In the liner notes to one of Loudon Wainwright III's albums, his close friend George Gerdes suggested that if the singer/songwriter didn't have music as an outlet, he might have become an ax murderer.
On the evidence of Wainwright's records, and especially his concerts (he will perform tonight at the Beverly Theatre on a bill with Al Stewart), you have to go along with Gerdes' assessment.
Many of Wainwright's songs are tense psychodramas, often honed by biting, cynical humor. His delivery--that edgy, quavering voice frequently accompanied by nothing but crude acoustic guitar chords--heightens the impression that Wainwright is a man who has to do this.
"An ax murderer or a lumberjack, something with an ax," Wainwright said during a recent phone interview from his New York City apartment, laughing off Gerdes' comment. "I consider it (music) my job."
Actually, the "ax murderer" comment is misleading. Wainwright is intimately involved with his songs--they're too scarily real for it to be otherwise. It's just that the songs show only one side of his life.
Wainwright, 39, is probably best known for his 1972 novelty hit "Dead Skunk," his occasional acting roles (a part in last year's movie "The Slugger's Wife," a role as a singing soldier in a few early episodes of "MASH") and his lineage (his father, Loudon Wainwright II, is a Life magazine columnist). As the title of his recent album, "I'm Alright," indicates, he seems to be in pretty good shape these days.
"My life is a snap," he insisted, quoting fellow musician Geoff Muldaur. "I always thought that was a cute thing to say."
Wainwright would not actually admit to happiness, though. "Happy is a tricky word. I can't complain. I consider myself lucky. I'm doing something that I like and that I care about.
"Life is wonderful and life is great and it should be celebrated in song," he continued. "But when other things are talked about, it's more interesting--to me, at least."
In 16 years of songwriting, Wainwright has built up a catalogue of material covering "my little world." In the words of his recent song "Career Moves," that territory consists of "drinking and hockey and flying above / Again and again about unhappy love."
Unhappy or not, love has also given Wainwright another favorite subject: his three children, two from a marriage with Kate McGarrigle of the singing McGarrigle Sisters and the youngest from a relationship with Suzzy Roche of the singing Roche sisters.
But whether mundane or monumental, tender or terse, the songs generally strike some nerves, often with the impact of a wayward dentist's drill.
"If I'm in an audience, I like to be jolted," he said. "If you can take someone some place and bring them back in one piece, it makes the eight bucks or whatever worth it."
Of course, there are also benefits in this for the singer.
"I hesitate to use the word therapeutic, but there can be a release," he said. "People come up and say, 'Don't you get embarrassed singing about your unhappiness and your problems?' The thing is, in a show there's a lot of safety and you can vent your spleen easier than at a party or to one person."
Lately, though, Wainwright believes that his songwriting horizons are expanding into more objective regions. Along with the expected funny stuff, like looks at such anguish-ridden experiences as moving ("Cardboard Boxes"), the new album includes several rather spiritual meditations on his condition, and a moving song about the death of John Lennon.
Someday might Wainwright even release a song about happy love? Don't hold your breath.
"I wrote a song about it once," he said. "It wasn't very good."