FORTY-ODD (AND COUNTING…) Loudon Wainwright III

As evidenced on a new
career-spanning four-disc set, the troubadour’s long strange trip shows no sign
of winding down.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

The singer-songwriters who came of age in the 1960s and
early 1970s are the Boomers’ major contribution to the Great American Songbook,
and Loudon Wainwright III ranks with the very best.

 

Credentials? For a start, well into the fourth decade of his
recording career, he wrote perhaps the finest song ever about the seductive
qualities of Los Angeles – 2007’s “Grey in L.A.” That was after writing one of the finest songs
ever about New York, and post-9/11 America in
general, “No Sure Way.”
And it’s hard to find a more poetic, achingly wry take on the loneliness of
being an American living in England
than 1989’s “You Don’t Want to Know.”

 

And no bombastic, strutting
heavy-metal/flamboyant-hair-and-Spandex rock band ever wrote a song about
groupies as good (and as nakedly honest) as the ballad Wainwright put on his
spare, acoustic guitar-driven 1971 Album
II
– “Motel Blues.” 

 

They are all, in different ways, classics of empathetic
songwriting, emotional and psychologically astute. And, amazingly, they’re not
really emblematic of Wainwright’s premiere accomplishment – the ongoing
documentation, sometimes via deceptively gentle ballads and sometimes via upbeat
folk-blues tunes and usually drawn from first-hand experience, of his
generation’s maturation process, especially as it relates to family in all its
messy and complicated aspects. Plus, he makes the mundane poetic – an electric
duvet plays a key role in “You Don’t Want to Know.”

 

Some of those songs are painfully wise and tender, often
wrenching in their sharp, telling details and assured in their command of
literary devices. And yet he makes it look so easy. In “Your Mother and I,”
from 1986’s More Love Songs, Wainwright tells one of his children, “Your folks fell in love; love’s a very
deep hole.” And 1997’s wistful “So Damn Happy” is a masterpiece of layered
irony – do we take it at face value that “the sad thing is I’m so damn happy”
about a break-up, or is the irony that he’s really not happy and is just pretending for the sake of the song?

 

Some Wainwright songs are absolutely exhilarating, full of
youthful joi de vivre, as on the
Proustian, bluegrass-like stomper “The Swimming Song” from 1973’s Attempted Mustache.  Some are shocking in their confessions about
personal shortcomings, as in “April Fool’s Day Morn,” about his relationship
with his mother, from 1993’s Career
Moves.”

 

If Wainwright doesn’t quite command the same universal
respect among his generation Paul Simon, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen, it’s
because he’s got such a reputation as a jokester/parodist, a creator of
novelties, that those only cursorily familiar with his work may not know how
deep he can cut.

 

After all, his one hit single was 1972’s “Dead Skunk” (“in
the middle of the road/stinking to high heaven”). Unlike Newman’s “Short
People,” a hit from the same era, there’s no greater metaphoric meaning to
“Dead Skunk” – it is about what it says. He’s also a political satirist – taking
on “Newt” and Jesse Helms (“Jesse Don’t Like It”) in the 1990s. And he’s had
comic roles in television, movies and theater.

 

He’s also capable of being really ribald, as on 1995’s (from
Grown Man) “IWIWAL,” short for “I
Wish I Was a Lesbian.” It’s delivered with the enthusiasm of a crowd-pleasing
sing-out at a hootenanny. (The song is also about grammar – an important point
that Wainwright dwells on in the opening monologue is whether it should be “I
Wish I Were a Lesbian.”)

 

Maybe the closest Great Boomer Singer-Songwriter to compare
to Wainwright is Jonathan Richman, whose goofy, disarming humor often makes
people overlook the serious, sometimes-mournful side of his autobiographical
songwriting. (The fear and dread in his transcendent “Floatin'” serve as a
wonderful bookend to “The Swimming Song.”) There are differences – Richman has
more often tried to see the world as an eternal innocent, while Wainwright has
tried to share the observations of a man grown wiser by awareness of life’s
passages. But they seem kindred spirits.

 

Wainwright also is now the patriarch of an important
literary and musical family. His father, the late Loudon Wainwright Jr., was an
editor/columnist for Life. (Albert
Goldman, Life’s music critic, once
included Loudon III in a column about female singer-songwriters – a joke at
dad’s expense.) His sister is musician Sloan Wainwright. Rufus and Martha
Wainwright are children from his marriage to the now-deceased Kate McGarrigle;
Lucy Wainwright Roche is his daughter by Suzzy Roche.

 

***

 

Hopefully, acknowledgement of the consistent excellence of
Wainwright’s work will come with the release of Shout! Factory’s four-disc,
91-song boxed set, 40 Odd Years. It’s
been put together with assistance from Judd Apatow, who hired Wainwright and
Joe Henry to score 2007’s Knocked Up,” from
which came two of the set’s songs, “Grey in L.A.” and Wainwright’s version of
Peter Blegvad’s “Daughter.”

 

Wainwright doesn’t do many covers, but “Daughter” shows off
another distinct aspect of his talents, the reflective tenderness in his voice,
that makes you trust him the way you might an analyst. Wainwright also has a
higher-register, thin yet agitated voice – a bit like Gordon Gano of Violent
Femmes – that he uses on his more excitable songs, like “It’s Love And I Hate
It.” And while Wainwright has never been much of a rock ‘n’ roller, he was
certainly listening to it. Note how his fantastical, farcical “The Man Who
Couldn’t Cry” – a 1973 departure from personal-observation songwriting – builds
on a driving, yearning riff similar to Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

 

40 Odd Years – a
title that says as much about his followers’ experiences on earth as his career
– offers three discs of selections from 24 studio and live albums, plus one of
rare and unreleased material. That ranges from the terrifyingly sad “No Sure Way,”
originally on the 2002 Love Songs for New
York
multi-artist collection, to a duet with comedian Barry Humphries on
“Somethin’ Stupid.”

 

It’s hard to quarrel with what’s here. As for what’s missing,
one wishes maybe the original “Motel Blues” was alongside the lightly rocking
version from 2008’s Therapy. Also,
one wishes for “Cardboard Boxes” and the searing confession about losing
control of a daughter, “Hitting You.” Maybe, too, the rare disc could have
thrown in the hilariously profane “Good Ship Venus” from Hal Willner’s 2006
tribute to pirate songs, Rogue’s Gallery, just to test the boundaries of good taste.

 

The set features a DVD collecting live performances, most
from the last 20 years but also offering his appearance on a 1975 Saturday Night Live, plus an excerpt
(with son Rufus) from a feature on his 2009 Grammy-winning High, Wide and Handsome project about the life of early country
singer Charlie Poole.

 

As for revelations, Wainwright’s songwriting didn’t dip in
the 1980s, after he was dropped by major label Arista during the MTV era and
was forced to release less frequent albums on the low-profile, folk-friendly
indie label Rounder. Those may have been his years of obscurity and reduced output,
but the quality level stayed high.

 

In a very graceful essay in the accompanying booklet, “My
Cool Life,” Wainwright self-effacingly dismisses the notion he is brave to sing
and write such material. (Oddly, he’s discussing “Hitting You,” a song not on
this set.) “A stage, whether in a club, a concert hall or a cow pasture, is an
extremely safe place, at least for a performer. You appear to be exposed but
really you’re protected,” he says.

 

Still, how many other singer-songwriters have spent so long
displaying the guts Wainwright has shown in turning his family and professional
life – its failures and triumphs – into material for public consumption? And
how many have the talent to make such consistent, enduring art out of that
material?

 

[Photo Credit: Ross Halfin]

 

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