By Kelly Dearmore
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By Rachel Watts
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"And," he adds, "on this particular record what was going on was the death of my mother."
So says the gentleman whose willingness to lay himself open has earned him a long-lasting and enthusiastic fan base. The particular record he speaks of is Last Man on Earth, a late-2001 release on Red House, which finds him inhabiting unique, if not absolutely uncharted, waters.
LW3, as his press packet succinctly puts it--you can tell a fellow's arrived when he rates his own acronym--has been turning his life into music since the late 1960s, and it's become increasingly apparent that a whole crowd of people, young and old alike, have come right along with him. Even before the appearance of Album I in 1970, Wainwright was receiving accolades from contemporaries like John Prine, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Goodman. But Wainwright's peculiar talent lay in his wry wit, a skewed view of the world and the way people get thrown together, which has informed his music from the beginning. Of his peers, only Goodman, who died far too young in 1984, approached Wainwright's gift for decidedly cerebral humor.
Over the course of 30 years, Wainwright has become something of a patron saint for struggling singer-songwriters. Rare is the aspiring acoustic folkie who doesn't have at least one LW3 composition in his arsenal; "Tip That Waitress," "The Acid Song," "The Swimming Song" and "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" are, undoubtedly, being flogged at a hundred open-mike gigs on any given Tuesday night.
Such homage isn't by chance. Wainwright's songs are populated by people who pray to win the traditional Thanksgiving family fight, middle-aged ex-dopers who drop a single unadvised hit of acid and end up advising you to "hold out for mushrooms," and giddy swimmers who devote whole verses to their successful jackknives and cannonballs, not to mention the occasional dead skunk. In his music, that is, Wainwright very often slips into oddball personae, with whom anyone with the cojones to play music in public cannot help but sympathize.
But Wainwright also wrote "Your Mother and I," one of the truest songs about the effects of divorce on children ever penned ("It's nobody's fault/And you're not to blame"). He wrote "Men," which answers a hundred years of the nature vs. nurture argument with a simple, terse summary of gender stereotypes ("When the ship is sinking and they lower the lifeboats/and pass out the life jackets, the men keep on their coats/The women and the children are the ones who must go first/And the ones who try to save their skins are cowards and are cursed"). After the passing of his father he wrote "Sometimes I Forget," in which he describes the man's familiar personal possessions--wallet, passport, wedding ring--left behind, in a painful process immediately recognizable to anyone who's ever lost a loved one.
"Men" and "Sometimes I Forget" appeared on the 1992 album History, which represented something of a gear-shift in Wainwright's subject matter. Always serious about his craft, the songwriter on History also wrote of serious issues--aging, mortality, violence and the distance between people--in a voice he'd rarely indulged previously.
"On almost all of my records, there's at least one, for lack of a better word, 'novelty' song," he notes. "Even on an album like History, which was a pretty serious record, there were a couple of those lighter ones, like 'Talking New Bob Dylan' and 'The Doctor.' I hope Last Man on Earth isn't ponderously heavy, but there aren't any novelty songs on it, unless you include the title song. On this record, we made a conscious decision to leave those kinds of songs off, though there were some we could have put on. I mean, I don't know that [Last Man on Earth] is a great deal different from my previous records. Certainly, I've been writing about family and parents--and the loss of parents--ever since my father died in 1988. So it isn't very groundbreaking in that sense."
Though Last Man on Earth may not examine brand-new subject matter, it does represent something of an album-length meditation on the process of getting older, making it unique in Wainwright's catalog. It took him awhile to come to the music on that record, his first for the Red House label.
"My mother [Martha] died in 1997, and I went through a kind of natural period where I just didn't want to write music or tour, or even pick up a guitar. It's not like I went through writer's block," he stresses. "It was more like there didn't even seem to be a reason to do it. And after a while, with some help from a lot of people, I got myself to a point where it seemed OK to go back to work.
"We shopped [Last Man on Earth] around in demo form. And several labels passed. Those idiots," he adds cagily. "I won't say who, but it was basically a business decision."
He adds, unable to resist, "We took it to Enron Records and Tapes. They passed.
"But the president of Red House, Bob Feldman, is an amazing guy, and as it turned out he really wanted the record. Red House is an independent, and this isn't the first time I've been on an independent--I've done things for Rounder and other places--but the problems are always the same: distribution, airplay, getting the music in the stores. The business just keeps getting tighter and tighter. So you have to be creative. Red House was happy to take it and pay for the making of it, and they've been great. I consider myself really lucky, considering the way the music business runs."
In addition, Wainwright recently took a regular part in the Fox series Undeclared. As Hal Karp, the recently divorced father of a college freshman, he's often spotted hanging out in son Steven's dorm, trying desperately to make a new start in life and mercilessly embarrassing his progeny.
Coming on the heels of a highly praised album, Wainwright's delving into television hints at a full-on media blitz--his stint as house musical commentator for NPR, preserved on the 1999 album Social Studies, represents a third venue--but he swears it wasn't by design.
"There's no master plan. Happily, a number of career things converged at once. I wasn't looking for acting work, but Judd Apatow, the creator of the show, was a fan and asked if I'd audition. What I do on the show is very dissimilar from what the album's about, so I think the two things have helped each other. We've finished the first season of Undeclared, so we're waiting with bated breath to see whether we'll get picked back up. Like radio, the climate of television is very tight. Fox pre-empted the show a lot in its first run, because of the World Series and the holiday season, so we lost a bit of our initial momentum. But it's gotten some incredible reviews, so we'll see."
The parent-child dynamic, and its attendant troubles, has long been a source for Wainwright's music. Is it easier, in his view, to write about communication troubles than it is to actually communicate?
"I think it is easier. It's been argued--I wrote a song about it ["Father-Daughter Dialogue"]--that I use these songs as kind of excuses to make contacts with family members. But I don't find writing those songs particularly therapeutic. You don't get over the death of your parent, or solve any issues or difficulties by writing a piece of music. But I suppose writing a three-minute song about something empowers you a little bit."
His children Rufus and Martha, of course, have recently entered the business for themselves, garnering their own accolades.
"I'm very proud of both Rufus and Martha," he says immediately. "I'm envious, too, because I'd like to be in my 20s, rocking out there." Asked whether he gets called on for business advice, he says, "I offer it, but I don't get called on. And usually it's ignored, but that's appropriate. My dad used to give me advice, which I would totally ignore. My kids are almost veterans now, but it still worries me a bit, because it's a rough life. On the other hand, it's a worthwhile life--being a songwriter, an entertainer, being both. But they're talented, they're good, and what a relief that is."
With such a long résumé behind him, and such a vibrant string of current projects now in progress, might it be time to film The LW3 Story? If so, whom might he tap if he were unavailable to fill the role he was (as it were) born to play?
"Wow... maybe Russell Crowe. Or Ewan MacGregor. Or maybe Nicole Kidman. But man, I don't know who could take on that incredible role. Probably," he says dryly, "I'll be long dead if it ever happens, so I won't have to worry about it."