Martha Wainwright, 'Come Home to Mama'
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Come Home to Mama"
Martha Wainwright, "Come Home to Mama" (Cooperative) [3 and a half stars] — The secret weapon in the Wainwright family, Martha is a wicked and potent genealogical branch bearing her father Loudon's sometimes uncomfortably honest confessional songwriting, her brother Rufus' occasional grandiose musical ambitions and her mother Kate McGarrigle's talent for modernizing and enlivening old, staid folk traditions.
Recorded at Sean Lennon's home studio and produced by Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda (and featuring guests such as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Dirty Three drummer Jim White), "Come Home to Mama," Wainwright's third outing (fourth, if you count the knock-down awesome Piaf record), is also a blend — of the singer-songwritery angst of her 2005 debut and the rock leanings of 2008's "I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too."
"I really like make-up sex / It's the only kind I ever get," she sing-songs in "Can You Believe It," like a forlorn-yet-upbeat mix of Cat Power and Liz Phair. The album's title comes from the ballad "Proserpina," the last song McGarrigle had written before her death in 2010. The ache of that recording (its lyrics, as well as its circumstances), the confidence of her voice (her tone, as well as her words), the wisdom in "Everything Wrong" and the bright flair of "Some People" — everything seems finally to come together into what must be Wainwright's first singular album.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").
In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality — and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.
"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" — Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" — "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.
His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.
Q. Did the process of evaluating your catalog for this box set begin when you reconsidered old songs for the "Recovery" album?
A. If you've been doing this and as you get older, you look back. Can't help it. In my songwriting, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. It has to do with coming to the end of something, I guess. "Recovery" was a way of revisiting songs, some 40 years later, in the context of the band I work with out in L.A. This box set starts all the way back to the first track of the first record.
Q. Did you select the tracks?
A. Yes, I had to pick the tracks, which was very painful. A lot of things didn't make it. You only have 80 minutes on a CD. Hopefully it has some sweep for the listener, some interest for old fans and new fans alike.
Q. How did you make your choices?
A. Some people let others decide for them. I could have gone that route. I have friends who are familiar with my canon and whose judgment I trust. I checked in with those people and asked their opinion on what was essential. I requested the same of some fans that I've met at gigs over the years — they always seem to be guys. At the end fo the day, it was difficult. In the liner notes I say it was like drowning kittens. I left off some of my favorites.
Q. Like what?
A. Two songs: "Missing You" and "Man's World." Those are favorites of mine, but there was just no room for them.
Q. Yet you included a lot of extras on the bonus disc. Tell me what transpired to make you feel that "Laid," a song you say you always felt was too mean to put on a record, is OK to lay out there now?
A. It's a little rough, but I like it. The idea of bonus tracks is to put out stuff people wouldn't normally have heard, and "Laid" fit right into that pocket. "Laid" is a pretty bleak look at getting laid. It's not something I do anymore. It's just an interesting snapshot of where I was at the time.
Q. Were there discoveries for yourself when digging up some of the rarities?
A. Well, in terms of the bonus tracks, yeah. There's a song on the box called "McSorley's," which is a song I only performed about three times, in 1970. The oldest saloon in New York's East Village was this Irish bar called McSorley's, and until 1970 only men were allowed. Coinciding with the rise of the women's movement, there was a lot of pressure put on the place and that tradition was broken. They forced it to go co-ed. At the time, I was a twentysomething sexist pig and wrote this song as a kind of protest. This was a great tradition, women are turning into men, that sort of thing. It was very sarcastic. I think politically I've moved away from that stance [laughs], but I put it on the box as an interesting look at where I was in 1970 — wistful about the idea that there are bars where only men can go.
Q. You talk about these songs as if they're photos in an album.
A. That word "snapshot" is very good here. These songs are three-minute pictures of something. There's a lot of stuff behind them — the good songs, anyway.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and listening to the old stuff?
A. [A pause] I'm not a guy who sits around and listens to his own records. That's not my idea of a good time. When you make a record, you listen to it hundreds of times; you kind of wallow in it. Once it's out and you can't change anything, I don't want to hear it again. I'm not going to be listening to this box set.
Q. The Irish version of "The Hardy Boys at the Y" on the box was nice to hear. It makes much more sense in that arrangement. I never understood why the ends of the verses repeat until now.
A. I love that kind of music. The Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore — we knew each other playing folk festivals. I can't recall why we didn't put that song out this way instead of the live version [on 1975's "Unrequited"].
Q. Tell me about writing "No Sure Way."
A. I once lived in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful part of New York, and there's this thing called the Promenade Walk out there where you can see all of lower Manhattan. When 9/11 happened, I was out here in this Long Island house, and I went back a day or two later to the Promenade and looked at that ... smoking mound, I guess is what it was, of rubble and humanity. When you face something that huge, you think, "I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin." I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. But later that week I found myself taking a subway ride that went directly underneath the mound, and I wrote and recorded this song three days later. Like the words I used in the song, it felt "obscene."
Q. In the liner notes, David Wild describes you as "fearless." Do you feel fearless?
A. In my part of the liner notes, I address that point that David and others have made. Take the song "Hitting You." It's about hauling off and hitting [daughter] Martha. That's an example, I suppose, of a fearless song. If you're at a performance in a dark room with lights on you and a microphone and people are sitting there listening, it sounds and looks fearless — but it's a natural habitat for me. I feel pretty safe. I'm aware of the fact that I'm getting into areas that maybe people have strong feelings about, but for me it feels quite natural, not any act of courage. It's what I do. It's my shtick. I write about my personal life and the people in it. I haven't masked it too much. It's just what I do.
Q. That's what folk music is supposed to be all about.
A. It's about what's happening to you, and what's happened to me is in manyways what's happened to everybody. My life is not particularly unusual. There's identification. That's what art is about. People say, "I know what he's talking about."
Q. I read that [Wainwright's son] Rufus is assembling his own box set, true?
A. Yes, Rufus and I are recording a song next week to be on his bonus disc.
Q. What song?
A. "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson.
Q. And congratulations on becoming a granddad again. [Rufus Wainwright announced earlier this year he and his partner became parents to a child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, via Lorca Cohen, daughter of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen.]
A. Thanks. I was in L.A. when Viva arrived. I love being a grandparent. It's so much easier.
Q. What's next?
A. Writing new songs, and I suspect I'll think about making another record.
Q. Any acting gigs?
A. I have an audition tomorrow! Thank heaven I have folk music to fall back on.
with Kim Richey
• 7 and 10 p.m. April 15
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $24-$28, (773) 728-6000, oldtownschool.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Nearly everyone in the Wainwright family writes and performs songs, often about each other. So when one of them passes away, one of the stages of grief is to write an album about the loss. Loudon Wainwright III, the patriarch of this postmodern Carter family, reflected on the death of each of his parents in an album each (1992's "History" after Loudon Wainwright Jr. died, 2001's "Last Man on Earth" after his mother died).
Friday night, two of Loudon's kids were on stage at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre. Daughter Martha Wainwright opened the show with her powerful anti-love songs, and she acknowledged the new grief hanging over the family following the death of their mother (Loudon's ex-wife), Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle. "My songs are already pretty depressing," Martha said, promising she wouldn't be delivering any songs about the loss of her mother. "I don't want to subject you to what might come out now."
Rufus Wainwright, however, though he might rankle at this suggestion, is more his father's son than he realizes. He has no qualms about laying bare his grief and despair before a paying audience, though he's usually less direct, and the first act of Friday night's concert was a highly artistic, touring funeral service.
Before Wainwright arrived on stage, the theater audience was instructed that this first act would be presented as a song cycle — no applause until the very end, please. (This announcement came before everyone was in their seats, however, so a few enthusiastic latecomers were confused and possibly mortified when they clapped and hooted after the first song, and were shushed.) Wainwright then entered the stage, backlit, walking one step at a time and dragging a 17-foot black train mounted with feathered shoulders, designed by Zaldy Goco, a costumer for Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, among others. He lowered himself at the piano with somber face and began playing the entirety of his new album, "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu."
An album of complex solo piano songs, "All Days Are Nights" has a smartly sequenced ebb and flow and thus succeeds in a beginning-to-end presentation. The accessible pop of the first few, however, gives way to some fairly complex playing, which during "The Dream" became so technical Wainwright lost focus on his singing. His notorious tenor, almost all sinuses, requires focus even when he's not running up and down the keyboard, but the occasional dissonance between the two heightened a sense of unease — even moreso than the sleepy blinking eyes hovering over him, video visuals courtesy Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.
Except for the three Shakespeare sonnets in the middle (momentum killers, all three), many of these songs are infused with just such unease, with restless thoughts and grief, written as they were in the months that McGarrigle's cancer worsened (and after he completed work on his first, semi-acclaimed opera, "Prima Donna"). The musical answering machine messages about her declining condition in "Martha" are briefly combated with the spirited lashing out and jaunty parlor piano of "Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now." It all marches toward the end, with "Zebulon," another song that mentions his mother's illness — but one that she liked so much that Wainwright played it at her funeral. Friday night, he clanged the song's chords slowly, slowly, like mournful church bells, and hesitated in the last lyric, "We'll have some tea and ice cream," just enough to transform it into: "We'll have some tea, and I ... scream." Then the processional, in retreat.
The second act, with Wainwright back and smiling, fresh and plucky in a peach-colored patterned suit, was a life-saver. Now he played as he did in the first fumbling years of his career, as a saloon singer, banging out grand, sweeping tunes on a piano and telling the occasional amusing story. But this set was suffused with loss in its own way, including "Memphis Skyline," a song he wrote about the death of singer Jeff Buckley, and his old stand-by, the hymn-like cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
And like those creepy blinking eyes, McGarrigle was watching over this set, too, a song cycle of its own that opened with "Beauty Mark," a song celebrating McGarrigle from Wainwright's acclaimed self-titled debut CD, and ended with one of McGarrigle's own tunes, "The Walking Song." Introducing the latter, Wainwright spoke of his mother for the first time, thanking fans for their outpouring of support and referring to his current circumstance as "a very treacherous game of life." The song nears its end with, "We'll talk blood and how we were bred / talk about the folks both living and dead / This song like this walk I find hard to end."
Wainwright has filled his career with tributes to things he says he misses, though often they're things he was barely around to experience, anyway — the Judy Garland concerts at Carnegie, a heyday of opera, even Buckley, with whom he spent just a few hours. He falls in love with the hindsight of them, and his yearning is similarly rose-tinted. The loss of his mother, though, is a stark experience he sees clearly and is working out the only way a Wainwright, not so much a McGarrigle, knows how. As such, his grief feels less shared than inflicted, but this concert seemed to marry his dreams and realities in slightly pretentious but exciting new ways. Bring on a new opera.
Martha's opening set cannot go unmentioned. She appeared onstage five minutes early, grabbing her guitar and launching into an example of her own, serrated approach to baring her heart in song, "Bleeding All Over You." Like her brother, she overstylizes her singing so much that it's often difficult to understand her, but she possesses a voice so powerful that her Dolly Parton crescendos draw yelps and whoops despite the words. Thankfully, she included a few songs from her new, hard-to-find (but oh-so worth the dig) plainly titled CD, "Martha Wainwright's Edith Piaf Record," further proof that hearing her belt in any language is a treat. She received her own standing ovation.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright has been busy. Lordy, has he been busy.
In the three years since his last studio album, "Release the Stars," he's ping-ponged from one ambitious project to the next. He performed sensational tribute concerts to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. He wrote music for 24 of Shakespeare's sonnets and performed them for a theatrical production, "Sonette," with director Robert Wilson in Berlin. He sang Berlioz's "Les Nuits d'ete" in New York. He even composed an entire opera, "Prima Donna," which enjoyed a successful premiere in Britain.
So perhaps it's not surprising that for his return to the recording studio, he sought to back off, downshift, quiet things a bit. "All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu," released this spring, finds the sweeping, murmuring singer-songwriter sonically naked — just his voice and piano.
"I threatened to do this a while ago," Wainwright says in an interview from a brief oceanside respite before beginning a U.S. tour. "Unfortunately, I needed the proper life circumstance in order to dig into it. Given the sad opportunity with my mother's passing and the exhaustion from working on the opera, the lone piano became my cocoon, shield and confessional."
Rare is the news article about Rufus Wainwright that doesn't allude to the musical dynasty from which he sprang. The mother that passed — that's Kate McGarrigle, beloved Canadian folk singer, who died of cancer in January. His father, still kicking, is rascally American folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. His aunt, Sloan Wainwright, writes and records, as does his sister and omnipresent backup singer, Martha Wainwright.
But Rufus and Martha were raised by Kate in Montreal, and Kate's death is an occasional and prominent lyrical thread on these 12 new compositions. They're not pop songs. They're sometimes complicated odes to grief, love and the tempest of life. In "Zebulon," it all begins piling up on him: "My mother's in the hospital / my sister's at the opera / I'm in love but let's not talk about it / there's so much to tell you."
"It all happened in concert," Wainwright says. "This album was finished right before she passed away and was released after her death.
"As Mom was passing, I had to face myself and the possibility of being alone. We had been so close. The piano was her main instrument, a vision I always acquainted with her presence. The technical difficulty of this enterprise was synonymous with the grief itself."
In "Martha," he puts music to plaintive phone messages for his sister, as if turning his father's song "OGM" inside out:
Martha, it's your brother calling
Time to go up north and see mother
Things are harder for her now
And neither of us is really that much older than each other anymore
Martha, it's your brother calling
Have you any chance to see father
Wondering how he's doing
And there's not much time
For us to really be that angry at each other anymore
"It is like something my father would write," he says, "perhaps as a kind of directness and slight aggression there, too, which he's well-known for." He laughs. "But I just hit 37. I'm well past the youthful bohemia I once inhabited so grandly."
The current tour presents a show in two acts. The first half contains the entire new album as a song cycle, with Wainwright at the piano and no applause. Then Wainwright returns for the second act "and we have fun and sing the old favorites."
Part of the first act, though, includes some of the Shakespeare sonnets, a project he says he tackled as a theatrical warm-up ahead of his opera. Wainwright includes three of them on the new album, including "Sonnet 10" ("For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any / Who for thy self art so unprovident") — the "gay one."
"I think of it as gay, anyway," he says. "For me, it reeks of a drunk old queen who's gone a little too far in one of his histrionic lessons. I can visualize it. You can definitely tell the poet has overstepped his bounds emotionally with this young man and shown a little more than he intended through his affection." A discussion of Shakespeare's sexuality follows.
"Shakespeare got it," Wainwright concludes, meaning he understood two sides of sexuality, but then he chuckles the punch line: "He probably gave it, too."
Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall on Dec. 29, around which time he promises an "exciting" announcement related to a U.S. production of "Prima Donna."
• 8 p.m. Friday
• Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
• Tickets, $46-$56
• (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
Wainwright takes own songs to heart
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III doesn't often get political in his folk songs, but that doesn't mean he's purely objective on the subject.
"Yes, my wife and I were watching the election results here in L.A., and enjoying the results. Congratulations there in Chicago," he tells us. "Whew. Four years ago I was in Vancouver mixing a record and watching returns at a Canadian house and, God, I was ready to pick up the paper and start looking for apartments."
Indeed, he returned home to America — but now he's in recovery. That is, his new album is called "Recovery," and it's a set of 13 old songs — songs mostly from the earliest outings of Wainwright's career (he was the first "new Bob Dylan," the singing surgeon on "MASH," a Grammy winning singer-songwriter, even star of and soundtrack creator for several Judd Apatow projects — and, yes, he's the father of Rufus and Martha). At the behest of artist-producer Joe Henry, Wainwright dredged up this baker's dozen of old tunes — "School Days," "The Drinking Song," "The Man Who Couldn't Cry," "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House" and more — and re-recorded them with his band. He talked to the Sun-Times about why he decided to look backward and what it's like singing a young man's songs at an older age.
Q. Each time we talk, I have to stop myself from calling you "Loudo" or assuming a friendship with you, which I think is the result of listening to so many of your deeply personal songs for so many decades. Is that common, people assuming a familiarity with you because there's so much biography in your music?
A. That's OK. It's not a bad thing. It hasn't gotten too creepy yet. People know a version of me, certain biographical facts because I've written about them. But they don't really know me, and I certainly don't know them. They show up in the CD line when I'm signing copies, and they say, you know, "This song meant a lot to me," and I like that.
Q. And here you are 40 years later, still touring.
A. Yeah, my swingin' life, still beating the bushes, still seeing if I can kindle some interest. I've been kindling now for 40 years — exactly, actually. I got paid to play music for the first time probably in 1968.
Q. How convenient for a milestone anniversary to offer this disc of retooled old songs?
A. Well, it wasn't that kind of thing, really. It all started in discussions with Joe Henry, when we were working on "Strange Weirdos" [an album of songs used in and inspired by the film "Knocked Up"]. I really love this group of musicians I'm recording with now in L.A., and we thought, "Why not go back and look at some of the old songs?"
Q. How did you decide which ones to "re-cover"?
A. It was very democratic. Joe mentioned some songs, I had some suggestions. I know that in these days of the Internet and downloading a song and reshuffling a playlist, the listener has a lot of choice in terms of the way they experience music. The last few albums I've made, I've tried to put the songs together in a way that creates a tone or a mood — dare I say, takes you on a journey. But once you make it, God knows, people can do whatever they want with it. Still, I gathered these 13 songs to try and make a journey.
Q. Having traveled quite a journey in 40 years, what kind of journey is this record?
A. Well, it's all about this band, really. That's what makes this different. That and the fact that it's all now from the perspective of a singer who's aged almost 40 years. The things I write about haven't changed much, actually. I was obsessed with getting old even when I was young.
Q. What was it like to rediscover songs you'd forgotten?
A. Well, I was sometimes amazed. Like "Old Friend" — I hate to praise myself, but I was amazed at what a good song it is. I was good, man! [Laughs.]
Q. Was there a desire to do anything different with the songs?
A. I came out of a tradition of singer-songwriters, and I liked guys who made voice-and-guitar records. So I resisted it. Now the calendar pages are flipping, the autumn leaves are blowing and here I am back doing these songs with a band. But it's a band I'm extremely comfortable with and really respect.
Q. I hear the next album might also be a looking back.
A. The next record might be different. I'm working with Dick Connette on a collection — there was a guy in the '20s, Charlie Poole, with a band called the North Carolina Ramblers. Dick and I are both fans of his, and we're working on something like that, singing some of those songs, writing new ones, adapting some.
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Opening for Leo Kottke
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage, Fawell and Park, Glen Ellyn
Phone: (630) 942-4000
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's a big family. You've got Loudon Wainwright III, once declared a "new Bob Dylan," who's been singing and recording personal folk songs for coming on four decades now. His ex-wife is Kate McGarrigle, of Canada's beloved McGarrigle Sisters. Their children are singer-songwriter Martha and the grandiose pop star Rufus Wainwright. One of the Roches and her daughter lurk in this family tree, too. Everyone has their own career, and sometimes they even sing together.
But, as Yoda once said, there is another.
Sloan Wainwright — Loudon's sister, Rufus and Martha's aunt — is the undiscovered treasure of this musical dynasty. Writing and singing since her youth (she's not quite 50), she's been recording only for the last decade. But already her six CDs have set her apart from her brother's witty, documentarian and occasionally caustic songs.
"My songwriting is very different from Loudon's," says Sloan during a phone conversation from her home in Katonah, N.Y. "We're such different people, and we come from a very different place as far as expressing ourselves."
Loudon's songs frequently dwell on undisguised family issues. His divorces are well-chronicled in his catalog, as are various escapades and bouts with the kids ("Rufus Is a Tit Man," "Father/ Daughter Dialogue," "Five Years Old"). Rufus and Martha have returned the favor on their own albums, and even Sloan has mentioned the relatives in her own music.
But in "The Baby and the Bathwater," from her most recent album, "Life Grows Back," she sings the woe of all such biographical songwriters: "Why must we have an audience / To applaud our every confession?"
"That song itself is a family song," she says. "It's kind of an auntie giving some auntie-ish advice about being grateful for the good stuff that comes in life, and that line, that's really kind of asking the question about the predicament many of my friends and family are in, this situation where we do work ourselves out in front of an audience. And maybe it's not always such a great idea."
Sloan's recording career came late because she was sidetracked for 23 years as co-owner of the Bakers Cafe in Katonah. Throughout that experience, though, she continued singing and performing, developing her stage chops and her unique, contralto voice before learning to apply it in the studio.
"The way I see it, there's the art of writing songs, the art of working with your instrument, then there's the art of creating a record, which is entirely separate, and then there's the art of performance," Sloan says. "To me, they're all kind of separate. ... One thing with my songs and my voice that I've learned to do over the years is to kind of use my voice — not my writing voice but the sonic part of my instrument — to rearrange what people are thinking in a performance. ... It's not so much about what I'm saying as how I'm saying it, the way words go together and the way I make them sound."
Chicagoans can experience such rearrangement when Sloan Wainwright makes a rare appearance here — on radio, at least. She and her trusted guitarist, Stephen Murphy, will perform live on "Folkstage" at 6 p.m. Saturday on WFMT-FM (98.7). (Only members of the WFMT Fine Arts Circle can attend the broadcast as the studio audience.) She'll be playing songs from "Life Grows Back."
She also will appear with Dorothy Scott and Maura O'Connell at a benefit show, "A Women's Night Out: The Art of Music," at 8 p.m. Sept. 15, at the Door County Auditorium in Fish Creek, Wis.
Loudon also has a Chicago date ahead: Sept. 22 with Lucy Roche (his daughter by Suzzy Roche) at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Speaking with Rufus Wainwright
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
His music keeps getting more ambitious, more grandiose, more opulently operatic — and his fans keep lapping it up. Rufus Wainwright, the young darling of a profound musical legacy (the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan), re-created Judy Garland's old act at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, to rave reviews (the CD and DVD of the show are out this fall), and he just released his latest disc, "Release the Stars," to still more acclaim.
So he's back on tour, and back at Ravinia — but this time without lil' Ben Folds in tow — at 7:30 p.m. Saturday ($45 pavilion, $20 lawn; call (847) 266-5100 or visit ravinia.org).
Q. What's new in the show?
A. A lot compared to shows I've done recently in Chicago. I haven't done a big show there in a while. The Ravinia shows have been pared down; this one's got a big, heavy band, with the full breadth of my material — my songs, French songs, Judy Garland songs.
Q. And did I hear correctly you're doing costume changes?
A. Well, you know, I always love taking my clothes off. Without giving too much away, it's very, uh, ethnic and Hollywood.
Q. How was Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant as a producer on "Release the Stars"?
A. He was helpful in reminding me that there's an audience out there, that my lofty goals are great but it's important to get on radio and make a couple of bucks, too. Like the song "Tiergarten" started out a bit dirgey. He said I needed some snappy tunes, and I followed his lead. Now it's almost a reggae song.
Q. When you get off the road, you're writing an opera?
A. Yes, it's called "Prima Donna," and it has nothing to do with Madonna. It's about an opera singer, because I love the genre. I love those characters — Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland — those opera divas. They need their own opera.
Loudon Wainwright III, 'Strange Weirdos'
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III
Rarely do the planets align in the production of movie music quite the way they did to produce this soundtrack to Judd Apatow's latest comedy, "Knocked Up." Because when you're looking for someone to write songs for a film about a star-crossed relationship born out of foolishness and resulting in a child that neither partner is quite prepared to deal with, well, Loudon Wainwright's your man. This is the guy who's been chronicling all of the above in his own life for nearly four decades now, including songs that could be featured in the sequel, songs such as "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House" and "Rufus Is a Tit Man."
Of course, Loudon's kids are another story. He's particularly had a difficult go of it with daughter Martha (a frequent backup to brother Rufus, now with her own solo album out), who joined him to sing the difficult "Father/Daughter Dialogue" and later wrote about him in, uh, "Bloody Mother F—-ing Ass——."
Suffice to say, Loudo's the family and relationship issues songwriter, and on this batch of typically wry songs — fleshed out from the mostly instrumental versions used as a score for the film — he's working with a crack band (including old pal Richard Thompson) and great collaborators (Greg Leisz, Van Dyke Parks and producer Joe Henry). The music is loose but professional, loping but determined, suitable to the alternating humor ("Grey in L.A.," a concert staple for a while, is a great antidote to that city's imposing sunniness) and sober examination ("Doin' the Math" is a new perspective on growing old).
The requisite touching moment, too, occurs in "Daughter," in which Loudon muses from the viewpoint of a father watching his daughter at play. "I lost every time I fought her," he sings. Is he talking about his own family? Has he ever not?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright is a good son. He was shopping leisurely in New York's West Village, chatting with the Sun-Times about his second summer tour with fellow piano man Ben Folds, and trying to find something nice for his mom in advance of their upcoming trip to Venice, Italy.
"You know, a tiara, or a nice set of diamonds," Wainwright said. "I'm being a beautiful gay son and dressing my mother like the queen of England."
He's gay and he's recovering from drug addiction, but Wainwright knows something about family values. Consider his family: dad Loudon Wainwright III, a patron saint of intelligent, personal folk music among the NPR crowd; mother Kate McGarrigle, mother superior of traditional folk singing in Canada (the couple divorced), and sister Martha Wainwright, a constant companion and backup singer to Rufus through most of his career thus far, who recently launched her own career with a song about Loudon (lovingly titled "Bloody Mother F——— A———").
While Martha explained to the Sun-Times earlier this year how daunting it was to step forward from this family with her own musical expression, Rufus has never had such hesitation.
"I definitely was always expected and encouraged to be a songwriter from a very young age," said Rufus, who grew up with McGarrigle in Montreal. "But really it's because, as a child, I thought I was Judy Garland. And when I started out, I was a little nuts. I thought I was a classic, legendary superstar when only 10 people knew who I was. I feel in some ways that my confidence is misinterpreted as arrogance, which is understandable. But I've also always thought that false modesty is evil."
Celebrity, however, is always in the mind of the beholder. For instance, Rufus remembers when, as a young boy, he realized for the first time that his dad was "someone."
"[Loudon] is really good friends with [filmmaker] Christopher Guest," he said. "It really struck me when we went to his house once in London — and suddenly Jamie Lee Curtis opened the door. I'd just seen 'Trading Places,' and I was amazed at, well, just how big her breasts were in person. And that's when I thought: Hey, Dad's got it going on."
The Wainwright family often backs one another up on recordings and concerts. Martha's been with Rufus since his 1998 self-titled debut, and both of them grew up singing with their mother and aunt (Anna McGarrigle); Rufus has covered his dad ("One Man Guy" on "Poses," and others in concert), and Martha dueted with him ("Father-Daughter Dialogue" on 1995's "Grown Man"). Loudon, though, has made a career of writing intensely personal — but still accessible and inviting — folk songs about his failed marriage ("Your Mother and I"), raising the kids ("Five Years Old," "Rufus Is a Tit Man," etc.) and his parents (his father was longtime Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright II, and Loudon's last disc, 2001's "The Last Man on Earth," was about the death of his mother).
"Everything's been fair game in our family," Rufus says.
He adds that, given his own penchant for speaking naked truths in song, this is what makes the tour with Ben Folds work so well: "[Ben and I] are not afraid to open our hearts and reveal the inner workings of a man. It can dangerous but intensely rewarding — I hope on both ends."
Folds, in a separate interview earlier this summer, acknowledged the same risk in baring one's soul. His new album, "Songs for Silverman," includes a delicate song about his daughter, "Gracie."
"Everything I write is personal, really," Folds said. "Even when I'm sarcastic, it's quite personal. And on this record, from the production to the singing to the performances, I got it really honest. To the modern ear, it seems soft. When you hear it against other things, it seems vulnerable. Lyrically and musically, though, this is more subtle. And, yes, it's asking a lot of someone who's used to being hit over the head with bright neon to listen to this."
Folds learned many lessons about getting personal without self-flagellating by working with, of all people, William Shatner. Last year, Folds produced and co-wrote several songs for Shatner's "Has Been" CD, a collection of intimate spoken-word narratives, commentaries and contemplations by the "Star Trek" star. The experience was unexpectedly liberating.
"I found in the process that as I would push him to follow his first instincts about what to say and what to express that I would sometimes wonder, 'Would I go that far?' But the results we got were inspiring.
"It's hard to explain," he says. "Sometimes I would be watching this classic guy performing and realizing that there's not a damn thing he can do about being William Shatner. You turn on the tape, and you get William Shatner. And you could've approached that as if it were something to get over, but that wouldn't have been honest. I wanted him to be exactly who he is, and I eventually realized I had to go for that same honesty and feeling in my own album."
Wainwright hopes to take a similar stripped-down approach to his next recording. After this summer's tour, he'll return to Europe for more touring, and he's planning to start the followup to his last two discs, "Want One" (2003) and "Want Two" (2004).
"It will be very, very different from the usual Rufus — not my usual voluptuous and grandiose view of the world," he said. "I want to get more streamlined. I feel like [Alfred] Hitchcock after making 'Vertigo' and 'To Catch a Thief,' his big Hollywood films. All of a sudden he made 'Psycho,' And then we knew where he really was coming from, you know?"
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT AND BEN FOLDS
with Ben Lee
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park
Tickets: Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III has made a career of family albums. For nearly four decades, the singer-songwriter has churned out sometimes bitter, sometimes brutal, often hilarious folk songs about his marriage to Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle and their two children: Gen-X piano man Rufus Wainwright and emerging talent Martha Wainwright.
Everyone has had his or her moment, willingly or not, in Loudon's spotlight — songs about his and Kate's divorce, songs about explaining it to the kids, songs about family vacations, songs about his own parents, even "Rufus Is a Tit Man," a song about watching young Rufus breastfeed (and only slightly ironic, given that his son, now an acclaimed composer, turned out to be gay). Loudon and Martha even sang a duet, "Father/Daughter Dialogue," on one of Loudon's '90s discs, in which they addressed the irresistible peril of making dirty laundry tuneful and rhymed.
But turnabout, as they say, is fair play. So thought Martha, anyway, when she wrote and recorded her first single, "BMFA." It's not actually called by that acronym; we couldn't print the full title in a wholesome, family newspaper. The first two words are "Bloody Mother," and the other two are the popular "Deadwood" f-word adjective and an anatomical noun.
And it's directed at her dad.
"My father's made a career out of singing about family members — some kind, some not so kind. So we Wainwrights have carte blanche to return the favor," Martha said recently from a tour stop in Bristol, England. "I think he understands. He's never said anything about it outright. It's not designed to hurt his feelings. It's just a funny thing to say about somebody. I didn't intend to say those four words when I was writing it. They just came out, and I thought it was hilarious, quite frankly. Mostly young women seem to identify with it, not necessarily about their dads — but everyone has that person they want to say that about in their lives."
That title, and her insistent repetition of it toward the end of her acoustic-driven wail, earned her self-titled debut disc a parental-advisory sticker, a rare badge for a folk singer, when it was released last month. "We live in such conservative times," she said with a sigh.
Martha, 28, has been active in the Wainwright family way since childhood — singing with her mother from an early age and backing up Rufus since his successful debut in the late '90s — but for years, she resisted the temptations and requests to record her own debut. "In a way, I wasn't champing at the bit to make a record," she said. "There was so much pressure to make a good first record in a family like mine. So there was definitely a conscious delay."
Plus, about the time she started thinking seriously about her own music, Rufus' career took off. As his performance schedule thickened, he brought Martha along to sing backup. Their duets, often on French chansons, were the highlight of many concerts. But while the steady work helped spread her name around, it also hampered Martha's own ambitions, ambivalent though they sometimes were.
"I got to live vicariously through my brother, the experiences he had as an up-and-coming artist. I wouldn't say that it satisfied my want of those experiences, but I got exposed to it. It taught me the amount of work required if you want to succeed," she said. "It taught me to sing better, too. Rufus wrote parts for me that were very unnatural and different."
This is when Martha began discussing her voice, both literally and figuratively, as the major cause for her late bloom. The Wainwright family is crowded with distinctive physical and lyrical voices — Kate's measured control and traditional dignity, Loudon's tongue-in-cheek wit and naked admissions, Rufus' warm murmuring and allusions of grandeur — so Martha had intense competition before she even left the house. Before stepping out with the family name on her product, she wanted to make sure listeners would hear the Martha more than the Wainwright.
"I've always had a very defined singing voice," she said in a sandy speaking tone, just faintly hoarse. "The cigarettes don't help. Or maybe they do. You can usually pick me out of a chorus. ... So I always had this voice, and the interest in the songs I was writing. I've written basically the same way since I was 18. In the last six years, living a full life in New York City and on the road with Rufus, I think I've gotten better. The way I do it didn't change much at heart, it just got better. And I realized this might really be what I want to do, where maybe before I wasn't sure. I always felt this was handed to me as the youngest, and I think once I felt secure in my voice, I made the time to let it be heard."
There were moments when she wasn't sure about this career choice, certainly. She studied French theater in school and thought that perhaps the best way to distance herself from the Wainwright musical legacy was to pursue something other than music. But in the end, she said, music felt the most natural, and she caved in to the destiny of her DNA.
"I mean, there was a time when that was how I was going to rebel — by not being a musician," she said. "That would have hurt the family most, I think. When people ask about 'BMFA,' they say, 'How could you write such a thing?' But in our family, the real way to hurt someone would be to not write the song about it. That's the particular Wainwright dynamic, I guess."
Given that song's particular invective, does she get along with Dad?
"That's a good question, actually," she said. "We've always had a lot of similarities. We both see that, I think. We recognize each other in each other. And, really, that's a good feeling. It causes problems sometimes, but there are not many people on the planet you have that with. We like to spend time together, taking long walks or out on the sailboat. We're able to take our mind off the music and just sort of live."
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Phone: (312) 559-1212
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
One of the many bonuses of being a Loudon Wainwright fan
is discovering his immensely talented children. On Loudon's
previous record, he sang a duet with his daughter Martha, a
formidable singer on her own and currently being courted by
Martha's brother Rufus, however, beat her to the punch.
The ballyhooed DreamWorks record label this month released
Rufus Wainwright's astonishing self-titled debut to the
accolades of critics across the continent.
"I definitely have the writers under my spell," the
younger Wainwright said in an interview earlier this month.
"My favorite review said that I sounded like a cross between
Kurt Weill and the Partridge Family."
It's an apt description if you can fathom it. Rufus
Wainwright's "modern standards" or "popera" is worthy of its
other high comparisons, such as to Irving Berlin and
especially Cole Porter.
"I really want to be the next Wagner," he adds.
Rufus plays piano, unlike his acoustic guitar-playing
dad. Loudon divorced Rufus' mother — another noted folk
singer, Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters — when
Rufus was very young, and Rufus was raised chiefly by
McGarrigle in Montreal.
That accounts for a good deal of the operatic and French
influences on his rich, warm songs. But is Generation X
ready for this kind of sweeping, orchestrated pop?
"Are you kidding? They need it. They're dying for it,"
Rufus said. "My main objective is to be in that great
American songwriter tradition, like Porter and Gershwin ...
Some reviews say I'm retro, but I'm not. I'm just doing the
art of songwriting, which really hasn't changed much in
thousands of years. I'm not doing sounds, I'm doing songs."
But while Loudon spent a career singing mostly
autobiographical songs about "Bein' a Dad," Rufus doesn't go
for the first-person approach. He can't spend his life
writing answer-songs to his father, he said.
"He goes right for the nugget, my dad," Rufus said.
"Sometimes I thought he used the family in a vicious way
when he wrote about us, but then I realized that it's just
the way he does it. It's whatever gets your goat. He wrote
beautiful songs about the family, as well. "My songs are
more innate. I'm still pretty much the central figure in
all of them, but I tend to portray myself in songs as more
omniscient, perhaps just as an observer of things around
me. Then the listener can more easily place themselves into
that position. The songs are still about me, but I'm more
hidden. I don't want to embarrass myself."
Rufus now launches his own series of concerts across the
country to support the debut record. His dad said he gave
Rufus a little advice, but not much was necessary.
"I told him to get a good lawyer. But he doesn't need
advice. He's a good performer and funny and nice looking
and an egomaniac. If you ain't got that last one, you might
as well hang it up in this business ... Plus, he and his
sister have watched their parents make so many mistakes,
and that suffices as advice. I'm just hoping in the end
that they'll buy me a house."
And how did Loudon react when he found out that Rufus
was an openly gay performer?
"He didn't care one bit," Rufus said. "One day he just
turned to me and asked, `So do you like guys or girls or
what?' I was a pretty flamboyant little child. He claims he
knew from age 4."
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Loudon Wainwright III isn't bitter. Nominated for two
Grammy awards, he lost both times ('85 and '86) to the same
dead guy — the equally humorous and compassionate folkie
For his latest album, "Little Ship" — his 17th — Wainwright
worked with John Levanthal, who just won two Grammys with
his songwriting and production partner Shawn Colvin.
"He was very gracious and did not flaunt his trophies,"
Wainwright chuckled in an interview this week, "though I
suppose he's got one for each ear."
Wainwright is the oft-overlooked wry songwriter once
hailed, among many others, as the New Bob Dylan (also, the
Woody Allen of Folk or the Charlie Chaplin of Rock). He
couldn't quite live up to that title, though, because he's
got too great a sense of humor.
That same sense of humor also cursed him with his one
and only "hit" song, 1972's "Dead Skunk," which remains a
perennial favorite on Dr. Demento's radio shows and CDs.
"It was a novelty. People thought it was funny, and they
played it. It surely had more to do with payola than
anything," Wainwright said. "I'm being facetious, but not
entirely. If you recall, Clyde Davis was kicked out of
Columbia for the payola scandal not long after my song got
around. Thing is, we start this leg of the tour in Arkansas
where 'Dead Skunk' was No. 1 for six weeks. So surely it
wasn't all payola."
Today, radio support for Wainwright's confessional,
sometimes cheeky folk music is tough to find, though
Wainwright said a few major cities boast acoustic-oriented
"There's still college radio and NPR stations, and
there's this format called triple-A. That's the Automobile
Association of America, as far as I'm concerned.
Fortunately, I am a member, but it doesn't guarantee me
airplay. In fact, that's why I joined ..."
Wainwright, though, is one of those artists with a
devoted cult following. Since his eponymous debut in 1970,
he has crafted albums with laissez-faire care and
razor-sharp wit, frequently turning out deeply personal
songs with the ability to touch the heart and bust a gut --
sometimes within the same verse. His small but mighty
legions of followers have charted his course through minor
novelty hits to sorely underappreciated masterpieces
(1988's "Therapy") and his occasional acting whimsies, such
as his three appearances on "M*A*S*H" as Capt. Calvin
Spaulding, the singing surgeon.
Still, he keeps in mind the goal of branching out to
attract new audiences, and he said he hopes that his work
with Levanthal on "Little Ship" — one of his most fully
realized records — bolsters a few new fans.
"I've been only marginally successful in my career. It
actually helps me to be fairly flexible when recording,"
Wainwright said. "For instance, the song 'Mr. Ambivalent'
(on the new record). I went to John with a lot of songs --
things I'd thrown out, forgotten about, old stuff I hadn't
gotten to — and just played him stuff for days. 'Mr.
Ambivalent' was one I wouldn't have recorded, but John
liked it because it had a chorus and a hook and was fairly
catchy. I decided to try something different, you know.
Whether or not we fooled some new people, I don't know."
Teaming up with Levanthal came about as most musical
collaborations do: they were mutual friends of someone — in
this case, Colvin — and after several years of casual
suggestions that they should work together, finally
mustered the time and energy to do it.
"I've known Shawn for 15, maybe 20, years since she came
to New York City. They were living together in those days,
and I'd heard he was interested in working with me,"
Wainwright said. "His contribution to this record was
substantial. He has his stamp on the way it sounds, and
it's a way that I like very much. It was a different way of
working for me.
“John's got this little funky East Village pad with
foam rubber gaffer-taped to the door, and he records in
there hoping all the while that the people upstairs stop
stomping around and the buses don't go by. It's primitive,
I suppose, but it's relaxed. He works in his own way, too.
You record with him, and then he sends you away. You come
back in a few weeks and hear what he's done to your songs.
He's kind of a mad scientist kind of guy."
Wainwright continues touring this summer in support of
Loudon Wainwright III
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Old Fort River
Festival, Ft. Smith, Ark.
Where: Harry E. Kelley Park near
downtown. Admission: $5 at the gate, with children under 12
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: City Arts Center in Oklahoma City (at the
fairgrounds, gate 2-26 off of May Avenue). Tickets: $8 in
advance or $15 on Saturday. Call (405) 951-0000.
Rufus Wainwright, 'Rufus Wainwright'
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
It's been a season of rock 'n' roll legacies in the
music biz. We've seen albums from Chris Stills, son of
Stephen; Emma Townshend, daughter of Pete; and Sean Lennon,
son of John — and none of them have been very striking.
Enter Rufus Wainwright, son of folkies Kate McGarrigle
and the also cumbersomely named Loudon Wainwright III. He
looks hip enough — leather jackets, bushy hair, knife-blade
sideburns — but he's crafted a debut that won't seem hip
right away. Wainwright, you see, is so freakin' talented,
he will have to slip into his destiny as the Gen-X Cole
Porter or Kurt Weill slowly.
Those comparisons are not tossed in here merely as
reference points for the reader. Wainwright is writing
standards on that level of charm and genius. His songs have
been described as retro (or, my favorite, “popera''), but
that's simply because the young generation responding to
Wainwright's timeless laments and musical sighs only know
of standards from the perspective of their parents. But
these days it's the mainstream to buck tradition, so
Wainwright's return to the traditional conventions of 20th
century classic songwriting may turn out to be the hippest
Like his father, the younger Wainwright writes form very
personal experiences, but unlike Loudon, Rufus phrases his
lovelorn laments and cheery ruminations in an omniscient
voice. It's just as easy to place yourself in the center of
the moseying “Foolish Love'' as it is his own reminiscing
on boarding school days in the jaunty “Millbrook.'' His
“Danny Boy'' is a rolling original, though like many of
the songs it restrains Wainwright's delicious, reedy tenor
into one constraining octave. String arrangements
throughout are courtesy of Van Dyke Parks — a definite
kindred spirit — while Jim Keltner provides drums and Jon
This debut is an intelligent cabaret — with all the sly
wit of Porter and the high-though-furrowed brow of Weill.
Several notches above the cleverness of Ben Folds,
Wainwright could be the closest thing my generation has
come to an original, classic entertainer.
The Strife & Times of Loudon Wainwright
© Tulsa World
Page H1 of ENTERTAINMENT
The last time Loudon Wainwright III was in Oklahoma, he had a little trouble with the law.
"I may still be on probation there,'' he said. "Could you get a message to my parole officer?''
Somewhere around 1968, Wainwright and a friend were on their way to New York City from San Francisco. They ran out of money in Oklahoma City and had to spend an afternoon kicking around town, waiting for more dough to be wired from rich, grumbling fathers. The details are sketchy, but the two were arrested for possession of marijuana and promptly jailed in one of our state's finest accommodations for
the criminally inclined.
"I suppose we were rather suspicious looking,'' Wainwright said. "We had the whole deal — the hair and the beads. During my unfortunate incarceration, it was suggested that I get a haircut — forcefully.''
Wainwright's dad — Loudon Jr., then a prominent editor and columnist for Life magazine — flew in from London and bailed out his boy, even hiring a fancy lawyer to get him off the hook. Loudon III, of course, wrote a song about the whole experience. In "Samson and the Warden,'' on 1971's "Album II,'' he sings,
"Don't shave off my beard, don't cut off my hair / It took me two years to grow, and it just isn't fair.''
There are few significant stories from Wainwright's life that have not been immortalized (well, that remains to be seen) in one of his wry, poignant folk songs. In "Harry's Wall'' from 1988's "Therapy'' album, he admits, "Almost all the songs I write somehow pertain to me.'' This year he released his 16th album,
"Grown Man,'' and the songs remain the same — sometimes touching, sometimes hysterical, always from within and always on target. Of all the "new Bob Dylans'' who emerged around 1970, Wainwright and
John Prine are the ones who kept their sense of humor.
"I have a propensity toward exposing or exhibiting my life and thoughts and putting them into songs, dragging family members in to boot,'' Wainwright said from a tour stop in the Pacific Northwest.
"I suppose I get off on that on some level. There's got to be a reason for all this.''
On "Grown Man,'' he drags his daughter, Martha, into the act. The result is "Father-Daughter Dialogue,'' a family member's reaction to dad's public, albeit musical, airing of family issues. It's a brief song showing that even though you get the last word, you don't always win.
"The song is based on that real issue, a real argument we had,'' Wainwright said. "She was happy to do it — she's a bit of a performer herself. She agreed I had more or less captured the two sides of the argument. Her side is stronger than mine.''
His son, too, is quite the singer-songwriter. Rufus Wainwright, at 22, is the first new artist to be signed to the DreamWorks label. His first album is due later this year.
It's a slightly better start than Wainwright had when he was that age. To pay back his dad for the bail money, Wainwright was working all kinds of truly odd jobs — movie theater janitor, boatyard barnacle scraper and cashier-cook-dishwasher at New York City's first macrobiotic restaurant. Male singer-songwriters were a hot commodity back then. The record companies were looking for "the new Dylan,'' and aspiring singers were trying to be just that, Wainwright included.
"When you're young and bursting with energy, you think you're going to be king of the heap. I wanted to knock Dylan out of the box,'' Wainwright said. "He was the man to beat — and still is, I suppose. The old Dylan was holed up in Woodstock; they were looking for the new one.
"The comparisons are a testament to who he is and what he is, and it's not just Dylan. These new bands from England, Oasis and Blur — everyone's calling them the new Beatles. It's the same deal. If you're cute and have a guitar, they'll refer you back to the last cute hitmakers with guitars.''
Wainwright's kitsch caught on just enough to win a cultish following and keep him on the road. He's best known for his 1972 hit, "Dead Skunk,'' now a perennial favorite of Dr. Demento. He's dabbled in other pursuits, such as acting — three episodes of "M*A*S*H'' as Capt. Calvin Spaulding, two films (Neil Simon's
"The Slugger's Wife'' and David Jones' "Jackknife''), a few plays and a stint on a London television sitcom as — surprise! — the resident wise-guy American songwriter.
And, granted, he has plenty of songs that have virtually nothing to do with his personal life. "1994'' on the new album was composed on a plane after reading an article about the search for the fat gene. Also on the new record, "Human Cannonball'' is about the performer Emanuel Zacchini, a record-setting human cannonball who died in 1993. One of the most touching songs he's penned was "Not John,'' his lament for the loss of John Lennon — "Chapman's in the jail house / What's he doin' there? / He went and he shot John Lennon / All you heroes best beware.''
In recent years, the occasional Wainwright witticism has been heard in the mornings on National Public Radio. He's written and performed several topical songs for the network, songs like "The New Street People'' about all those who puff away outside their smoke-free workplaces. He just wrote a new one about computers that should make your morning soon.
"I can't think of doing anything besides writing songs,'' Wainwright said. "I get the occasional acting job, but music and songwriting is what I — well, uh, that's just it. I mean, I do what I love, and that's my fantasy life. It's called pick your fantasy and do it. Guys who work at banks must have some kind of fantasy about it. If you can get a record deal and some fans, it's great ... until they pull you over and say, 'Let me see
your driver's license.' ''
The closest Wainwright's tour will wind to Tulsa is an April 4 gig at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City. He does have one vague Tulsa connection, he said. In 1970 he played with a band called Flow Train that included Ron Getman, now with Tulsa's famous Tractors.
But will Wainwright ever play in Oklahoma?
"Maybe I'll come back and do a benefit for the county jail where they held me — kind of a Johnny Cash thing. What do you think?''
LOUDON'S MUSICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY
The life story of Loudon Wainwright III has already been written — in his songs. Here's a look at how the music describes the man:
— After the war (II), his father Loudon (II) came home with his bride Martha (I). "During the war, in the Marine Corps / They met and they married one day,'' "Westchester County,'' 1982.
— Loudon III was born nearly nine months later, almost backwards. "The doctor reached inside of her / He turned me 'round and then pulled me out,'' "April Fool's Day Morn,'' 1982.
— His youth was spent in Westchester County, New York, and Beverly Hills, Calif. "When I was 10 years old, I was alive / In the Benedict Canyon on Hutton Drive,'' "Hollywood Hopeful,'' 1976; "Tennis courts and golf courses galore,'' "Westchester County,'' 1982.
— Life was pretty good for him in Southern California. "Nothing bad has happened yet / Everyone is happy,'' "Thanksgiving,'' 1988.
— He had a crush on Liza Minnelli, who happened to be a classmate of his in the third grade. "In your junior Thunderbird electric kiddie car / I chauffeured you / You lounged in back / Back then you were a star,'' "Liza,'' 1974.
— He went to a boys' boarding school, the same one his father attended, which he says was not a good idea. "My parents should shoulder some blame / For calling their kid a strange name,'' "T.S.M.N.W.A.,'' 1992.
— He purchased his first guitar in 1960 after seeing Bob Dylan play. "I got some boots, a harmonica rack / A D-21 and I was on the right track,'' "Talking New Bob Dylan,'' 1991.
— Before turning to songwriting, he worked in New York City's first macrobiotic restaurant. "Several stars played guitars and were backed with feeling / By a chopstick-wielding rhythm section,'' "Bruno's Place,'' 1970.
— He was married and had children. "You're growing up so quickly, I feel a little sad / That's to be expected, after all I am your dad,'' "Five Years Old,'' 1984.
— He was subsequently divorced. "Your mother an I are living apart / I know that seems stupid, but we weren't very smart,'' "Your Mother and I,'' 1979.
— He moved to London and had a brief stint on television there. "There he goes, there's what's-his-name / We saw him on TV,'' "Harry's Wall,'' 1988.
— He continues to tour. "Running through airports at 43's OK for O.J. but it's not for me,'' "Road Ode,'' 1993.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.