Graded on a Curve: Loudon Wainwright III,
Album III

Loudon Wainwright, folk rocker and writer of sardonic, witty, and sometimes touching songs, is the only performer ever to break through to stardom with a song about a dead skunk. It’s certainly not a stratagem recommended by the professors at rock school. But that’s the way it’s always been with Wainwright; the subjects of his songs are the stuff of everyday life, cast into a prism of pure mirth by his intelligent and often hilarious lyrics. Known primarily for “Dead Skunk” and the great “The Swimming Song,” Wainwright has written scads of wondrous tunes, some of them drolly funny, and some of them truly moving.

He’s been at it since 1970, but it was in 1972 that Wainwright released “Dead Skunk” on Album III, and since then he’s more or less worn the song like an albatross around his neck. It must be horrible when everybody wants you, nay demands that you sing the same damn song every night. Especially when he has so much more to offer. Take “The Swimming Song” off 1973’s Attempted Mustache. The melody is irresistibly poignant, and as for the lyrics, they’re wonderful. “This summer I swam in the ocean/And I swam in a swimming pool/Salt my wounds, chlorined my eyes/I’m a self-destructive fool/Self-destructive fool.” Or “Rufus Is a Tit Man,” written about his baby son. Or “The Acid Song,” in which Wainwright recounts the perils of taking LSD after a 12-year hiatus (he concludes you’re better off sticking to mushrooms).

“Dead Skunk” deserves its immortal status; fiddle, violin, banjo, and who knows what else play a melody that is utterly happy-making and may or may not be filched from Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Meanwhile Wainwright sings his gory tune of death on the road: “Dead skunk in the middle of the road/Stinking to high heaven.” He recommends, “Roll up the windows and hold your nose/You don’t have to look and you don’t have to see/Because you can feel it in your olfactory.” I personally love it when he interjects, as if talking to the deceased skunk, “C’mon stink!” And the way he goes crazy towards the end, shouting, “And it’s stinking to high high heaven!” “Red guitar” is a slow plaintive tune, and is just Wainwright and a piano. He recounts the night he destroyed his guitar: “Used to have a red guitar/Until I smashed it drunk one night/Smashed it in the classic form/As Peter Townshend might/Threw it in the fireplace/Left it there a while.” The Townshend reference is classic, and I like this one despite its bare bones and lack of a lovely melody.

“East Indian Princess” is a 12-gauge rocker, and while it doesn’t crack me up, it’s a great rock tune, right down to its spectacular guitar solo, honky-tonk piano, pedal steel guitar, and Wainwright’s raucous singing. “Muse Blues” is a mixed bag and probably the only blues tune ever to include a trip to the library. It opens with Wainwright singing slowly then takes off, and Wainwright is a guy desperately in search of his lost muse. “I eat, drink, and I smoke stuff,” he sings, “And I don’t know what to do.” Why, he’s even stuck electrodes in his brain in his search for his lost inspiration. “Hometown Crowd” is a great little rollicking gem of irony, as Wainwright (to the accompaniment of a fantastic bass riff) sings about how great it is to be a part of the hometown crowd, only to focus solely on the trials and tribulations of losing. “When the Mets don’t win/I get upset/I got a bullethole in my TV set,” he sings, after describing similar scenes of despair and depression following the defeats of his other favorite New York teams. I’m not wild about “B Side,” which is not about the flip side but about being a bee. The lyrics are clever (“there is no place like comb/Sweet comb”) but for whatever reason the tune just doesn’t move me.

“Needless to Say” is a lovely song and there isn’t a funny line to be found; “please remember my song,” sings Wainwright as the melody unfolds, and as for the instrumental section, it features a heavenly French horn solo by the legendary David Amram. This one is timeless, sad, elegiac, you name it, and I can’t get enough of it. It’s followed by the hard blues of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” in which Wainwright recounts a near brush with mortality at the hands of Smokey Joke—one mean ass fellow with a knife in his hand—who takes offense when his girl sits down next to Wainwright. “I risked my life/When I messed with crazy Smoky Joe!” he cries, after which a chorus of singers takes the song out repeating the title. “New Paint” is another lovely tune in the mold of “Needless to Say,” and recounts a first date with lots of clever word play undercut by what sounds like real longing. He kisses her at the door and “it tastes real good/Like I hoped it would,” because as he sings at the end of the song, “A woman of that kind/Is hard to find.”

“Trilogy 1967” is harmonica and piano driven, and I’m not sure what its point is, but it’s spritely enough, and its stream of consciousness lyrics are amusing: “My lawyer shook her head and she told me/”I’m gonna tell you very plain:/Do exactly as I ask you/And if they ask you/Plead insane.” I had an attorney say the same thing to me once. Wainwright also worries about California falling into the sea, and sings, “San Diego, I must warn you/Take my advice/Climb a tree.” “Drinking Song” is a list of the things drunken men will do, for instance: “Quite often they will urinate outdoors.” “There’s yet to be a perfectly straight line,” he sings, because drunks are unpredictable, and I can tell you from personal experience it’s the gospel truth. “Say That You Love Me” has a spring in its step, and a melody as fetching as “Dead Skunk.” This one should have been a hit somewhere, Bulgaria perhaps, because it’s every bit as simple as it is irresistible. “Say that you love me/Say that it’s true,” sings Wainwright, “Say that you love me/I said it to you.”

Loudon Wainwright III’s witty and droll approach to songwriting has brought pleasure to many, yours truly most definitely included. Like Randy Newman he looks askance at the vicissitudes of life, but he’s good-natured rather than embittered by the conditions of human existence. He actually seems to cherish being alive, which is beyond my comprehension, but I can’t listen to him without some of his hilarious cheerfulness rubbing off on me. In short he’s an optimist in pessimist’s clothing, and is determined to relish his time on earth and to share his joy with others. I can’t say I understand such nonsense, but I’m very glad he’s around. Perhaps it’s this attitude that makes his attorney urge him to plead insanity. Or maybe he’s just discovered the secret of life. What do you expect of a guy who talks to dead skunks? C’mon, stink!


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  • Bleaked

    Definitely gonna check this out. Reminds me of the old duplex we lived in that allowed pets. There was a field across the street where I would always walk our sweet beagle named Trixie we got from the pound. One day she was at the end of her very long, retractable leash when the wind changed and I caught the very first whiff of dead skunk. I felt a tug on the leash and the next thing I knew, Trixie was on her back and twisting from side to side with her tongue flapping out of her mouth and her eyes squinting in orgasmic pleasure. Beneath her was a half-decomposed skunk carcass that smelled like Chanel No. 5, at least to her. I just let her roll on the skunk for a while. Why not, right? She was just a common rescue dog, but for that one day, she was a queen!

    • Michael Little

      Man,, she must have needed one really long bath!


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