Loudon Wainwright III – IIIrd act
Long careers sometimes depend on the serendipitous folds of history. Around a dozen years after Loudon Wainwright III released his 1970 debut album, he was briefly hired to be a part of David Letterman’s short-lived daytime talk show. Wainwright spent a week on the couch singing songs and kibitzing with the guests. That should be the end of the story, but it’s not.
“I saw Loudon perform on Letterman’s morning show in the early ’80s,” says Judd Apatow, a heavyweight of Hollywood comedy who wrote and directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the new Knocked Up. “I remember him doing that song ‘Unrequited’ where he sings about ‘When I die and it won’t be long you’re going to be sorry that you treated me so wrong.’ I thought it was so dark and funny, and as a kid in junior high school, I had never seen anybody express themselves that way.”
Around that time, Wainwright took a train to Philadelphia to appear on “The Mike Douglas Show”. He sat on the couch with author Gore Vidal, who commented that he knew an editor at Life magazine called Loudon Wainwright. “That’s my father,” replied the folksinger son. Another future friend was in the television audience.
“I was around 15 when I saw Loudon on ‘The Mike Douglas Show’,” says Joe Henry, the savvy singer-songwriter who’s lately earned a reputation as a first-rate record producer. “I was incredibly excited to hear a working songwriter with such a distinctive voice.”
Decades later, Henry penned an essay about four of his favorite songwriters: Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, and Loudon Wainwright III. Around that time, he also decided to be proactive about soliciting production work, and wrote a letter to Wainwright that resulted in the two men meeting over pints of Guinness. Soon thereafter, Henry produced Wainwright performing “Daughter”, a song by Peter Blegvad, for a charity compilation, Golden Slumbers: A Father’s Love.
What appealed to Henry about Wainwright? “He’s a unique writer in that he can be both analytical and intellectual and yet not lose the emotional thread,” he says. “Usually people have to choose between being intellectual or taking an emotional view. Loudon balances those two things beautifully. He can tear things apart in a very intellectual way, but the feeling you walk away with is emotional.”
Apatow followed Wainwright’s career through his teen years and as a hot young writer-producer of such highly regarded early-’90s TV shows as “The Ben Stiller Show” and the Garry Shandling vehicle “The Larry Sanders Show”. When Apatow was casting his short-lived college comedy series “Undeclared”, he lobbied hard to cast Wainwright as a dysfunctional dad, and later had him play a minister in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Call it payback for years of literary inspiration.
“One of the reasons that I’m obsessed with Loudon,” says Apatow, “is that he’s a reminder of the work I want to do in film. Loudon’s got this ability to be brutally honest and to be able to go back and forth between something moving and heartfelt and something biting and comic, sometimes in the same song. Listening to him always reminds me to be true to myself and my vision; the fact that he’s followed his muse for all this time is an inspiration.”
For Knocked Up, Apatow not only cast Wainwright as an ObGyn who manages to miss his client’s delivery, he also asked him to write the film’s score. Wainwright got started last summer, spending a day in a London studio with guitarist Richard Thompson recording instrumental versions of “Daughter” and a new song that appealed to Apatow, “Grey In L.A.”. But since Thompson was preparing to make his own record (the new Sweet Warrior), he begged off the project, and Wainwright returned to L.A. to work with Henry.
For both Wainwright and Henry, the opportunity to record with a movie-score budget was a liberating experience. “Normally when I make a record,” says Wainwright, “I’ve got a batch of songs that are already written, usually a few more than I need, and I go into the studio. Then a lot depends on budgetary considerations and people’s availability. For instance, we cut my last album, Send In The Choppers, in four days, because those were the only days we could get [guitarist] Bill Frisell and [drummer] Jim Keltner.”
This time, Wainwright and Henry enjoyed the luxury of a slow-perking collaboration that ran from August 2006 until March 2007. “We were writing score and songs,” explains Henry, “and a lot of the score we wrote became songs, and vice versa. It’s easy to take a song and make some score out of it, but very few people who work in movies can take twenty seconds of a score and write a song out of it. But if we created twenty seconds that had something going for it, one of us would turn it into a song over the weekend. That’s just how we think. And when we’d go into the studio to record five cues, we made sure that if there were songs connected to those cues, we’d record them on the same day.”
The resulting collection, Strange Weirdos: Music From And Inspired By The Film “Knocked Up”, ranks as one of Wainwright’s very best albums, a rare entry in his catalogue in which the musical accompaniment equals the quality of its best songs. Recorded with such Henry regulars as David Piltch (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums), and Greg Leisz (various stringed instruments), the record blends the players and the usually solo troubadour into a highly nuanced, organic whole.
Another twist is that standout songs such as “You Can’t Fail Me Now” and “Strange Weirdos” display a naked romanticism unusual for a songwriter who typically leavens his emotional material with wry asides. And to top it all, Wainwright’s vocals have never sounded better.