The Middle Man: Why Loudon Wainwright III is the Greatest Family Memoirist of Our Time

Psychological histories, let alone psychological histories of entire multi-generational families, don’t get any more whittled down than this verse in Loudon Wainwright III’s 1992 classic, “A Father And a Son”: 

When I was your age I was just like you,
And just look at me now; I’m sure you do.
But your grandfather was just as bad
And you should have heard him trash his dad.
Life’s no picnic, that’s a given:
My mom’s mom died when my mom was seven;
My mom’s father was a tragic guy,
But he was so distant and nobody knows why.

It’s that last couplet that kills me: The image of the well-to-do mid-century father. Fortunate by birth (handsome; monied; an American aristocrat) and yet plagued by a misery that has little to do with his wife’s death. He was so distant that nobody knows why. 

You can see the buttoned-down shirt. The graceful arc of his chin. The mothball funk of the bad old days, when the gentlemen and ladies of the better classes hid everything except the darkness behind their eyes. Then came the flower children of the ’60s, the whole oats parents of the ’70s and the sharp-eyed children of the ’80s. Everything changed. Especially if your parents were well-known pop/folk stars, with long hair and birth control and….

Nothing changed. Here’s Loudon’s daughter, Martha, responding directly to her father in 1995’s “Daddy/Daughter Dialogue,”

You sing about a father and son

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