Loudon Wainwright III – IIIrd act
Apatow seems as proud of Strange Weirdos as Knocked Up, which had the pre-release buzz of a major summertime hit. “We were able to give Loudon the time and the money to get a lot of great musicians to play with him, to have Richard Thompson play on it, and to have a little orchestra with him in sections,” Apatow notes. “So it’s a big, full album for Loudon, which I don’t think he’s had the chance to do because it’s expensive. It’s not as costly as a big movie score with a 120-piece orchestra, but it’s probably a lot more expensive than a folk-rock album. So it was a great way for he and Joe to have all the tools they needed to record a great album.”
This is the movie business, however, so it should come as no surprise that the Traveling Wilburys’ “End Of The Line” was used as the musical bed for the Knocked Up television ad. Still, to put a little more icing on Loudon’s cake — and to produce bonus material for the eventual Knocked Up DVD — Apatow also bankrolled a three-camera shoot of Wainwright and his soundtrack band at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, California (three clips can be streamed at the Knocked Up website).
So it is that at the age of 60, Wainwright, who had his only big hit in 1972 with “Dead Skunk”, finds himself in the sweetest spot of his nearly 40-year career.
The doctor reached inside of her
He turned me around and then pulled me out
— “April Fool’s Day Morn”, 1982
The boilerplate Wainwright bio that is widely replicated on the internet leads with the fact that the boy born on September 5, 1946, “grew up in Bedford in wealthy Westchester County,” just north of New York City. His full W.A.S.P. credentials are underscored by being a direct descendent of colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant. But what truly influenced Wainwright’s upbringing was that his father, also named Loudon Wainwright, was a longtime editor and writer for Life magazine.
Given the journalistic pedigree, it’s hardly surprising Wainwright has a gift for detail. He has contributed topical songs on current events to both National Public Radio and ABC’s “Nightline”. As a child, he also saw his family become the occasional subject of his father’s long-running column, The View From Here, a fact that surely encouraged the grown-up songwriter to plunder his personal life for lyrical inspiration.
“The people in your life are gigantic,” says Wainwright, a father of four from three different women. “That’s what I know. I’m interested in my own life, my own cheesy life. I think of myself as a character in a song, and children and parents and brothers and sisters also as characters, because they are, or were. Then the descriptive thing takes over, but I never try to hide the fact of who I’m writing about.” (Wainwright has two sisters and one brother: Eleanor, a singer-songwriter who performs under the name Sloan Wainwright; Martha, a journalist who managed Wainwright’s career for 17 years; and Andrew, who’s a drug and alcohol counselor.)
Wainwright didn’t grow up wanting to be a musician, though he says his desire to be a performer was born the day his mother Martha encouraged her 7-year-old son to sing the old folk song “Rosin The Bow” during a visit with her twin sister. Instead, he wanted to be an actor, a desire perhaps fueled by the two years the family lived in Beverly Hills when his dad headed the Los Angeles bureau of Life. (Wainwright shared a class in second and third grade with Liza Minnelli, and wrote a song about it called “Liza”.)
Still, there was always music in the house, ranging from Broadway cast albums to Lead Belly. He got his first guitar, a nylon-stringed instrument from Mexico, at age 10. The guitar had been a gift to his father from his friend Terry Gilkyson, a singer-songwriter in the 1950s (perhaps best remembered for the Disney favorite, “Bare Necessities”) whose children Eliza and Tony also have become renowned musicians.
Like his father, Wainwright attended St. Andrews, a boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, that was used as the setting of the film Dead Poets Society. He enrolled in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon Institute to study acting, but also spent time playing music in jug bands and learning the kinds of songs that had appealed to him since the early-’60s folk revival and his trips to the Newport Folk Festival to see Bob Dylan, among other favorites.
Wainwright dropped out of school in 1967, and spent the Summer of Love in a San Francisco crash pad also occupied by Donald Fagen, who would later form Steely Dan. On his way back east, a pot bust in Oklahoma (chronicled in his 1971 song “Samson And The Warden”) resulted in five days in jail and the loss of his hippie locks.
Wainwright worked for a time in a Rhode Island boatyard, wrote twenty songs in a year, and headed to Boston and then New York. Upon arriving in Greenwich Village, he worked as cashier, cook, and dishwasher at the city’s first macrobiotic restaurant, the Paradox. He also performed at open-mike nights at clubs such as the Gaslight and the Bitter End, applying his theater background to the musical stage.
“I was nervous when I started,” he says, “but I also had to make it interesting to look at a guy with a guitar, so I got into the habit of scrunching up my face and sticking out my tongue. To somehow stand out from the pack, I created a kind of theatrical way to perform the songs. I had unfashionably short hair, and instead of wearing bell-bottom pants, I had Brooks Brothers flannel trousers. I created a look, and I think everybody has to do that when they start out. Mine was the psychotic preppie, a fresh-faced but somewhat strange-looking guy.”
Live performances also encouraged another element that became integral to his songwriting and stage act. “Playing the clubs, I discovered that I could make people laugh,” he recalls, “and the performer in me loved the fact that I could elicit this response. When ‘Dead Skunk’ happened, I worked against that part of me a little, but humor has always been a part of the way that I write.