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Loudon Wainwright III


The son of an editor and journalist for Life magazine, Loudon Snowden Wainwright III was born September 5, 1946, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, although he would be raised in the well-to-do Westchester County town of Bedford, just north of the Big Apple.
Serving his musical apprenticeship on the US college and folk-club circuit from the mid-60s onwards, the budding singer-songwriter – hailed as the new DYLAN in some quarters / the Woody Allen of folk in other circles – hitched to San Francisco in 1967. Encouraged by fellow chanter George Gerdes, but curtailed somewhat when he spent time in an Oklahoma jail for marijuana possession, WAINWRIGHT finally inked a deal with Atlantic Records.
With that distinctive, high-pitched and confessional vocal tone and delivery, his eponymous debut LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III (1970) {*7} was an effective beginning for any artist. Literate, reflective and witty, LWIII was at his sardonic and playful best through songs such as `School Days’, `Central Square Song’, `Black Uncle Remus’, `Uptown’ and `Glad To See You’ve Got Religion’.
ALBUM II (1971) {*7} was equally effective, featuring introspective and imaginative ditties such `Motel Blues’, `Me And My Friend The Cat’, `Samson And The Warden’ (his “don’t shave off my beard” prison song) and `Be Careful, There’s A Baby In The House’ (about recent times with new wife KATE McGARRIGLE and newborn son Rufus).
A move to Columbia Records in 1972 secured a surprise Top 20 hit via novelty song `Dead Skunk’ (which allegedly took 15 minutes to write), a track lifted from the helpfully-titled and semi-autobiographical ALBUM III (1972) {*6}, his inaugural record with a backing band. Having supported The EVERLY BROTHERS on an ill-advised tour in ‘72, there was another oddity on board here, the Leiber-Stoller dirge `Smokey Joe’s Café’, but all in all the set (which bubbled a few places outside the Top 100) was best served by `Red Guitar’, `Needless To Say’, `Say That You Love Me’ and `Drinking Song’.
Album number IV, ATTEMPTED MUSTACHE (1974) {*7}, floundered in commercial terms, although his fading but loyal fanbase were happy to get another batch of WAINWRIGHT’s skewed and soured visions, through tracks like `The Swimming Song’ (with Doug Kershaw on Cajun fiddle), `Liza’ (about his former classmate and recent Oscar-winner, Cabaret star Liza Minnelli) and his wife’s sole contribution, `Come A Long Way’; his revamp of WOODY GUTHRIE’s `New York Town’ as `I Am The Way’ was also interesting, more so his classic `The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’.
UNREQUITED (1975) {*6}, reconsolidated the bearded one’s chart status (albeit at a lowly peak of No.156). A half-studio/half-live affair, side two recorded at a recent gig at The Bottom Line. Significant and indeed downright hilarious is `Rufus Is A Tit Man’ (another about his baby boy), while side one’s best through `Whatever Happened To Us’.
With his acting appearances in TV episodes of M*A*S*H in ’75, Loudon was invited to takes roles in off-Broadway shows The Pump Boys, Dinettes and The Birthday Party.
After a move to Arista Records for two rock-styled LPs, T SHIRT (1976) {*5} and FINAL EXAM (1978) {*6} – he’d split from his wife Kate and shacked up with SUZZY ROCHE, who’d given birth to their child – WAINWRIGHT relocated to London and spent five years on the Rounder/Demon imprint; he was resident comic-folker on the JASPER CARROTT TV show. Recorded in concert a few years previously, A LIVE ONE (1979) {*7} marked time until his long-awaited FAME AND WEALTH (1983) {*5}. A great portion of the latter’s songs afforded bitterness, although as always with dry wit and charm (example, `I.D.T.T.Y.W.L.M.’ aka “I Don’t Think That Your Wife Likes Me”). I’M ALRIGHT (1985) {*5} – featured his homage to LENNON, `Not John’, and 1986’s second RICHARD THOMPSON-produced set, MORE LOVE SONGS {*7}, was significant for its opening blues-friendly, Live Aid angst-riddled `Hard Day On The Planet’, while the tearjerker `Your Mother And I’ is Loudon at his most mournful and lovelorn. Although still critically lauded, these albums were met with diminishing commercial returns. While WAINWRIGHT was admittedly not the greatest of singers, his inimitable comic satire usually compensated; this was prevalent on 1989’s THERAPY {*7}.
Continuing to release fine material into the 90s, WAINWRIGHT was never better than on his most observational and autobiographical recording to date, HISTORY (1992) {*8}, his debut for the Virgin label. Inspired by the death of his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr. (who penned the concluding track, `A Handful Of Dust’, in the early 50s), the diverse nature of each subject and song from `Men’ and `People In Love’, to `Talking New Bob Dylan’ and `A Father And A Son’, was always poignant and reflective.
Coming after his best-of live shows, CAREER MOVES (1993) {*7}, 1995’s GROWN MAN {*6} skirted controversy through the un-PC but nevertheless hilarious, `IWIWAL (I Wish I Was A Lesbian)’, a song which almost equalled his hit `Dead Skunk’ (in the fact it took him eight minutes to write) for deadpan humour; `Housework’ was another to irk feminists and the “new men”. With old age and death a deep concern of WAINWRIGHT’s (examples `Birthday Present’ and `That Hospital’), Loudon has his two-pronged raspberry tongue planted firmly in his proverbial cheek; not so LITTLE SHIP (1997) {*5}, which redressed the cult and cutesy balance somewhat.
1999’s SOCIAL STUDIES {*7} was pretty much what the title suggested although the tone was inimitably sardonic rather than academic, many of these topical sketches (about ice-skater Tonya Harding, ex-footballer O.J. Simpson, `Our Boy Bill [Clinton]’ and the impending Y2k crisis) written especially for America’s National Public Radio. A different beast altogether, LAST MAN ON EARTH (2001) {*7}, was an intensely personal and emotionally fraught affair written after the death of his mother (`Missing You’ and `I’m Not Gonna Cry’ at least two soul-searching songs).
SO DAMN HAPPY (2003) {*6} was back to irreverent business for Loudon, with his first live set in a decade. Featuring material culled largely from the 80s and 90s, and recorded at separate venues in California, the album was a highly enjoyable jaunt through the man’s back pages with help from the likes of RICHARD THOMPSON, David Mansfield, VAN DYKE PARKS and a guest spot for daughter MARTHA WAINWRIGHT on the track `You Never Phone’.
Augmented on this occasion by Bill Frisell (guitar), Jim Keltner (drums), David Piltch (bass) and Greg Leisz (on lap steel), umpteenth set HERE COME THE CHOPPERS (2005) {*6}, directed his iconoclastic and acerbic wit at the L.A. police and helicopter departments; one off-kilter song comes by way of `Hank And Fred’ (a heavenly and spiritual meeting between Mr. Rodgers and HANK WILLIAMS).
WAINWRIGHT’s first pop at a full film soundtrack, Knocked Up (retitled for album purposes STRANGE WEIRDOS (2007) {*7}, was a result of director Judd Apatow’s having been “hooked” by a sighting, many moons ago on the David Letterman show, of “this scraggly guy with a beard”. In what has to count as a fairly unconventional film-scoring process, Loudon – along with mercurial singer-songwriter/producer Joe Henry – wrote songs inspired by the film, eliciting such uncharacteristically searing, sober avowals of human trust and frailty as `You Can’t Fail Me Now’. Other highpoints (apart from the assistance of RICHARD THOMPSON) include `The Final Frontier’, `X Or Y’, `Grey In L.A.’, the title track and the finale, `Passion Play’, which resurrect, for some, WAINWRIGHT, and indeed the art of soundtracks themselves.
Revisiting his back catalogue by way of the re-recordings RECOVERY (2008) {*5}, Loudon was surely acknowledging old age. Produced once again by Henry, the set re-tred nearly great highlight of his long career – but was it necessary?
Breaking from his formulaic folk approach, Loudon re-tracked the work of country/bluegrass pioneer Charlie Poole, in the process sitting beside Dick Connette at the control desk (with top-notch musicians GEOFF MULDAUR, Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield in tow) on 2009’s HIGH WIDE & HANDSOME {*6}; his children Rufus and Martha guest on `Only Old And In The Way’.
Keeping in line with the global-busting recession hitting his homeland, 10 SONGS FOR THE NEW DEPRESSION (2010) {*7} – a half-hour concept and wise-cracking paean to the inauguration of President Obama – was witty WAINWRIGHT’s address to the despair of his fellow man and woman. `Times Is Hard’, `House’, `Cash For Clunkers’, `The Krugman Blues’ et al, was the musician’s honest indictment to the situation, while there was room for two sarcastic but poignant original “Great Depression” trad cuts by way of `On To Victory, Mr. Roosevelt’ and `The Panic Is On’.
Taking folks on an introspective and, at times, autobiographical stroll through his rollercoaster life, OLDER THAN MY OLD MAN NOW (2012) {*7} was protagonist Loudon III’s cathartic view of age and all it entails. Augmented by his current wife, Ritamarie Kelly, his ex-missus SUZZY ROCHE, and all four of his offspring (including Rufus), the record was indeed a family affair, embracing folk and blues styles into his usual prose of poetic poignancy. Who said Americans have always been short on irony. `Over The Hill’ (a duet with Martha; reminiscing the sadly missed KATE McGARRIGLE), `I Remember Sex’ (featuring a fun duet with Dame Edna Everage!), `Double Lifetime’ (showcasing the auspices of RAMBLIN’ JACK ELLIOTT) and `Somebody Else’ (a mournful masterpiece with CHRIS SMITHER), proved Loudon was always a worthy character on Planet Earth – no matter how long it’s taken to get there.
Engraved into the consciousness of Americans who turned to the witty WAINWRIGHT for bi-annual updates of his look on life, HAVEN’T GOT THE BLUES (YET) (2014) {*7} was another such instalment. From swing and rock & roll to country-folk and jazzed-up blues, Loudon and his trusty producer DAVID MANSFIELD (who doubled on instruments with accordion player Andy Burton), the singer painted a picture of death, decay and depravation on several tunes here, best served by `The Morgue’, `Depression Blues’ and `In A Hurry’. All but one track from the late MICHAEL MARRA (`Harmless’), was scribed by LW; his black humour celebrated on his ode to his daughter Lucy (`I Knew Your Mother’), about his former missus Kate, while splitting up (or not) is at the centre of `Looking At The Calendar’.
As a prelude to his Netflix film showcase (released late 2018), the limited-edition/gig-only SURVIVING TWIN (2017) {*6} set suffered a little in its rarity-value up until its official celluloid appearance. A sort of collaborative work encompassing the life, times and writings of his late father LW Jr., storyteller WAINWRIGHT III interpolated witty heartfelt spoken-word monologues of their unique relationship alongside fitting songs from the singer’s back catalogue.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2013-Jun2019

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