By Richie Unterberger
Loudon Wainwright III has carved such a strong, distinctive identity for himself as a witty singer-songwriter over the last few decades that it's hard to imagine that he was once labeled as "a new Dylan." As things turned out, Wainwright was no more a new Dylan than Dylan was the old Wainwright. Nonetheless, that was how he was perceived by much of the media upon the release of his self-titled debut album in 1970. It didn't sell as much as Bob Dylan (or even Randy Newman, for that matter), but laid the firm foundation for a devoted listenership that continues to follow Wainwright today, even if that following has rarely expanded beyond a cult level.
While it hasn't
easy to get Wainwright to talk about his formative years with a
straight face, we do know that he was born in Chapel Hill, North
Carolina in 1946. The son of a journalist who worked as a columnist and
editor at Life magazine, he
grew up in the affluent Westchester suburb of New York, studying acting
for a year-and-a-half at Carnegie Mellon University before dropping
out. By 1968, he was writing songs and performing in Boston and New
York, getting a long stint at the Gaslight club in Greenwich Village.
It was at the Gaslight that he came to the attention of Atlantic
Records. "Some musicians talk about paying their dues, sleeping on the
floor, etc.," he quipped in a 1974 New
York Times profile. "I had only three months of that."
He elaborated to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times in 1974, "The writing thing just happened. When I left college, I spent about a year and a half traveling. In 1968, I was living in Cambridge with a friend who had a guitar. I picked it up one afternoon and wrote a song. A couple of days later I wrote another one. They were lousy but enough to get the snowball going. After that I wrote a bunch of songs and then went to New York. I played in some clubs in Greenwich Village and slept on people's floors. I did a kind of 'Bohemian, starving artist' routine in a very dilettantish manner. If things got heavy, I just got on a train and went up to Westchester to my parents."
Continued Wainwright in the same piece, "It's always scary getting on a stage, but I had been trained in a theater school. I knew how to handle myself on stage, so I was consumed with stage fright. I did other people's stuff at first, folk songs that I knew. When you start doing your own stuff, it's very personal. It's closer to home so you want everyone to like that stuff the best. When you do your own songs, you become a target. It's like exposing yourself."
As he noted in a 1996 interview with Steve Guttenberg, Atlantic wasn't the only label interested in signing him. "The first person we went to see was John Hammond, Sr., at Columbia, who's no longer with us, who signed Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday," Wainwright remembered. "And he liked [the demo tape] a lot. But then my manager took it around, and Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic Records liked it a lot too, and he offered more money. I thought Atlantic was a pretty cool label to be on, having bought all those Aretha and Ray Charles records; I was excited to be on that label."
Co-produced by Wainwright and Milton Kramer in several New York studios, Loudon Wainwright III was sung to no other accompaniment than the singer-songwriter's acoustic guitar. While that's what one might expect from someone saddled with a "new Dylan" tag, in fact that was an uncommonly sparse approach among contemporary artists -- even folkies -- by 1970. But Wainwright, despite his affection for Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, just wasn't as steeped in rock music as most of the singer-songwriters coming of age in the late '60s and early '70s were. "The first thing they did was to stick me in the studio with Arif Mardin, who was Aretha's producer, and a bunch of musicians, and that just didn't work," he admitted to Guttenberg. "So I finally convinced them to just let me make a voice and guitar record. Later, I did move to Columbia, where they stuck me with musicians."
As he mused to Karl Dallas of Melody Maker in 1974, "One reason I prefer performing solo to singing with a band is that I never grew up playing in a band like lots of kids who start out when they're teenagers playing in a band. I mean, I listened to rock'n'roll bands when I was growing up but I guess the earliest music I was affected by was the music that my parents played on their record player when I was ten years old or something -- Dixieland jazz, Californian jazz like Gerry Mulligan, but mainly musicals like My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game and South Pacific, legitimate Broadway writing. I can remember singing along with the records and that's where the strongest influence is musically, that particular kind of music."
Nonetheless, there were some folk roots to both his music and his humor. "I never think of myself as a folk singer, but I'm very partial to folk music," he explained in New Musical Express in 1979. "In the Sixties that was the type of music that really affected me. I was never an incredible Jerry Lee Lewis freak, or even the Beatles. I never really got into them until Sgt. Pepper, when I was taking acid. I used to go to the Newport Folk Festival and my favorite group were the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. They were the most theatrical and the most funny and the most interesting. I liked Dylan, of course, because he was the most powerful, but I was never too interested in the singer-songwriter thing -- I liked the whole goofy, comedy, wacky, funny theatrical folk music thing. I had all the Kweskin Jug Band records, knew all the words."
If Loudon Wainwright III wasn't as influenced by either folk or rock as most other singer-songwriter efforts of the era, it nonetheless worked comfortably within structures similar to those employed by many quality folk and rock composers. While the instrumentation might have been that of a folk troubadour, Wainwright brought his own idiosyncratic twist to the form. He could sing with a biting, sardonic humor that didn't shy away from sacred cows, and addressed subjects all but unexplored in pop music both then and now. There were songs about painful death ("Hospital Lady") Pittsburgh (the relatively jaunty "Ode to a Pittsburgh"), the healing power of the cinema ("Movies Are a Mother to Me"), and an alcoholic couple ("Central Square Song," with its weepy mouth trumpet effects); a character sketch of one of society's left-behinds ("Black Uncle Remus"); and a bitter anti-love ode ("I Don't Care").
While the opening lost-dreams-of-youth lament "School Days" has some of the surface earnestness expected of the troubadour style, this too had some snarl behind its apparent calm. "The song is a remembrance about four years spent at a then all-boys Episcopal boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, called St. Andrews," Wainwright recalled in the liner notes to the box set anthology Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970. "Back then I considered myself a bit of a young preppie rebel and rather cool. But at the same time I also liked the idea of being the depressed, sensitive nerd type who was beginning to write songs and poems. In the third verse I vent more than a little spleen towards the school and its faculty. The overuse of alliteration makes me cringe now, but 32 years later I'm still performing the song." Incidentally St. Andrews, according to the same box set's liner notes, "was later the subject of the Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society."
What truly set Wainwright most apart from other singer-songwriters was a willingness to tauntingly satirize that, in the climate of the early '70s at least, verged on political incorrectness to some of the more serious constituents of the counterculture. To quote from Barry Alfonso's essay in the Washington Square Memoirs set, Wainwright "mocked the vanity and smugness of his peers. His venomous little songs expressed unpleasantly selfish thoughts and satirized the image of the folkie as a morally superior entertainer." Nowhere is that more apparent in what's arguably (for all "School Days"' popularity among his fans) the album's highlight, "Glad to See You've Got Religion," which slyly sends up self-righteous mysticism, health consciousness, and abstinence all at once. Health food comes in for more skewers in "Bruno's Place," where the singer doesn't eat meat as it's bad for his feet, and a rice diet can't stop his internal bleeding.
Perhaps too low-key to stand a chance of making even a modest commercial splash, Loudon Wainwright III failed to chart, despite generating some critical praise. The same fate would befall his second and final album for Atlantic, 1971's Album II, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger
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