As a pop culture observer, I hate to hang a performer’s career image on a single recording about roadkill and for the sheer gusto with which he sang it, but so be it. In 1974, when Loudon Wainwright III put out “Dead Skunk,” a lot of people thought it was about then-president Richard M. Nixon. It wasn’t. Wainwright said the song was about roadkill and that it came to him in less than 15 minutes. “Dead Skunk” placed him in the mix as a wry and satirical reporter of life.
When Wainwright emerged with acoustic guitar on the folk stages of the 1960s, the rock press called him the next Dylan. “They were lookin’ for you, signin’ up others,” he sang in protest in his “Talking New Bob Dylan.” “We were new Bob Dylans/ Your dumb-ass kid brothers.” In the song, one gains a sense of Wainwright’s deeper inner-Dylan frustration: “Well, we still get together every week at Bruce’s [Springsteen’s] house/ Why, he’s got quite a spread, I tell ya — it’s a 12-step program.”
Wainwright was married to folk artist Kate McGarrigle for a time, and together they produced a small and popular singer-songwriter dynasty in their offspring Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Predictably, a more private side of Wainwright senior emerged from the lyrics of his children’s songs. “I’m gonna break you down,” sang the enigmatic Rufus, “and see what you’re really worth to me.” But Martha went for the grand slam when she wrote “Bloody Mother F***ing A**hole,” a song she publicly admitted was Loudon-inspired.
Wainwright’s reply? Sober diplomacy: “Pain is a good subject matter,” he told a reporter. “There’s pain and conflict in family life, and that’s what drama is. You can be John Denver and talk about how beautiful the mountains are, and that works if you’re John Denver.”
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III, AcousticMusicSanDiego, Friday, February 6, 7:30 p.m. 619-303-8176. $25.