This summer I swam in the ocean
And I swam in a swimming pool
Salt my wounds, chlorine my eyes
I’m a self-destructive fool
The wonderfully whimsical work of Loudon Wainwright III began to infiltrate my consciousness in the mid-70s during repeated listenings to the magical debut album of The McGarrigle Sisters, Kate and Anna. The Canadians covered one of Wainwright’s compositions, The Swimming Song, on that record, and its warm simplicity and gentle irony, as well as the beauty of banjo and accordion in tandem, struck home.
Kate was married to Loudon at the time though they were to divorce not long after that critically acclaimed LP was released. I had heard his earlier radio favourite Dead Skunk, but that was really a novelty trinket; the gems that followed revealed a seriously deeper talent.
Swimming, we learn in Wainwright’s frighteningly honest and typically hilarious memoir, Liner Notes, is central to his life and tempestuous times.
This summer I went swimming
This summer I nearly drowned
But I held my breath and I kicked my feet
And I moved my arms around
Like father, like son. Swimming has been almost as important as songwriting for Loudon. ‘A lot of my life has been about me in the water, and it’s stayed that way for decades, in pools, ponds, reservoirs, rivers, oceans and bays.’ He fondly remembers dad’s Australian crawl – ‘a superb swimmer. Johnny Weissmuller never looked so good’. Loudon loved diving as a kid too, to impress the girls and irritate the grown-ups with his big splashes…
This summer I did swan dives
And jack-knives for you all
But once when you weren’t looking
I did a cannonball
The 71-year-old songwriter still exercises his favourite sport every morning in New York State. He devotes a chapter in Liner Notes to his top 10 swimming venues from Dublin to Sydney, Hampstead Heath to Glasgow, Austin to San Francisco. ‘A note to my grieving survivors: kindly sprinkle my ashes at all the above locations.’
This summer I swam in a public place
And a reservoir to boot
At the latter I was informal
At the former I wore my suit
The song appeared on Wainwright’s fourth exposition of witty wordplay, Attempted Mustache, in 1973, recorded in Nashville in four days. Kate and Loudon played banjos on The Swimming Song and she dueted on Dilated To Meet You, written for Rufus who was waiting to be born. The LP was a flop commercially but Wainwright believes some of his finest songs appeared on it – Down Drinking At The Bar, Lullaby, The Man Who Couldn’t Cry and The Swimming Song itself.
Wainwright’s early career was transformed when he switched for his third album to Colombia Records and included a number, ‘made up in 12 minutes’, which remains his sole hit single. Everyone remembers the road-kill ditty Dead Skunk, but the American earnestly hopes it will not be carved into his tombstone. There are countless other songs more worthy of inscription.
‘I was dubbed the new Bob Dylan, the Charles Chaplin of rock, the Woody Allen of folk and, my favourite, the male Melanie. I had stumbled into a career.’ But he would retain his ambivalence towards stardom.
Wainwright has always taken on difficult subjects in his vast repertoire: death, depression, adultery, guilt, regret, sex. ‘Sometimes, like Barry Manilow, I write the songs that make the whole world cry, but often the response I’m going for is a shiver or a cringe. Making an audience uncomfortable for limited amounts of time ratchets up the dramatic tension.’
The confessional style of Liner Notes is disarming. It is self-deprecating and sometimes almost self-defacing. Wainwright does his best to make you dislike him. ‘I’m sure you’re thinking, what a selfish bastard! But wait a minute, it gets worse.’ You cannot help but warm to him. Most of our heroes are tainted, and he is forthright enough to lay his faults and foibles bare. He does in his songs – his memoir is no different.
Loudon went to his father’s boys’ boarding school. Rufus is probably grateful tradition was not followed and he wasn’t christened Loudon IV. There are amusing anecdotes about school and his work as a method actor (famously as the singing surgeon in the TV series M*A*S*H*) after dropping out of Carnegie drama college. His ‘moment of Epiphany’ came while watching Grateful Dead under the influence in the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967. He began hitchhiking around the country ‘with a knapsack, a guitar, a sleeping bag and one hundred dollars I’d made selling pot’. He sold his guitar for yoga lessons, practising meditation and spirituality at an ashram but was busted for possession. A hippie no longer, he wrote his first song, Samson And The Warden, about his prison experience.
Wainwright set out in the late 60s to be original, a goal achieved. Despite the roman numeral in his name, he is an absolute one-off, a One-Man Guy. ‘I decided to stop listening to the competition. I didn’t want to check out this new guy David Bowie or hear what Dylan’s latest was. I put an embargo on my incoming influences because I sensed it was important to not be like anyone else.’
For anyone who has witnessed his zany stage style down the decades, he provides an insight: ‘To cope with coffeehouse stage fright, I physicalised my fear into strange, jerky body gyrations, replete with leg lifts, facial grimaces and lots of tongue wagging. I was trying to make people notice me, and within a year Atlantic Records did.’
Loudon’s life with Kate was doomed from the start – ‘you’d need a chair and a whip to control their relationship’, as he put it in the magnificent Reciprocity. Between the breaking up and the making up and his ‘philandering ways’, they managed to create a musical dynasty; Rufus was born in 1973 and Martha in 1976. Kate soon left with children in tow for Montreal, this time for good. ‘The marriage was over, though the battles, with our kids acting as foot soldiers, raged on long- and short-distance, for 30 more years. I assumed the role of despised shit-heel ex-husband and guilt-ridden long-distance father.’
Memorable songs emerged from the turmoil. ‘Hers: Kitty Come Home, Go Leave, I Eat Dinner, Kiss And Say Goodbye and Talk To Me Of Mendocino; and mine: Mr Guilty, Whatever Happened To Us, Reciprocity, Unrequited To The Nth Degree, On The Rocks and Our Own War. When Rufus and Martha grew up and began to write their own family songs, the battle of the bands intensified.’
They got drunk last night
Had a knock-down, drag-out fight
She was determined and he saw it his way
He threw a tantrum and she threw an ashtray
They got drunk last night
There is a poignant description of Loudon's return in 2010, at Rufus’s urging, to see Kate who was dying of a rare form of cancer. Wainwright performed the one song they wrote together, Over The Hill, on Kate’s birthday at a benefit for a cancer charity she supported in Toronto in 2015. Loudon, Rufus and Chaim Tannenbaum sang The Swimming Song, and Chaim brought the house down with his rendition of I Eat Dinner, Kate’s song about being a single mother (the recorded version by Rufus and Emmylou Harris is just as moving). Loudon reflects: ‘I’ve always hated the song because it’s so beautiful and terribly sad and always makes me feel deeply ashamed of all the shitty things I did to her and to our kids and to myself.’
For all his powers as a humorist, Wainwright acknowledges his constant companion, depression – ‘I seem to operate on or about half-empty’ – with enough blues songs to fill an album, notably I Can’t Stand Myself, Motel Blues, Therapy and White Winos. He asks: ‘Which would you rather listen to on a desert island, Sugar Sugar or Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues? I suppose I buy the theory that artistic creativity springs from neurotic suffering.’
Wainwright’s debt to his father, an esteemed columnist on Life magazine, is honoured with the reproduction of some of his erudite essays. ‘My father loved writing and knew it was important, and I think I inherited some of that love and knowledge.’ Wainwright uses journalistic techniques and combines them with ‘sprinklings of humour, dollops of irony and great lashings of unreliable narration’.
The Wainwright, McGarrigle and Roche families (Loudon and Suzzy Roche were partners for nine years and their daughter Lucy joined the singing clan) perform together in various groupings at Christmas and holiday time. Loudon has enjoyed a fiercely loyal following in the UK, recording with Richard Thompson and becoming resident singer in the 80s on Jasper Carrott’s BBC TV show, Carrott Confidential.
Now and again, Wainwright the inimitable storyteller offers topical or political observations. Tonya’s Twirls in 1994 was a clever commentary on the infamous US Olympic skater (‘No, she wasn’t Goody Two-Skates like the other girls/ With their grinning and their spinning and their winning little twirls); and I Had A Dream, about Donald Trump in 2016, was a devilish delight (Dreams come true and there’s prophesy/ And sometimes a nightmare is a reality’).
After several nominations, he eventually won a Grammy in 2012 for High Wide & Handsome in the Best Traditional Folk Album category. Traditional folk? Well, he is so difficult to pigeonhole. Wainwright is about to embark on another US tour, with a two-disc ‘audio-biography’ entitled Years In The Making – featuring mainly rare and unissued material spanning nearly half a century – due for release in September. It is hoped the UK can be a staging post again. Prepare to laugh, cry, squirm and sigh in admiration. ‘My gyrations have lessened but even now when I play a new song I tightly close my eyes. I’m afraid to see they might not like it.’
Wainwright’s worst fear is Dead Skunk being the predominant reference in the obituaries. He imagines a memorial service with the women in his life holding hands for support, the exes and the kids ‘the greatest victims of my occasional indiscretions’. His 1975 song dealing with mortality, Unrequited To The Nth Degree, with its Laughing Policeman refrain, would be on the playlist along with Reciprocity and, naturally, The Swimming Song.
I’m a self-destructive fool
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