Episode 14: Career Moves (Loudon Wainwright III, 1993)
“My songs are written to be performed, mostly,” explains Loudon Wainwright III in a 2014 interview. “I mean, I do make records from time to time, but I'm always thinking about if something is gonna work in a show.”
His catalogue is bursting with great songs and his lyrics come to my mind often. It's easy enough to be reminded of Wainwright's material what with the incredibly wide scope of topics he has written about over his long career. On this collection alone—his 1993 live album called Career Moves—he hits on love, sex, divorce, loneliness; swimming, spelling errors, tipping, drugs; Elvis, privilege, touring; unhappy holidays, unhappy birthdays, unhappy anniversaries. And that barely scratches the surface.
Career Moves, which was released to celebrate, as he puts it, “twenty-five years of earning a damn good living on the periphery of the music business,” begins with a driving, nearly manic song about life on the road. Not about some idyllic fantasy road life, but his experience, specifically his experience as an aging performer with a dedicated but modest following.
“Runnin' through airports at 43's OK for OJ but it's not for me, with a hernia, a bad back, and a bum knee and a guitar out on the road…”
He comically compares his humble travel conditions to the lush accommodations and full support staff of people like Willie Nelson, about whom he sing-speaks sarcastically, “well, Willie deserves it, he's a big ol' star!”
But Wainwright plugs away as ever, playing solo shows—occasionally joined by a friend or two, as he is on this record—relying on his wits, his songwriting chops, and his presence of mind on stage to loop into the show any in-the-moment incidents, rather than ignore or repress them.
About three and a half minutes into “Road Ode,” for example, he notices that his frenzied strumming has caused his low E-string to go flat. No matter. He pauses, quickly brings it up to pitch as the audience laughs, and gets on with it, but not before briefly commenting, “It's folk music, ya know, you can do that.” And remember, this track is the lead-off. There's no shying away or attempting to fold it deep into the album. These chance happenings, which, in a studio session, would surely be scrubbed away in post or simply be avoided by picking another take, are the things that seem to sustain Loudon's life on the road, and, it would seem, have from the very start of his career.
While his studio albums are lovely, replete as they are with backing bands and tidy arrangements, it's the live records—spare, mostly just him and his guitar, and his audience—that get me. There are some musicians that are so effective by themselves that adding a full band—no matter how competent the players—can detract and weigh them down.
Wainwright is one of those rare performers who can be completely and convincingly straight-faced and sincere, and then, often within a single song, land perfectly-placed jokes. Like a good eulogy, sincerity and seriousness doesn't preclude humor. See for example, the song Thanksgiving on this record, which presents all those complicated feelings about family re-gatherings later in life. In the midst of such an auspicious meal, he prays to Lord that if argues with a loved one, “please make me the winner”
For a fine example of the reverse—where you are knocked for a loop by the peeling of a serious bell at the end of a humorous, almost throwaway novelty song, check out “Tanya's Twirls”—about Tanya Harding—from his 2003 live album, So Damn Happy.
Loudon explains his combining of the solemn and the silly in an interview, noting that, “if you get people laughing, they're disarmed to a certain degree and they're listening and really engag[ed]… and you can slip one past them too.”
He mines his life, and particularly his family life, for material, but it's complicated, of course. Clearly the familial dysfunction feeds his work—on this album the big family hits are “Five Years Old,” “Your Mother & I,” and “Unhappy Anniversary”—but, by some sort of negative feedback loop, his work, which had for so long provided cover for him to be away from his kids as they grew up, fed the dysfunction, and how. Martha Wainwright, Loudon's youngest daughter with Kate McGarrigle, and a wonderful singer-songwriter herself, would recall him telling her, in her late teenage years, that letting her and her brother Rufus go was necessary in order to “be Loudon Wainwright.” Of course, Martha is more often quoted as saying that Loudon is a man who wrote songs about his children instead of raising them. So there's that.
The album's final arc is made up of four songs of epic proportions, any of which could itself stand as a testament to Wainwright's songwriting prowess: “April Fool's Day Morn,” dedicated to his mother, who was in the crowd during the recording; “The Man Who Couldn't Cry,” which would eventually be covered by Johnny Cash on his 1994 album, American Recordings; “The Acid Song,” about, well, let's say a “group trip”; and finally “Tip That Waitress,” a gentle and sympathetic look at workers the food service industry—a “plea for gratuity,” as he calls it.
Loudon, now nearly 70, is still out on the road and sounds as good as ever. Go and hear him if you can.
He also still makes records from time to time.
I'm Josh Rutner, and that's your album of the week.