Adventures of a University Finalist

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Legacy of the HMS Birkenhead


Loudon Wainwright III - History (Virgin, 1992)

Loudon Wainwright III - Men
Loudon Wainwright III - The Picture
Loudon Wainwright III - Hitting You
Loudon Wainwright III - A Father and A Son

My recent viewing material over the past week has been a steady diet of Judd Apatow's clasic (and much missed) TV series, Undeclared. I could talk at length at the brilliance of the show and my surprise at the number of Freaks and Geeks regulars who bothered to turn up. All I will say though is that the sight of Kim Kelly and Ken Miller being lovey dovey is one that I certainly wasn't quite prepared for. If you can call "crotch blocking" being lovey dovey that is.
So how does this show link to the mercurial Wainright Snr? Why because he's a recurring cat member as the lead character Steve's mid-life crisis suffering dad, Hal. And, boy, is he brilliant! Sharp, funny, natural and quick on the ball - to be honest, it's just Loudon playing himself at a slightly higher tempo without going all out wacky tobbacy. The man is clearly having fun which is, surprisingly, something that can't be said for this wonderful 90s album (except from the hilarious 'Talking New Bob Dylan'). Rather than a one note set with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, Loudon has opted for a wonderfully varied album with hand firmly on heart.
A lot of guff has gone on following Martha Wainwright's 'BMFA' and Rufus' 'Dinner at Eight', both songs that I admire despite the belief that Martha's is heavily overwrought in its "Difranco X 10" way. Talk of the Wainwright clan's familial problems have thankfully seen a new interest in its patriach which I applaud - 'A Father and A Son', for one, uses a concealed dagger to do its dirty work where Rufus uses a stiletto and Martha a clumsy sledgehammer. "Now you and me are me and you/ And it's a different ballgame though not brand new/ I don't know what all this fighting is for/I don't want to die and you want to live/It takes a little bit of take and a whole lot of give." Parenting is broken down beautifully into some kind of horrific Catch 22 that the parent ultimately understands due to the fact that "When I was your age I was a mess [too]".
The songs that I've chosen all follow this theme of family with 'Men' talking eloquently of the legacy placed upon men's shoulder by the Birkenhead with it's weary declaration of "Every man's a general/Men go off to war/The battlefield's a man's world/Cannon fodders what they're for". If the song had been around in the 60s protest era and sung by one of the folk greats like Fred Neill, Phil Ochs or Tom Rush, it would be a classic despite its overt anti-feminism. However, even though it's a child of the early 90s it's not lumbered with any over production (unlike another classic of domestic trouble, The Boss' 'Tunnel of Love') with an organic arrangement dependent on just a multi-tracked acoustic and Loudon's distinct vocal that somehow manages to go beyond his normal vocal quirks to something approaching heart aching. 'The Picture' is a wonderful ancedote, supported by guitars and a sole violin, that draws from Loudon finding a picture of himself and his sister when they were young and drawing from it what the base and true elements of having a sibling are. Eventually it gets to the couplet that that will always make me miss my own sibling however thousands of miles away she may be. Having set out the fact that siblings fight he adds "But a brother will defend her/For a sister's love is pure/Because she thinks he's wonderful/When he is not sure". Much better than a string of insults methinks.
My favourite of all these remarkable tracks though is 'Hitting You', one of his more controversial numbers about a time that he smacked Martha when she was young and how he believes that this one incident has morphed into an entity of hate and disregard. By the end, all he can do is apologise and, with that apology, take the blame for all the wrongs that he knows that he has unknowingly wrought. The lyrics transcend the ordinary subject matter through both its unerringly frank details and its thoughtful delivery creating a song that ultimately leaves you will the feeling that Loudon is a father much like any other, loving but flawed, and that Martha is a bloody motherfucking brat. So there.

Buy - Loudon Wainwright III - History
Visit - Loudon Wainright III
Visit - Undeclared