Thursday, November 22, 2012

Professional Folk Singer As A Phobia

Loudon Wainwright’s sporadic acting career, which includes parts in the films Big Fish, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up (for which he wrote music with Joe Henry), and the TV shows Undeclared and Parks and Recreation, began in 1974–75 when he appeared three times in the television series M*A*S*H as Capt. Calvin Spalding, the singing surgeon. In addition to acting, his job was to write songs. When asked if writing on commission is different from writing from personal inspiration, he replied, “Once you get down to it, it isn’t. I bring my toolbox, as they horribly say. With M*A*S*H, they literally put me in a room with a yellow legal pad and some pencils and said, 'We need a song about Douglas MacArthur in two hours.' I’d said I could do it, so I had to do it. It’s like, 'Of course I can ride a horse!' They gave me material to read, and told me to use words like 'Incheon.' I wasn’t even old enough to know what that was. But I found out I could do that kind of writing.”

Loudon Wainwright III
Acoustic Guitar Interview
November 2012

I have almost nothing for today, but I have one very little loose end to tie-up that has been bugging me for a while now.

One of my all-time favorite musicians is a folk singer named Loudon Wainwright III.

I’ve mentioned him a few times here, and even played one of his songs.

Quasi Una Red Guitar Fantasia

Unrequited As A Cosmology

And he was married for a while to Kate McGarrigle and I mentioned the McGarrigle sisters once here.

Something Heroic And Remote

Well, in the November issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine (which was at newstands last month) they had an interview with Loudon Wainwright III and I never posted any quotes from the interview or even mentioned it here at the blog.

I felt like I should have talked about the interview because I’ve done posts about him. But the thing is, for the last few years I haven’t been paying much attention to him or the songs he’s written lately.

Early on in his career I thought his songs were full of life and humor and very individual and almost always worth listening to. He was exactly what I thought a musician should be.

But then, little by little, I started to get the impression he was sort of just going through the motions. All of his songs started to sound very generic to me, hardly worth listening to. It was almost as if he started to parody himself.

And that’s kind of what I thought about the interview.

It all read very mundane to me. Maybe even sad. Or sad-making. He talks about writing genre songs and about being self-obsessed and how he can write songs almost to-order, such as when the producers of the TV show “MASH” would just give him a list of words to include in a song and he would go off and write a song that included those words.

The interview to me sounded like Loudon Wainwright III narrating how the whole business of being a “folk musician” just became his job.

I know professional musicians have to earn a living so they have to crank out product, like an assembly line. Very often age or exhaustion seem to get the best of such people and that is my impression of what happened to my favorite folk singer, Loudon Wainwright III.

His early albums are still great, still amazing. Certainly the first three, maybe the first four or five.

But after that something seems to have happened. It scares the hell out of me because I wonder if it happens to everybody—I wonder will it happen or has it happened to me?—and it just seems awful that people can then spend decades just coasting through life, or even struggling through life, but not really adding anything to the Big Context around us.

(Someday I’ll return to this same issue about filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock—when he was making films and indulging his own weirdness, possibly his own inner demons even, his films were remarkable. Most of those films are still remarkable today. But for some reason—possibly after the incredible Marnie”, for various reasons—Hitchcock stopped indulging himself. Or he was prevented by studio executives from indulging himself. And all his subsequent films were hardly worth watching. No more magic at all. Or something even less than magic because he often seemed to parody himself.)

Anyway, so this has been on my mind a lot and since I don’t have anything special for today I thought I’d use this post to catch up on Loudon Wainwright III and put up a quote and the link to his most recent interview. I guess it’s kind of interesting. And he sounds honest and open. But that, too, is kind of a nightmare thought—what an awful awareness it must be, if a person can be self-aware of such things—that you are honest and open and skillful but there’s nothing left inside of you of any real worth that your skill can make use of to share.

No comments: