Jack of all genres

Loudon Wainwright III came to the forefront of my consciousness maybe 15 years ago with a song on an Earl Scruggs tape called “The Swimming Song.” It’s an amusing, self-consciously awkward little song, but its perfectly chosen words fit together so well, and the melody hangs on such a note of triumph, that it hooks into the sublime — at least for me.

But maybe not for you. Maybe your musical tastes run more toward casual introspection, or painful expose. But that’s the thing about Wainwright — he’s a grab-bag, offering something for everyone.

His biggest hit, 1972’s “Dead Skunk,” led many to peg him as a sort of urban, guitar-strumming, folk-music clown. And his skill at writing and performing quirky, neurotic, funny, autobiographical songs (consider “They Spelled My Name Wrong Again” and “Attempted Mustache”) helped brand him the “Woody Allen of Folk.”

But Wainwright’s serious side is all over this year’s Little Ship (Virgin, 1997) — his 16th or 17th release (his publicity materials can’t decide). Not to cast aspersions on anyone’s bedroom prowess, but the first cut — the rocking, frankly libidinous “Breakfast in Bed” — has a disturbingly empty, sarcastic quality to it. “Four Mirrors” is a soft, acoustic ballad about catching a glimpse — in the mirror — of a parent’s imperfect face (the tiny broken blood vessels from drinking, for example). The anthemic “Mr. Ambivalent,” with Shawn Colvin singing backup, demands that fence-sitters “make a little movement or get off of the pot.” “OGM (Out-Going Message)” — a skillful, quiet song about the multiplying melancholies of ex-lovers — answering machines which packs a lot of punch in the spaces between the lyrics. And that’s just the first four cuts.

Now 52, Wainwright has just moved back to Westchester County, N.Y., where he grew up, after spending 11 years in London (“a mid-life homing instinct,” he told another journalist earlier this year). In addition to playing concerts and recording CDs, he also writes and performs topical songs for National Public Radio and Ted Koppel’s Nightline.

Wainwright’s been performing and recording for about 30 years now. In addition, he’s snagged roles in a couple of movies (Neil Simon’s The Slugger’s Wife and David Jones’ Jackknife); he played the part of the Singing Surgeon, Captain Calvin Spaulding, on M•A•S•H; and he has acted on stage (mostly in the U.K.) and hosted his own British TV show, BBC’s Loudon & Co..

When we spoke, Wainwright was in Hollywood, finishing up a string of performances and getting ready for a show in Texas. From the moment he answered the phone, he seemed tired of interviews, tired of interviewers looking for a line to hang an article on, tired of trying to explain his seemingly schizoid nicheless-ness, and tired of trying to promote and package himself. “It’s part of the job, though,” he said, sighing.

But when he gets to talking about performing, Wainwright’s enthusiasm comes through loud and clear.

Looking back on it all, what aspects of his career has he liked most? “Well,” he says, after a pause, “it’s fun to perform for people. … The other element of the job that I really like, in a different kind of way, is writing songs. It’s kind of a more mysterious part of the job, but when you get something good, it’s very satisfying.”

And the aspects he’s liked least? “I hate traveling,” he answers immediately, “and I have to do it a lot. I guess we all have parts of our jobs that we don’t like.”

I ask him what he thinks about his lack of a niche — the inadequacy of any attempt to label him or his work. “Fortunately, I don’t have to [think about it],” he answers. “I’m just involved in doing it. Certainly I’m not naive; I’m aware that there’s a humor element to it, and also a more serious aspect. I feel that there’s room for both of those things in the songs. I’m focused on writing the next song, or getting ready to do the next show, rather than trying to look at it from an objective point of view. I don’t really have an opinion about where I fit into the [music business], or what it is that I do. I’m just out there, kind of doing it.

“I suppose if you’re really, really successful,” he continues, “like the Rolling Stones are — legendary or something — there are certain expectations. Mick Jagger has to pretend that he’s still sexy, and Keith Richard has to have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth at some point in a show.

“The most successful thing that I ever did,” he adds (with a sardonic pause after the word “successful”), “was to write a song called ‘Dead Skunk,’ which I don’t perform — nor do I feel that I have to. So by being not so successful, I’ve managed to hold on to a certain amount of freedom.”

The up-close and personal (some say soul-baring) nature of some of Wainwright’s songs prompts me to ask if he writes anything that’s too personal, too close, to perform. “Not if it’s good,” he says. “That’s the priority. I have written about very personal things, things other people probably wouldn’t sing about. But my job is to write songs that at least I think are good, or useful. And I’m interested in myself, obsessed with myself, so that’s what I’m writing about a lot of the time.

“My job,” he concludes, “if it’s a show, is to engage and affect people … to move ’em in a variety of directions, maybe make ’em laugh, or think, or gasp, or cringe, or whatever. … And I’m capable of doing those things on a good night. … They may forget about it by the time they get to their cars, or they might not — it might stay with them. But if it happens — if they get to go somewhere for an hour and a half — I consider the job done, and it’s really satisfying.”

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