All the news that's fit to sing

For singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, the personal is still the political. As long as it's got a good tune.
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The Independent Culture
Loudon Wainwright III has been tacking back and forth between the personal and the political ever since his songwriting career began at the start of the Seventies. Despite the genre's reputation for navel- gazing self-absorption, few singer-songwriters have dealt with their own lives with such unflinching honesty, picking away at the scabs of marriage, divorce and family life in a way which would be unbearable were it not for his native wit and intelligence. Indeed, in the "Father/Daughter Dialogue" co-written in the early Nineties with his daughter Martha (now a singer in her own right, as is son Rufus), she took Dad to task for putting so much of his family's life into his songs.

Even before his first marriage (to singer Kate McGarrigle), Wainwright was skilled in peeling away the deceits and conceits of his own youthful attitudes in songs such as "School Days" and "Motel Blues". The prickly articulacy of those early albums, with their understated covers featuring the Westchester boarding-school bard in shockingly short hair and grey Brooks Brothers trousers, led to Wainwright being acclaimed as a possible successor to Bob Dylan, despite the obvious differences in tone and style.

"I was the first New Dylan, I believe," he claims with wry pride as we share a bottle of water in his Notting Hill hotel room. "I think I pre- dated John Prine by about a year! But though I admire Bob Dylan and was very influenced by him, I don't think of what I do as particularly Dylanesque. For one thing, he was a mysterious, cryptic kind of songwriter, and mine are so clear, there's no mystery about what I'm writing about." There's certainly no mystery about the issues on his latest album, Social Studies, where Wainwright's attention turns to more public, political matters. Older readers may recall Loudon's weekly slot as resident topical troubadour on Jasper Carrott's TV show; through the Nineties, he's held a similar position on the state-subsidised National Public Radio in America, offering whimsical commentary upon contemporary mores - the OJ trial, the Tonya Harding affair, Jesse Helms, Bill Clinton's enduring appeal, the millennium bug, etc - the best of which are gathered together on the album.

"The topical song is a dying art, which I'm trying to resuscitate," he acknowledges. "I'm very influenced by Tom Lehrer, especially; when I began in the late Sixties there was a bit of a tradition in folk music of topical songs, protest songs, various talking blues making fun of John Foster Dulles or the John Birch Society, and I've done a bit of that throughout my career, so I thought, why not do an album of them? And in my case, so much of my stuff is personal and autobiographical, it was a bit of a relief to write about other people for a change."

Written to short deadlines, the songs helped Wainwright keep his eye sharp and his powder dry. "National Public Radio would call up and say, the Beatles are releasing `Free As A Bird', we want a song about the Beatles in two days, or whatever," he explains. "So it was like journalism, writing to order. But I generally write pretty quickly - once I get an idea, the song's usually done in an hour or two." Sometimes, however, that's not the end of the matter. The oldest song on the album, "Jesse Don't Like It", deals with ultra-conservative Senator Jesse Helms' campaign to dismantle the arts-funding machinery provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, an implicit attempt to introduce censorship which, despite Helms' failure, has insinuated itself into the publicly funded bodies anyway.

"Since then, the NPR would be very wary," Wainwright explains. "Like in the OJ song, they OK'd the line about `There's white folks, black folks, brown folks at the bar', but baulked at `On the bench in glasses is the bearded yellow man', because `Asian-Americans are not ready for that colour thing, can we change that'? I said, Well, no, because the whole joke is about the colours.

"They said, `We can't take the chance, because of the funding for National Public Radio'. So in a sense, it is a form of censorship." A similar dread marked the reaction to Loudon's millennium bug song "Y2K", which explicitly places the blame for the bug at Bill Gates's door. The song was OK, but the record company took fright at the album cover, a group of caricatures of Bill, Jesse, OJ, Tonya, John Lennon and Father Christmas.

"They wanted to sticker the album because they were afraid that, of all the people on the cover, Bill Gates was the most litigious, and they thought he would sue because I was using his likeness to sell a product," he recalls, mind still boggling. "They wanted to put something on saying `This is Satire', or something like that." Loudon chuckles derisively. Wainwright's great strength as a topical songwriter - apart from his eye for absurdity and his liberal sensibilities - is rooted in his humour, which bubbles through even the most downbeat songs.

"I earn my living primarily as a performing songwriter, and in my show, I use the laughs as kind of buoys," he reveals. "There are a lot of serious songs too, and some that contain both laughs and tears. But comedy or novelty songs aren't very popular in popular music - they're dismissed, yet there's such an honourable tradition: writers like Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg, and songs like `A Boy Named Sue', `The Monster Mash'. Shel Silverstein, who died recently, was one of my favourite songwriters, and he wrote mostly novelty songs. I love to write comedy songs, and to make audiences laugh." Laughter is the staple element in virtually all of Wainwright's endeavours, which have included several TV and movie appearances, the latest in the forthcoming Sandra Bullock rehab drama, 28 Days. Besides his short run as Captain Spalding the Singing Surgeon in M*A*S*H, he played the original keyboard player in Spinal Tap (Michael McKean, aka David St Hubbins, was a college chum), and was David Letterman's original singing sidekick. "This was the original afternoon format, before they went to late night," he explains. "I was there for the whole thing, singing and talking with him, then they decided the guy with the guitar didn't work and they needed a band, so they got Paul Shaffer and went to nighttime. Story of my career!" He may be right, at that. Given Becker & Fagen's recent claim that he turned down the opportunity to join the fledgling Steely Dan, Loudon could be forgiven for thinking he was doomed to always be in the right place just a little ahead of the right time. Perhaps it's just as well: a lifetime of solo performance has kept his wits sharper and his attitude more focused than might have been the case in a collective situation. And judging by the spring in his step as he lopes off, guitar case slung over his back, it's kept him younger in spirit than most of his contemporaries. As he sings in "Inaugural Blues", "Hope we grow up before we're old". Some chance!

`Social Studies' is out now

I Wish To Make A Complaint

a short history of the topical song

Woody Guthrie

Hobo troubadour whose Dust Bowl Ballads helped define the American 20th- century psyche.

Flanders & Swann

Droll punsters whose Fifties revue, At the Drop of a Hat, played in the West End for two years.

Tom Lehrer

Satirist who pilloried Fifties' laissez-faire attitudes in "We Will All Go Together When We Go". Finding nothing funny about the Vietnam War, he gave up.

Lance Percival

Adapted the calypso tradition of the Caribbean to metropolitan ends in shows such as That Was The Week That Was.

Bob Dylan

Besides his folk-protest material Dylan also had a line in lighter talking- blues satires - for example "Talkin' World War III Blues". Continued protesting into the 1970s with songs like "Hurricane".

Randy Newman

Grumpy sardonicist given to satirising small-mindedness in songs like "Short People". Good Old Boys remains a devastating critique of redneck culture.