Less than 20 seconds into “Something Is Wrong,” the first episode of Louie‘s third season, Louis C.K.‘s body is failing him once again. This time it’s in the typically failsafe arena of self-love: “I was jerking off,” he says from the stage, “and I looked at my penis, and it was blurry.” So he goes to the drugstore to buy reading glasses, where he is consumed with dreadful certainty that the (presumably younger) woman behind the counter knows exactly what he’ll be using his purchase for when he gets home.
“Something Is Wrong” is about the brokenness of Louie’s body across multiple dimensions of adulthood: In the same episode, his inexpressive facial muscles end a relationship and a motorcycle wreck lands him on a hospital gurney. It’s a theme the series visits again and again: To watch Louie’s body over the course of the series — the slouching resignation, the way it lumbers steadily alongside his young daughters on a sidewalk — is to witness a peculiar and genuine beauty. It is one of our culture’s finest, funniest symbols of what it means to endure.
During the past year, I’ve grown to drawing parallels between Louie‘s slouching frame and Mark Kozelek‘s doleful voice. Each cut on Benji, his intensely diaristic and uncomfortably frank 2014 masterpiece, is a unique wormhole of memory and pain and an unfiltered, visceral representation of white male middle-age, in all its indignity and entitlement. As A.O. Scott noted recently in his essay on adulthood’s demise, Louie is “a show devoted almost entirely to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age. Or, if you prefer, a loser.” Take that sentence, subtract the children, intensify the obsession with death, and it could be about Benji.
Like Louis C.K., Kozelek never lets himself forget that his body is aging, that his life is both gaining resonance over the years and getting increasingly ridiculous. On “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes,” he spells out some of the particular indignities:
I don’t like this getting older stuff
Having to pee 50 times a day is bad enough
Got a nagging prostate and I got a bad back
When I fuck too much I feel like I’m gonna have a heart attack
The song’s title is a nod to an American ritual of measuring our lives with a celebrity death — in this case, the death of “Night Stalker” serial killer Ramirez. Kozelek is on a flight home to Cleveland to attend a funeral (“Got a death in the family, gotta do some grieving”), mentally noting that public deaths help us “mark time” and go back in our minds to “when we were kids scared of taps on the window.” There is pathos at that remembrance, an innocent fear recalled through the prism of more pressing ones: The ambivalence at seeing a childhood friend “who still lives with his mom/ When he’s not in jail from innocent stalking”; the dread of realizing that your drummer — who’s only a couple of years older than you — is the same age as a recently deceased star (James Gandolfini). In his panicky strumming and staccato delivery of the lyrics, you feel the burden of having to cart around so much accumulated dread.
Both Kozelek and Louis C.K. are mining the same rich soil of loneliness and dignity. Louie is different not only because it’s a fragmentary comedy, but also because it’s told from the external gaze of contemporary culture. In the exhaustively dissected “fat girl rant” from Season 4′s third episode, Sarah Baker points at the camera and asks Louie to imagine: “If you were standing over there, looking at us, do you know what you’d see?” “What?” he replies. “That we totally match.” We laugh with and at Louis, but almost always from outside. In deference to that idea, Season 4 features Charles Grodin as Dr. Bigelow, a delightfully aloof resident of Louie’s building whose magisterial glibness in every interaction — “You know, I’m not entirely sure what your name is, but you are a classic idiot” — stands in for our collective social judgment.
By contrast, Kozelek’s world is entirely inside his head. We used to read entire novels for a glimpse of the articulate interiority that Benji has in spades, and you could reasonably argue the album places Kozelek among the first rank of American writers. Reflecting on the childhood experience of meeting his grandmother for the first time on “Micheline,” Kozelek lists the activities of that visit with a heartbreaking banality: “It was the first time I saw a hummingbird, or a palm tree, or a lizard/ Or saw an ocean, or heard David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’/ And I saw the movie Benji in the theater.” That particularized shard of memory — of seeing a shaggy dog movie in an L.A. theater while visiting his grandma in 1974 — could stand in for any other, which is why the album title’s arbitrariness is so powerful when you make the connection. The album could just as rightfully be called Jim Wise’s Wife Loved Her Rosebush, or Carissa Was a Lovely Child, or Life Was Hell for the Sextons’ Kids. All memories are equal in one respect on Benji: As symbols of all the things that won’t be coming back, they all cut to the bone.
“There’s a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass/ And a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass,” Kozelek sings on album closer “Ben’s My Friend,” a song about his ego’s ambivalence in the face of a buddy’s success (the buddy, in this case, being Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service) He’s right, of course. The lyric reminds me of Louie’s discomfiting backstage moment with Dane Cook in the “Tickets” episode, a moment wherein pride must be swallowed in the name of a greater good (in this case, procuring Lady Gaga tickets for his daughter’s birthday). Artists like Louis C.K. and Mark Kozelek know the porousness of this line well: With his recent “The War On Drugs can suck my dick” outburst and subsequent insincere apology — not to mention his “fucking hillbillies” rant — Kozelek seems to be testing how far he can dance over it. Onstage, protesting the intrusion of War On Drugs’s noise into his set, he once was again “a guy with a gut,” yelling weakly at another band to get off his lawn. It was as awkward, unflattering, and painful to look at as anything on Louie, and it cemented their kinship. One’s paunchy body and the other’s harrowed voice testify to the same truth: To survive into middle age, suffering isn’t optional.