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III's a Charm

Loudon Wainwright fans are drawn to wisdom, dark humor of his songs on universal themes.

April 09, 1998|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Loudon Wainwright III hasn't gone on any musical safaris to spend time with indigenous peoples of Brazil or Madagascar or Nigeria to expand his musical palette.

Heck, the most exotic island that's had any impact on his music is that tiny one 6,000 miles across the Atlantic--and that's because the veteran singer-songwriter lived in England for about 11 years before moving back home to the U.S.

For 28 years since his first album, Wainwright's used pretty much the same handful of basic folk-rock singer-songwriter major and minor chords, with a seventh or ninth chord tossed in just often enough to prove he knows what they are.

And, as he admitted to the half-capacity crowd that turned out Tuesday for his splendid 95-minute solo concert at the Coach House, "There are really only three things I write about." He didn't name them, but anybody listening would have quickly pegged them as love (mostly of the soured variety), death and family.

No, the one thing that keeps Wainwright's music worth hearing year after year, album after album, decade after decade is that lump of twisted gray matter inside his skull.

Well, that and a mirror or two.

In fact, anyone keeping score would have noted that a good third of the 22 songs he played mentioned mirrors--testifying to the ongoing process of self-examination that is Wainwright's stock in trade.

"Four Mirrors," from his typically wry, typically revealing new album, "Little Ship," frames memories of time spent in his father's Manhattan apartment, filled as it apparently is with reflecting devices through which Wainwright could catalog his similarities to his most immediate ancestor.

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Those familial bonds provided the heart of the rest of his set. He started the confession process immediately with the painfully honest--and funny--self-loathing of "I Can't Stand Myself," which has the opening line: "I sure can pick 'em/Out lookin' for my next victim . . . there's someone out there just imperfect for me."

"Bein' a Dad" charts the joys and frustrations of dadhood with all the empathy of W.C. Fields: "It's as hard as it looks / You have to read 'em dumb books / And you end up despising Walt Disney."

If the thought stopped there, he'd still deserve respect for capturing a side of parenthood that doesn't make it into most how-to books. But the song makes the leap from amusing to touching when he turns the table and zings parents, himself included, with a stinging reminder about the awesome power they hold:

But a daughter or son

Can be sort of fun

Just as long as they don't defy you

They'll treat you like a king

They'll believe anything

They're easy to frighten and lie to

Where the average Joe tends to ignore or suppress his dark side, Wainwright goes in the other direction and gives short shrift to his good points--perhaps because he concentrates so much on the big picture. This is a man, after all, who sings "Life's a job you're fired from / Unless, of course, you quit."

That black sense of humor, coupled in concert with his fidgety, tongue-wagging delivery--keeps Wainwright's bleak view from becoming oppressive. Life is a cosmic joke, he seems to say, but a pretty dark joke.

"Once I looked like a million bucks / Now it's about two thousand," he sang in an unrecorded song that refutes old friends who try to tell him he hasn't changed with the years.

If you're going to face your mortality, Wainwright's underlying message seems to be, better to look it straight in the eye and snicker than bow your head and whine.

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