© 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.