My First Time
“The shit on the streets of our town
Comes in different shades of brown
What I mean can be seen and be found
Take a stroll and look down on the ground”
– Loudon Wainwright III, ‘Colours’ (1985)
It was Saturday afternoon at the Glastonbury Festival, 1986. I was one of a few hundred student-types getting stoned in preparation for John Martyn at 3pm. But before that, here was Loudon Wainwright III, on his own and trying to get us to sing the above lyric, the chorus to his song Colours.
I had heard Loudon’s music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder prior to this:
“Bruno has a lovely place that’s down on Seventh Street
Bruno has a lovely place, I go there and I eat
But I don’t eat meat. It’s bad for my feet.”
-Loudon Wainwright III, ‘Bruno’s Place’ (1970)
That recording was from fifteen years earlier and here he was, singing well, accompanying himself well and meeting with a response that was part apathy, part amusement. But he never lacked credibility.
Wainwright’s recent autobiography (see above) explores the nooks and crannies of his long career and life. Its fifty short chapters are arranged according to subject matter rather than chronology. However, the text flits back and forth between life story and anecdotes.
The chapter headings are like song titles in a fifty-track box set. Wainwright’s recollections are interspersed with columns his dad, Loudon Wainwright Junior, wrote for Life magazine. Loudon III inherited his dad’s communicative ability, among other things, and took it further. He also rebelled against what his dad stood for whilst being blessed with the competitive drive, gregariousness and confidence which helped both of them succeed.
Chapter seventeen, ‘Bands’, describes how Wainwright’s post-hippy image set him apart from his contemporaries and was informed by his macrobiotic diet and ideology. Seeing The Band gave him the impetus to break out of that and stake his claim as a performer.
Wainwright had, by then, already been through his hippy phase, which culminated in a prison sentence for pot possession. While staying in Watch Hill, Rhode Island with his grandmother in the aftermath of both this event and dropping out of Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, he fell into a career which has lasted for nearly fifty years.
He had previously had more of an inclination towards acting than music but was in the right place (Cambridge, Massachusetts) at the right time (1968). One gig led to another and pretty soon he had a manager, Milton Kramer, who secured him a publishing deal and record contract.
Career Highs and Lows
One thing that impresses me as a fan of his is Wainwright’s incredible staying power. Though his first two albums were raw, poetic and vivid he seemed to run out of steam in the late seventies. Then while he was living in London in the eighties there was a creative renaissance. For me, his British phase went slightly off the boil in the nineties.
Later there was his LA period – Wainwright’s acting career and Hollywood associations get plenty of description in Liner Notes. Recently – in my view – he has enjoyed a return to something like top form with ‘Older Than My Old Man Now’ (2012) and ‘Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet)’ (2014).
Liner Notes is clearly and intelligently written. In the acknowledgements, LW3 credits personal and professional contacts for doing a great editing job. He has lived a fascinating and fearless life and is one of my artistic heroes.
Naturally Wainwright talks about his many relationships: with his parents, his siblings and his partners (though not so much with his famous children Rufus, Martha and Lucy). He admits his infidelities and fatherly shortcomings. Interesting psychoanalysis of his loved ones is provided. The accuracy of this cannot be verified but it makes very good reading. The same can be said of the entire book.