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Loudon Wainwright III Is Still Trying To Live Down That Dead Skunk Thing.

By Dave Irwin

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III was supposed to be the new Bob Dylan 30 years ago. Eventually, he wrote "Talking New Bob Dylan," telling how he and others like Steve Forbert, scarred by the tag of "New Dylan," get together at Bruce Springsteen's house for their 12 Step meetings.

Looking at himself on "Four Mirrors" off his latest album, Little Ship, he unflinchingly notes the broken blood vessels under his 52-year-old skin.

Painful, hilarious and acerbic only start to describe Wainwright. If his own foibles were not so frequently the subject of his songs, he would be hard to take. As it is, his views on the sorry state of humanity, most often through the example of himself, are hard to resist.

Two things have defined the general public's perception of Wainwright over the years: What he refers to as "that Dead Skunk thing" and his three episodes as the guitar-playing Dr. Spaulding on the TV show M.A.S.H. In 1973, America couldn't drive to work without hearing "Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)." While lucrative, it did as much for Wainwright being able to expand his career as playing Mr. Spock did for Leonard Nimoy.

"In the early '70s I stumbled on a hit single, the song about the dead skunk," he says. "That was a big record that year and I made a lot of money. I was pressured to duplicate that and I kind of half heartedly took a stab at it and didn't succeed. By the end of the '70s, I realized I had to go back to what I did, which was picking guitar and playing the songs I wanted to write. I was living in England and making records with Richard Thompson. In 1979, I did a live record (A Live One). It slowly got my confidence back, but with the understanding that I was going to have the production serve the song, and not the record company or what I thought radio wanted, because I had no idea and I wasn't very good at it anyway."

Always noted as a sharp, intelligent songwriter, despite the "Dead Skunk" thing, Wainwright has carved out a fluky career followed by a set of hardcore fans. His 16 albums include wry observations about the world mixed with funny/tragic songs about his failed relationships with wives, lovers, children and even himself. Albums like Career Moves, recorded live one night at the Bottom Line in New York, demonstrate his comedic talent. After several years on independent labels, he now finds himself on Virgin Records, along with the Rolling Stones and the Spice Girls. Not that it particularly matters to him.

"I'm just writing songs and working for labels that let me make records like that," he says. "And more fortunately, there are enough people that like the songs and are interested so that I can come and play in Tucson and people will show up, and the newspaper will talk to me and a radio station will call me up. That's the state of my career and it's been the state of my career for quite awhile."

Recent projects include guesting on The McGarrigle Hour album with ex-wife Kate McGarrigle and their children, Rufus (who has his own recording career) and Martha, along with ex-in-law Anna McGarrigle and special guests Emmy Lou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Later this fall, he'll join the McGarrigle Sisters for several concerts.

"I don't like being on the road much," he admits, "but that's part of the job. I like to play and I like to entertain and I like to write songs. In performing, I want people to have a thoughtful, good, fun time. Ideally, in 75 to 90 minutes, people will be moved, amused, incensed and annoyed. I want them to leave with a sense of having seen the world through my eyes."

Those would be the very quirky eyes of the man who wrote a ranting ode, "The World (Oh, the world is a terrible place,)" accompanied by the normally carefree sound of a banjo, as Wainwright says, "just to piss Pete Seeger off."

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