Loudon’s Head Revisited
Wainwright’s latest recovers the singer’s old material
Loudon Wainwright III has a new album out of all his oldest songs—the best of the desperately funny and desperately sad music that made a spectacular streak across the singer/songwriter scene in the 1970s, long before he appeared in Judd Apatow projects (he cameoed in Knocked Up and was a regular on the short-lived Fox series Undeclared) and long before his children Martha and Rufus would grow up to have spectacular careers of their own. But it’s not a best-of. These are new recordings, made as the man and his band return to the songs he wrote when he was just making a name for himself, re-arranged with a rootsy backline and imbued with 40 new years of wit and wisdom.
It’s called Recovery—to suggest every possible sense of the word—and it’s out now on Yep Roc. It began as part of a proposed Wainwright box set (which is woefully overdue now that even Chinese Democracy has a solid release date), but that concept retreated into hopeful conjecture, and what remains is an album that’s able to lure in curious novices more familiar with his children and reward committed Wainiacs who’ve spent a lifetime listening to Loudon.
“Hopefully, there will be a box set one day,” says Wainwright, speaking as his wife washes the garage outside. “Hopefully, it’s not posthumous and I’m not in an actual box myself. Maybe we could use that as a marketing tool—put out the box set and in each box include a couple of my ashes. You think that would be a selling point?”
But what if there’s not enough of you to go around?
“We’d have to grind the ashes into a fine texture,” says the 62-year-old musician.
You realize we’ve been talking for just five minutes, and you’re already suggesting the best way to dispose of your own body, right?
“Well,” says Wainwright. “I like to get to the death-and-decay stuff right away.”
Wainwright has always had a special talent for writing lyrics alternately painfully funny and painfully fragile, often in the very same verse, and Recovery revisits some of the most powerful life-or-death moments of his early discography. That barely there guitar on “Motel Blues” conveyed loneliness so potent it was almost contagious; that last ragged gasp at the end of “Saw Your Name In the Paper” was as sudden and startling as a thunderclap. “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)” helped make his name, but there was real, raw humanity in his songs, too. (Power-pop iconoclast Alex Chilton even covered Wainwright during the waning days of Big Star.) Even now-Loudon admits that then-Loudon had a little something special: “I went back and listened to the original versions—most of that recorded 35 years ago,” he says, “and I was impressed overall by the quality of the writing. That guy could really write!”
“My father was a writer,” he continues—that would be Life magazine editor Loudon Wainwright Jr. “Maybe I got the writing gene or something. I didn’t think I was gonna be a writer. I went to drama school and studied to be an actor. So I was quite surprised when I started to write songs. But I guess it worked out. A friend of mine, George Gerdes, wrote liner notes for my first live album, and he said if I hadn’t picked up an ‘axe,’ I would have been an ax murderer.”
Were you flattered?
“I was,” he says. “Thank God there was a Martin D-28 in my future.”
And after 40 years with that axe, he says—quoting Van Morrison—it’s too late to stop now. Not that it’s time. Recovery took a risk standing then-and-now shoulder-to-shoulder, but the contrasts presented are fascinating. Songs unravel into slinky full-band workouts (commanded with impressive authority by Wainwright, warning his guitarist to “Watch out now!” on “Muse Blues”) or coil up into Dr. John-style swamp blues (like the woozy reading of “Be Careful, There’s a Baby In the House”.) Wainwright reveals new texture and depth where once there were uncontrolled explosions; punch lines float by with iceberg sentiment underneath (“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry”), and the new finale of “Saw Your Name” crescendos with crashing drums, steel guitar and a final yelp that sounds resigned instead of desperate. After so many years, we know what makes Wainwright laugh (grinding up his corpse), but how did it feel to revisit his old regrets?
“I don’t know,” he says. “As you get older, you get a little more stoic or realistic and hopefully less whiny. You let things go. You have to let things go. I’ve forgotten all my regrets.”
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That’s fantastic, Loudon. We hope to say the same someday.
“I was lying,” says Loudon. “But thank you for saying that’s fantastic.”
Loudon Wainwright III and Leo Kottke performa at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501; www.cerritoscenter.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $21-$38. All ages.