Deckle edge

Loudon Wainwright III
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published February 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Loudon Wainwright III
The dry, acerbic wit that continually bubbles up through Loudon Wainwright’s songs predictably punctuates his speech as well. Never serious or straight for more than a fleeting moment, he answers questions with wise-cracking exaggerations, flippant sarcasm, and impish charm. Still, knowing Loudon Wainwright III, his music, and his sardonic take on life, you expect nothing less. After all, this is the singer songwriter who made his mark in musical history with a 3-minute ditty about the hazards road kill. Unquestionably comfortable with virtually any topic, Wainwright applies his skewed view of love and the pursuit of happiness to just about everything he touches, especially his own life.

“Ya, I get a little chuckle when I look at life,” he offers smugly in a recent conversation, “But then I get nauseous. You know when you get that little laugh thing happening and a bit of your breakfast comes up. Well, that’s what happens to me when I look at life.” He pauses and then segues into a familiar verse, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now . . .”

Admittedly few songwriters capture both sides of the human condition with such obvious universality. One minute his songs crackle with dark humor, the next they yank on heartstrings with uncanny poignancy. Although thinly veiled as wry commentary and often rich with double entendres, wordplays, and vocal gaffes, his songs resound with a tenor that belies their superficial silliness. “There is nothing cryptic or vague in my songs and most are very mundane. Aside from the fact that I am incredibly interesting,” he chuckles, continuing, “what happens to me in my songs, happens to you or someone you know—getting divorced, going to the doctor, hitting a child, falling love, falling out of love, flying in an airplane.”

Wainwright, who brings his deadpan humor and whimsically dry stage show, is out on the road sharing his experiences and building interest for his upcoming album. Scheduled for release in early summer and appropriately titled Grown Man, the new album finds Loudon deep in the thick of it all over again with songs that are typically comical and diverse. Genetic engineering, a father/daughter dialog, dreaming, and a song about a human cannonball, fill out the topics with a wide variety of musical textures providing the glue.

“It’s very eclectic, as they say. There’s some loud ones and some quite ones, but basically they’re just songs. I never really ever run out of things to write about,” he continues, admitting, “I just keep writing about the same things; a couple of songs about kids, and, if you’ll pardon the expression, a couple of love songs,” he chuckles.

Love is the one topic he rarely avoids. Loudon’s idea of love runs the whole gamut encompassing tender, aching ballads and full-bore, biting diatribes that rail against the concept, act, and loss of love. “Some people are in the business of writing love songs, but I have never thought of myself as one of them,” he pauses, adding quickly, “at least not in traditional terms. No, my view of love is a little bit different.”

Growing up the son of noted Life Magazine journalist (Loudon Wainwright Jr.), Loudon developed a keen eye for interpreting the human condition and all of its inevitable pitfalls. “My father was an influence, there is no question about it, especially as I get older and I walk by a store window or something and I see him in my reflection,” he laughs, “But, I also hope that there is a certain economy in my writing that I got from him.” Musical influences come from Bob Dylan, Mose Alison, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Louis Prima all of whom helped shape an aspect of Wainwright’s often distorted view with healthy doses of jazz, folk, blues, and theatrical comedy.

“What Dylan did was so good, I didn’t feel I could even attempt to do something similar until he went electric in ‘68.” Hammering his way through various musical incarnations, including bands and coffeehouses, Wainwright eventually secured a record contract in 1969 with Atlantic records, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he struck gold with “Dead Skunk” which soared to the top of the charts and ruled the airwaves of Little Rock, Arkansas for six weeks. “I have always thought that I could write about anything,” he admits, humbly, “And occasionally I have. Granted, I have written about some strangely mundane things (chuckling), but I think if you’re gonna have a hit single why not about a dead skunk, instead of some mountains in Colorado?”

Aside from the prevailing bizarre tone, Wainwright’s songs best reflect life in the baby boom years. Applying his own topically relevant experiences to such sensitive issues as divorce, domestic abuse, and aging he delivers with great sensitivity and accuracy. Witness the aching reality of “Your Mother And I” from More Love Songs which captures the wrenching pain of divorce, or “Doctor” from History in which he openly laughs at the aging process. “Hitting You” also from History points to the thin line between parental anger and child abuse with open remorse and telling description.

“I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em,” he offers, changing the topic in typical fashion,& “I have a song on the new album that’s gonna put me back on the charts. It’s called “I Wish I Was a Lesbian.” I hasten to add that it’s not written from the male perspective.”

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge