song like "When You Leave" where he's discussing the damage the divorce he initiated has done to his relationships with his now adult children. The wounds he speaks of are exclusively of the open variety.
The first track is an affectionate look at a 400-pound man who ironically claims to be Wainwright's biggest fan. Of course, it had to be called "My Biggest Fan." In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this could have lapsed into a series of fat jokes and unkind comments. But Wainwright looks beneath the man's exterior and finds some basic life truths: "He was one when his father took off/It was a trauma that he never shook off." In fact, Wainwright graciously allows himself to be the punch line when he reveals that this music fanatic actually likes two people more than him: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Along the way, Wainwright also casually tears out pages from his life on the road diary with revelations like, "And you know there's never any escape/From the fan who wants to give you his tape." The final insult to injury is that this total stranger seems to know as much (if not more) about Wainwright's life than he does himself.
Another unforgettable track here is "No Sure Way" about a subway ride into New York shortly after 9-11. Wainwright recreates the uneasiness of being on the train traveling underground as it neared the decimated World Trade Center. The song has an uncommonly dreamy feel to it as he contemplates what the attacks did to the psyche of New Yorkers just trying to go about their daily business. It's a haunting and hallowed song for the hallowed ground of ground zero.
"Here Come The Choppers!" --- the title song --- is another stunner. It's set largely in the Fairfax District of Hollywood, a place where I lived for many years and where Wainwright now calls home. Police helicopters are frequently buzzing overhead and they became increasingly unnerving to Wainwright in the lead-up to Bush's invading Iraq. In delicious fashion, he imagines these police helicopters are more heavily armed than usual and have decided to take out the aforementioned Fairfax District. If you don't know this part of Los Angeles, let me just say that Wainwright hasn't made anything up and every place he mentions is a place I used to drive by or visit on a regular basis. But you don't have to have paid rent there or even be familiar with the local landmarks to be, ahem, blown away by the song. At one point, Wainwright announces, "The inspectors found nothing – that's just not right/Whole Foods and K-Mart are targets tonight." It's a bull's eye shot at the preposterous Neo-Con con of pre-emption. The song even goes on to describe attacking The La Brea Tar Pits and quietly suggests that these kinds of insane maneuvers will make all of us as extinct as the dinosaurs who once roamed there.
"Hank and Fred" features the unlikely pairing of hard-living country music legend Hank Williams and easygoing children's television pioneer Fred Rogers. If you want the back-story, go listen to the song; I refuse to spoil it for you. The guitar playing by Bill Frisell and mandolin work by Greg Leisz is as overpowering as walking on an unfamiliar street one evening and suddenly being washed over by the intoxicating scent of night-blooming jasmine. Between the music and Wainwright's touching lyrics, this is simply one of the most original and beautiful songs I've ever heard. If you have kids or just have enough sense to know what a wonderful man Mr. Rogers was, you may want to have a box of Kleenex at hand. (Should this happen, open the CD booklet and look for the picture where Hank Williams' face has been playfully cut & pasted over Mr. Rogers' face. This will enable you to laugh and cry at the same time.)
Years ago, the always cheeky and reliably nasty Spy Magazine used to name celebrities who hadn't done any good work in years and were just coasting. Entertainers like Chevy Chase always made this list. Loudon Wainwright III is proof that some creative types can get actually get older and better and --- whichever coast they're on --- avoid coasting.
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Tony Peyser writes political
poems every day for
and draws editorial cartoons twice weekly. His new music column,
The Blue State Jukebox, is now a monthly feature for BuzzFlash.
Mr. Peyser (who loves referring to himself in the third person) is