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Stolen Lines 

A Loudon Wainwright III performance on an old 'SNL' rerun speaks to our writer

I've never been one of those jerks who's given to calling his ex-wife a bitch. Not my style. Too obvious, macho-male energy, to paraphrase Charles Bukowski (who shoulda known, right?). Nah, I'm more the passive aggressive type, given to fits of self-deprecating irony and elliptical insults that are meant to slyly slight, to recast doubt with vulnerability rather than vulgarity.

So when I saw Loudon Wainwright III perform "Unrequited Nth Degree" on an old rerun of Saturday Night Live last Saturday night, a new personal hero was born.

The song's subject matter, while certainly not new to pop music--it's a poor-me breakup tune--nevertheless is given what longtime fans must certainly simply refer to as The Loudon Treatment. But I felt like the guy had pre-stolen lines from my own life and retroactively superimposed them onto his lyrics for the second song he sang that night on SNL ...

Oh when I die and it won't be long
Oh you're gonna be sorry that you treated me wrong
You're gonna be sorry that you treated me bad
And if there's an afterlife I'll gloat
and I'll be glad

Looking like a skinny version of Van Morrison, this was Loudon Wainwright performing for an oh-so-hip (for 1976, c'mon) SNL audience, so the context is key here, but the lyrics, as you can see, are timeless pop pap, perfectly delivered in a plaintive, up-tempo warble ...

Might be a plane crash, or some sort of O.D.
Might be a photograph in my obituary
You might see it and you'll cry a lot
Might want to wear black
Oh, I'd be dead but you can bet your life, I'm gonna get you back

At which point you start to hear some tentative laughter from the audience, who are obviously unaccustomed in those days to hearing intentionally funny things from a musician's performance. Wainwright's dark confidence seems to grow with each verse (the song lacks any true chorus, which would certainly have provided cathartic release but ruin the entire, beautifully resentful concept of the entire ditty) ...

I'm tired of being stuck up on your shelf
Might not wait around
Might kill myself
Not only would you miss me, you'd feel guilty too
Oh I'd be dead, but it'd be too late, the joke would be on you.

And the crowd goes wild. Me, too, sitting at home--alone of course, these days--in his chones (underwear, gringos) and spitting milk and cereal through his nose at this long-lost stolen breakup song delivered from the late-night comedy past to his lonely, pathetic postmodern existence (bitch, come back!). Wainwright throws in a seemingly improvised bridge of synonyms for laughter (just in case you don't get that, yes, you're supposed to be laughing by this point, folks) ...

Ha ha ha ha,
a-ho ho ho ho
Chuckle chuckle chuckle chuckle
Snicker snicker snicker snicker
Guffaw guffaw guffaw guffaw guffaw guffaw
Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk

And ending the song's light-as-air appeal, the heaviness of the Loudon Treatment comes not with a bang but a sardonic whimper, a stink bomb tribute to unrequited love, that just might double for a metaphor to the underappreciated career of the singer-songwriter himself ...

So you better take a warning and start treating me good
Start doing the things that I think you should
You better not pout and you better not cry
The grim reaper is coming to town and I just might die

As it turns out, I should have discovered Loudon Wainwright III long ago. The cat's been writing and performing his brilliant material since 1968. He's been an actor (appearing as Captain Spalding the singing surgeon in three episodes of M.A.S.H. and more recently as the mayor of Specter in my favorite Tim Burton movie, Big Fish) and sired at least two talented kids (Rufus and Martha Wainwright). His latest album, "an even dozen" he calls the songs in his self-penned publicity sheet, is called Here Come the Choppers.

More by Will K. Shilling

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