Scotland on Sunday, 27 July, 2007
Some collaboration this. Take the playbill at face value and you’d think the songwriter Loudon Wainwright had sat down and worked hand-in-glove with novelist Carl Hiassen in the stage adaptation of the author’s Lucky You. But you’d be wrong.
Before this project, one of the most anticipated productions of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Wainwright had walked past Hiassen’s thrillers whenever he’d seen them in airport bookstores. He’d never even picked one up, still less read a word. Even now the two have not met, and they have no immediate plans for a big hello. “I’ve a sister in Florida. Maybe I’ll go see Carl while I’m down there,” muses Wainwright diffidently, who’s talking at his summer home on Long Island.
When at last he was persuaded to read the novel – by the TV comedy producer, John Plowman - Wainwright was instantly hooked. The action focuses on an eco-friendly lottery winner called Jo-Layne who is pursued across Florida by two robbing rednecks. Along the way corporate greed, indifferent government and a poisoned environment have their bellies exposed in the darkest of comedies.
The result of their long distance relationship, is a stage play drawn from a bitter but hilarious novelist, enlivened by three songs penned by a writer who could have been Hiassen’s long lost creative twin, so close is their shared vision. “His book was truly funny and scary and funny and scary are two of my favourite things. In combination they’re always good,” reckons Wainwright. “You know, the world is a crazy place. Like me Carl can veer into pessimism, realism. I tried to put that into the songs, because its territory I’ve explored a bit myself.”
Just a bit. Over the best part of four decades, Wainwright has been the archetypical singer-songwriter, the One Man Guy of his own song. What sets him apart is his focus. Few writers are as funny, clever and articulate; none are as remorselessly personal.
His August album release, Recovery, features a re-recording of tracks from his first three albums including School Days (musings on college life) Drinking Song (about being drunk), and Motel Blues (the aftermath of a one-night stand), all mediated through Wainwright ironic eye. Some, he admits, he had to re-learn, “they’d just faded from the repertoire” but rediscovery was a revelation, and the recording sessions were a joy.
He has written so often about himself over the years, that anyone familiar with his work feels they know him. On the Acid Song, we laughed at Wainwright’s antics after he dropped a tab of LSD for the first time in ten years; we chuckled when he unwittingly tried to bed a lesbian in Synchronicity; we suffered when he was left bereft by the death of his mother. But in all this navel-gazing, is it an exaggerated version of himself described in the lyrics?
He chews over the question for a second. “I don’t know if it’s an exaggeration – it’s a variation. Certain things are changed to protect the guilty. But it’s a personal account, condensed and crafted and tailored to elicit the a response that I want. I had an acting teacher who once who said ‘You can’t just speak to camera and put it over to people just like that. There has to be a heightened reality.’ That’s true about writing and performing songs - it’s a heightened version of the person I am.”
Inevitably, when the subject matter is so often close to home, friends and family are drawn into the firing line, and named in his lyrics. He ticks them off on a list: “My parents, my kids, my sister, my brother, ex-wives, present wives, future wives. They are all in there. You know, they make for great song fodder.
“The people in my life are the most important in the world to me. I think about them all the time. I love them – they frustrate and infuriate me as I do them. So it seems perfectly logical to me that they’re in the songs.”
Perfectly logical too that Rufus and Martha, the children from his marriage to the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, should fire some shots back, now they have established themselves as successful artists. Rufus’s Dinner at Eight ruefully picked over the relationship between father and son, but kept matters fairly clean. Martha came up a whole lot dirtier with her song, You Bloody Motherfucking Arsehole, dedicated to the father who left home when she was a baby. Some title. What on earth did he make of that?
It was like taking a blow in the solar plexus, apparently. Three years on, Wainwright can hardly get the words out. “Arrm …well you know … it’s a very powerful … emotional statement. I myself have been making powerful emotional statements, so if you dish it out, you gotta take it. I mean, it is a natural thing. Martha’s mom and I split right after Martha was born, so that is a personal tragedy. For everybody. Anger is certainly there and understandably so.”
So “a powerful emotional statement” – how did he respond when he next met his daughter? “Arrm …I can’t remember. How’s that for a diplomatic answer?” He retreats: “Man the torpedoes!” Wainwright simply doesn’t want to talk about this. But it’s a fair bet that he doesn’t have the song as a ringtone.
What he might have said is that his own work is rather more subtle. History, the album written in the wake of his father’s death, exposed all his own emotions, but delivered a universal message. The song Four by Ten was about the wall that’s built into any loveless marriage, though his fellow feeling was with the father: “Once it’s up it won’t come down/ And mom's a queen and dad’s a clown.” No wonder so many heterosexual men of a certain age turn up at his concerts.
Well that’s a fact, he acknowledges with a laugh. “You know I am a guy, so I do write from that point of view. I know absolutely that some women enjoy the songs but it doesn’t surprise me that men show up at gigs and some of the women are dragged along kicking and screaming. I’ll meet a couple after a show and she’ll say ‘I’ve been subjected to your records since 1976. Thanks a lot!’ But I like to think, I hope, that some of the songs are just about being human, about being a person.”
After he debuted in 1970, for years he produced an album of original work every 18 months or so, and toured relentlessly. It’s not like that any more. These days Wainwright records a whole lot less and acts a whole lot more. He’s moved from New York and is mainly based in Los Angeles. Building on his training – he studied acting at university – he’s racked up an impressive list of credits in TV and film over the last six years, appearing opposite Ewan McGregor in Big Fish, and playing in Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
All the while, the songwriting has never stopped and although he had a cameo in Apatow’s latest movie, Knocked Up, his most important commission was for film’s score. “As good as he has ever been” ran a New Yorker review of Strange Wierdos, the soundtrack album: “He has not only retained his sharpness of wit but has also learned to cut with greater skill.” It’s a tribute to Wainwright’s genius, and his ability to channel himself into his work, that songs created for a teen comedy about a pregnant girl manage to shift the focus onto a poetic middle-aged man with a paunch.
He can’t always control his emotion so well. He shares a memory of his father, “a journalist and a great one too,” with Life magazine. “I did a show up in Maine not too long ago and stayed in a bed and breakfast. They had a couple of old issues of Life there. I opened one up at a column my father had written, about our dog being put down - that would have happened back in the early 1970s. I was just overcome. I knew the writer and I’d known the dog. I was in bits, sobbing away. I took that article, I copied it and sent it out to people.”
On top of his work for Lucky You, these days he’s prodigiously busy, what with the album, promotional gigs, and the acting. He’s happily married again – to his long-term partner, Ritamarie Kelly - but there seems to be a sense of urgency around his work. He laughs at the notion, and quotes a song from Strange Weirdos. “I’ve been Doing the Math,” he says.
“I’m going to be 62 soon and you’re never too young to die anyway. I do want to get some more work done. I love the job. It’s still exciting write a song, to get a commission, to act. But I wanted to be in show business. That was my dream and it came true. My life is a cinch, incredible. All I have to do is get rid of this paunch.”