Saturday, 6 August 2011
Loudon Wainwright - The Great Man interviewed
By: j. poet
published on July 8, 2011
Loudon Wainwright III was a young singer/songwriter in the late ‘60s, and one of several talented performers that were tagged by critics as “the new Bob Dylan.” That epithet was more a curse than a blessing; nobody’s ever lived up to the challenge of being the new Dylan. Happily, Wainwright’s music has remained vital, timely, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, timeless as well. Many people know Wainwright best for his novelty hit “Dead Skunk”, or possibly as the father of pop chameleon Rufus Wainwright and the singer/songwriters Martha Wainwright and Lucy Roche Wainwright. While he’s justifiably proud of his talented offspring, Wainwright’s contributed more to the American song bag than his musical and intellectual genes. He’s been making good—and great albums—for more than 40 years, a fact that’s underlined by the title of his recent career retrospective on Shout Factory, Loudon Wainwright III: 40 Odd Years.
Despite having penned hundreds of love songs, protest songs, ballads, and sharply etched personal tunes, he’s often been labeled as a funny songwriter, but he’s got more to offer than laugh-out-loud tunes like “School Days” and “Swimming Song.”*
“Being funny didn’t hurt my career,” Wainwright said, via phone from his home on Long Island. “There are those people who may think writing novelty songs, or funny songs, is not as elevated as songs that address more serious subjects, but some of my favorite songs were written by Tom Lehrer, Alan Sherman, and Ray Stevens. I love to laugh and I like to make people laugh. It looks easy when I’m on stage, but it’s not easy to be funny. It was the funny songs that first gave people a reason to come and see me perform, and most of them are still coming to see me, so it’s a good thing. As it says in the old blues song, ‘You may be thinkin’ that I’m laughing, but I’m just tryna keep from cryin’.’ Laughing is an emotional release that you can’t control and it’s an important thing to keep doing.”
Wainwright’s catalog is hard to classify, and its range and emotional depth is one of the joys of Loudon Wainwright III: 40 Odd Years, a collection that presents 91 tunes on four CDs, including an obligatory disc of outtakes and rarities, as well as a DVD of mostly recent live performances. Wainwright is proud of his work, and along with his co-producer director Judd Apatow (Undeclared, Knocked Up), was involved with the production of the box from day one.
“I know some artists let other people do the driving when it comes to these kinds of projects, but I wanted to be the one to pick the songs and the bonus tracks. I became ‘the decider’ for the music on the CDs. It was an agonizing and difficult process, like watching an episode of Dancing with the Stars. Some songs I love didn’t make it on to the album because of the space constraints, but I’m over the pain. My co-producer, Judd Apatow, did the DVD. As far as the other things to do with the set, I was in control, or maybe out of control, of the entire process. I had no idea how to do a box set when we started. I’d been considering a retrospective, but Judd has a relationship with Shout Factory because they put out his TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared on DVD. We had a couple of meetings and said, ‘Lets do it.’”
With 24 albums of tunes in his catalog so far, the process of organizing the material took up a large chunk of Wainwright’s time. “It was a long process of elimination. I did various culls to whittle it down to the 60-plus tracks that would fit on the three discs of studio material. Everything had to be re-mastered in the end, but we didn’t go in and remix anything. It’s all the original material. I decided to have everything arranged chronologically. I wanted to have songs from every record and picked what I thought were the best ones, but that was a subjective call. I used what I wanted and listened to them and decided if they worked together or not. The criterion was very vague, but somehow it happened.”
As to whether or not he had any flashbacks when he listened to the older songs, Wainwright says, “I can remember certain things about certain recording sessions that took place years ago. I also noted how different my voice was when I was younger. I used [a higher register] and I was a different singer. I was 40 years younger in the beginning, trying to become a singer. Now I am a singer. I was aware that the performer was me and noticed that the way I write a song was right there from the beginning.
“For the Rare and Unreleased disc, I went through my home demos. I have an archive of demos, but not as big an archive as some. Someone sent me a CD of bootlegged performances that included a song called ‘The Miles’ that I’d forgotten I’d written until I head the bootleg recording. We also included one original track that we cut just for the album. ‘At the End of a Long Lonely Day’ is a Marty Robbins song and I sing it with Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche. It’s a song I really love. I heard it on a Greenbriar Boys record in the ‘60s. [Greenbriar Boys lead singer] John Herald just sang the hell out of it in an up-tempo way. I’ve never heard the Marty Robbins recording, but I’ve been singing it a long time.”
The 40 Odd Years box set is not Wainwright’s first retrospective work. With his friend and producer Joe Henry, he made Recovery, revisiting some of the songs from his first four albums. He rerecorded them with Henry and a backing band, which gave the tracks a darker, more ironic feel than when they were first recorded. “I worked with Joe and picked some of the very earliest songs I did with just me and my guitar. Then we played them with a band he put together with all these great musicians he knows. Everybody at the session had input into how we played the songs.”
“Motel Blues”, a song about having sex with a groupie after a show, now sounds more like an act of desperation than seduction. “That was one of the ideas of recording the older tunes. When a kid tells a girl, ‘Come up to my motel room and save my life,’ it just sounds like a throwaway line. When it comes out of the mouth of a 62-year-old guy, you know he really means it.”
Despite a career of some 40 odd years, Loudon Wainwright never intended to be a singer, much less a songwriter. He was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and his father, Loudon Wainwright II, was the editor of Life magazine. His family was wealthy, and he grew up in Westchester County, New York City, and Beverly Hills. One of his grammar school classmates was Liza Minnelli. “Loudon Wainwright is the name of a white kid, not the name of a folk or blues singer. I always liked music and there was music around the house, so I don’t remember the particular moment when I thought I’d like to play guitar. When we lived in LA, my father had a friend named Terry Gilkyson. [Gilkyson was a songwriter and a part of the Easy Riders, the only acoustic group to make folk popular between the time the Weavers were blacklisted in the ‘50s and the beginning of the ‘60s folk revival.]
“They were drinking buddies. My dad had written a few songs on piano and Terry was a songwriter too. At one point, Terry gave my dad a nylon sting guitar and taught him a few chords, but it didn’t work out. I got the guitar, probably wresting it away from my brothers and sister because I was the oldest. Today I know Terry’s kids, Eliza is a singer/songwriter and Tony is a guitar player. [He played with X, Lone Justice, and fronts his own band.] I’ve done a couple of shows with Eliza over the years.
“So, I played guitar, but I didn’t start writing songs until 1968. I played blues and folk songs. I learned the five chords I still use to write songs when I was 14. I may know a few more by now, but I just played and sang because it was fun. I thought I was going to be an actor. I didn’t want to be a musician. When I went to Carnegie Tech in the late’60s, I took acting classes.
“I went to the same boarding school my father went to and listened to folk music. I loved the Greenbriar Boys and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. I started imitating Jack Elliot’s style, and my playing is still reminiscent of his. He got me interested in Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, the guys from the little towns in the South, the real deal. There was also a smattering of Beatles and Stones, and records I’d picked up from my dad’s collection. Louis Prima, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, and Alan Sherman. My dad was one of the first guys to buy a Joan Baez album. I know that was influential.
“The first record I bought was ‘All Shook Up’ by Elvis Presley. I suppose it was a seminal moment… but I was more moved by the folk stuff from the early ‘60s. When the folk boom was happening, the Newport Folk Festival was a big deal. I was there with my sleeping bag and my Martin D28, listening to Mississippi John Hurt and Richard Fariña and the New Lost City Ramblers. I was a fan of that stuff, but I wasn’t writing songs yet. Seeing Dylan made me think it was possible to be a songwriter even though I was a white kid from suburbia.”
In the mid ‘60s, Wainwright dropped out of college and headed for San Francisco, just like everybody else his age. On his way west, but got busted for pot in Oklahoma. His father bailed him out and he returned to Cambridge, MA to work “real jobs” to pay his dad back for getting him out of jail. While working as a movie house janitor, boatyard barnacle scraper, and cashier/cook/dishwasher at a macrobiotic restaurant, he started writing songs and performing in Boston and New York folk clubs. It has been reported that his pot bust directly led to his becoming a singer and songwriter. “Getting arrested did shake me up and made me focus a little bit. I wrote a song about the bust (on Loudon Wainwright Album II) called ‘Samson and the Warden.’ I was one of a generation of kids who were trying to find themselves. Getting in real hot water woke me up a little bit.”
Wainwright’s sharp songwriting, humor, and engaging stage presence soon landed him a contract with Atlantic Records. They released his first two albums, Loudon Wainwright III, Album I, and Album II. What people didn’t know was that the spastic stage moves and grimaces that were part of his performance were a result of stage fright. “It was mostly pre-show stage fright, which is excitement really,” he explains. “You’re about to go in front of a bunch of people you don’t know and try to engage them. It’s exciting and a little bit nerve-wracking. Most of the performers I know have some kind of stage fright, but most of us have figured out ways to deal with it. You hear about Liza Minnelli vomiting before she gets on stage, but once you’re on stage, you usually have a good time. At least I know that I do.”
Early on, Wainwright scored his one and only hit, “Dead Skunk”, from the imaginatively titled Columbia record Album III, the first album he made using a backing band. “As I said, I like writing novelty songs and enjoy amusing people. I’d been doing ‘Dead Skunk’ onstage and people really seemed to like it. I made that album with a lot of great musicians, and it was recorded in one take. Then it was played on the radio. I didn’t think I was writing a hit song when I wrote it. How could you think a song about a dead skunk would be a hit? I sure didn’t. I know the label would have liked another hit, perhaps a dead aardvark in the middle of the road, but that’s not the way I work.”
Wainwright also went electric briefly around the time he hit the charts with “Dead Skunk.” “Having a folk/rock band didn’t make the music any better, and it was a lot more expensive; I had to pay all those guys myself. It was a foray, but it didn’t work out that well. I’ve made a few records with bands, but I like performing solo, with a guitar and my voice.”
Some unfamiliar with Wainwright’s catalog may think that he’s a stand-up comedian with a guitar in hand. While he’s always used his own experiences for subject material, Wainwright is brutally honest about his emotional life in his songs. It’s a combination of humor and irony that makes his music resonate with people. “In the ‘60s, everything was more personal. I wasn’t interested in generic boy meets girl songs. From the first line of the first song on the first record [‘In Delaware when I was younger… I was Keats. I was Bake,’ he sang on ‘School Days’] I’ve been writing about my life as it goes along. I wrote about going to boarding school, working in a macrobiotic restaurant, falling in love, getting married, and having kids. My life seems to be a rich subject to me. The trick is to make my life match up to your life, be it on the subject of airline travel or a break-up. People ask why I’m so autobiographical, but it surprises me that more people don’t do it. I’m more interested in me than anything else, although I do use exaggeration, poetry, and even hyperbole when I write personal songs.”
Wainwright still writes his share of humorous and topical songs, but as he’s aged, he’s also gotten more serious. He wrote the songs on History after his father died, while Last Man on Earth dealt with the death of his mother and the tragedy of 9/11. He took a hard look at mortality, the love and hate that brings a family together and pulls it apart, to write the songs. The albums are not without humor, but also he addresses life’s tragedies with a rare honesty. “I resisted being any kind of writer for years. Like most people, when I was in my teens, I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents. My father was a very good writer, and as the years went on, I began to think that some of that talent runs in my veins. Today I feel a connection with him in a lot of different ways and he’s been dead for 23 years. My mother was my biggest fan and she nurtured me and looked after me and loved me, which was really helpful. We were close, not that we had an ideal relationship, and the tunes on [Last Man on Earth] hint at the strings attached. When she died, I felt lost and hopeless and shut down. I knew it was going to have a big effect on me, but it was even bigger [than I’d imagined].”
In the ‘90s, Wainwright became a writer for hire for National Public Radio, turning out topical songs that were aired mostly on the show Morning Edition and collected on the album Social Studies. “There’s a kind of pressure when they call up and say, ‘Write a song about Tonya Harding or a Beatles reunion and have it to us in two days.’ Maybe it’s the journalistic genes I got from my father. He always talked about deadlines and was always nervous, but managed to do the story on time. He had more problems when he was writing books, and having a deadline seemed to help. If you’re sitting around and waiting for the music to come, you can wait a long time. I need a kick in the ass now and then to get something going. There was often complete panic, and then I just started writing. I’d find myself wondering why I agreed to [write for a deadline], but it seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, that’s been my rationale for my whole career, if not my life.”
Now that he’s finished with the publicity for 40 Odd Years, Wainwright’s back to doing what he does best: Writing songs. “I usually have the words first, sometime the music first, and occasionally they come all at once. I consider it my job, but it’s still mysterious to me. I just don’t know where they come from. I have a style I’ve employed for years, and some tricks and methods of writing I use, but a lot of it is just luck. It’s like sex: You think about it a lot of the time, but it’s a mysterious and wonderful event when it happens. Sometimes you can go a long time without writing; sometimes it just comes naturally. I wrote ‘Dead Skunk’ in about eight minutes, and I’ve worked on [songs] for eight months. Usually, it takes a couple of hours, then a round of going out and performing it to see if it works and how people respond.
“Right now, I’ve started to gather the material I’ve been writing over the last chunk of time. I hope to finish a record in the next couple of months. As I said, I like to write about my own life, so the subject of these songs is death and decay. Yes sir, that’s what’s going on now. Never let it be said that I don’t know my own demographic.”
And the Great Man sings:
* I have to say, as I get older and the song ages almost as gracefully, it's taken on a Salingeresque feel rather than a humorous one.