The world according to Loudon Wainwright

Jazz Review, December 1997
One of the best tracks on Loudon Wainwright III’s latest album with Virgin Records, “Little Ship,” is titled “Mr. Ambivalent” (“Make a little movement or get off of the pot”). Given that Wainwright is a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, actor and social satirist, is the song a reflection of a career dilemma – a case of too many hats and not enough heads? “It was more the Freudian idea of ambivalence: loving and hating the same thing; my inability to choose. But as far as my career’s concerned, I don’t think of myself as an actor or comedian or social commentator. I think of myself as a songwriter and performer.”

While these days we tend to associate names-plus-numerals with robots or movie sequels, Wainwright earned his numbers the old-fashioned way: from his father, a well-known writer with Life magazine and his grandfather, a prosperous businessman. Born in Westchester County, “Cheever country, Updike country, businessmen commuting…” he returned to his hometown after the death of his mother last spring. “It was a mixture of fate and choice that brought me back. It’s strange yet at the same time very familiar.”

That mixture of strangeness plus familiarity is a cornerstone of his art, along with an astoundingly candid self-analysis which borders on obsessive and an observational humor that can be charmingly wry one moment and startlingly direct the next. Wainwright’s wit has a way of sneaking up on you. He chuckles when discussing the incongruity of the lyrics to his song, “The World” (“The world is a dirty old, crappy old, shitty old, terrible joke”) when placed within the context of the fixed-grin, bouncy melody of the tune. “The banjo has such a happy, cheerful sound. I thought it went perfectly with the pessimistic lyrics. The world is a terrible place; there’s proof of that. It can also be a beautiful, wonderful place.” He pauses, sighs, then delivers the punchline: “I don’t know what I was feeling the day I wrote it. I guess I must have turned on the news…”

Wainwright is launching a new series of concerts and comedy performances at the Hôtel du Nord, on December 7 & 8. Made famous by the film starring Arletty, the hotel has been lovingly restored to all its 1930’s glory. Forthcoming acts include the outstanding double bill of singer/composers John Greaves and Gabriela Arnon on January 18 & 19, and a comedy double bill featuring Simon Bligh and Mickey Hutton (call for dates). An excellent pair of Djangoish guitarists, Angelo de Bar and Rodolpho Raffalli, also give free performances there Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons from 4-6pm.

Hôtel du Nord, 102, quai de Jemmapes, 10e, Mº République, tel: 01.48.06.01.20, 8:30pm, 120F, 100F students.