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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Loudon Wainwright III: A History (Part 2)

So far in his career as we have examined it to date, Loudon has recorded a handful of good songs (and one brilliant one, School Days), but his albums have been rather patchy. With Attempted Moustache, his fourth album and his second for Columbia, he finally produced an album's worth of quality songs.

The album was produced in Nashville by Bob Johnson, Dylan's producer on Highway 61 Revisited through New Morning, of Simon & Garfunkel, and a host of other folk-rock artists. Unfortunately, the results were not satisfactory, as Loudon notes in the liner notes to the 1998 reissue of the album:

I sure would like to remix some of Attempted Moustache. On several of the more raucous band numbers, producer Bob Johnston had me sounding like I was singing in some other room. The record was cut in 5 days, practically an eternity by Nashville standards at that time. Usually you'd do a song once, maybe twice, and that was it—the cats were out the door and on the way to the next session.

Still, the Nashville session musicians are undoubtedly brilliant, and as Loudon also notes, the album contains some of his best songs.

The Swimming Song

Loudon's best song since "School Days" and also much covered. Loudon noted in 1998: "My then-wife Kate McGarrigle taught me to frail (lovely verb!) a banjo, and it remains one of the nicest things I ever learned from anybody." Kate plays along on second banjo.

A.M. World

This song is a satirical look at the "fame and wealth" resulting from the success of "Dead Skunk." After two decades of listening to this album, I've finally realized that the album title could be a glance at this song! ("Attempted Moustache" = A.M.)


With this song, Loudon finally masters the art of sketching the funny-charming vignettes we know and love him for. In his 1998 liner notes, Loudon writes:

I went to school with Ms. Minnelli but it was in the second and third grades and we last saw each other in 1954. Someone from Danish National Radio once played her this song and taped her reaction, which went something like: "Oh yes, I remember little Loudie Wainwright, and if he keeps singing that way, he'll ruin his voice."

Very sweet and funny, but note that yet again that Loudon is in a familiar role: looking on while someone else gets the success and fame. He seems more comfortable in this role than in the long black limousine of "A.M. World."

Loudon sings this one a capella.

The Man Who Couldn't Cry

I consider this another my best songs—certainly it's one of the longest. I like the cutting sound of my DiAngelico on the track. Check out Johnny Cash's great cover of this on his fine record American Recordings.

Johnny Cash's version is an anomaly. Whatever his other great virtues, Cash doesn't normally do irony or piss-taking, subjects on which Loudon is a leading authority. Therefore he treats this strange story as a genuine tale of redemption, like the other songs on that masterpiece, American Recordings. Maybe there really is a serious story in there. Cash's version is sung live in a trendy young persons' night club on Sunset Boulevard. Loudon no doubt appreciated this extra irony.

Back to Attempted Moustache . Come A Long Way is the song the least marred by the production. It was written by Kate.

And finally, there are two songs about Rufus. The first was written to the lad while he was still in the womb. Loudon trumps the outrageous pun of the title—Dilated To Meet You—with an even more excruciating alternative one in his 1998 liner notes: "At Your Cervix." Sung with Kate. The second is Lullaby. To quote the reissue liner notes again:

Another song I still do. And it's myself I'm telling to shut up, not Rufus, as I led the lyric-reading listeners to believe.

(The printed lyrics add "you're Rufus" after the words "you're ruthless.")


Loudon's fifth album was released in 1975. Critics and fans had complained that his studio records were not on a par with his live performances, so on Unrequited Loudon tries to have it both ways. For those of you who don't remember the days of vinyl, the records had two sides, and when you reached the end of the first side, you had to flip the record to play the second side. The first side of Unrequited had seven tracks recorded in the studio; side two's tracks were recorded live at the Bottom Line in New York City.

On the 1999 reissue, Loudon writes:

The big picture of me on the front cover of the album with the tear rolling down my cheek (a glycerine drop I can now confess) seems to say 'look at the sad clown.' Yes, I was sad, but I was one pissed off clown, too. In 1974 my marriages to my wife Kate McGarrible, my personal manager Milton Kramer, and Columbia Records were all on the rocks. Kate and I were separated. Milt and I battled constantly about the direction of my career, and Columbia was poised to drop me from their roster. My last effort for the label, Attempted Moustache, had bombed badly in comparison with my first record for them, Album III, which had contained the hit 'Dead Skunk.' In 1974 things were't going great. Just check out some of the titles of the songs...

Indeed, all the best songs on the album are about the breakdown of relationships. The other tracks, especially those with a band, are not very successful, particularly The Lowly Tourist, which is a faux reggae pastiche (reggae parodies were very popular in the mid-70s; the most successful were 10CC's Dreadlock Holiday and the Kinks' Black Messiah). It does have Harvey Brooks playing bass on it though—that man gets everywhere!

Much better is Kick in the Head, which Loudon sings at the piano, about a man whose lover sleeps with his best friend. But the record really takes off with the savage Whatever Happened To Us, which has some very caustic lyrics:

We used to be in love
But now we are in hate
You used to say I came too early
But it was you who came too late...

There's a whole lot of crap about a tender trap
What it is, is a suicide snare
And all I want to do is forget about you
And our lousy love affair.

Another good track is the jazzy Crime of Passion, which has some great sax. But even better is....

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

This one has Kate singing along with him. A song of tender regret, it's the obverse of the nasty 'Whatever Happened To Us?"

Things weren't easy when we were together
We had plenty of days of lousy weather
But now...I'm in a hurricane
And I'm gonna grieve
And I'm gonna moan
'Cos you not here
And I'm all alone

The joke's on me, you had the last laugh
I find out the hard way who was my better half
And now...I'm the worse for the wear
When I see you again, expect some Champagne wine
And on Valentine's Day expect a Valentine
'Cos now I know how much I care.

This well-constructed song is the first really successful personal song of Loudon's career, the first in a long line that includes such heartbreaking classics as "Your Mother and I", "April Fool's Day Morn", "That Hospital", "Dreaming", "Surviving Twin" and others.

Now lets flip the record over and listen to the live tracks. They are all good, and it's hard to know which to single out.

On the Rocks

Another song about breakup, but the live audience allows Loudon to really camp up the funny parts. It's a blues send-up. Part of the humour is in the use of modern, middle class terms like "domestic problems" instead of "the blues" to describe falling out with the missus.

Even funnier is...

Mr Guilty

This is the least guilty song you could possibly imagine! Loudon confesses to his faults, but you don't really believe him! Especially when he hits the mock teenybop chorus...

Call me Mr. Guilty
Mr Guilty, that's my name
Without a doubt, it's all my fault
I am the one to blame

You say that you're unhappy
I do believe it's true
'Cos I'm the one, the no good bum
That did it all to you.

Ooo-ooo-ooo. I'm so sorry.
Sorry as a man can be.
I'm so guilty
This is my a-po-lo-gy...

A comedy classic.

A curiosity on Unrequited is Untitled (actually called The Hardy Boys at the Y, but Loudon's manager feared a lawsuit from the author of The Hardy Boys Mysteries), which deals with a gay relationship. It's not exactly homophobic, but in the seventies you could only sing about homosexuality if you were treating it as one big joke.
Loudon sings the whole thing in a fake British accent of indeterminate location. The song is quite pornographic, and when Loudon sings the aside, "It's fabulous", he sounds just like Rufus.

Unrequited to the Nth Degree

Another of Loudon's songs that seems to be aware of life's comedy at the same time as its tragedy.

Old Friend is about the breakup with a long time friend. In view of Loudon's comments quoted earlier, he might be referring to his manager Milton Kramer.

The original album ends with Rufus Is A Tit Man, which achieved a retrospective irony when the then infant Rufus grew up to be more of a cock lover than a tit fancier. At the end of it, the crowd can be heard chanting "Dead Skunk, Dead Skunk!", as Loudon notes ruefully in the liner notes to the 1998 reissue. The reissue also includes a studio version (with band) of "Rufus Is A Tit Man" as a bonus. It's actually more successful than some of the other songs with a band.

It's interesting to compare Unrequited with Dylan's masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, which was released earlier in the same year. Both albums are about the breakdown of relationships and divorce. But the similarities end there. In songs like "Idiot Wind", Dylan stands like Lear in the tempest, and the breakdown of his marriage seems like part of a universal malaise that's sweeping all over America itself ("From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol") in the aftermath of Watergate. As in Macbeth, all normal values are reversed ("What's good is bad, what's bad is good/You'll find out when you've reached the top/You're on the bottom"). The pain of love's ending is like a corkscrew to his heart, but eventually he wills himself to pull through in the cathartic "Buckets of Rain."

Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do
And you do it well.

On top of all that, there are spiritual allegories like "Shelter From the Storm" and the cinematic scope of "Lily Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts", where the star-crossed lovers take on symbolic or allegorical roles.

Unrequited isn't anything like as ambitious or as traumatic or all-encompassing. It's the sound of one guy singing to himself to cheer himself up. But in its own small way, it's a minor triumph also.

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