(The Singer-Songwriter as Autobiographer)

by Loudon Wainwright III

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I’ve been a singer-songwriter for 35 years. I get paid to stand up in front of people, play the guitar, and sing songs to them that I write. Once upon a time there were songwriters and there were singers. The former wrote for the latter and the labor was usually divided. Richard wrote the tune and Oscar wrote the lyrics. George did the music, brother Ira was in charge of the words. There were legendary musical tag teams: Gilbert & Sullivan, Comden & Green, Lerner & Lowe. Occasionally you’d get a genius who did it all – words and music – creative switch hitters like Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin, but in Tin Pan Alley it was usually a two person endeavor. And that continued right up into rock & roll. Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney, or visa versa, as McCartney would now have it. Of course Paul and John had themselves in mind as the singers and protagonists of their songs, in the same way that their hero Chuck Berry wrote and sang about his cool life. When John warbled, "I once had a girl or should I say she once had me," you felt sure that he was the actual guy being had. In folk, blues, and country, few, if any, could read or write music, so people made up songs about what was happening to and around them. Then they had the audacity to sing and play the stuff themselves using guitars, banjos, and harmonicas. These were the first singer-songwriters I heard, pioneers like Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. Mostly guys with guitars telling it like it was. The "it" in question was the life they led. They spilled the beans and gave up the gory details. As a listener, you felt you were getting something at its source, something simple, direct, and easy to identify with because, it turns out, their beans were not unlike your own. Everybody has pretty much the same gory details, which is why autobiography, and art, for that matter, work.

When I saw Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 there was a whole lotta identification going on. Here was a guy just a few years older than I was, writing and singing about what was going on in the world, his and mine. These were the heady days of "Blowin’ In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A’ Changing," when there were social issues to sing about, and apostrophes in song titles. The not-so-nice Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota sounded like a 60-year-old black bluesman who’d listened to a ton of Woody Guthrie. But Bob was young and just searching for his own style or, as the Zimmermans might say, his "schtick." On his first recordings, Ray Charles all but impersonates his hero, Nat King Cole. By the time Dylan went (and for that matter, became) electric two years later at Newport, he was a fully formed original who’d left his contemporaries and influences in the dust. After 1965, Bob seemed to be pretty much focused on his cool, albeit rather cryptic, life. It had gone from "Hattie Carrol was a maid in the kitchen" to "You got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend," which for my money is going from good to even better.

So what’s the big rule about writing? Write what you know about? When I started writing songs in 1968 I didn’t know about much. Raised in an affluent suburb of New York City, I’d gone to a boy’s boarding school, dropped out of college, been busted for pot, and had survived two or three disastrous puppy-love affairs. I’d mowed a few lawns and hitchhiked to New Canaan, Connecticut, but hadn’t harvested a single bail of cotton nor ridden any rails. Still, I somehow managed to write two or three songs per week, drawn from my pathetic dearth of experience. And like most serious, young, egotistical artists I thought my life, though yet to be cool, was nonetheless interesting. At least I was smart enough to know I had to make it seem interesting. So I put some work into presentation. To separate myself from the others out there, the pack of bell-bottomed, pony-tailed, guitar-toting song-slingers, I wore Brooks Brothers flannels and my hair unfashionably short. To cope with coffee house stage fright, in performance I physicalized my fear into strange, spastic body gyrations, replete with leg lifts, facial grimaces, and lots of tongue-wagging. I made sure people noticed me and, within a year, Atlantic Records had. My first two albums were positively retro, unadorned, without a trace of the drums, bass, and tasteful pedal steel guitar lickage that was going around at the time. My instincts paid off as the critics, always looking for the next new thing, and desperate then to fill the Dylan vacuum (Bob was out of commission at that time, holed up in Woodstock, recovering from a motorcycle accident), decided I was, to shamelessly quote one hyperbolic hack, "A blinding new talent." All my work on packaging had paid off. I’d been noticed. The songs I had written were also very good. That helped.

Nobody writes, or for that matter works, in a vacuum. There’s a market out there, and unless you’re writing, singing, shipbuilding, basket weaving, or whatever for the sheer pleasure of it, you have to deal with that market and all its vagaries. Since I’ve been in the music business I’ve earned, I suppose, a good enough living, mostly toiling away on the biz’s outer peripheries. I’ve never written my songs for other people to sing or record, and though I’ve had a few "covers," as they call them in Nashville (a term that brings to my mind
Hudson Bay blankets and fur coats), there haven’t been a lot of publishing royalty checks over the last 35 years. I made fun of this rather sad fact in a song called, brace yourselves, "A Song." The opening lines are:

Here’s a song for someone else to sing
With a universal and generic ring
It’s all about the same old stuff
That you like and can’t get enough of
How’s about a minor chord right here?
Wasn’t that rather pleasant in your ear?

Gory details and spilt beans aside, writing about yourself, for yourself, doesn’t necessarily pay well. In 1972 after making two critically acclaimed but largely unpurchased LPs (long-playing vinyl recordings for you young folk) Atlantic’s crush on me was over and I was dropped. I was then picked up (yet another weird term, this one connotative of prostitution) by Columbia Records. On my third record, imaginatively entitled "Album III," there were more ‘songs of inexperience’ and autobiographical angst, but also a novelty tune I made up in 12 minutes about a dead skunk I ran over while driving in northern Westchester County, NewYork. Good instincts (get it?), great karma, dumb luck, plus plain old payola, all combined, and the result was my only hit heretofore and thus far, #12 on the Billboard Chart and #1 in Little Rock, Arkansas for six weeks. Suddenly I did have a pretty cool life. I was the "Dead Skunk" guy.

25 years old and I pretty much had made it. The critics’ darling was now a success. So what happened? Why is it that many of you here today aren’t quite sure who the hell I actually am, aside from Rufus Wainwright’s father? Why is finding a CD of mine akin to archeology? Where were the follow up hits to "Dead Skunk," funny animal songs like "I Met Her at the Pet Store" and "Stay Away From My Aardvark?" There are answers to these questions, reasons for the "what," the "whys," and the "where." Indeed, I could hold forth for hours this afternoon on the subject of my career. Over the years I’ve done just that for any number of psychotherapists. But we don’t have enough time today and I have trust issues with strangers who congregate in groups on college campuses. Besides, this talk is about writing and not my self-destructive tendencies. (But if you’re interested in charting the molehills and valleys of my career, it’s all been chronicled in song. Hey kids, fire up those mp3s and check out "Fame & Wealth," "A.M. World," "The Grammy Song," "Mr. Ambivalent," and "They Spelled My Name Wrong Again!")

I continued to write about my life as it went all the way from cool right onto cheesy. By 1973, despite, or possibly due to, having had made it big, I was miserable. Married and the father of two small children, I was never home, drunk a good deal of the time, and apparently felt it necessary to sleep with every waitress in North America and The British Isles. But guess what? All these beans have also been spilt in song. How about a few more titles? "Mr. Guilty," "The Drinking Song," "I Can’t Stand Myself," "Heaven & Mud," and "Your Mother And I." Now we’ve stumbled onto one of the big important questions: is it necessary to feel like shit in order to be creative? I’d say the answer is – unless you’re J. S. Bach – yes. Or put it another way: it may not be necessary to feel like shit, but it couldn’t hurt. I know that those legit guys I mentioned back at the beginning – Oscar, Richard, Irving, and Frank – got the blues from time to time but when they wrote about it and got Ethel Merman or John Raitt (Bonnie’s dad, by the way) to sing it, I felt sorry for Ethel and John, but not for Oscar and Frank, et al. I suppose that was the idea; the "remove" was placed there intentionally. Less messy or threatening, maybe. More sophisticated or safe. Oscar couldn’t carry a tune. I don’t know. But I do know that when Hank Williams sings "Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly," it’s powerful, and I doubt if Ethel, me, or anyone else could top it. The very names of the legendary blues and R&B singer-songwriters tell it like they were: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Screaming Jay Hawkins. These were performers and writers who were out to advertise their very personas. Harlan Howard, the great songwriter who himself was not a singer, said that country music is three chords and the truth. Of course, come to think of it, Irving Berlin’s "What’ll I Do?" is five chords and the truth. I think I just shot down one of my own theories. I better get back to my sordid life.

About ten years ago I wrote a song called "Hitting You." It was about hauling off and smacking one of my kids too hard. On the butt, I hasten to add. Nevertheless she was five and I shouldn’t have hit her. People were shocked when they heard the song and they said I was very brave to sing it on stage. That was nice to hear but actually incorrect. I wasn’t being brave. A stage, whether in a club, a concert hall, or a cow pasture, is an extremely safe place, at least for a performer. You appear to be exposed but really you’re protected. There are lights, microphones, and usually a fourth invisible wall, all separating you from the mob, a mob that often happens to be quite partial toward you. If you know what you’re doing you can get away with murder. And that, figuratively speaking, can be your intention. I’ve always held that provocation, unless totally gratuitous, is a good thing. 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. You then have the option to release that tension when and how you deem appropriate. Sounds like a bit of a cat and mouse game, doesn’t it? I’m sure you’ve seen show biz movies where the performer states his desire and need to "go out there and kill ‘em." Doing a show, or your "act," as they used to call it, is a bit like cooking or sex. It’s best not to hurry. Or so I’ve been told. Repeatedly. Occasionally you get a reaction to a song that’s not the one you expected. I assumed that people who heard "Hitting You" would be affected by their recollections of being whacked in the back seat by their own dads. Indeed some did, but many, if not most, identified with not the hittee but with the hitter. People came up after shows and talked to me about how they’d lost it and hit their kids and how awful and guilty they still felt about it. Now, that’s entertainment!

Frequently I’m asked if writing and singing personal songs is in any way therapeutic. It’s true I have had people thank me for writing certain songs, usually ones about the family, the passage of time, and death, three of my absolute favorite topics. I’m certainly always happy to help someone, particularly a paying customer, make it through the night. As to whether what I do is therapeutic for myself, I doubt it. My career has provided me with a living and a half-assed identity, but having it hasn’t resolved any of my so-called "stuff." I don’t think songwriting is curative. In fact, it could be argued that singing the blues in the end just makes you bluer.

I didn’t want to be a writer. It seemed hard, boring, and above all, lonely. As a kid growing up I saw my journalist father at work torturing himself while writing, trying to write, and, worst of all, not writing. He was a famous and successful columnist and editor for "Life" magazine and was in fact a fine writer. Unfortunately, he suffered from a streak of sadomasochism that runs in our family and succumbed to a prejudice held by many journalists, namely that writers aren’t real writers unless they produce books. But the books my father wanted to write refused to be written. The book about the judge, the book about the cop, the book about the minister, all were planned, endlessly talked about, paid for in advance, but in the end, unwritten. "The book" was a phrase spoken over and over by my parents throughout my childhood. It was a phrase that induced feelings of hope and excitement initially, but then it just became two words synonymous with failure and incompletion. To me, being a writer looked like a stone drag, and a must to avoid. By the time I was seven I knew singing and performing would be part of my equation, but I was surprised when word play entered the picture 15 years later. Writing a song was spare time stuff, easy and fun. Caressing a curvaceous guitar and singing your head and ass off was nowhere near as lonely as staring down at a typewriter and filling up blank pieces of paper. And songwriting was quick. Who ever heard of a song taking six months or two years to write? So in the end I got to be like my old man but in my own way,` and for guys, that’s hitting the Oedipal jackpot, like making out with your Mom without having to actually do it. But I don’t want you to think I’m totally well adjusted. Or for that matter ungrateful. My father loved writing and knew it was important and I think I inherited some of that love and knowledge. The primary techniques I use in my work are description and detail. These are journalistic techniques, genetically passed on, along with the sadomasochism, of course, and I use them along with a sprinkling of humor, a dollop of irony, and great lashings of unreliable narration. My father gave me my first guitar. Long before there was Elvis, Bob, the Stones, and the Beatles, there was my dad’s record collection. I studied it as a kid, absorbing my progenitor’s eclectic musical tastes. Along with the original cast recordings of "My Fair Lady," "Guys and Dolls," and "South Pacific" were my father’s albums by Kid Ory, Leadbelly, and Tom Lehrer. I heard great songs and songwriters while growing up.

Earlier I mentioned that when I first began writing my songs they were coming at a rate of two or three per week. Sadly, almost nothing comes at that rate anymore. But when you’re young, you’re full of it, and it pours out of you: piss and vinegar, fire and brimstone, and of course my personal favorites Sturm und Drang. Later it slows down and then you’re left with just a trickle. If this is getting a little too urogenital for you, let’s switch metaphors. Fishing. Writing songs is like fishing. You sit in the boat and you wait. It’s true you have to know the best spot, time of day, which bait to use, the difference between a nibble and a strike, and most importantly, how to get the damn fish into the boat. Talent is essential, craft is crucial, but for me, it’s mostly down to waiting and luck. And in my work and cool life, luck is neither random nor dumb. It’s definite and discerning. It’s invisible but it’s there. It’s mysterious and also so obvious. I don’t understand how inspiration works and I don’t want to. Don’t mess with grace and divinity. You can write songs with hard work, sharp pencils, and a rhyming dictionary, but without luck they won’t swing. The best songs, whether they’re Irving’s, Joni’s, or Woody’s, have soul and that comes from the Almighty Intangible, that crazy little thing I like to call luck. Hallelujah! A little bit of the preacher in me just got out.

Well, it’s always nice to end on a positive, uplifting note, so I’m going to wrap it up now. Sorry for all the name-dropping, hopefully you knew who I was going on about. The names dropped and references made are pretty much from my own time, my formative youth, if you will. Perhaps I should have spoken a bit about the songwriting of today, but as they say, there’s not much new under the sun. I‘m sure there are plenty of great young songwriters working out there now and yes, I really hate them. But I don’t listen much to other songwriters now. Haven’t for years, really. Scares the fish away.