In the late 60s, Loudon Wainwright III was following the club-and-college circuit, plucking at a guitar and warbling his weirdness to tie-dyed crowds of acid victims. There were a lot of white guys folking it up with six-strings back then. And as with a handful of his contemporaries, Wainwright was fixed, like it or not, with the "New Dylan" tag.
Of course, a comparison of Wainwright's and Bob Dylan's styles and songs yields few parallels. Each man does possess a, well, nontraditional singing style. But while many of Dylan's lyrics are thick with strident social stances delivered with high-mass fervor, Wainwright has made a career of disclosing distinctly personal vignettes through huge heaps of humor, irony and a pronounced sense of tastelessness. And while Dylan touches the souls of man with searing, lasting hymns such as "Blowin' in the Wind," rubber-mugged Wainwright's gift to the "American Music Experience" includes the great road-kill standard "Dead Skunk," as well as "Swimming Song": "The summer I went swimming/Is the summer I almost drowned/But I held my breath and I kicked my feet and I moved my arms around. . . ."
Not your typical 60s-style social indictment.
This is not to say that Wainwright is without social conscience. His canvas simply encompasses smaller, more detailed subjects--Dead Skunk" is a fragrant example--leaving the great panoramas to the real Dylan.
Besides, Wainwright's very funny--a description, it's safe to say, rarely attributed to the man from Minnesota. And it's with good humor that Wainwright accepts that, despite two-plus decades of developing his own persona, the Dylan thing will never die.
"Actually," Wainwright, 47, says during a phone conversation from his New York City apartment, "I always thought that didn't say much for Dylan."
Though Loudon S. Wainwright III hails from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he's been a big-city boy most of his life, having moved to the Big Apple as a youngster--in fact, he calls New York his hometown. Following a 1967 sojourn to San Francisco, he took a clutch of newly penned songs and a growing, well-traveled taste for the stage back to NYC. In 1969, he signed with Atlantic Records and inaugurated the 70s with his Album I and Album II. He fled to CBS Records--the first of many label hops to come--in 1973 to record Album III. That collection contained the infamous "Dead Skunk" and served notice to the wax-buying public that this fellow probably had as much prowess with a joy buzzer as with guitar and lyrics. Through his constant roadwork and eccentric recordings, Wainwright began to cultivate the faithful following that keeps him in business today.
While the same year's Attempted Mustache didn't quite pack the humorous punch of Album III, it did include "Swimming Song," as well as "Come a Long Way" by Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters. Wainwright and McGarrigle wed soon thereafter.
A jumble of LPs and labels ensued, including the 1976 album T-Shirt for Arista. His marriage to Kate McGarrigle ended soon thereafter.
"That was my one marriage," Wainwright says. "Trust me--after being married to Kate McGarrigle, one is enough."
Final Exam, in 1978, featured a back-up band named Slow Train--a rarity for Wainwright, who was used to hitting the road solo or with just a couple of sidemen. It also featured the harmony of the Roches on "Golfin' Blues." He took up with Suzzy Roche of the Roches (I guess you'd call it a common-law thing," he says, sighing), with whom he had a daughter in 1982, though his relationship with Roche didn't last much beyond then.
This decade finds Wainwright's wit still sharp and his pen as irreverent as ever. Between moaning about the difficulty of finding good domestic help in NYC--which, he notes, "has more young people and less turquoise than Phoenix"--and punctuating his conversation with ribald and less-than-politically-correct observations on the state of male-female relations, Wainwright reflects on his score-and-a-half years of performing. He would have liked to settle with a single label, he says, but "the numbers didn't add up."
"I'm the Mickey Rooney of labels," he admits. "I don't sell that many albums, so the welcome mat doesn't stay out so long." But despite almost nonstop touring--his chief mode of paying the bills--experience hasn't quite made hitting those ribbons of highways the stuff of romance.
"It's the same fucking drag it always was," he states flatly. He either flies or drives himself to shows. What he hasn't done and will not do are buses.
"Bus people are sick puppies," Wainwright declares. "I was doing some shows with J.J. Cale some time back, and he was doing the bus route, so to speak. After a gig in Vermont, he invited me to ride with him to Boston for our next gig, but I opted to drive. Sure enough, there I am driving down the road, and I see Cale's big old bus on the shoulder with the hood up. And there he is, J.J. Cale, sitting on the ground smoking a mentholated cigarette. I waved at him as I drove by."
Wainwright parked his car at home in order to record his 14th album and the second for his latest label, Virgin Records. Career Moves was recorded live at the Bottom Line in New York City at the top of 1993, and features a colorful tapestry of what he has wrought in these two-plus decades of performing. Career Moves includes songs from the early days (Swimming Song," "The Man Who Couldn't Cry"), as well as about a half-dozen new tunes. Best of all, those who haven't witnessed Loudon Wainwright III in person will receive a ripe sampling of the performer's onstage antics upon listening.
Yet his first offering via Virgin, last year's History, is quite simply his finest product in recent memory. While he mutes the more outrageous aspects of his naturally goofy bent, there's still plenty to spawn a guffaw or two--particularly "Talking New Bob Dylan," his response to those who insist on perpetuating something that may have been true for a couple of hours.
However, History concentrates more on intensely personal self-examination, disclosing poignant vignettes in a heightened, no-holds-barred, often self-deprecating fashion. Although previous works have offered a variety of Wainwright-penned and -performed confessionals, ranging from the outright slapstick to the flat heart-rending, History is mostly a stark confrontation with pain and love, sans the metaphorical or the maudlin.
"Sometimes I Forget" examines the boiling caldron of emotions he felt--and continues to experience--upon the death of his father, famed Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr.
"Oh, it's still as painful as hell," Wainwright quietly admits. "I'm still struggling with it, every day. If there's good from it at all, it's that it seems to have given others in similar situations an outlet for their own grief." "Sometimes I Forget" is followed hard by "Handful of Dust," wherein Wainwright employs blues lyrics written by his late father in a moving, eerie eulogy of sorts. Powerful stuff.
Likewise, "Father and Son" finds Wainwright on the elder end of the pairing, attempting to give sage advice to a rebellious, teenage son:
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"I don't know what all this fighting's for/We're having a teenage, middle-age war," he sings, eventually concluding with a less-than-happily-ever-after ending: "Maybe it's power, push and shove/Maybe it's hate, but probably it's love."
But easily the most powerful song on the album is "Hitting You," in which Wainwright recalls losing his temper with his daughter. "It was just my daughter and me for about a year--sort of an experiment," Wainwright says. "Living with her was tough--it was a crash course. When I wrote the song, she was the first one I played it for. She liked it. She understood it. I was devastated by what I'd done, but the song is a powerful reminder. In fact, the experience of living with her is encapsulated in many songs I wrote. I guess it was kind of selfish, because I wrote a lot and ended up getting a lot out of it. More than she did, maybe."
Never one to hang on to a sad note (or any note, for that matter) for too long, Wainwright comments upon the current state of his label (Hell, I've got to be making them money--History and Career Moves together didn't cost as much to make as a Guns N' Roses backstage deli platter") and about the chance that he'll play "Dead Skunk" in concert these days.
"Oh, I play it now and then--heavy on the 'then.' Or when somebody holds a knife to my throat. Jeez, it's like having red hair. You just can't get away from it. Besides, I've got another song people will be calling the 'New Dead Skunk.' It's called 'I Wish I Was a Lesbian.' Naturally, it's written from a woman's point of view. It came to me when I was in this bar. I kept on calling this chick a babe, and she just got this disgusted look on her face and mumbled it. It stuck in my mind.
"That's right!" Wainwright half-shouts. "Get ready for 'I Wish I Was a Lesbian,' Phoenix. It'll blow your socks off!