Wainwright, Loudon, III
Singer, songwriter, actor
When Loudon Wainwright III released his first album in 1970, the music press branded him, as it had other young singer-songwriters, “The New Bob Dylan.” Two decades later, in “Talking New Bob Dylan,” a 1992 tribute to the rock and folk legend, Wainwright suggested that he and the other New Bob Dylans, “your dumb-ass kid brothers,” get together at singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen’s house as part of a 12-step program. Wainwright has also been dubbed “the Woody Allen of Folk” and “the Charlie Chaplin of Rock.”
Though originally lumped with the many singer-songwriters of the early 1970s, Wainwright’s finely tuned wit served to separate him from the pack, and critics eventually stopped looking for comparisons. “[There are] a million amateurs out there who call themselves songwriters, but for my money, [there are] only a few who belong in this guy’s league,” asserted City Pages contributor Jim Walsh. Called “the not-so-sensitive folk singer” by Greg Reibman in Billboard, Wainwright built a cult following with funny, biting, and incisive songs about virtually any subject. He is, according to Tom Surowicz of the Twin Cities Reader, “a thoroughly compelling master of irony” and in Rolling Stone contributor David Browne’s words, “our greatest pop satirist.”
Wainwright was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1946, but grew up in affluent Westchester County, New York, the eldest of the four children of renowned Life magazine editor and columnist Loudon Wainwright, Jr. His high school years were spent in Delaware, at the St. Andrews School for Boys, where he began to listen to and play folk music. Wainwright learned to play the guitar in his early teens and performed with a few folk groups at school. He also spent weekends at folk clubs in Philadelphia and saw Bob Dylan “go electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Dylan was a big influence musically, as was folksinger and guitarist Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Wainwright went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study acting and directing but left after a year and a half, dropping out in January of 1967 to head for San Francisco.
“Discovered” in New York City Club
But by 1968, Wainwright was back East, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He started writing songs and playing in Boston-area, and occasionally New York City, clubs. It was at New York’s Village Gaslight that Milton Kramer, a music publisher, caught Wainwright’s act. Kramer quickly became his manager and secured him a recording contract with Atlantic Records in 1969. Wasting little time, Atlantic released Wainwright’s first album, Loudon Wainwright III, in 1970, followed by Album II in 1971.
For the Record…
Born Loudon Wainwright III, September 5, 1946, in Chapel Hill, NC; son of Loudon S. Wainwright, Jr., (a columnist and editor of Life magazine) and Martha (a yoga instructor); married Kate McGarrigle (a singer), (divorced, 1977); married Suzzy Roche (a singer), (divorced); children: (first marriage) Rufus, Martha; (second marriage) Lucy. Education: Attended Carnegie Mellon University, 1965-4967.
Began writing and performing in Boston and New York City, 1968; signed with Atlantic Records, 1969, and released Loudon Wainwright III, 1970; signed with CBS Records, and released Album III, 1972; signed with Arista Records, c. 1976; signed with Demon Records in England, Rounder in the U.S., and released Fame and Wealth, 1982; appeared in films The Slugger’s Wife, 1985, and Jacknife, 1989; performed on stage and television in England, 1980s—.
Awards: Grammy award nominations for best contemporary folk recording, 1986, for I’m Alright, and 1987, for More Love Songs.
Addresses: Record Company —Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Management—Teddy Wainwright, P.O. Box 115, Purdys, NY 10578. Booking agent—The Rosebud Agency, P.O. Box 170429, San Francisco, CA 94117.
Wainwright’s early work was personal and confessional, and the instrumentation was very spare—usually just the singer and his acoustic guitar. Critics were impressed. Reviewing the first album for Rolling Stone, Gary Von Tersch marveled, “Usually artists of Wainwright’s obvious genius write and play out their lives and songs on old friends’ back porches, in local smoke-stung coffeehouses or on anonymous sidewalks and park benches. Somehow Wainwright found his way onto a record. I just hope it’s not a one-shot affair—he’s got something to say.” Though Stephen Holden, also of Rolling Stone, deemed the artist’s first two offerings poorly produced, he acknowledged that “the records were wonderful. The crudeness of production, the extremely static nature of the music itself: these at least accentuated the poetry by making it inescapable.” Also evident on the early albums was a bitterness that put some listeners off. Looking back a decade later, Steven X. Rea of High Fidelity recalled that these first attempts “were not easy records to listen to. The singer-songwriter... was certainly clever and cunning, smart and satirical, but the emotions behind his words—sung in a high, bitter whine—were angry, distraught, and dark.”
Wainwright’s relationship with Atlantic was stormy and the label dropped him after Album II. Picked up by CBS Records, he released Album III in 1972. This LP was not only a critical success, but a popular one as well, reaching the Top 100. Much of the attention it garnered could be attributed to the comic song “Dead Skunk,” which landed in the Top 20. Album Ill’s humor, in fact, marked a change in Wainwright’s music. As he explained in Sing Out!, though he started his career as a fairly serious songwriter, “humor started to leak in after a couple of years, and rather than change what I was doing, I sort of threw gasoline on it, ’cause I enjoyed having people laugh at me—or with me.” He told Craig Harris, author of The New Folk Music, that he also liked the way his new approach increased record sales, as did CBS, which pushed him to write more funny, commercial songs.
Wainwright released five more albums during the ’70s, all of them sounding very commercial, according to High Fidelity’s Rea. But the singer was not particularly pleased with his work, even though his core of devotees continued to grow. Songs intended to ensnare a wide audience were not his forte. “Generally my impulse to write has been autobiographical. I never really thought much about writing something for the radio audience at large,” he told Sing Out! “When I’ve halfheartedly tried to make radio records, they were failures.” By 1976, CBS had dropped him and he had moved to Arista. Rolling Stone’s David Wild called Wainwright’s Arista albums his “least distinguished efforts.” Wainwright himself called them his “plane-crash albums.” As he explained to the journalist, “When my plane goes down, those records come out again. At that time I was under pressure to have a hit single... and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just looking over my shoulder—completely freaked.”
Wainwright had also spent the 1970s pursuing his interest in acting. He appeared in three episodes of television’s M*A*S*H in 1975 and performed Off Broadway in the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes. This occupation continued into the ’80s, when he appeared in two films—The Slugger’s Wife in 1985 and Jacknife in 1989—and on stage and television in Britain. Also during the ’70s, Wainwright married singer Kate McGarrigle of the Canadian folk duo the McGarrigle Sisters, and the couple had two children, Rufus and Martha. But the marriage ended in 1977 and a year later, Arista let him go. “I just wound up at the end of the 70’s in a heap,” he confessed to Bill Flanagan in Musician. He left his manager and his agent, moved to California, and then to England. Except for a live LP released by Radar Records in 1979, Wainwright, who had dutifully unveiled an album every year since 1970, did not produce another until 1982.
In 1980 Wainwright started over, signing with independent record companies—Demon in England and Rounder in the U.S. As he told Flanagan in 1989, he loved the freedom of working with independents, which allowed him to make the music he wanted without the pressure to produce hit singles and big sales. “And slowly, through this decade I’ve made five albums just trying to somehow figure out how to do work that I feel good about that is related to something real.” He began working with British folk and guitar favorite Richard Thompson, who played on his albums and helped produce several, and found a new manager in his sister Teddy. He married Suzzy Roche of the singing sister trio The Roches, and they had a daughter, Lucy, in 1982. The marriage to Roche didn’t last either, but it apparently gave Wainwright plenty of new song material.
In this second phase of his career, Wainwright returned to more personal songwriting. As he mused in “Harry’s Wall,” from 1988’s Therapy, “I guess by now you’ve noticed/Almost all the songs I write/Somehow pertain to me.” Wainwright also, according to Rea, exhibited a “newfound emotional maturity.” Reviewing 1982’s Fame and Wealth, he asserted, “His first collection of new songs in four years shows a wiser, worldlier set of perceptions.” The next album, 1985’s I’m Alright, was co-produced by Thompson, who, according to High Fidelity’s Leslie Berman, encouraged Wainwright to concentrate on his “softer side.” In doing so, he “[fashioned] a portrait of the artist as a gloomy hopeful fellow; the anger and disdain of so many of his earlier songs is gone. By toning down his negativity, he has discovered a more complicated and effective level of humor.” I’m Alright was nominated for a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk recording, as was the 1986 follow-up, More Love Songs.
1988 saw Wainwright inching his way back to the major labels; that year’s Therapy was recorded by Silvertone, another independent, but distributed by RCA. People’s David Hiltbrand considered Therapy an “uneven effort for Wainwright,” but Rolling Stone contributor Wild felt differently, declaring, “[Therapy] reaffirms that [Wainwright] is one of the wittiest and most literate singer-songwriters on the scene.” Wainwright’s following remained strong in the United States and England, which had become his primary residence. In 1989, England’s Edsel Records reissued his first five albums.
Wainwright’s faithful were rewarded in 1992 with History. Released by Virgin Records, it marked the artist’s full return to the majors. Kent Zimmerman of the Gavin Report described History as “beautifully played, produced, sung and phrased,” and along with the Twin Cities Reader’s Surowicz and Entertainment Weekly, assessed it as one of the best albums of the year. The family-focused record was highly personal—in the words of Wild, an “intimate, painfully honest album, which should be called Songs for the Whole Dysfunctional Family” Less cynically, Dave DiMartino of Musician labeled History “Wainwright’s shining moment of personal introspection.”
Throughout his checkered recording career, Wainwright’s mainstay has been his live performances—as he acknowledged to Musician’s Flanagan, saying, “I still more than anything love to play for people.” Although High Fidelity contributor Berman judged his performances “mannered and predictable,” Surowicz identified in Wainwright “a rare honesty, biting wit, moving depth, impish sex appeal, a punk’s energy, a star actor’s charisma, and a great biographer’s gift for detail.” His relationship with his audience is at once antagonistic and naked. As Flanagan described, onstage Wainwright is a “hammy extrovert, making faces as he sings, lifting one leg in the air, sticking out his tongue and then—unexpectedly—opening his veins for the audience’s inspection.”
In spite of his critical acclaim, Wainwright continued to feel the pinch of life on the musical fringe. “It would be bullshitting you to say that I don’t want to be more successful. I’m obsessed with success and failure.... And I’m frustrated because I’m on the periphery of the music business,” he admitted to Flanagan. In songs like “Harry’s Wall” he takes stabs at his minor celebrity, and in “The Home Stretch,” from More Love Songs, he rails, “But keep lifting your left leg/And sticking out your tongue/There’s nothing else that you can do/And you’re too old to die young.” Still, he conceded to Flanagan that he loves his job. “I’m one of those people who got to do basically what they wanted to do and get paid for it. So I consider myself very fortunate.” Four years later, in the liner notes to his much-applauded 1993 live album Career Moves, he maintained his optimism, reporting, “In February of this year I did a show at the Royal Festival Hall in London and a few weeks later I was in Orlando, Florida, playing in a blues bar called the Junkyard. Both were good nights.”
Through exposure on such venues as National Public Radio and the word of mouth of loyal fans and critics, Wainwright’s satire, wit, and sincerity persisted in gracing both concert halls and bars. City Pages contributor Walsh suggested why: “Loudon Wainwright III leaves you with something. Something peculiar, something special, something to chew on. And though he says he draws lines as to how much he’s willing to reveal about his life, he also writes with an unflinching honesty while others in his same arena cover up with poetry and volume.” Wainwright countered, “Well, it could just be my exhibitionist tendencies, too; I don’t think we have to turn it into so much of a noble thing.” This characteristic deflation only confirmed Holden’s New York Times explanation of Wainwright’s appeal. “A great singing storyteller,” the music scribe ventured, “he still projects the slightly scary radarlike vision of a precocious brat who sees through all disguises, including his own, and feels compelled to tattle on everybody.”
Loudon Wainwright III, Atlantic, 1970.
Album II, Atlantic, 1971.
Album III (includes “Dead Skunk”), CBS, 1972.
Attempted Mustache, CBS, 1974.
Unrequited, CBS, 1975.
T Shirt, Arista, 1976.
Final Exam, Arista, 1978.
A Live One, Radar, 1979.
Fame and Wealth, Demon/Rounder, 1982.
I’m Alright, Demon/Rounder, 1985.
More Love Songs (includes “The Home Stretch”), Demon/Rounder, 1986.
Therapy (includes “Harry’s Wall”), Silvertone/RCA, 1988.
History (includes “Talking New Bob Dylan”), Virgin, 1992.
Career Moves, Virgin, 1993.
Harris, Craig, The New Folk Music, White Cliffs Media Company, 1991.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Billboard, August 19, 1989; January 9, 1993.
City Pages (Minneapolis/St. Paul), November 25, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, November 20, 1992; December 25, 1992.
Evening Standard (London), October 5, 1992.
Gavin Report, November 20, 1992.
High Fidelity, June 1983; March 1986; October 1987.
Independent (London), October 13, 1992.
Minneapolis Star and Tribune, November 30, 1992.
Musician, September 1989; February 1993.
Music Paper, November 1993.
New York Times, November 22, 1992.
People, July 3, 1989.
Rolling Stone, October 29, 1970; October 26, 1972; April 23, 1987; October 5, 1989; March 4, 1993.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 31, 1993.
Sing Out!, Winter 1993.
Stereo Review, May 1986; April 1993; November 1993.
Twin Cities Reader (Minneapolis/St. Paul), November 25, 1992.
Utne Reader, May/June 1993.
Village Voice, September 28, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was provided by The Rosebud Agency and obtained from liner notes to Career Moves, Virgin, 1993.
—Megan Rubiner Zinn
Wainwright, Loudon III
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Born: Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 5 September 1946
Best-selling album since 1990: History (1992)
Loudon Wainwright III is a witty singer/songwriter whose three-plus decades of insightful music serve as a diary for the world and of his own interesting life. Spawned from a generation overflowing with musicians who carted a guitar and a message, Wainwright survived early stardom and career malaise to hit his mark as an important voice in contemporary music.
Born the oldest child of four into an affluent East Coast family, Wainwright grew up in Bedford, New York, a tony suburb of New York City. His father, Loudon S. Wainwright Jr., was a prominent columnist and editor of Life magazine and a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of the Dutch colony New Amsterdam (later New York). His upscale background and its trappings became song fodder for Wainwright. He learned to play guitar as a teenager, began writing songs, and adopted folksinger Bob Dylan as his hero after seeing the star perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 1962. When Wainwright released his first album, Loudon Wainwright III, critics raved and quickly compared him to Dylan. Wainwright scored a hit with the novelty song, "Dead Skunk," in 1972, but his career never reached the high initially anticipated. Yet, he scored Grammy Award nominations for I'm Alright (1985) and More Love Songs (1986) and by the 1990s Wainwright had melded his songwriting, acting, comic presence, and gift for social satire into a comfortable artistic voice and a solid career.
In 1992 he released the highly acclaimed History, an autobiographical collection of songs, performed with his usual aplomb, that deal with relationships between him and members of his family. He also gives a sarcastic nod to a time when critics compared every promising guitar-playing singer/songwriter to Dylan. The song, "Talkin' New Bob Dylan" suggests that all of the artists once christened "the new Bob Dylan" gather for a 12-step rehabilitation meeting.
Wainwright's songs are story songs, usually honest biographical sketches with a twist or a parody of some social condition that he finds personally interesting. A favorite on National Public Radio, Wainwright wrote a series of songs for the station that lampooned events and people like Y2K, the O. J. Simpson trial, skater Tonya Harding, former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, and former president Bill Clinton. Many of these songs ended up on a collection titled, Social Studies (1999). Wainwright also hosted his own television show, Loudon and Co., on England's BBC in 1994. Critics note his concert performances are characteristically bombastic, featuring amusing, sometimes confrontational, repartee with his audience. He sticks out his tongue, makes funny faces when he sings, and kicks with his leg for extra emphasis. The most significant ingredient of a Wainwright song is its lyrics and he sings them in a clear tenor voice while adroitly accompanying himself on guitar.
Wainwright's acting skills have served him well through the years and throughout 2001 he portrayed the nosy father of a college student as a regular on the Fox
network sitcom, Undeclared. Prior to that, he played a guitar-strumming rehab patient in the comedy film 28 Days (2000). The soundtrack for the film contains four of his songs. Wainwright has been in several off-Broadway plays in addition to the films The Slugger's Wife (1985) and Jackknife (1989). In 1975 he combined his music and acting to play a singing surgeon for three episodes on the award-winning hit television series Mash.
Wainwright released another collection of personal songs on Last Man on Earth (2001). The album, despite its expected infusion of humor and irony, contains achingly lovely songs dealing with his mother's death, such as "Missing You," or the passing of both of his parents in "Homeless." Even the bluegrass-styled "I'm Not Gonna Cry" reveals an older, contemplative artist opening up his heart and soul for all to see. Another interesting song is "Surviving Twin," which exposes his rivalry with his father's success. Ironically, Wainwright's son, Rufus Wainwright, is a singer/songwriter sensation who, like his father, drew great critical praise for his first professional efforts. Wainwright's daughter, Martha, is also a recording artist.
Wainwright's songs and style have not changed much through the years, but the times have. His musical stories reflect those times through the fabric of Wainwright's own life. Though criticized occasionally for writing songs that so quickly become dated, ultimately Wainwright is one of those rare musical artists whose music may earn a valued sense of timelessness.
Loudon Wainwright III (Atlantic, 1970); Album II (Atlantic, 1971); Album III (CBS, 1972); Attempted Mustache (CBS, 1973); Unrequited (CBS, 1975); T-Shirt (Arista, 1976); Final Exam (Arista, 1978); A Live One (Rounder, 1979); Fame and Wealth (Demon, 1983); I'm Alright (Demon, 1985); More Love Songs (Demon, 1986); Therapy (Silvertone, 1989); History (Virgin, 1992); Career Moves (Virgin, 1993); Grown Man (Virgin, 1996); Little Ship (Virgin, 1997); Social Studies (Hannibal, 1999); Last Man on Earth (Red House, 2001). Soundtracks: 28 Days (Varese, 2000).