From dead skunks to deep family wounds, Loudon Wainwright III's songs about topics other songwriters might avoid have captivated audiences all over the world for more than forty years. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
Loudon Wainwright III has been playing the acoustic guitar for a long time. So I had to ask.
Budd Mishkin: When does my guitar lesson start?
Wainwright: Oh, that’s at four, I have to have a nap first.
Mishkin: And which six chords are you going to show me?
Wainwright: The only six I know.
Wainwright is a perfectly fine guitar player, but he is known for his words, lyrics that have captivated audiences all over the world for more than forty years. Often funny. Often poignant. Often in the same song.
"There's a kind of mystery and random quality for me anyway about writing songs. I do not get up and sharpen pencils and sit down and try to write songs, I know some people do that. I'm waiting, thinking and I've got the bait in the water and then there's a little tug maybe and then I've got to get it into the boat,” says Wainwright.
In 2011 Wainwright won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. Except for the offbeat early 70's hit “Dead Skunk,” you won't find his songs on the charts. Wainwright's song topics have ranged from marital discord to dogs to hockey. He might be the only performer to ever don a New York Islanders jersey on an album cover.
On his latest album, "Haven't Got the Blues (Yet)” there's an homage to having a dog in New York.
"Walking with a dog is easy, he listens, he don't talk,” sings Wainwright.
But many of Wainwright's most powerful songs are his most personal. Songs that put music and words to the deepest family wounds, topics other songwriters might avoid. Songs about his wives and ex-wives, about his four children and certainly about his mother and father.
"Mother liked her white wine, she’d have a glass or four, each empty bottle a dead soldier, the marriage was the war,” sings Wainwright.
"I'm writing about the people that interest me and I care about, you know, whether it's my parents, my kids, my ex-wife, my present wife, the dog,” says Wainwright. “It surprises me when people say ‘You're such a personal songwriter,’ I mean what better topic could there possibly be than to write about the people that have the most effect on you?"
Occasionally the concerts are family affairs.
Through the years, they've included his ex-wife, the late Kate McGarrigle, and their two kids Martha and Rufus Wainwright, and his other ex-wife, Suzzy Roche and their daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche.
It's a complex, very musical family tree.
"We don't do it that often, I mean, it's a good context to get together and hang out though, you know, and we get along great on stage of course; it's when we're off stage that's the problem,” he says.
"Sometimes people get too hung up about, he writes about this and she writes about that and, is it good or is it not good?" says Wainwright.
His father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., was a prominent writer and editor for Life magazine for years.
"I remember my dad came home once with a little Tandberg tape recorder, he had just interviewed Martin Luther King,” says Wainwright.
Wainwright grew up in Westchester and went to the same boarding school in Delaware as his dad. But years before that, he'd found his calling.
"I wanted to be a performer ever since I was seven, I didn't want to be a cowboy or a fireman or an astronaut,” he says.
He dropped out of acting school, picked up a guitar in the late 60s, and was instantly labeled, as were many, a new Bob Dylan.
But Wainwright created songs and performed them in a style all his own.
"When you're terrified, you kind of physicalize it and so I had a kind of style where I would stick my tongue out and scrunch my face up and stamp my, looked like I had to go to the bathroom very badly,” she says.
"It kind of alleviated some of my anxiety and terror about performing, but it also got the audience saying ‘What is he doing, that's very interesting and strange,’ I got noticed and in show business that’s another thing you’ve got to do in the beginning, you’re in a group of young people and they’re all out there and you’ve got to figure out a way to get noticed."
His propensity for writing about family runs in the family.
After a dispute years ago between father and son, Rufus Wainwright went home and wrote a no holds barred song with plenty of family history, "Dinner at Eight."
"It's a good song, and that’s the important thing, not so much that it's edgy or combative or confrontational and certainly those adjectives can be applied to my songs too, but it's good,” he says.
"He and I have had a real relationship with some real difficult stuff and for real good reasons. The marriage, my marriage to Kate broke up and that’s always a kind of a family tragedy, so you know it's a good song.”
He's lived in California and London, but Wainwright is primarily a New York guy, even wrote a song years ago called “Talking Big Apple 75.”
“The payoff on that song is it's full of cockroaches and violence and murder, but it's not boring. And I think that still holds,” he says.
For Loudon Wainwright, the goal hasn't changed much over 40-plus years. Be it funny or poignant, or both, write a good song.
"The good stuff doesn’t take a long time, it comes quickly, again I'm speaking of my own experience. There's crafting afterword’s and editing and changing but when it's coming through it's just coming through, and you don’t know where the hell it's coming from but you can tell when it's good, so a good line or a good song is a gift,” Wainwright says.