Tonight is the launch of the Talking Band’s revival of their 1983 show Hot Lunch Apostles at La Mama. This might have been of some passing interest to me as I walk my Indie Theatre beat, but one bold-faced name moved it to the front of my agenda. The production stars none other than actor-singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, or as he is sometimes called in the post-hip hop era, LW3. I’ve already raved at some length about my Loudon obsession previously here, but it’s really not the half it.
I seriously learned a lot about songwriting by internalizing his first dozen or so records. Two of my favorites to perform were “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” (this was a decade before Johnny Cash covered it), and “Reciprocity”, and I definitely copped the hypnotic chords of “Plane, Too” for a song or two of my own (it only has four chords, but I like them). In his own way, Loudon’s as great a songwriter as the hit-makers of his generation (I include the Beatles, Stones, Dylan etc), and, lyrically, better than most, though his songs are far too personal and intelligent to have appealed to the masses who were shelling out for “Shake, Shake, Shake (Shake Your Booty)” by the millions.
Imagine my excitement at the prospect of interviewing him in connection with this play.
If there was a downside, it was that there was a very real danger of my seeming like Jack Black’s character in Bob Roberts. In fact, this has even happened once. About 20 years ago, Loudon came into the book store where I worked. He came right up to my cash register and I rang up his book. I acknowledged this important moment in my life by saying “(Cough! Cough!) That’ll be, uh… ‘leven eighty, er, ‘leven eighty fide…er…five. Eleven eighty five. (Clears throat)”.
As you will see in the account that follows, I was mostly able to keep the welling bubbles of hysteria in check. Loudon did seem slightly taken aback when I quoted the lyrics to “Samson and the Warden” to him as though it were Holy Scripture. All I can say is, that was nothing compared to how truly disturbed he would have been if I had repeated his lines from the three M*A*S*H episodes he appeared in. Back in the eighties, I had committed them to memory. I believe they were something along the lines of: “I think he’s in the mess tent”, “What’s going on, Klinger?” and “Yes, sir.”
In the mid 1990s, I got married, had kids, and started a theatre company, and that all changed a lot of my old habits, including youthful obsessions with singer-songwriters. But that still doesn’t mean I’m not pleased as punch to learn he’s playing La Mama (where we ourselves did our own carnival themed show only a year ago), or that he’s cut two records with the guy who owns the building our home-away-from-home Dixon Place occupies, or that he’s performed with our buddy Vince Giordano, or that he’s working on the new show with Tigger, or even that he knows Penny Arcade! This is a heck of a lot of street cred for someone who may well be having the best decade of his 40+ year career (look at his recent film credits on IMDB, for example, not to mention the superstar status of his son Rufus.)
Alright! This is a lot of preamble for my short but pleasant interview with the gentlemanly, generous Loudon Wainwright III.
TRAV: How does it come about that [a man of your genius and international stature] is doing an Off-Off-Broadway show at a small East Village Theatre?
LW3: I’ve been friends with Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow of the Talking Band for 20 or 30 years. I actually met them in an aikido class. I went to see some of their productions and became a fan of their work. Anyway, I ran into Paul a couple of months ago and he just popped the question, asked if I was interested in doing some acting and told me about the project. I read the script and I liked it, and so I just jumped in. I’ve done bits and pieces of acting over the years, mostly in film and tv. I haven’t done a play for awhile.
TRAV: Was the last one Pump Boys and Dinettes?
LW3: Pump Boys was a long time ago, that was the early 80s. I’ve done some other things since then. More recently I was in a Caryl Churchill play at the Young Vic.
TRAV: You started out as an actor, didn’t you?
LW3: Yeah, I went to what was then called Carnegie Tech, now it’s Carnegie Mellon. I studied acting but didn’t finish. I dropped out after about a year and a half.
TRAV: Was it music that caused the turnaround?
LW3: Well, I was playing and singing then, but I wasn’t writing yet. What happened was, around ’68 I went out to San Francisco to do drugs! And this one time I was driving through Oklahoma and I got busted for possession of marijuana.
TRAV: (helpfully contributing lyrics from the song Loudon wrote about the episode, “Samson and the Warden”): “But all [they] really found was stems and some seeds”!
LW3: Er, yes! Um, my song…right! (pause) Anyway, I had to call my dad, who was over in England at the time to come bail me out. [His father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., was an editor at Life magazine]. And so, not long after that, I was working in a boatyard, and that’s where I wrote my first song, about this lobster fisherman named Edgar.
TRAV: What’s the song called?
LW3: It’s never been recorded. I don’t even remember it. But anyway, that’s how I became a songwriter.
TRAV: Was M*A*S*H your first professional acting gig?
LW3: I had done a little before then. I was in a production of Troilus and Cressida at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. But then [M*A*S*H creator] Larry Gelbart saw me playing at the Troubadour [in West Hollywood] and asked me if I wanted to be Captain Spalding, the Singing Surgeon.
TRAV: Back in the late 60s/ early 70s there was a lot of cross fertilization between the experimental theatre and the folk scene. Were you witness to any of that, or did you take part?
LW3: Well, I grew up in Bedford, in Westchester County. [Interviewer fights off urge to quote singer’s lyrics back to him]. And we came into town all the time, saw things, got into trouble. I played the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City. I hung out with Penny Arcade a lot back then, and she took me out to theatre. We saw John Vaccaro and the Theatre of the Ridiculous and stuff like that at La Mama. When I met Paul and Ellen I went to see them wherever they were performing.
TRAV: Tell me about your character in Hot Lunch Apostles.
LW3: The characters in this play are all carny people, and I am sort of the barker, the head man.
TRAV: What’s the play like? Is it straightforward? Experimental?
LW3: Well, [the playwright] Sidney Goldfarb is a poet. It has a real poetic feeling to it. A transcendent quality. It’s a mash up of sleazy, sexy carnival life running up against Jesus and religion. It was written to take place in the future originally. But given where we are now, it seemed apropos to put it in the present. The past has caught up with the present.
TRAV: Do you sing in it?
LW3: A little, but mostly I act. Everyone sings in it.
TRAV: Congratulations on your Grammy! [Loudon, along with Vince Giordano and others, was on an album of music from the television show Boardwalk Empire, which just won a Grammy.]
TRAV: You have a new album coming out next month. Tell me about that.
LW3: It’s coming out in April. I made this record a couple of years ago with Dick Connette. Dixon Place is in his building. He used to go under the name of Kilroy. We made a double album a few years ago. This is our second record together. It’s called “Older Than My Old Man Now.” It’s a meditation on death and decay in song. It has some terrific collaborators, features some duets with my children Rufus and Martha and Lucy, and one with Barry Humphrys as Dame Edna, called “I Remember Sex.”
LW3: Come see Hot Lunch Apostles. It’ll be up through the 18th. It’s been a wild ride and I’m looking forward to doing it for actual people.
TRAV: (hangs up phone, hyperventilates)