In the early 1950s, a 7-year-old named Loudon Wainwright III came east to Los Angeles and had to practically shade his eyes from the glamour.
His journalist father had been made the L.A. bureau chief for Life magazine and the family moved to Beverly Hills. Wainwright found himself sharing a classroom with Liza Minnelli ("I had," he says, "a tremendous crush on her.") and scampering across studio lots. It didn't last -- the family moved again when the boy was 10, but the klieg glare never faded. "It had a profound effect on my life and view of Hollywood."
In 1962, Wainwright's life changed when he saw Bob Dylan perform at the Newport Folk Festival. He became a folk singer and, for a time in the 1970s, even had to wear the heavy and unlucky crown that goes with being dubbed "the next Dylan." Eventually, Wainwright carved out his own identity as a singer of wry humor and ironic observation, a sort of Randy Newman playing the chords of Pete Seeger or perhaps a sunnier Shel Silverstein. Wainwright never stopped flirting with Hollywood and picked up film and TV roles through the years, like a memorable turn on the TV show "MASH."
Six years ago, he moved to Southern California to pursue screen jobs more vigorously. He kept writing songs, of course, especially when some storms blew through a few years ago.
"It was about three years ago, we had all this rain and just went on and on and on. We were in Woodland Hills, and we had a carport that was made of aluminum. Or maybe it was tin. In the song I said tin, it scans better. Anyway the noise made me absolutely crazy. It was a sonic assault. And that led to 'Grey in L.A.' "
If there's a flood then there's gonna be mudslides
We all have to pay for our sin
And I suppose that they'll close canyon roads
And the freeways will all start to clog
And the waters will rise and you won't be surprised
When your whole house smells like your wet dog
Wainwright, father of two pop performers, said the song is as much about struggling for success in L.A. against the depressingly perfect blue-sky backdrop. "I've lived in a lot of big cities. I think L.A. is the cruelest of all of them."
And I'm just a chump
And this whole town's a dump
We came out here to dump all our dreams
Of making it big but we're stuck in a SigAlert nightmare
That's just how it seems
The only time it rains in L.A. is in the movies, Wainwright noted, and the reason is the city seems so dramatic and volatile in the rain that it lends itself to Hollywood climaxes. "It makes things seem a little desperate. And they love rain-slicked streets too, they look good on film." Hollywood also likes songs about L.A. in the rain -- Wainwright's "Grey in L.A." recently popped up in Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" and the singer himself appeared in the film, adding a line to his film résumé. The song's final lines proved to be true:
There's no place that's better I know
For a wannabe star stuck in a car
On a freeway with nowhere to go