November 5th, 2008 | Interviews

daniel ingroff

Stream: Loudon Wainwright III “Motel Blues”


Loudon Wainwright III had stark songs like ‘Motel Blues’ covered by Alex Chilton and signed off on some of the smartest singer-songwriting of the ‘70s before fathering a few famous children and cultivating a pack of cameos in Judd Apatow vehicles. His newest Recovery revisits old guitar-and-voice classics with a full band and is out now on Yep Roc. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

When you were studying to be an actor, what did you have to work the hardest on?
I went to drama school at Carnegie Mellon, which used to be Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, and movement class was the hardest thing to do. You know—getting up and doing yoga, and this is before people even did yoga. This is nineteen-sixty-something-or-other. That was hard because I was a young man and probably the night before I was out getting wasted. And I would have to show up for movement. We just wanted to get right into the moment-to-moment—we all wanted to be Brandos at that point. We certainly didn’t wanna do headstands and Marcel Marceau moves. That was some of the stuff we were doing—when I made movement class. That was one of the hardest parts of going to acting school.
How’s that feel to do a headstand when you’re hungover?
Actually, it’s a good cure for a hangover—try it!
What roles were they pushing on you?
I was 18 or 19 and they weren’t pushing us for roles—they were trying to get us to work on our technique. They called it our ‘craft.’ I only went to drama school for a year and a half, and then I dropped out and went to San Francisco and became a hippie.
Where does this fit into the timeline with the famous Oklahoma Narcotics Incident?
The Oklahoma bust ended hippiedom. That kind of shook me up—being in jail for five days in Oklahoma. I got a haircut—I was given a haircut in jail, and I got a job, and I started to write songs.
Did you make any jail friends?
There were people who wanted to be friendly with me, but they were musts to avoid.
Who was the first person someone actually told you that you sounded like?
You’re called many things in the beginning of your career. I was called the new Bob Dylan—a lot of guys were called that. I was called the Woody Allen of folk, the Charlie Chaplin of rock—a writer from Rolling Stone called me that—but the one that stuck with me all these years—I was called the male Melanie. Are you old enough to know who Melanie was?
‘What have they done to my song, ma?’
Right, and the rollerskates thing! The male Melanie! I was just confused by that, as opposed to pleased or excited. I was called the male Melanie. I am the male Melanie!
Who is the female Loudon Wainwright III?
Wow. I don’t know. Syd Straw did a great version of ‘One Man Guy,’ but I don’t know if she’d want to be known as the female Loudon Wainwright.
What was the first song you ever learned to play?
I took guitar lessons for about two weeks and learned how to play the ‘Third Man’ theme. That is classic. I didn’t learn all of it, but I learned enough to impress my younger sister.
While you were picking out tracks for Recovery, did you discover anything about your songwriting that is never going to change?
Yeah—I’ve been hung up about getting old ever since I was young. Ever since—I wrote a lot of those songs in my early 20s. There are all kinds of references—‘If I was sixteen again,’ and ‘In Delaware when I was younger’ and ‘Old Friend.’ And I’m still hung up about getting old but now I’m actually old! That’s incredible! It finally happened! You’d think I’d be more relaxed about it.
What about the benefits?
What’s the bright side?
Naps. Naps are the best part of getting old. And you’re allowed to take them. And they are the best sleep I’ve come across.
The first sessions you did with Atlantic had a full band—did any of those survive? Did they sound like Recovery?
I imagine they do. I don’t have any of them. Maybe in the vaults at Atlantic. They were kind of mediocre—that’s what I decided, so instead I opted to make a voice-and-guitar record for my first album. They were produced, though, by the legendary and fairly recently deceased producer Arif Mardin. He had a very long and incredible career and he was a house producer at Atlantic. In fact, I remember being in the studio in Columbus Circle, New York, with Arif Mardin, and there was Aretha Franklin’s piano and Ray Charles’ piano right in the corner there.
What sort of vision did they have for you?
The big record at the time was probably Sweet Baby James. So they were probably hoping I would have a kind of country-rock thing, and I didn’t wanna do that, so I didn’t. And consequently, they dropped me two years later. And then Clive Davis came along and I was willing to do anything at that point, so I made a country-rock record and there was a hit single on it. So there you go.
Is there a larger philosophical lesson there?
Give in! Go ahead—cave! You’re gonna do it anyway, so cave when the cave is a nice big one!
Is the story in ‘Muse Blues’ basically true? Did you pilgrimage to libraries and deserts?
I would go to the library with my Scripto pencil. I don’t even know if they still make them but I hope so. I’ve never gone so far as to go to the desert. I took a little poetic license there.
No vision quest?
No—I spent a lot of time at the library.
Do you still eat, drink, and smoke stuff?
I eat and drink but don’t smoke anything now.
Because of wisdom?
I suppose. The smoking thing just doesn’t work anymore.
What’s the worst thing you’ve been fed in the last six months?
Oh, God—is my wife gonna read this? I hope not! No, no—I’ve been very well fed here at home. I don’t know. Maybe that’s something. You learn. You find things that work. If you travel all the time—have you ever been to Cracker Barrel restaurants? When there’s a Cracker Barrel sign, that’s when I get excited. I think, ‘Yeah, man—I’m just gonna sit in that rocking chair and buy all those Marty Robbins records by the licorice.’ The problem is you don’t wanna end up looking like the people who eat there three times a day. They’re large.
Have you ever been recognized at Cracker Barrel?
That hasn’t happened yet. That’s something to look forward to, though.
The Independent said you’re a serious man seduced into comedy. Is that accurate and if so, can you describe that seduction process?
I don’t know what they meant by that. Except when I started to play my songs were very serious, and then in order to win the audience, in my desperation I would do silly things like stick my tongue out or jump up and down. And when the audience started to laugh, I really found out how much I liked that. I knew that before because when I was in school, I was what you call the proverbial class clown. I liked getting audiences laughing. It lowers their resistance, and then you can really stick a knife in them.
When did you move back to Southern California and how did it affect your personality?
It was about six years ago, and how it affected my personality? I have asthma now. I’m sure my lungs are in a lot worse shape. That’s another reason why I’m not smoking anything. I’m smoking everything because I live here.
What makes it worth the slow poisoning?
You know—it’s the show-biz capital of the world! I’m here to make it—like everybody else!
How’s that working so far?
It’s going great!
Do you get recognized from your movies now?
I’m at that interesting stage where you think maybe you were recognized but you’re not sure. Yesterday, me and my wife—the aforementioned wife—went to the movies and on the popcorn line there at the Arclight, this young man was kind of chattier and more friendlier than was warranted, and both me and my wife had the distinct impression that he ‘knew who I was.’ But we weren’t sure. I should have gone up to him—‘Excuse me—did you recognize me or were you just being nice?’ But we didn’t do that because it was time to go watch the movie.
What movie?
It was that Charlie Kaufman movie.
Synecdoche, New York?
Yeah—nice pronunciation. It’s fierce—I liked it a lot. She hated it. And the dinner that I got last night you would not have believed! Oh, wow, it was graphic.
I could see you and Charlie Kaufman—
I’m ready to go! Please, tell him to call me! You have my number! Tell him to call me right away! Send up a flare! Hook me up with Charlie Kaufman! I just need an acting job.
You’ve said before that ‘funny’ and ‘scary’ are two of your favorite things. What does that mean you dress up as for Halloween?
I don’t know—I was always dressing up as a hobo. A tramp.
How prescient.
I don’t know what that psychologically means except maybe I expect to be homeless. And be living in Santa Monica on the beach there—on that little strip on Ocean Avenue, where they have their sleeping bags.
Would you bring your guitar?
I wrote a song about a guy like that called ‘Primrose Hill’—it could happen! Now that we’re in the new depression, it certainly could happen.
Why was ‘new depression’ the exact term in everybody’s head?
It popped into my head, too. Hopefully we’re wrong about that.
What’s gonna be on your next album? Discovery?
I’m actually working on an album with a friend of mine in New York now, and it’s actually related to the Depression. There was a banjo player and singer called Charlie Poole. He died in 1930, I think? He was born in 1892. He lived to be 38. He was from North Carolina. If you want to find out more, you can ‘google’ him. But we’re doing songs that he recorded and writing songs about him and things that he would have done—it’s music for the new depression!
Is he kind of like Emmett Miller?
There’s a relation between him and Emmett Miller. He was not as well-known as Jimmie Rodgers—the yodelin’ brakeman—or the Carter Family, but the same type of music. I’m so glad you mentioned Emmett Miller because that was the name I’ve been trying to remember. I have looked at that book and I’ve bought those records. He was a big influence on Hank Williams.
How did you find Charlie Poole?
I’ve been into Charlie Poole for almost thirty years, myself. You know the Holy Modal Rounders? They recorded—I think it was ‘Moving Day’ or ‘Hungry Hash House Blues.’ They covered a Charlie Poole song and then I just found out who he was and got some of his records. You can get ‘em—there are box sets. He’s kind of underground but we’re gonna make him happening. He had his own kind of flash and his time is coming. His biggest record was a thing called ‘The Deal,’ or ‘Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.’ It sold at the time thousands and thousands of copies. He was successful. But you do have to get into the whole ouvre, as they say in France. Although they may say it differently in France. I’d suggest you check him out because he was kind of amazing. Anyway—that’s the record I’m working on now.
Where did you find about music when you were first starting out?
I was affected by—in boarding school, the folk music boom was going on. I heard Dock Boggs at the Newport Folk Festival, and I saw the New Lost City Ramblers. I heard Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. And I was impressionable and I loved that music. I never thought of myself as a folk singer, though my records are often found in the folk section.
Where else are they often found?
The polka section—I wish! I’ll be in any section as long as they’re not in the Tom Waits bin, which is often where they’re stuck just because my last name begins W-A-I. At any rate—I don’t wanna get too bitter in the remaining time we have!
If you hadn’t been busted in Oklahoma, would you have become a more Holy Modal figure?
I don’t know—I believe there is some pre-destination involved, and we wind up being the guy we were meant to be. Take comfort in that.
How do you think the world will change between this interview and this interview going to print?
What will the size of the cave be that’s caved in? In a week, a lot could happen. God knows what’ll happen. But the good thing is we’ll have somebody new to kick around. Because I’m tired of kickin’ around that other asshole!