Still Laughing to Keep From Crying

Richard Cromelin is a Times staff writer

The O.J. trial. Tonya Harding. Phone sex. Y2K. Jesse Helms. . . . The wonderful world of the '90s gets the Loudon Wainwright III treatment on the new album "Social Studies" (due in stores Tuesday), which adds some sarcastic gems to a body of work going back to his debut album in 1970.

That debut, "Album I," was met with a burst of acclaim, and now Wainwright, 52, watches as similar praise comes to his musician son, Rufus Wainwright. His daughter, singer Martha Wainwright, is also surfacing, and it has inspired him to request (tongue-in-cheek, he insists) that interviewers not ask about his children, because of his "concerns about the amount of publicity they've been receiving."

But the Brooklyn resident did touch on the topic in an interview that also included his thoughts on the current events that have come under his satirical hammer.


Question: How would you describe your attitude toward the people and events you're writing about on the new album?

Answer: There are no real solutions or philosophical stands made. If there's a song on the album that expresses my overall philosophy about "Social Studies," it's probably "Carmine Street," which is a song about being locked up in your apartment and watching the news and reading the paper and being horrified and afraid to come out. That's kind of the way that I feel about things.


Q: You find humor in all this, but there's also an element of distress at the way things are going.

A: Well, I am distressed by the way things are going. I think that's very clear. I don't want to make it too heavy, and so I use the humor thing. But, yeah, I think things are pretty strange and worrying. . . . I don't know what it all adds up to except to say that I'm amused and horrified and frightened and pissed off and delighted by what's going on.


Q: Delighted? That doesn't quite fit with the other feelings.

A: Well, it's a little bit of delight. I certainly enjoyed the O.J. trial. That was my idea of good media circus-like theater, and I watched--as horrified as I was over my delight. I mean, I can sink down to the lowest common denominator as well as the next guy.


Q: Let's turn to your career, specifically the acclaim you received at the beginning. What kind of effect did that have on you?

A: It was hard to keep the equilibrium. . . . "New Bob Dylan, blinding new talent, here's the next genius. . . ." If you're 22, you can believe a lot of that stuff, which can really lead to problems. . . . It's a real drug.


Q: Is that what makes you concerned about the publicity for your children?

A: Rufus has gotten a lot of praise, and I think it's well deserved, and Martha is also getting a lot of attention at the moment, and that's tough. They're gonna have to ride that out, and enjoy it certainly, but not get lost in it. Hopefully they're gonna navigate their little boats through the obstacle course.


Q: Have you imparted any advice to Rufus?

A: I don't have to impart anything to him. His next job, and he knows it, he just has to make the best album he can make. He just has to work. It's all about the songs and the shows and the records. Just work hard.


Loudon Wainwright III plays Wednesday and Thursday at the Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., 8:30 p.m., $15. (323) 852-1073. Also Friday at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., noon and 8 p.m., free. (323) 687-2159.

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