Monday, July 4, 2011

Loudon Wainwright III - T Shirt

I’d never heard of Loudon Wainwright III before one summer afternoon when I was riding my JC Penny five-speed bike back home from my friend’s house.

It was only about five or six blocks away, and being eleven years old meant that every block was passed with great detail. There could be loose change afoot, an un-smoked pack of cigarettes, or the occasional cassette lying about.

On this day, I spotted something blue in the gutter.

It was an 8-track tape of Loudon Wainwright III’s T-Shirt album. It bore the blue Arista record logo. It’s strange, but even then I had an opinion of record labels, and Arista Records certainly wasn’t one that I took seriously.

The only thing I knew them from was the label that brought us such favorites as Barry Manilow, so this Loudon Wainwright character must be equally shitty. After all, who would throw out a perfectly good 8 track?

The awesome Craig record player in my bedroom could also play 8 tracks, of which I had a couple-but the majority of my collection was vinyl.

T-Shirt was in such poor shape from its time in the gutter that I almost didn’t play it for fear that it would get tangled up in my player. I finally relented, figuring that a broken 8-track player wouldn’t be missed much.

Besides, I couldn’t pass up a chance at hearing a free album.

It played fine, or at least as fine as an 8-track can play and I was surprised at enjoying what I’d heard.

It wasn’t until later when I made the connection that this artist was the one responsible for “Dead Skunk,” a novelty song that I vaguely remembered hearing on the radio a few years prior to my 8-track discovery.

Much of that was because T-Shirt was different than Wainwright’s folk, singer/songwriter period. Arista had evidently dolled Wainwright up to become a more rock oriented singer/songwriter artist, something certainly designed to spice up Clive Davis’ still young upstart label.

And while I now understand how divisive this album must have seemed to Wainwright fans at the time and, yes, I can completely hear the difference in quality between this and his earlier material, with no reference point available, T-Shirt sounded pretty good for a found record.

It started with “Bicentennial,” a sarcastic view of our country’s 200th birthday which was taking place at the time of T-Shirt’s release. My discovery of the record came after the bicentennial, and I didn’t quite get the sarcasim at that age. All I knew was that Wainwright declared Jack Ruby to be wonderful in the song, and I couldn’t understand why he thought so highly of the dude that assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald.

You can probably guess why I was more of a fan of “Dead Skunk” at that age.

I also didn’t get the references to Shakespeare, (then) New York City mayor Abe Beame, and recently deported South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Van Thieu, all of whom were featured in various songs in T-Shirt.

I did like the song about Charlie Manson (“California Prison Blues”) and I totally dug the cautionary drug tale funk of “At Both Ends.” I still think that song would be a great cover song for some band who wouldn’t have a problem singing the line “Who needs love? Who wants romance? I wanna eat your underpants!” with a straight face.

But the highlight is the bombastic “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” an epically delivered ode to drunken belligerence complete with the good advise of “If I vomit, keep me off of my back.”

I followed Wainwright’s advice on that one many years afterwards.

I also tried to keep in touch with T-Shirt as best as I could, or at least until the 8-track player/stereo was pitched for a more appropriate component system. It remained elusive until I began recalling various lines from this long-forgotten album.

Are there better places to start with for a glimpse of Loudon Wainwright III’s talents?


But for me, my experience started with this discarded record presented for free on an obsolete format.

It sounded good enough to keep searching his catalog, which is saying something about Wainwright.

Even when people think he’s not good enough, he’s still better than most.

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