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Loudon Wainwright III: Outgrowing the grouch

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Ross HalfinSinger-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III performs May 21 at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN ” Loudon Wainwright III has built a reputation for putting himself under the magnifying glass in his songs. The 62-year-old singer-songwriter ” part of the first wave of “new Dylans” ” has specialized in writing about his relationships with his children and lovers; his lost years, when he floated in a sea of alcohol and infidelity; the slightly noticeable ebbs and valleys of his career. Virtually all of it has come with large measure of humor and self-deprecation. The composite self-portrait is one of a terminally grouchy cynic ” but one who can make you laugh, and carry a tune at the same time.

In the title track to 2001’s “Last Man on Earth,” Wainwright confessed, “I know that I’m grumpy/ middle aged crazy.” But he didn’t need to get to his 50s to cast himself in a dark light. In “Excuse Me,” Wainwright sang, “If I were 16 again I’d give my tooth/ I’m tired and I’m hungry, and I’m ready for my youth,” in a song that has the tone and all the specific detail of autobiography. He was 25 at the time.

Wainwright, it turns out, may be an unreliable narrator. True, he has turned the actual facts of his life for material: “Hitting You,” from the 1992 album “History,” really did stem from an incident where he smacked one of his kids (on the butt, it should be mentioned). Wainwright apparently did go through more than a momentary period of boozing and bedding women that resulted in “Mr. Guilty,” “The Drinking Song,” “I Can’t Stand Myself” and “Motel Blues.” But in a phone conversation, he is affable and approachable on any subject. His latest publicity photos reflect anything but darkness; he’s smiling, standing near a motel pool. And Wainwright is speaking from a tour stop in Seattle ” via cell phone. So never mind the ultra-Luddite of “Last Man on Earth,” who doesn’t “pack a cell phone.”



“I’m still grumpy and cranky and kvetching, to put it in Yiddish terms, all the time,” said Wainwright, who performs the opening set on a bill with the long-running roots band Hot Tuna on Thursday, May 21 at Belly Up. Which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s down on himself. He may be a kvetch ” but he also gets to address the personality trait in lyrics, and somewhere in the transition from being a grouch to proclaiming himself a grouch in song, the concept of being grouchy gets altered. “Self-deprecation is an around-the-bend type of flattery,” Wainwright observes.

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About three years ago, filmmaker Judd Apatow called on Wainwright to contribute songs to Apatow’s latest comedy of aimless young men, “Knocked Up.” Wainwright was already scheduled to record an album with producer Joe Henry, so Wainwright pulled Henry into the film project. The two not only came up with a handful of songs for the outstanding “Knocked Up,” but an entire album: “Strange Weirdos: Songs From and Inspired by the film ‘Knocked Up.'” (Wainwright, who had appeared in Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and the TV show “M*A*S*H,” also had an on-screen role in “Knocked Up.”) Henry ” like Apatow, a devout fan of Wainwright’s ” figured as long as he had Wainwright in the studio, he might as well extend their collaboration, and he floated the idea of recording new versions of the songwriter’s early material.

The result was last year’s “Recovery.” It’s the sort of project a genuine cynic would probably not pursue. An album of new recordings of old tunes would provide a grump with the opportunity to bemoan how much better he was as a young man. Or grouse about what a foolish young singer-songwriter he had been way back when.

But “Recovery” exposes neither the rustiness of a 60-something singer, nor the immaturity of a 20-something writer. Featuring Henry’s fairly edgy production technique ” a departure for Wainwright ” the album sounds fresh and invigorating. (It made this writer’s list of top releases of 2008.) And even the toughest critic looks favorably on the songs written by the emerging artist.

“I was struck by how good they were ” that the young writer who wrote them was good,” said Wainwright of the songs he reworked on “Recovery.” “They were concise. They’re tightly constructed and they’re clear. That was enjoyable.”

Wainwright believes he hasn’t changed all that much as a writer over his 40-year career. As a 25-year-old, he was thinking about the passage of time: “In Delaware when I was younger” is the repeated line from “School Days,” the opening song from his self-titled, 1970 debut. In his mid-50s, the aging process was still foremost on his mind; “Last Man on Earth,” written following the death of Wainwright’s mother and featuring such titles as “Graveyard” and “Missing You,” is practically a song cycle about life fading away.

“At 25, it seemed like I was getting ready to get old,” said Wainwright, who was raised in the suburbs north of New York City, has put in years in New York and London, and for the past eight years has lived in Los Angeles County. “A lot of the concerns I had as a young guy are the concerns I have now.”

Wainwright is as pleased with the singer he is now as the writer he was back then. On the surface, the voice has become lower and richer. Wainwright himself hears even deeper changes.

“It’s the experience of singing. I’m certainly a different singer, and I’m a better singer,” said Wainwright, whose legacy includes not just 20-plus albums, but three accomplished second-generation musicians: Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche. (Rufus and Martha are scheduled to perform Aug. 15 at Belly Up.) “Those first two records for Atlantic, I was terrified. There was a keening, high-strung, terrified quality. That was effective; that made them work. But now I’m more comfortable and relaxed as a singer.

“I like the idea that if you do something a long time, you improve.”

Oddly enough for someone branded for his black, self-mocking humor, Wainwright’s biggest hit remains the goofy 1972 novelty, “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road).” He has, over the years, written several songs in that vein, but as he’s gotten older he’s ditched that side of his writing: “I don’t feel I have to be as much of a clown,” he said.

He also doesn’t need to be as much of a grouch. Or even portray himself as one.

“I’m trying to think I’m a little less cynical, more open,” he said. And while aging isn’t easy ” “Schlepping through an airport with a guitar is a punishing job,” he notes ” Wainwright also has an easier time finding the lighter side of being 62.

“You get a discount to the movies,” he said.

stewart@aspentimes.com