Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thunderbird Jam: Loudon Wainwright III- New Paint (1972)

There are love songs and then there are love songs. You know what I’m talking about. There is a song like “Maybe I’m Amazed”. Good song, right? Great climactic piano. McCartney belting it out. Good stuff. But love, however universal, lives in the specifics. The intricacies. When we fall in love with someone, we tend to feel like no one in the history of human kind has ever felt quite like we do. We’re the only ones who know how special this whole thing, this whole person whom we've fallen for, truly is. The songs that address that are love songs.

There are a few that come to mind right off the bat; Randy Newman’s aptly titled “Love Song”, that manages to trace a relationship from first kiss through old age and eventual passing away in about 2 minutes. It's phenomenally detailed and beautiful. Big Star’s “Thirteen”, which perfectly encapsulates the feeling of young, rebellious teenage love in perhaps Alex Chilton’s greatest lyric; Would you be an outlaw for my love?

These tracks cut through ambiguity and get into the nit and grit of falling for someone. Loudon Wainwright III’s “New Paint” is just such a song. Released in 1972 on Album III, Wainwright paints a portrait of a not-so-young- anymore man taking a girl out on a date. It’s a song that casts love as a sort of redemptive journey, with simple yet powerful rituals that help us to mine the jewels of life affirming moments from the muck of everyday existence.

It’s good to take a girl in the not so very good world on a walk in the park, until it gets dark.

Take a breather on a bench, it helps to build up the suspense, then the two of you go to a movie show.

He rattles off these relatively commonplace date scenarios like rules, the way your Dad reminded you on your way out the door to be a gentleman.

“Don’t forget to open the car door for her, Son. Pull out her chair…”

“I know, Dad! I know!”

Chivalry will remain alive and well as long as we understand its significance. And Wainwright is able to remind us.

If she’s a woman there’s a chance that she maybe likes to dance. So you go to the hall and you outstep them all.

She takes you home to meet the folks, laughing at all the father’s jokes. “Should we watch TV?” “It’s all right with me.”

Wainwright has always been a self-deprecating songwriter. To the point of self –destruction in old songs like “Unrequited to the Nth Degree”, through to a subtle recognition of his later day (though perhaps undeserved) luck in more recent tunes like “Passion Play”. In “New Paint” he strikes a gorgeous balance, portraying the narrator as a past his prime Joe who realizes that this date just may be his last chance at love, and he ain’t gonna mess it up this time around.

This narrative is perfectly tucked in among the verses, shifting from the third person to the first. Perhaps it’s a silent aside or an inner monologue that the girl on the date can’t hear. Not yet at least. Not till he’s ready to reveal it. Maybe though, it’s this guy just laying it all out there; a brutally honest, cards all in, attempt to let this girl know exactly what she’s getting into. I've listened to this song a million times and still can’t quite be sure. But either way it’s a heart wrenching, gorgeous, and painfully accurate account of a gentleman’s feelings.

Sometimes I feel ugly and old. Excuse me, baby, if I’m acting bold. My head gets hot but my feet aren’t cold. Excuse me, if you will.

Don’t make a hullabuloo. I’m not the hoi palloi. I’ll try any trick and I’ll use any ploy. I’m a used up 20th century boy. Excuse me, if you will.

If I was 16 again I’d give my tooth, I’m tired and I’m hungry and I’m looking for my youth. I’m a little uncool and I’m a little uncouth. Oh, Excuse me, if you will.

Wainwright is a fearless songwriter. To write a love song, I guess you’d have to be.