From Dirty Linen #98, Feb/Mar 2002.
You know, sometimes I do more research than is economically feasible for a story. I probably could have done this one without going to New York City on October 13, 2001. But I'm glad I didn't.
Loudon Wainwright III
Real Live Man
by Pamela Murray Winters
In the middle of a sunny mid-Atlantic September, when the unthinkable happens, an interview with Loudon Wainwright III is one of many small things that goes awry. It’s scheduled, then rescheduled, then abbreviated, to be continued a month later, when things are somewhat saner.
“Like everybody else, I’m just trying to process what’s happened,” said Wainwright on September 18, shortly before leaving for some U.K. tour dates. He was at his home in Brooklyn Heights, New York, across the East River from Manhattan, talking by phone to an interviewer a few miles from the Pentagon, and he noted that we both had “plumes” to look at. “I’m not even thinking about how it relates to my job. I’m just trying to process it as a person who happens, in fact, to live incredibly close to where the World Trade towers were, and have people in New York who essentially are all okay. But I haven’t even thought about what it means to me as a songwriter. And it’s going to take awhile to process it, like everybody else.”
A week later, the man who has been called a New Dylan (by any number of critics), “one of the great lyricists of the age” (by Q magazine), and a “crapulous, self-pitying, philandering prick” (or at least wont to play that role, said music critic Robert Christgau) stood onstage at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre and sang about taking the subway into New York City a few days before:
When you are underwater
Sometimes the mind plays tricks
And there beneath the East River
It felt like the River Styx…
They say heaven’s high above us
And hell is far below
But in that subway tunnel
There was no sure way to know
— “No Sure Way”
After telling people that he wasn’t going to write a song about the terrorist attack, “because it was so immense,” he was surprised “to get an idea and actually write the song,” he told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in October. The song, “No Sure Way,” was met with warm acclaim at a show at New York’s Bottom Line on October 13, paired with his 1985 song “Hard Day on the Planet,” in which he complains: “I want to go on vacation till the pressure lets up/ But they keep hijacking planes and blowing them up.” A roomful of New Yorkers, many on their first outing since the catastrophe one month earlier and two miles south, joined in the “Planet” chorus. It wasn’t quite escapist entertainment; like the best of Wainwright’s work, it blended humor, pathos, and the uncomfortable recognition of our own spiritual blemishes.
“The best of Wainwright’s work” came to the forefront last September. First there was his recurring role in the new Fox sitcom “Undeclared,” in which he plays a lonely, somewhat pathetic father who follows his son to college. Within days of the TV premiere, Red House released his new album, Last Man on Earth. On this cohesive, often mournful work, Wainwright admits to middle-aged crankiness, gets all Freudian on Mom and Dad, reveals his plans for donating his organs, and laments enormous losses in the starkest of terms. Not for him the grand gesture, the massed choruses and operatic tableaux; he sits on a back porch, walks on a beach, gets up at 3 a.m. when nature calls.
“My mother died in 1997,” wrote Wainwright in the album’s liner notes, “and naturally my world fell apart. I was living in London... trying (sort of) to keep a sinking romantic relationship afloat.” Returning to Westchester County, New York, he moved into his mother’s cottage in Katonah and, for the next 18 months, “slept in her bed... used her lamps, linens, plates, mugs, pots and pans.” The album consists of snapshots of a man in mourning. The lost love is chronicled in “Bridge” (“in England a valentine is signed with a question mark”) and “Out of Reach” (“Today I’m gonna call you/ Just to prove that I still care/ But I’m so afraid you’ll answer/ That I hope you won’t be there.”) His late parents and living family are given a clear-eyed assessment in “Surviving Twin,” “White Winos,” and “Graveyard.”
Still, Last Man on Earth is far from gloomy. (Who but Wainwright, in the title song, would use estrangement from humanity as a pickup line?) Perhaps an artist with Wainwright’s curiosity and self-satisfied wit could have turned out some sort of noose-worthy killer of a disc, but he took care — and time — to create a fully realized vision, not merely a pity party.
“We had a whole year to work on this record, and that is unusual,” he explained. “Normally, my records, I cut ’em in two weeks and you take a week break and you mix ’em in five days and throw ’em out there. And then six months later you think, ‘God, why did I do that?’ And I think a lot of people make records that way, especially in, for want of a better use, the ‘folk music world.’ Because of the money element.”
Money wasn’t a problem with Last Man on Earth because one of its key players, producer Stewart Lerman (who also plays guitar, bass, keyboards, and percussion), owns New York’s Shinebox Studios, where the album was made. “The usual time and money constraints were somewhat suspended,” Wainwright noted. “We could work at a leisurely pace. And [Lerman’s] level of commitment was extremely high, as was [keyboardist] Dick Connette’s, who arranged a lot of the record.” Although other musicians, including David Mansfield, Steuart Smith, and Suzzy Roche, also contributed, the core team on Last Man on Earth comprised Wainwright, Lerman, and Connette.
“I’m very happy that we had the time and were able to do the record properly,” said Wainwright. “I’ve had a kind of checkered career in the recording studio. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of records, and some certainly more successful than others. And I don’t mean just in terms of units sold.”
With a career as long as Wainwright’s, one can forgive a few missteps. He released his eponymous first album in 1970, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Album III that he achieved AM radio immortality with “Dead Skunk.” (Penned in 15 minutes, “it certainly paid the bills for a long time,” Wainwright observed.) Over the ensuing three decades, he built a loyal fan base — in proportion to the population, he thinks, stronger in the U.K., his home for 12 years, than in the U.S. — released a string of albums, and became professionally and personally involved with such folk-rock families as the Roches, the McGarrigles, and the Thompsons.
Loudon Wainwright III was born in 1946. (His references to being “53 now” in “Living Alone” were already anachronistic by the time Last Man on Earth was released.) His own family was close to American gentry; Loudon Wainwright II was a writer for Life magazine, and his clan kept a house in Bedford, New York, in tony Westchester County. His parents divorced in the mid-70s. The familial stereotype has been chronicled in any number of American novels: witty, moneyed, repressed, lubricated.
Mother liked her white wine
she’d have a glass or three
And we’d sit out on the screen porch
white winos mom and me
We’d talk about her childhood
and recap my career
When we got to my father that was
when I’d switch to beer.
“As a kid, I listened to the music my parents were listening to,” said Wainwright. “So we listened to Guys and Dolls, South Pacific — show tunes. Broadway writers, which I loved. I loved that kind of writing — crisp, and in some cases, clever and funny writing. Then as a kid I got into Fats Domino and Elvis Presley records — I’m of that age that rock ’n’ roll was just coming along.
“When the folk music thing hit,” he said, as if it were influenza or Pearl Harbor, “in the early 60s, then I really identified with it. That would be the Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger, and all those people. And that crop of songwriters which is a little bit older than I am — and, of course, the crown prince of all that was Bob Dylan. But songwriters like Tom Paxton and Patrick Sky. And performers like Dave Van Ronk, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Geoffrey Muldaur. I loved all that stuff. I hitchhiked to the Newport Folk Festival. I bought my first Martin dreadnought guitar. I identified more with that than the rock ’n’ roll stuff that was also going on.
“I recognized that a lot of the stars of that era, like Dylan, were like myself. They were middle class, or even upper-middle class, white kids, who wore work boots and denim shirts. I mean, even Pete Seeger comes from a kind of patrician background. And having grown up in northern Westchester, I recognized right away that this was something that I could emulate. Although at the time I didn’t think I would be a musician; I thought I was going to be an actor. I went to acting school [at Carnegie Mellon]; I didn’t really start writing songs until later. But when I was 13 and 14 and playing the guitar and hitchhiking to the Newport Folk Festival, I was just a fan of those people. And then when I built my identity up as a songwriter, I was confident in the knowledge that these guys had gone before me, and it was a possibility.”
The post-“Skunk” years saw Wainwright combining a peck of acting with a bushel of music. He slipped into other roles in Broadway’s Pump Boys and Dinettes and as Captain Spaulding in several episodes of “M*A*S*H.” He showed up on film in 28 Days, Jacknife, and The Slugger’s Wife. But onstage with his guitar and in the studio, he portrayed a flawed, confused, and even mean-spirited man: a neglectful father, a faithless lover, a defensive aging male WASP. “April Fool’s Day Morn” on 1987’s Fame and Wealth took him through a night of debauchery culminating in the comfort of his mother, who fixed him breakfast.
Still, Loudon the softy doesn’t get nearly as much attention as Loudon the lout. Fame and Wealth, one of a string of mid-80s albums, offers a sweet birthday song to daughter Martha on “Five Years Old.” Among Loudon’s topical songs, many of them commissioned by National Public Radio, “Tonya’s Twirls” is a surprisingly sympathetic look at the working-class skater Tonya Harding.Taken out of context, much of Last Man on Earth could be dangerously Hallmarkian. “Future Fossils” takes on the well-worn imagery of footprints in the sand; “I’m Not Gonna Cry” is a lightweight banjo romp through tear-stained metaphors (“Well it looks like rain and I hear a train”). And “Homeless” is a simply worded depiction of the loss of his “best friend,” his mother.
Disassembling Wainwright, in fact, reveals that the artist is more than the sum of his parts. He seldom traffics in complex phrases. His work reveals a dependence on the classic ballad form and its A/B/A/B rhyme scheme. Descriptions of his work fall short of its emotional and aesthetic impact. How does he manage, then, to create such powerful and touching songs?
“Navel gazing is a just criticism among songwriters,” said Bob Feldman, whose Red House Records had a one-album deal with Wainwright for Last Man on Earth. “Loudon has perfected it to a craft. He’s deeper and more committed. He has us in mind when he does this, and I think that’s why he resonates... For a man to bare his soul like that, it’s a very generous type of writing.
“I don’t think there’s anyone writing about us the way he is,” Feldman went on. “He’s so brave and honest, it’s shocking at times, and yet it’s like looking in a mirror — at the parts you don’t want to see.”
Wainwright thinks before he creates, but the result doesn’t come off as calculated, just emotionally acute. About his song on the events of September 11, Feldman noted that “Loudon would have been the last person in the world to write a song that would have been exploitive.”
Age has been a gift to Wainwright. His keen eye has served him well as a topical writer; people who don’t know him from “Dead Skunk” might recall his excoriation of North Carolina Senator/Puritan Jesse Helms in “Jesse Don’t Like It.” And in middle age he's gaining new fans in a way that was impossible when he was a young troubadour: as a father, both in real life and on television. Daughter Martha and son Rufus, whose mother is Kate McGarrigle, are both forging musical careers; Rufus, who has recorded two acclaimed albums and has shared bills with Tori Amos and Elton John, has a particularly high profile. Wainwright maintains he’s proud of his children and even says, of the elegant meditation “Bed” on Last Man on Earth, “When I hear it, I think it’s influenced by Rufus Wainwright! Just melodically. Obviously I listen to his stuff. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music; I’ve always made a point of not doing that. But I think I’ve listened to too much Rufus Wainwright, because the song ‘Bed’ seems to be very influenced by him.”
“My father, though he was never around, would always come by at extremely opportune moments and lend me some perspective,” said Rufus in a 1998 interview. His father also helped Rufus get a contract with Dreamworks by passing along a tape of his music to Van Dyke Parks.
But then again, he immortalized his infant son in 1974’s “Rufus is a Tit Man,” and songs like “I Wish I Was a Lesbian” and “The Untitled” (about a homoerotic romp by the Hardy Boys) probably don’t sit well with the adult Rufus, who is gay.
“I certainly have embarrassed my kids, infuriated them,” the elder Wainwright acknowledged. (Or, in “Me and All the Other Mothers”: “But most fathers are really like winos and weirdos/ In the long run, they always screw up.”) “But that’s certainly an aspect of being a dad.” Asked, “Children need parents; do parents need children?” he was momentarily baffled, then said, “I dunno. I suppose some do. I did.”
It’s certainly true of Hal Karp, the character he portrays in “Undeclared,” who shows up at his freshman son’s college after breaking up with his wife and is soon attending dorm parties and draining kegs. “Judd Apatow, the creator of the show, was a fan of my music and had seen my shows,” Wainwright explained. “I of course didn’t know this. And he just decided that the show needed a father figure, and I guess it occurred to him that I might be able to fit that bill. So he tracked me down. I hadn’t seen any of his work, but then they sent me some tapes of ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ his previous show, which I was very impressed with. So I said yes, certainly, I’d be happy to audition. And, happily, I got the job.
“It’s a very good show,” said Wainwright of “Undeclared,” which will be back for its second season this fall. In describing the series, he could be describing much of his own repertoire: “It’s silly, but in the best sense of the word. It’s not stupid. The writing’s very good. There’s no laugh track. There’s a lot of surprises in it; things twist and turn. The actors are all terrific. I’m very happy to be part of it.
“I suppose they could fire me at any point,” he offered. “But they seem to be happy with what I’ve done.” To a colleague’s assertion that he’s “playing himself” in the show, he said, “I’m playing myself — but worse. Or better. I don’t know which.”
“There are some new converts” to his music, Wainwright observed of recent shows. “Younger people are coming. That could be anything from the ‘Undeclared’ thing to parental indoctrination to I’m the dad of Rufus Wainwright. There could be all kinds of reasons for that. All of a sudden, if I’m signing CDs, I’ll look up and there’s a 22-year-old there. Which is, of course, delightful.
“It’s a critical time, touring at the age of 55 and getting the best reviews he’s ever gotten,” Feldman said of Wainwright’s recent successes. “I just hope he keeps on doing what he’s doing. It’s totally up to him what he’s doing. With an artist like Loudon, you don’t have to bring a lot to the table.” As he went on, he sounded like a school guidance counselor, or as if he were talking about a developing artist — which, in a way, he was. “I would like to work with him to help him realize his goals. I love what he’s doing with his acting career. He’s also talked about doing a one-man show that would run in different cities.” Feldman, who first saw Wainwright in the mid-80s, is optimistic about the future of Wainwright the performer: “He’s developed into an incredible showman.”
To critic David Handelsman’s assertion that “Mr. Wainwright is one of the few artists who has actually gotten better as he’s gotten older,” Wainwright commented, “That’s ideally what should happen: your experience and your…” Trailing off, he switched to a jokey voice: “Like the finest wines and cheeses! Certainly there are cases where people don’t get better, but I think there are plenty of examples of people continuing to do good work as they get older. And there’s no reason why that can’t be true with musicians and songwriters.”
Talking with Wainwright reveals a shrewd, mature character who, while unafraid to sing about his vulnerability and even his least appealing qualities, is far too solid to drown in his own miseries. Again and again, he speaks of his “job” and the structural underpinnings of his art. Is it difficult to sing about bitterness toward his father (“I learned I had to fight him/ My own flesh blood bone and kin”), reliving old family miseries with his mother over a few glasses of Chardonnay, or the naked mourning of “Homeless”?
Now I’m smoking again
I thought all that was through
And I don’t want to live
But what else can I do?
And I feel like I’ve faked
All that I ever did
And I’ve grown a gray beard
But I cry like a kid
“I write the songs to be sung,” said Wainwright simply. “It’s not as if I’m writing for some other singers to sing them. And the songs are meant to be performed, and they’re gauged and crafted to elicit some kind of a response. Which is not to say that I’m cynical about it. I understand the job at hand for me, which is to engage and affect an audience for 75 minutes or 90 minutes — or, if it’s a CD, 38 minutes or 40 minutes or however long. So the set’s arranged, and the songs are built to make people laugh, to make them think, or to bring them back somewhere and affect them in an emotional way. So I’m gratified when something like that happens. And it’s not difficult — it’s not torturous for me. Although, in the case of the World Trade Center [song] or “Homeless” or some of the kind of serious material, it might seem that it would be hard to sing the songs. But it’s not, really.
“It’s a show. There’s lights, and I’ve got a microphone, and there’s 300 of you out there, or however many it is — 3,000, or 50. And there’s me on the stage, with a guitar. So it’s an unreal situation to begin with. But that’s the business of being a performer. That’s the business of show business, in a sense. And that’s what I wanted to do. I always loved — as an audience member, I thought that was a magical thing, when a performer or group of performers could lift the room up, even for three minutes in a song. And that’s why I wanted to do this job to begin with. Again, it’s a show and it’s an act and there’s performing involved, but it’s bigger and better than that. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens.”
And about the inner work of song craft: “I don’t know that it cures anything or is therapeutic. You never get over the death of your parents. My dad died 13 years ago, and I’m still trying to work that out in song, and ‘Surviving Twin’ is an example of that. And I suspect I’ll be writing about my mother in 10 years’ time if I’m still writing. So you don’t get over these people or their loss. I do think, though, that in a way, writing a song or an article or painting a picture or making a film... it doesn’t offer a kind of closure, but it does, in a sense, empower you, just to try to articulate, on film or in a song or on paper or on a canvas, your feelings and thoughts about these people or these big events. That’s one of the reasons that I do this. That’s one of the reasons that I’m a songwriter. By making this stuff, in my case songs, and then performing them, it gives me at least the illusion of feeling powerful. But again, in the best sense of the word, of sharing something with other people.”
We may not always like what we share with the very human being portrayed in Wainwright’s songs, but in his hands our common experience can be frightening, funny, and mentally stimulating — nourishment to keep us growing.
“No Sure Way,” p.37, words and music by Loudon Wainwright III; © 2001 Snowden Music, Inc. (ASCAP)