“The highlight of my last summer,” Loudon Wainwright III says, “was purchasing a new electric lawn mower.”
The machine brings it all back, full-circle for him. On “Fun & Free,” the final track from his new album Lifetime Achievement, he sings:
I got my old job back, pushing this machine
I’m mowing my own lawn now like I did at age 14
Six decades have come and gone
Hey, I’m the old young me
Mowing my grass
I’m my own boss now
I’m doing it for fun and free.
At 75, Wainwright is not exactly looking over his shoulder, but he’s more aware now of time’s footsteps and realizes, as the title of his 2012 album stated, he’s Older Than My Old Man Now.
“You never know what stuff’s going to happen,” he said in our recent interview, adding that he named this new album Lifetime Achievement not because he sees it as some kind of pinnacle he’s reached, but as a kind of testament, an enduring witness to his songwriting.
The album also serves in some ways as a bookend to his first recording, Loudon Wainwright III (1970), which contains the song “School Days.” In its lyrics, he compares himself to Blake, Keats, Brando, Dean, Buddha, and Christ. “See my lightning, hear my thunder,” its lyrics declare. “I am truth, I know the way.”
He laughs, admitting that back then, when he was 21, he was “very serious and thought [he’d] be dead in four years.” He wanted to make something that would last. On Lifetime Achievement, he has gathered a collection of songs he hopes last a while, too.
He’s also grown a bit more reflective and recognizes the enduring value of love and the fleeting worth of being wreathed by society’s laurels. As he writes in the title track’s lyrics:
In the end, what’s justified is not what it all means
I have done and won some things but I lost myself
Who knew that the biggest prize
The great surprise is I managed to find you.
We should consider ourselves fortunate that grace and destiny led Loudon Wainwright III to songwriting in the first place. In his 2017 memoir, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things, he admits his initial reluctance to be a writer.
“I never wanted to be a writer,” he writes. “It seemed like a hard, boring, and lonely life. Growing up, I saw my journalist father at work torturing himself while writing, trying to write, and, worst of all, not writing. Being a writer looked like a stone drag and a must to avoid. By the time I was seven I knew that singing and performing would be part of my life equation. But I was surprised when wordplay entered the picture fifteen years later and I started writing my songs. Caressing a curvaceous guitar and singing little ditties was nowhere near as lonely as trying to fill up blank pieces of paper. It was spare-time stuff, easy and fun. Unlike what my dad was doing, songwriting was quick. Whoever heard of a song (other than a Leonard Cohen song) taking six months or two years to write?”
When he saw Bob Dylan perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Wainwright identified with him because Dylan was just a few years older and writing songs about both political events and personal ones. By the time Wainwright started writing songs in 1968, his memoir attests, “I didn’t know about much. Raised in an affluent suburb of New York City, … I hadn’t harvested a single bale of cotton or ridden any rails. Still, I somehow managed to write two or three songs a week, drawn from my pathetic dearth of experience.”
It’s in those early days that Wainwright realized he had to separate himself from all the other singer-songwriters on the scene. So, he developed his now-famous presentation style. “I admired satirists,” he told me. “I like to make people laugh. I was the class clown. So, I developed my schtick of lifting my leg, wagging my tongue, gyrating with jerky body movements. I also kept my hair short and dressed in Brooks Brothers shirts and khaki pants.” He chuckles.
All the while, he was writing and singing—and continues to write and sing—songs about family, the passage of time, depression, helplessness, and death.
To his chagrin, Wainwright may be best known for his 1973 hit “Dead Skunk.” In his memoir, he shares his love-hate feelings on the song: “I have been asked ad infinitum how I feel about the success of ‘Dead Skunk,’” he writes, “and my glib answers include ‘It paid for a lot of child support’ and ‘Better a song about roadkill than one about getting high on a mountain on Colorado.’… Every once in a while I play the damn song, but mostly in uncomfortable situations where there is an understanding or an obligation that I do so.”
Over the past fifty years, Wainwright has turned out more acerbic and witty songs such as “I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas” (from Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet), 2014), a wry parable about America’s death-grip-like defense of owning guns. Or “Unhappy Anniversary” (from More Love Songs, 1986), a poignant paean to the first anniversary of a divorce.
“I made a bunch of records,” he says, “and there are some good songs in them.”
On Lifetime Achievement, he brings together fifteen songs that provide a kind of retrospective on his career. While he wrote many of them recently—the title track, “Fun & Free,” “It Takes 2,” “How Old is 75?”—others, like “Island,” date back 35 years.
The album kicks off with “I Been”—an autobiography in song. It’s the perfect curtain-opener for a collection of backward glances at themes he’s covered his entire career. In rapid-fire vocals, accompanied by feverish guitar strumming, Wainwright announces that:
I been … doin’ my best at your behest
And at the same time as I please
‘Cause I wanna tell the truth find a fountain of youth
Die with both of my boots on …
Keep goin’ until I’m gone
“Fam Vac” is classic Wainwright—gleeful vocals ride over his cascading strumming. He declares that the family that vacations apart might stay together.
Next comes “Hell,” which he introduces with Jean Paul Sartre’s line about hell being other people. It features Chaim Tannenbaum on banjo and David Mansfield on mandolin. The banjo and violin lay down a caressing bed for the poignant “How Old is 75?”
Toward the end of that song, the singer reflects on his 75 five years, asking: “Was time wasted or was it well spent?” In the final verse, he looks at turning 80, when he’ll either do a cannonball off the high dive or take a swan dive.
The country shuffle, “No Man’s Land,” wittily tells the story of a divorce from the perspective of the family dog, who narrates the song. The soulful rocker, “Town & Country,” is a rollicking tale about returning to the city after a spell in the country, and the virtues and vices of both.
Wainwright achieved more than a lifetime of memorable, enduring music many albums ago, but Lifetime Achievement finds him once again penning timely songs about our dysfunctions, our often-skewed cultural policies. He tackles our failures and our hopes, our losses and our loves—all with his mordant, acerbic, hilarious, and candid perspective. Wainwright’s songwriting strips bare, to the soul. You may not always like what you see, but with a wink and a nod you might find some redemption.
Lifetime Achievement is available HERE.