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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Loudon Wainwright III Part 4 - A Live One and Fame and Wealth

Part three of our survey of Loudon's discography left our hero at a seemingly low ebb in his fortunes. Dropped by Arista Records after T-Shirt and Final Exam failed to sell in large quantities, Loudon's major label days were behind him, although he may have refused to believe it at this stage; and whatever hopes he may have harboured about being the "new Bob Dylan" (though it's difficult to believe that Loudon seriously entertained them) were dead and buried. Moreover, he had passed the rubicon of the big 3-0 (the major theme of his two Arista albums), and was now in what was, in 1978, relatively uncharted territory for the boomer generation, and especially rocky ground for would-be rockers, at least those without the decency to have O.D.'d on excess and burned out in a blaze of glory before reaching the dreaded milestone.

Well, as Dylan sang, "There's no success like failure." Liberated from the major label pressure of having to produce hits, and from the burden of having to be young, Loudon found...not himself, that horrible cliché of rock biopic, but the perfect niche for his own brand of songwriting, reinventing himself as the poet laureate of middle-aged disappointment, boozing, bed-hopping, and bad parenting .

Around the corner lay battles with the booze, divorce (the breakdown of Loudon's marriage chronicled on Unrequited had led to divorce shortly after), and England. First, however, his first album on the folk-oriented Rounder Records label was his first full-length live album, a showcase for his talents as a club performer. The live performances included on the album were recorded on a tour of the British Isles in 1976 and at McCabe's in Los Angeles in 1978. The album was released in the following year.

Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, Robert Christgau was somewhat underwhelmed:
The cheap seats are the only seats at a Wainwright show, and too often he plays to them, but here the screwy faces and strangled diction and spastic phrasing and easy jokes are kept in check. It's not as if his albums are so ornately orchestrated that the man-and-his-guitar format is a breath of fresh air. But he's a singer-songwriter who deserves a best-of, and this will do till he gets it. B+
Indeed, A Live One is a useful live retrospective of Loudon's 70s songs, but as his best work lay ahead of him, it is not so essential as the later Career Moves (I shall probably end up saying this more than once, but if you only want one LWIII album in your collection, Career Moves is the one to go for; though from the point of view of this blog, that would be rather unfortunate, seeing that this is an album-by-album review of Loudon's oeuvre.)

And so we come to Loudon in the Eighties.

I'm not sure when Loundon met Richard Thompson; perhaps at one of Loudon's successful appearances at the Cambridge Folk Festival (he first appeared there in 1972, when he blagged his way onto the bill by playing to one of the organisers in the marquee). The two artists have a lot in common: both enjoy better critical reviews than record sales; both are superb live performers who know how to milk an audience; both were married and divorced to female folk singers who were stars in their own right. But whereas Loudon's constant wisecracking and joking around masks a serious side, the doom-and-gloom of many of Richard's lyrics is offset by a cheery personality and rib-tickling sense of humour.

Their fruitful collaboration begins on 1983's Fame and Wealth,
Loudon's second album on Rounder Records. I've been unable to discover what Loudon was up to in the three years since A Live One was released. No doubt it involved extensive touring. I have a very nice bootleg from Bremen in Germany from Sept. 1980, in which Loudon announces tongue in cheek, before playing "The Grammy Song" (see below) that the eighties are going to belong to him. He is quite bemused when the German audience take him as being in earnest and burst into a round of applause.

Loudon's ambiguous attitude to "fame and wealth" is in fact one of the themes of the albumn. The opening song, "Reader and Advisor" (one of two on which Thompson plays) asks a gypsy clairvoyant to tell him what the future holds in store for him. This is a serious song; Loudon sounds as if he is in a crisis or at least at a crossroads. Thompson's understated electric guitar and plaintive mandolin give the song a sense of foreboding, of quiet desperation. There has been nothing as dark as this in Loudon's work since "Prince Hal's Dirge" on T-Shirt.

By contrast, the next song, the aforementioned Grammy Song, is one of Loudon's funniest. The deliberately bad rhymes are part of the humour:

Last night I dreamt that I won a Grammy
It was presented to me by Debbie Harry
I ran on stage in my tux
I gulped and I said "Aw, shucks!"
I'd like to thank my producer—and Jesus Christ!

Of course, Loudon is making fun of showbiz backslapping wingdings like the Grammy Awards and the tedious thank-you speeches of self-important celebs. But there is an ambiguity in his attitude to the recognition and rewards of the music business, as we saw in Liza (on Attempted Moustache) , and as Loudon himself has noted.

(I should remark here that there is something odd about the way the vocals are recorded on this album; there is too much reverb or something. It's particularly noticeable on Grammy Song.)

Dump the Dog is a funny little apparently throwaway number on which Loudon accompanies himself on banjo that makes some serious points about mortality looking back to "Reader and Advisor": "Salt and pepper on my porridge, one day I'll be dead and gone." Another significant couplet is "I'm a son and I'm a father/I am just a middle man"—this sense of being caught in the middle between generations, of somehow being superfluous to requirements, recurs in Loudon's work.

There is also a glimpse of Loudon's darker side; sometimes his frankness about his bad treatment of women sounds less like honesty and uncomfortably like boasting:

Oh, my good girl loves me madly
And my bad girl is just a flirt
I'll take the good with the bad gladly
And I'll treat them both like dirt....

However, it's impossible to dwell on these darker thoughts for too long, as the delivery is jaunty and casual; it's basically a skipping song!

Thick and Thin and Revenge are two contrasting songs; the first a tribute to a loyal friend, the later a vicious song of recrimination.

Next we come to another song written for daughter Martha (remember Pretty Little Martha on Final Exam?) It's one of Loudon's most attractive songs. But while he paints a lovely picture of Martha in her birthday dress, we might note that it's an imagined picture, and he's playing the absentee dad again, singing a song as an alternative to being there. On the messageboard on which this discographical survey of Loudon Wainwright III first appeared, one user acutely observed that there is some irony to the fact that the lyrics in Pretty Little Martha say, "we will be reunited, maybe on your birthday, we will be reunited, on the eighth day in the month of may", but then in Five Years Old he's missed her birthday and written her a song instead! Though he did send some roses... Still, I defy you not to smile and shed a little tear at the end:

You're growing up so quickly now, I feel a little sad
But that's to be expected, after all, I am your dad-dy...

If that were "after all - I am your Dad!" It would have that clunky, "Well, doh!" effect when an obvious rhyme comes thudding along just where we knew it would be. The line could then only be a gag, as in B Side (on Album III):

There is no complex philosophy
It's just because—I'm a bee!

You know the rhyme is coming because of the previous verse, and you groan, and then laugh.

Just expanding "Dad" into "Daddy" makes the couplet not just a gag, but touching as well. (You may have noticed that
Loudon is fairly fond of this trick, viz. rhyming one-syllable with two or more.)

Ingenue is Loudon boasting about his alley cat ways again: "Well I'm out on the prowl/Lookingfor an ingenue/Someone young and pretty/That I can be a leading man to...." Look out, you waitresses! I've never liked this song. Motel Blues (Album II) is a more attractive example of the genre.

IDTTYWLM is the first of Loudon's abbreviated titles. It stands for "I Don't Think That Your Wife Likes Me". It's a comic tour de force, accompanied by some cabaret jazz piano played by Mark Hardwick.

Westchester County is about Loudon's privileged upbringing in the wealthy New York suburb of the title. There's a better version on "Career Moves".

Saturday Morning Fever is about watching cartoons on children's TV. Another song with strangely recorded vocals.

April Fool's Day Morn is one of Loudon's best, and certainly most personal songs. Again the version on Career Moves is probably better, but this version has Richard Thompson playing acoustic on it, always an aural delight. It's a redemption song about a mother's love. Loudon's self-confessed behaviour in the song is again pretty reprehensible, but this serves to highlight the selflessness of his mother and their wordless understanding. Johnny Cash should have sung this one rather than the more whimsical "The Man Who Couldn't Cry."

The album ends with the title track, which is sung a capella (except for a steady drum beat). Again, strangely recorded vocals, probably deliberate here. Loudon sounds as though he were singing it to himself in the shower!

Despite a number of funny songs ("The Grammy Song", "IDTTYWLM", "Saturday Morning Fever", the title track), this is quite a downbeat album. It's one that has grown on me over the years, and I do urge you to buy it and listen to it all the way through and live with it for a bit.

Oh, and did the Academy take the hint and award him a Grammy? Of course not, this is Loudon, the eternal nearly man, remember! But his next album, which is even better, would be nominated for one... Coming next: I'm Alright, an antidote to the blues, and Loudon's best album of the 80s, More Love Songs.


mikesnyc said...

well written ,as always, and I'm in agreement with much of what you wrote.
In discussing the grammy song, i'm surprised you didn't pick up on the bob dylan reference-- only a few years before, Dylan had won a grammy for the gospel album 'slow train coming' and (if i'm remembering correctly) had thanked his 'his producer and jesus christ'. I always thought that that line of Loudon's in the grammy song quoting that was a little friendly dig at Bob.

mikesnyc said...

and as a ps, I want to also echo and amplify that comment about IDTTYWLM being a 'comic tour de force'. It certainly is, and just listening to Loudon's delivery of the words "I don' know" (or if you prefer, " I dunno") at the beginning and especially at the end is priceless. Watch for that little ad lib explosion in the last verse that gives away (as if it wasn't telegraphed in the whole song) how he REALLY feels, too.

A song that loudon sometimes does in concert, and in fact my last loudon show earlier this month (may 2008) he did the song at my request.. and an incredible version, as well! It's an acting performence of the highest order,difficult to pull off but he always nails it, and as the old quote says "dying is easy but comedy is hard".

raggedclown said...

Thanks for your comments, Mike. I am really kicking myself for missing the Dylan reference in 'Grammy Song'! Bob actually thanked "The Lord, Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett who believed", but I think the reference is unmistakable.

raggedclown said...

I also forgot to talk about how IDTTYWLM, for all its appearance as a comic throwaway number, actually fits in with the theme of the album. This time Loudon is happy enough with his level of fame, since it is enough to annoy his friend's annoying wife: "I'm famous and she's jealous"!