Write what you know--no one in popular music has ever taken this dictum more to heart than Loudon Wainwright III. For nearly 30 years, his cult of fans has looked forward to the continuing chapters of his work-in-progress. During a span of more than 15 albums, this "one man guy" has analyzed, satirized, bowdlerized and punched in the eyes every setback and step forward of his adult life--he's one of the great storytellers of the baby-boom generation. His hyperpersonal approach reveals all, with sometimes uncomfortable honesty: dating, marriage, fatherhood, career, divorce, dating again, marriage again; you get the picture.
In the early '70s, playing NYC's Gaslight and Gerde's Folk City, LWIII was an exclusively acoustic folkie. Before developing his singular comic vision, he was cast in critics' minds as one of the many "New Dylans" of the era--he would later reflect on those days with "Talkin' New Bob Dylan Blues" on last year's Grown Man. His only burst of Top 40 fame was in 1973, when the single "Dead Skunk" was inescapable to anyone with a radio, placing him, with "Short People"'s Randy Newman, in the league of cult artists who are also one-hit wonders with totally unrepresentative novelty songs.
No further hit singles have come his way, but Wainwright has continued to write and perform to a dedicated core audience. A side trip into acting in the '70s resulted in rerun immortality with a recurring role on everyone's favorite Korean-conflict comedy: He played Captain Calvin Spaulding, resident troubadour of the 4077th, on several episodes of M*A*S*H.
The topics which will be on the table when Wainwright plays at Anderson's Fifth Estate on Thursday, April 9, are sure to include father-son and father-daughter relationships. Seemingly every aspect of his uneasy grasp of the fine art of parenting has been explored through the years--everything from a song about nursing mothers called "Rufus Is a Tit Man" to "Hitting You," a three-minute summation of every caring parent's guilt and pain over disciplining children. What is the line and when is it crossed? You'll find no answers here, but the questions have never been asked so eloquently.
Asked, by phone, if he's ever had a family member object to being part of his ongoing body of work, Wainwright replies, "People have joked with me about it through the years. But essentially they know it's part of the deal." It might also be pointed out that his ex-wife, Kate McGarrigle, has also aired her side of the story through the years on her own albums with her sister Anna. And all of Loudy's songs aren't about life's deepest issues--one classic, "Nocturnal Stumblebutt," is the epic story of attempting to find a smoke at 3 a.m. without waking up the entire house. The quest is a dismal failure and results in physical harm for all concerned.
Live, Wainwright is an aggressive performer who has left a long trail of broken guitar strings behind him--he's been described as a string percussionist. But his playing is humorous as well as hard; he often finds just the right note to use as a musical punch line.
The emphasis, though, is on the songs and their lyrics. The crafty old showman pulls faces, sticks out his tongue, stomps the floor, whatever it takes to pull you in. He demands that the listeners catch his meaning--a favorite trick is to get the audience's attention with a laugh just before playing the pertinent line. Onstage, the guy really is one of a kind.
The current tour is in support of his new Charisma/Virgin CD Little Ship. Expect to hear some of his most recent life experiences through songs such as "OGM"--summing up the finality of the end of a relationship through the simple act of changing the answering machine message--and the self-explanatory pairing of "So Damn Happy" and "I Can't Stand Myself."
As for the aforementioned tit man Rufus, now all grown up: The younger Wainwright's talents will soon be on display when his first album is released in May on Dreamworks records. Of his son's musical aspirations, Wainwright the Elder admits: "Frankly, I do feel strange that he's doing what I do."
But Rufus' work is less concerned with the foibles of the family Wainwright--it doesn't threaten the old man's autobiographical turf: "His writing is more musical. It isn't as blatantly confessional as mine."
Loudon Wainwright III is scheduled to play at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 9, at Anderson's Fifth Estate, 6820 East Fifth Avenue in Scottsdale. Tickets are $15.50 in advance, $16.50 at the door. 994-4168 (Anderson's), 503-5555 (Dillard's).