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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Loudon Wainwright III - Part 3: T-Shirt & Final Exam

After Unrequited, like its predecessor, failed to sell, Columbia dropped Loudon, who then moved to his third label, Arista Records. His first album for his new record company, T-Shirt, was released in 1976.

This was Loudon's best produced record to that point in his career, and for the first time he sounds wholly comfortable with a band behind him.

However, at first listen it seems a strangely impersonal (and therefore very un-Loudon-like) album. The Loudon we know and love (since Attempted Moustache anyway) writes songs that are personal almost to the point of solipsism (a point which his son Rufus passed a long time ago).

But what do we have here?

The album opens with Bicentennial, a moderately sarcastic song about the anniversary of American Independence. It's quite funny, but it's more the sort of thing you'd associate with Randy Newman, who would be more pointedly satirical; Loudon is just poking his tongue out at the national occasion.

At Both Ends is about a young guy who parties himself into an early grave, and Loudon rocks out pretty well; but you can't help feeling Warren Zevon does this sort of thing much better. Reciprocity, a song about a couple into bondage, but it's not much more successful (and less amusing) than the song about gay sex on Unrequited.

Prince Hal's Dirge is a song about future King Henry V, whose conflict with his father is dramatized so brilliantly in Shakespeare's Henry IV Parts One and Two. Then we have Summer's Almost Over, a classic end-of-summer-back-to-school song that is given a gorgeous light jazz arrangement, with tinkling piano and shimmering xylophone; a song about a dog, Hey Packy; a quirky talking blues (Talkin' Big Apple '75), and a strange song entitled Just Like President Thieu.

Almost the only sign of the old Loudon, it seems, is the perennial drinking song, Wine With Dinner and a few personal references in Hollywood Hopeful.

So where are those songs about growing older, never quite making the big time, broken relationships, and family feuds that we associate with Loudon Snowden Wainwright III?

Well, all is not as it seems with this record (and I admit it took me about 30 years to realize this).

Although it starts off with a song called Bicentennial, the real anniversary that is the theme of the record is Loudon's 30th birthday (this was the year he met the dreaded 3-0). The existential dilemma posed by the approach of middle age is for Loudon, as for many of us, whether it should mean a change in our behaviour. Summer's Almost Over is the perfect metaphor for this: "Adopt a brand new attitude... For all those lazy, hazy days you must atone" (wonderful line, that). This accounts for the atmosphere of almost unbearable nostalgia in the song, as
Loudon is reluctant to say goodbye to those "crazy days."

"Hollywood Hopeful" continues the theme of maturity vs. youthful irresponsibility (and fame/failure, of course):

Never thought I'd see the age of 25
It's 29 years now I've been alive
The panic I feel can hardly be told
In a matter of months I'll be 30 years old.

"I am full-fledged grown up adult/Trying to make a dent, trying to get a result/I'm holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite/Tequilla to drink and avocado to eat." These are classic Loudon rueful lines on the elusiveness of fame and fortune.

Both Ends Burning is a cautionary tale of someone who never knew when to put away excess. That's what's in store for Loudon if he doesn't reform his ways now that he is on the cusp of middle age. But Prince Hal's Dirge is the key song.

As you know, according to Shakespeare (following the history chronicles), the future Henry V was a tearaway as a young man, mixing with low company, getting into tavern brawls, etc., much to the dismay of his father the king. But all the time the young Prince Hal remains confident that, at the right time, he will be able to shake off this unruly life and accept his responsibilities:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Loudon transforms this into a well-constructed, two-paced song, that starts off slow and builds to a dramatic climax:

Give me a capon, and some roguish companions
A wench and a bottle of sack
Take me to the alehouse, take me to the whorehouse
If I vomit, keep me off of my back

And in view of the fact that Loiudon was himself the son of a dysfunctional father, the following lines is interesting:

My father thinks I'm good for nothing
And that I won't amount to much
But he's not aware of my secret weapon
I can count on myself in the clutch

Show me a breach, I'll once more unto it
I'll be ready for action any day
I'll straighten up, and I'll fly most righteous
In a fracas I'll be right in the fray

I can drink you under 25 tables
Fight and be any lady's man
But all this will change when I'm good and ready
To be king of this land!

Self-reliance is to be Loudon's secret weapon ("I can count on myself in the clutch"). The song builds to a tremendous climax, probably the "heaviest" Loudon has ever gotten musically, suggesting real tensions in the lifestyle choices with which the singer is faced. For the time being though, he is not yet ready to shake off his dissolute lifestyle. This is probably why the drinking song Wine With Dinner is reprised again at the end of the record. The party is to go on, even though the dreaded landmark of 30 years old has been reached... "

A few comments on the other songs:

Hey, Packy

This countrified ode to a faithful dog was written by George Gerdes, the actor, who put out a couple of interesting records in the seventies (one of them with the entire group of Nashville musicians who played on Dylan's Blonde on Blonde!) and who co-wrote a song with Loudon on Unrequited (Kings & Queens). It's one of Loudon's best recordings with a band.

Hollywood Hopeful

A song held over from Unrequited (an outtake of the song from the sessions for that album was released on the reissue).
This version uses the tune from the traditional song "Little Sadie" and has some nice banjo. This is the most directly personal song on the album.

Wine With Dinner

One of Loudon's droll songs about drinking (See The Drinking Song on Album III and Down Drinking at the Bar on Attempted Moustache).

T-Shirt, then is a very fine album, Loudon's finest to that date, with a unifying concept that makes it greater than the sum of its parts, and, as stated before, better produced than any of its predecessors. It was a crying shame that it was not issued on CD for so long.

Loudon's second album on Arista was a more lightweight affair, although it is just as well produced as its predecessor.

Many of the songs tend to the lightweight and ephemeral, though, such as Golfin' Blues, Pen Pal Blues, the title track, and The Heckler. However, the record ends with some strong songs. Best of all are the two country songs, Heaven and Mud and Two-Song Set.

A guy I used to share a house with in the 90s said, thinking about his approaching 30th birthday (he was a year older than I): "I'll be sitting here in this armchair, and all of a sudden, the desire to listen to country music will come over me."

I don't think he ever did get into country, at least while I knew him, but I myself have got into country music in a big way since turning 30. It does seem the more mature person's music. This is because it is less about strutting one's stuff like rock 'n' roll, and more a vehicle for talking about family problems, alcoholism, and the other joys of maturity. It's a shame, therefore, that Loudon hasn't used the genre more extensively. The two country songs on Final Exam are a real treat.

Heaven and Mud is a song about falling off the wagon after being "high on life" for "14 boring days"! Certainly any hopes Loudon had of cleaning up his act on T-Shirt have been abandoned.

Two-Song Set is a real gem, very well arranged and produced, with a great singalong chorus. Note how much Loudon's singing with a band has improved since his earliest records. Lyrically, the song is full of aching regret over missed opportunity and nostalgia for the old days.

The waitress is polite to me, but it's just not the same thing now
A few years ago, Bobby, I was the cat's meow
You win some and you lose some, that's an attitude I can understand
And I know what they're saying, Bob, they're saying I was a flash in the pan.

Then there is
Pretty Little Martha, one of Loudon's neat little banjo songs. Martha was then two years old.

Finally, as if to emphasize that his rocking days are over, is the parody song
Watch Me Rock, I'm Over Thirty.

But it wasn't just Loudon's rocking days were over. Final Exam also marked the end of Loudon's days on a major label. The Dead Skunk era was well and truly dead. Creatively, however, Loudon's best work lay ahead of him....

Note: T-Shirt and Final Exam have never been available separately on CD, but in 2007 they were remastered released as a "two-fer" on the Acadia label of Evangeline Records Ltd.

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