“I was raised here in Westchester County
I was taught in a country day school
We were richer than most, I don’t mean to boast
But I swam in the country club pool.”
---Loudon Wainwright III, “Westchester County”
If you want to know about Loudon Wainwright III, just listen to his songs.
“I certainly have written about myself over the years,” he told me recently. “I’m interested in myself; my life is the central drama of the universe as far as I’m concerned, the characters in it—my parents, kids, sisters, brother. On this record, Here Come the Choppers, I’ve got two songs about my grandparents. I write about other things too—I write topical songs, unrequited love songs. But I’ve mined, as a miner does, the lode of my life and I expect I’ll continue to do so.
“People that listen to songs have parents and children and broken marriages and are aging. Their concerns are my concerns. I draw on the specifics of my own life, but they’re fairly general topics, nothing unusual about what I’m singing.”
Well, maybe a little unusual. Wainwright, who comes to the Granby Theater Thursday night for the Port Folio Weekly series of the Virginia Arts Festival, may write and sing about “fairly general topics,” but his takes on these topics are often ever-so-slightly skewed.
“I see people in love,” he sings in one of his classic looks at the subject, “and I feel sorry for them. There’s petals on the rose and there’s a thorn on the stem; and like famine and earthquake, love’s part of the plan: Mother Nature’s inhumanity toward man!”
Since releasing his first album 36 years ago, Loudon Wainwright III has been one of our best, most consistent songwriters. His mixture of the cerebral and the silly, the profound and the superficial, runs from deeply personal introspection to over-the-top slapstick comedy, sometimes in the same song.
His only hit single was “Dead Skunk,” a goofy piece of fluff from Album III that scored on Top 40 radio in 1972. But those who only know him from that novelty fluke will be quite surprised at the depth and breadth of his original catalog.
One of the most touching songs on Here Come the Choppers is called “Hank and Fred.” Its narrative lyric tells the story of a visit to Hank Williams’ Alabama grave the day that TV’s Mister Rogers died.
“I was there working as an actor on a movie, Big Fish, a couple of years ago,” he explained. “Hank Williams is buried in Montgomery; there’s a museum there. I went with another actor, Steve Buscemi—we were planning to go to the gravesite of Hank Williams, both being fans. And that morning I heard on NPR that Fred Rogers had passed away. So I think I said to Steve, ‘We’re gonna visit Hank Williams the day that Fred Rogers died.’ And that, as is sometimes the case, was the way it started. You say something or hear something, a sentence, and something clicks and you think, ‘there’s an idea for a song.’
“So probably that afternoon or evening, I sat down in the hotel and started to fish around for something and wound up with that song.
“As I say in the song, I was moved by the news of Mister Rogers’ death. My job is to affect people with these songs—make ‘em laugh, piss ‘em off, move ‘em or touch ‘em…feel ‘em! Whatever works, you know? That’s the idea of a fifty minute experience of listening to a record, or a three minute experience of listening to a song, or a 75-90 minute experience of being at a show. My job is to get to ‘em. That’s what I get paid for.”
He is very good at doing his job, but it’s not the career path he started out on. After his 1965 graduation from St. Andrew’s, the Delaware boarding school where Dead Poets Society was filmed, he pursued drama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“I studied to be an actor,” he said. “I dropped out in the late ‘60s but I went there for a couple of years. That was my original plan, to be an actor, and I got waylaid in the musical world.
“I liked music. I started playing the guitar when I was about thirteen, and that was around the folk music boom. I had my Martin dreadnought and hitch-hiked to the Newport Folk Festival and saw all that, and played other people’s songs. In 1968, after I dropped out of college and spent some time kind of wandering around, I was staying with a friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he had a guitar—I didn’t even have a guitar at that time; I had sold it for yoga lessons probably! I wrote a little song with the chords that I remembered, and the next thing you know, I was writing lots of songs. Within about a year I had a record deal. It happened very suddenly, quickly and surprisingly.
“Male singer-songwriters were in vogue in the late ‘60s. James Taylor had a big success and Bob Dylan was kind of missing in action, and record companies were looking around for guys with guitars and songwriters. They were signing John Prine, Leo Kottke and Steve Goodman…It was a fortunate time to try to get into the business, and I was extremely lucky that it wasn’t much of a struggle.”
He never completely gave up those acting ambitions, though. You may remember his three appearances as Captain Spaulding, the singing surgeon, in the third season of M*A*S*H. More recently he’s been popping up in films like The Aviator and Elizabethtown. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the quintessential suburban New Yorker had moved to LA.
“I’m out here trying to make it big in Hollywood!” he said wryly. “I grew up in Westchester, [but] as a kid, we lived in California for a while. So in a sense I’ve returned to some roots. I’ve been living out here for about four years now.”
Here Come the Choppers features a great band led by rootsy jazzman Bill Frisell, but Thursday night in Norfolk it will just be LW3 all alone with his guitar (“perhaps even my ukulele”). He’s always been at his best on record when he is least adorned, and his live albums capture his unique combination of songwriting prowess and standup comedy.
I wondered if writing songs has gotten harder with age.
“I find it harder to do everything!” he laughed. “It’s a bit like sex—I don’t do it that often but when I do it sure feels great. I feel like I’ve won a jackpot or caught the world’s biggest fish whenever I get a new song.
“The good ones…the waiting is a struggle, and it’s a bit mysterious how it happens. But to stay with the fishing analogy, when you’ve got one hooked, it’s not that hard, you just pull it in there.”
His kids have vaulted past their dad with the next generation of music fans. Both Rufus and Martha have developed their own followings in the family business, and youngest daughter Lucy Roche is also beginning to perform and sing. But in his 59th year, Loudon Wainwright, III, remains the dead-eye observer, reporter, confessor, instigator, agitator and self-proclaimed “egomaniac.”
Still, I have a feeling that he might be one of those outgoing performers who is really an introvert when out of the spotlight.
“At home I am,” he admitted. “But on stage you have to be an egomaniac. I think a performer has to bust out and let it hang out, and put himself or herself ahead of everything else.
“Shy is not a word I associate with myself; disagreeable maybe, skittish. I’m glad that I’ve had the outlet of being a performer. God knows what would have happened had I not found the ax of my guitar. I’m glad it was the kind of ax it was!”
copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.