Like most of the so-called new Dylans who emerged in the 1970s, folk singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III has little in common with Bob aside from an ability to write lyrics worth hearing and produce music that isn’t quite like anyone else’s. Oh, one more thing: like ol’ man Zimmerman, who fathered the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan, Wainwright has parented talented next-generation musicians: with singer Kate McGarrigle, he fathered Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and with singer Suze Roche, he parented Lucy Wainwright Roche.
Loudon’s own large talent was immediately obvious on his eponymous debut and its follow-up, Album II. If you missed them when they first appeared in 1970 and 1971, the good news is that they’ve been reissued on a single CD. (The disc also includes a bonus track, “The Drinking Song,” a different version of which shows up on 1972’s Album III, which also featured Wainwright’s sole hit single, “Dead Skunk.”)
His frequently autobiographical music is a whole lot more imaginative than the titles of his early albums. Sometimes he’s dead serious, such as in the deftly written “School Days,” which opens the first LP with the lines “In Delaware when I was younger / I would live the life obscene / In the spring I had great hunger, I was Brando, I was Dean.” There’s also “Hospital Lady,” which mingles images of a young girl with lines about the old dying lady she has become.
More often than not, though, Wainwright will make you smile with his wry and often sarcastic humor, such as in “Be Careful, There’s a Baby in the House” and “Motel Blues,” which includes lines like “Chronologically I know you’re young / But when you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue.” Then there’s “The Drinking Song,” where Wainwright proclaims, “Drunk men stagger, drunk men fall / Drunk men swear and that’s not all / Quite often they will urinate outdoors.”
On Songs like “Plane, Too,” in which he names everything he saw on the airliner he was flying on, Wainwright proves he can write a good song about virtually anything. And in “I Know I’m Unhappy / Suicide Song / Glenville Reel,” he demonstrates that he can craft humor even from a tale about taking one’s own life. “Do the monkey, do the pony, do the slop, do the boogaloo twist / Cut your throat, cut your throat, cut your wrist,” he sings before concluding: “When you get hung up, hang yourself up by the neck / What the hell, what the hell, what the heck.”
In the more than half a century since he created such numbers, Wainwright has issued well over two dozen additional albums. If you’re new to his world, though, you really ought to start at the beginning with this superlative twofer.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.