My parents raised me on folk music. Peter, Paul, and Mary, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and a smattering of other artists were the soundtrack of my childhood. Despite the advances in technology, digital editing, and voice modulators, give me a person and a guitar and emotional lyrics any day. But my parents never introduced me to Loudon Wainwright III. I had to discover him on my own when I was twenty-five. I was reeling from a bad break-up, and his music spoke to my soul. I dove into his anger and cynicism toward love. I relished his bitterness and drowned my pain in songs like “Unhappy Anniversary.”
Then I came upon “One Man Guy.”
I’m a one man guy in the morning. Same in the afternoon.
At first, the melody of the song grabbed my attention. It was simple and straightforward. The words repetitive in such a way as to lull me into a hypnotic state as I sang along, making up my own harmonies. I would later learn he was Rufus Wainwright’s father and discover Rufus’s cover of his father’s song.
I grew intrigue and learned how the two had an estranged relationship. Then I learned Loudon was estranged from his other children too. Loudon wasn’t the best dad, but he was a hell of an entertainer.
A few years after discovering his music, I would go on to graduate school. My master’s thesis focused on Men Against Violence programs in high education institutions. As I learned about these programs, I read books on masculine identity development and related topics on the psychology and sociology of gender and the culture mores that the United States places on us… both liberating and constricting… and they are for more constricting.
In the hectic pace of graduate school, Loudon Wainwright fell off heavy rotation. Classic music and quiet instrumental pieces helped me study better. The emotional tug and pull of folk music didn’t help much. But, ten years later, I’ve reacquainted myself with Loudon’s repertoire and his 1985 album, titled “I’m Alright” means so much more to me now.
It opens with “One Man Guy” where the narrator comes across as self-aware, yet two dimensional. People will see his shows and know everything about him. There is no mystery because he puts it all out there. And there is something to admirable bout this. But there is also a tragedy, for he concludes the song with the admission of not knowing why he is a one man guy or why it is a one man show. He only knows the space he inhabits and his greatest love is himself.
Other songs on the album speak to lost love and being all right with being alone. And while it is important to be self confident and independent, the lyrics of Loudon’s song speak to a deeper loneliness that is not questioned or analyzed, at least not within the twelve songs of the album.
In “Lost Love,” the lilting rhythm comes across as whimsical and fun, but the narrator rues his lost love. He can’t call her, but he doesn’t understand the emotional rollercoaster he faces and decides it is best to “leave love alone and let it die.”
Then, on the next track: “I’m Alright,” the narrator declares he is all right without his ex-lover. The driving bluesy rhythm pushes you through each beat with an anger and a bitterness. He pushes ideas of his ex-lover away as he goes for a run, drinks himself stupid, and eludes to suicidal ideation before settling on flossing his teeth.
Other songs veer away from masculinity, romantic relationships, and such, but then “Screaming Issue” arrives. The simple rolling rhythm and driving lyrics catch you off guard when he talks of his daughter. Unlike songs of his ex-lovers, he turns his attention to the lack of his knowledge for caring about his daughter. She is screaming, and he doesn’t know what to do. So he ruminates on her past lives instead of holding her, carrying for her, emoting to her.
The final song, “Career Moves” recounts the life of a singer-songwriter and the myriad of songs and performances, themes and motifs, and relationship with his fans that fill the years. It is the perfect ending to the album that ranges from topic to topic within each four-minute song.
And as I listen to it now, with two daughters, a loving wife, and years of life under my belt, the same thirty-nine years as he had when he produced the album, I have a deeper appreciation for the man and the musician. I see the themes play out in so many blogs and conversations that men and fathers have. Our lives are becoming performative with content creation as a means of communication. Yet how do we hear one another and truly listen when our methods are in bursts of short videos instead of long meaningful dialogue? How much do we present as a “one man guy” owning our digital stage rather than stepping down and getting our hands dirty?
Sure it’s kind of lonely
Yeah it’s sort of sick
Being your own one and only
Is a selfish dirty trick
The short pop song formula remains even though it looks very different. Some might argue that it is a natural evolution of our species, that we are adapting to the times and using a technology to communicate. But I don’t know if I agree with this argument because we are inventing the technology. It is our minds and hands that build the software and hardware that we become addicted to. It is not some unknowable, invisible force, like God or nature. It is us, and our need for attention (and perhaps love of money) that drives us to perform rather than engage.
And as I look at my two daughters, sometimes I see them picking up the bad habits that I’ve cultivated over the last thirty-nine years. They’ve gathered some of my good habits too, don’t get me wrong. But if I don’t work on shifting my attitude and behaviors, if I allow myself to be a “one man guy,” I will fail them.
And as I look to other fathers in my community, I see how easy it is to fall into the “one man guy” trap, because our culture doesn’t reward us for being emotional or engaged.
But, for the sake of our children, we must do the internal work to understand ourselves. We must understand and work against the cultural mores that tell us to only show laughter or anger. We must think of ourselves as more than a paycheck or the provider of three square meals and a rough. If we don’t, we will remain shouting out into a crowd, or performing to a smartphone camera instead of stepping into real relationships.
What we do matters. How we decide to show up matters. As the amazing opera singer, Kenneth Kellogg, shared in a recent keynote at the Dad 2.020 Summit, we must prepare the world for our children, not prepare our children for the world. To do that, we must get emotional. We must see that to be emotional isn’t to weaken our masculinity, but to enhance and strengthen it. This will allow our children to understand it is okay to laugh, cry, fear, and be brave. This will allow us to pick up our screaming babies and not turn away in confusion or disengage into ruminating about their past lives.
This will allow us to be fully human. To be fully present. To be the fathers our children need.