Third one’s a charm
Loudon Wainwright III comes to Big Room
It was eight in the morning Pacific Daylight Time—4 p.m. in London—when I spoke recently with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Billed in England as an “American songwriting legend,” a term that UK Guardian music critic Adam Sweeting writes “verges on understatement.” Wainwright was on the phone from the Pembridge Court Hotel for a quick interview before he headed out to perform that night at Fairfield Hall in London in support of his latest CD, Here Come the Choppers!
“It’s funny,” I told Wainwright. “I wrote a note here on this piece of paper when I found out I was going to be calling you in Europe: ‘Loudon—Europe,’ and the way I wrote the ‘u’ in Loudon makes it look like ‘London.’ That was before I even knew I was going to be calling you in London.” An odd little prophecy?
“Oh, my name’s been spelled like that before,” the writer of the song “T.S.M.N.W.A.” ("They Spelled My Name Wrong Again") assured me, “a number of times.” “Louden” and “Wainright” are other common misspellings of his unusual name, sometimes even on concert tickets.
“My parents should shoulder some blame for calling their kid a strange name,” he asserts in that 1992 song.
We talk about the new album, beginning with the catchy title song which decries the seemingly incessant sky patrolling by LAPD helicopters looking for “bad guys” in the upscale “Miracle Mile"—Wilshire Boulevard between La Brea and Fairfax ("Up there over Wilshire, the whirlybirds zoom…/ Now we’re under attack in the Miracle Mile…/ We live in a war zone…/ Hide under your lemon trees/ Here come the choppers…).
“I don’t live in the Miracle Mile any more. I live in Woodland Hills,” Wainwright revealed, adding, “More coyote action there than choppers!”
“No Sure Way” is Wainwright’s song about being in the New York City subway system during the 9/11 catastrophe: “Like prisoners inside compartments on some House of Horrors ride/ The walls were tiled—I hadn’t noticed/ They seemed so antiseptic and clean/ But we knew what we were under/ The lights were on—that seemed obscene…”
“Were you actually riding the subway when that happened?” I asked him.
“No, but I rode it later, and [to write that song] I simply described what it was like [as if I had ridden it at that time]. I got specific about some of the details. It’s just a technique that I have developed. My dad was a journalist. Maybe I inherited a gene for a talent for a reporter’s kind of descriptions,” he explained.
Wainwright—or simply “III,” as he refers to himself in the liner notes of Choppers—is the son of long-time Life magazine editor Loudon Wainwright II and grandson of Loudon Wainwright I, about whom he wrote the poignant “Half Fist” on the new album: “I’ve seen the family photos and the man’s a mystery/ He died in 1942 at the age of 43/ My grandmother was his widow and my father was his son/ But I know next to nothing of the first Loudon…”
III is also the father of musicians Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche. Family figures strongly throughout Choppers. His playful ditty “Nanny” pays jaunty homage to his grandmother, and “Things” is a moving song that he wrote for Lucy: “Everything I say to you/ Seems to come out all wrong/ So I’ll stop speaking sentences/ Instead I’ll sing a song/ And the sound of my voice singing/ Might soothe that thing in you/ That can’t believe the words I speak/ Or what I say is true…”
“I don’t know what it is,” my friend Tom—an ardent admirer of Loudon III—pondered, “the words or the way he sings them, but they sort of sum up the human condition for me—sad and desperate. Loudon’s songs ring true, and how can you not like a guy who has an album called Attempted Mustache?”
Loudon III brings to the Big Room “some new songs” as well as any number of songs from his 35-year musical career, and, he added, “I’m bringing a ukulele. People should look forward to that.”