Music

The Ever-Shifting, Hour-Glass World of Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III has recently undertaken the ambitious task of writing songs that Charlie Poole might have given voice to had he not sabotaged his own career trajectory.

Both Charlie Poole (the famed American banjo player and noted song interpreter) and Loudon Wainwright III enjoyed considerable acclaim after the release of a novelty song, both were born in North Carolina, and both performed deeply personal songs in signature acoustic styles throughout their careers. The only difference is that Loudon Wainwright III composed his own songs and Charlie Poole did not.

Yet Wainwright III's deep fascination with Poole motivated him to the point of writing songs that Poole might have written for himself had he not died prematurely at age 39 from alcoholism. Poole's legacy has inspired more than just Wainwright, however; he has his own self-titled festival held June 12-14 annually at the Fairgrounds in Eden, North Carolina, and the 2005 album You Ain't Talkin' to Me, Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music provided an excellent sample of the folksy nature that Poole exemplified, garnering three Grammy nominations in the process.

As the decades have worn on, Wainwright III has become known for writing self-depricating, comical, and heartfelt ballads. His subject matter has included everything from breastfeeding ("Rufus Is A Tit Man") to drinking to unrequited love (and, of course, his hit "Dead Skunk", which he wrote in 15 minutes).

High Wide and Handsome -- the Charlie Poole Project, his latest endeavor, features guest turns from both friends and family members (including children Rufus and Martha), making for a massive double CD set with 30 songs. "It's quite an undertaking," Wainwright III notes. "Hope people like it. We've certainly had a lot of fun with it."

"Between [me and the producers] we wrote nine songs. We went to the town where [Poole] lived and worked in a mill. It's in Eden, North Carolina and [we] met people who really knew Charlie Poole. We didn't try to recreate the sound of Charlie Poole; that would have been a mistake."

He and producer Dick Connette began working on the project in the winter of 2007 and began the first recording session in May of the following year. The goal was to create a two-disc tribute called High Wide and Handsome which included songs from Poole's repertoire plus nine original tunes co-written by Wainwright III and Connette. A feature-length documentary detailing the making of the film will accompany the new release available in August.

Elaborating on the parallels and contrasts he observed in Poole's trajectory, Wainwright III says that "[Poole] was a traveling musician. He liked to do a variety of things with his songs -- he didn't write his songs. He was a great interpreter -- singer. He sang novelty songs -- which is something I continue to do -- same kind of heartfelt ballads, songs about trains, mothers, letters. He had a self-destructive streak. Pretty much drank himself to death -- dead by 38 -- so I've managed to outlive him. I'm not as self-destructive as I used to be. I love his music. I enjoyed having a shot of inhabiting his world."

It's challenging to disentangle this particular Wainwright from those other acclaimed Wainwrights -- these DNA strands extend further than most of our mere- mortal limbs can reach -- but Wainwright III was savy enough to separate the creative chaff from the industrious wheat when facing off his father.

Loudon S. Wainwright Jr., was an editor and columnist of Life Magazine, and -- according to Wainwright III -- he did so "at a time when Life Magazine was on every coffee table in America. He was interviewing astronauts, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King -- he had an amazing kind of life. When I was a kid growing up I was affected by all of that ... my father's been dead now for twenty years -- but mostly what affected me about him was his writing," he says.

"He was a very, good writer and without even knowing it -- I've tried to write like him," notes Wainwright III. "He interviewed John Glenn and Alan Shepard. They would come over to our house and things. These people were huge stars. They were on the cover of Life Magazine, so as a kid growing up, that was pretty impressive."

Wainwright III explains how his dad helped him discover his artistic voice: "I'm journalistic in my approach. That probably comes from my dad. So, I'm happy for that connection." But, aside from the thrill of mingling with Monroe or dining with astronauts, Wainwright III also recalls how his father taught him to meet strict deadlines; or, to put it another way, to "communicate on demand."

I asked Wainwright III why he has often played the on-screen dad and peppered albums with anecdotal, confessional songs about fatherhood. For example, he penned a song about Rufus "breastfeeding" (on the infamous "Rufus is a Tit Man"), played the role of a father who attends his son's university on the short-lived Judd Apatow-produced television show Undeclared, and waxes well -- sort of poetically -- about "babies" on his 2008 album Recovery.

"I think [fatherhood is] a big-ass subject. I don't claim to be a particularly good father. I'm flawed, let's say. I've certainly been affected by the experience of having kids ... trying to be a father at least. It's an amazing process. It's like songwriting: it's a complete mystery to me. I don't understand it -- but I've certainly written about it," he adds.

He looked forward to attending the premiere of Rufus' opera, Prima Donna in Manchester, England this past July. "He has been an opera aficionado and fan since he was a little kid," says Wainwright III, though he admits, "I don't know very much [about classical music]. I don't read or write music. My taste in opera tends towards Gilbert and Sullivan."

Though, many fans think that his 1972 novelty hit, "Dead Skunk" from Album III whirled him into mid-hippie, heady stardom, Wainwright was already solidly entrenched in the industry via his first two albums with Columbia Records. About that honorarium to roadkill which Wainwright III claims to "stand alone," he admits, "I don't think ['Dead Skunk'] launched my career. I made two records before that. It bumped it up. I was out and about. But, certainly 'Dead Skunk' changed things."

"When you have a song on the radio your career and your life changes maybe for the better and maybe for the not so good ... depending on how it's going that day. I made a lot of money that year. The word 'skunk' will be in the first sentence of my obituary."

"Obituary?" Though ringing an ominous bell, that's eerie, but catchy, too. So I can't resist asking Wainwright III which of his songs he might sing if he had five minutes to live -- particularly as one of his most well-know albums was penned Last Man on Earth. "If I had five minutes to live, I don't think I'd be bothered singing a song. I'd be dead so it won't really matter. I'd have a glass of wine and a cigarette," he teases.

You might surmise that a singer-songwriter of his stature might spend his time listening to other singer-songwriters, but not this Wainwright. Oddly enough, his private listening moments tend toward instrumental esoteric jazz. "I don't listen to a lot of singer-songwriters," he says. "I'm involved in my own stuff. I find myself listening to Thelonius Monk records. I try to avoid listening to singer-songwriters. I know they're out there, but I don't need to listen to anymore singer-songwriters. Certainly there were a lot of singer-songwriters in the late 60s and early 70s -- a lot of good ones -- that's kind of my generation of people coming up."

Wainwright says this about his personal songwriting. "Don't know if my process has changed much and I have no idea how it works. It's something that's mysterious and magical, even, when a good song comes along, I'm just happy that it happens and I don't think much more about it than that. Sometimes you pick up the guitar first or the back of an envelope or on 'Abraham Lincoln.' I don't understand the mechanism exactly, but I don't need to understand it as long as it keeps happening," he says.

In a beautiful, guitar-driven song called "Delaware" from Recovery Wainwright III refers to "Blake and Keats." Poetry has impassioned his trade. Wainwright reveals the beginnings of that confessional: "When I wrote that song I was a relatively young man; now it's as if 37 years hadn't passed at all. I'm a different person. I'm physically changed. My voice is radically changed. The song itself stands alone. The songs have lasted."

The album Recovery is a collection of songs some of which Wainwright wrote as a younger man describing how he thought life would be imagined as an older man. "I've read Keats and Blake poems [like] 'Ode To A Grecian Urn'. I read poetry like every other high-school kid. It's really about the romantic idea that you yourself are a poet or I myself am a poet," he says.

Wainwright's philosophies regarding the craft of songwriting seem more aligned with grassroots union organizers than lofty Spinoza types. While, he may draw inspiration from great literature at times, he also knows that you've got to punch the clock and get the deed done -- much like the assignments that Wainwright Jr. set forth.

Wainwright III details his calling: "I don't write about anything I don't want to write about. I like to think I could write about anything pretty much that I chose to. I have been asked to write songs about specific things and I've always been able to come up with the goods," he says. "Most recently I wrote some songs -- are you familiar with Carl Hiassen, the Florida novelist? He wrote Lucky You. It was adapted for the stage -- I wrote some songs for that. It was an assignment so I think I could write about anything I put my mind, too. I find I can write to order, he adds." Like any all-American lad, special orders don't upset him.

Wainwright III has also enjoyed a definitive career as an actor, so I asked him to dish on some high-profile directors. Tim Burton? Wainwright III says, "Great hair! Extremely friendly, nice, generally cheerful and hard-working -- as were most of the [directors] I've worked with -- I'm lucky enough to work with. The part I've had in movies are generally pretty small. But, I can't really say anything bad about any of these people I've worked with," he says. "I met Cameron Crow years ago. He was a 15 year-old rock critic. We immediately had something in common. Cameron was a very open, nice fellow…"

As far as Judd Apartow was concerned, "I've worked in two of his movies. Another great guy. When you work on a movie the director is the leader and the boss so it's his call. We gave him a list of music and he used what he wanted and needed -- that's the nature of the arrangement." Wainwright III wrote a soundtrack called for Apatow's Knocked Up, resulting in the 2007 pseudo-soundtrack album Strange Weirdos.

"I've never worked with an asshole," he interjects. And the iconic Martin Scorcese? "Same thing," says Wainwright III.

Baby boomers may remember Wainwright III's appearances as the "singing surgeon" in the TV series M*A*S*H which helped launch his acting career. Wainwright III has also appeared in the recent NBC program Parks and Recreation and acted off-Broadway in Pump Boys and Dinette. There seem to be no end to the worlds he's inhabited. So it seemed appropriate to ask him about acting versus performing as a singer-songwriter. "Which feels more natural?" I inquired ...

"Two different things: there's an aspect of performing in both cases. Acting requires a different kind of concentration and it's much more collaborative. There are other actors and a director, writer and technicians," he says. "So being a solo singer-songwriter -- it's just that. It's just that solitary. As an actor -- that's one of the fun things -- working with other people," he says.

Wainwright III inhabits other worlds as effortlessly as a Woody Guthrie hopping on a westward- bound freight train or a chic sommelier uncorking Sauvignon at a sidewalk café. Whether taking on the roles of quintessential troubadour or respected actor, Wainwright III cultivates creative expression, be it channeling Poole's legacy or impaling another's persona -- with a subtle chameleon-like adaptive persuasion -- no matter which world it is he chooses to inhabit.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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