Rediscovering the Last Man on Earth

Eleven o’clock is a civilized hour for breakfast, but then there’s a civility to Loudon Wainwright III these days. At 55, the Westchester-bred singer-songwriter, briefly famous in the early 1970’s, is enjoying a second swell of fame, thanks in part to a new, critically acclaimed album, The Last Man on Earth ; a role on the new, critically acclaimed Fox sitcom, Undeclared ; and the fact that his son, Rufus, is a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter himself. People are listening to Loudon Wainwright III records and packing his shows again, and because of this–getting older probably has something to do with it, too–there’s now a certain relaxed quiescence to Mr. Wainwright, who, despite his reputation for novelty songs like the 1972 hit “Dead Skunk,” has written as despairingly about restlessness and discomfort as any of his six-string contemporaries.

“Business is better,” Mr. Wainwright said, easing into a corner booth at the Clark Street Restaurant, a spartan diner near his apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He wore a burly sweater with a collared shirt underneath, and with his trimmed brown hair and sensible glasses, he looked like an English teacher at a New England prep school.

“It’s been a funny old career,” Mr. Wainwright said, stabbing at a spinach-and-feta omelette. “There have been these kinds of dips and valleys, and now there isn’t massive attention by any means, but it’s just these little things, and maybe I’m enjoying it more now because I’m a little less fearful.”

Mr. Wainwright spoke of a recent encounter he had with a young fan out at the IGA supermarket on Shelter Island, where he has another home. “The previously rude, bored 16-year-old checkout kid said, ‘You’re the guy from Undeclared ! Here–sign this.’ And it’s kind of sweet. I am digging it. Why not?”

Acting has provided a sort of counterweight to Mr. Wainwright’s musical career. He’d flirted with it in the past–he studied theater at Carnegie Mellon, alongside classmates like Steven Bochco, Michael Mc-Kean and Albert Brooks (then Albert Einstein) before dropping out–and appeared in three episodes of M*A*S*H in the 1970’s. In Undeclared he plays Hal Karp, a recently separated father whose son, a college freshman, is chagrined to find his middle-aged dad wandering the halls of his dormitory in search of kicks. The part fell from the sky for Mr. Wainwright; Undeclared ‘s creator, Judd Apatow, was a huge fan of his music and offered him the job on a whim. In a couple of days, Mr. Wainwright planned to go out to Los Angeles to audition for more acting roles.

“I’ve got a person that’s going to help set me up, as they say–to go out for stuff,” he said. “I love these euphemisms.”

But music remains his principal vocation. The following night, Mr. Wainwright was to perform at the Bottom Line in the Village. Rufus, he said, planned to attend.

And what was the relationship like between father and son, now that the son’s record sales–and, frankly, fame–had eclipsed his own? Mr. Wainwright has been candid about his competitive jousts with his own father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., a columnist in the heyday of Life magazine. ( The Last Man on Earth features a song about the competition entitled “Surviving Twin.”) Was there a similar battle between him and Rufus, whose elegant, pained melodies sometimes resemble his own?

“There is the Oedipal struggle between Rufus and myself, and yet I like to think our competition–and we’re still working on it–is more constructive,” said Mr. Wainwright, who has another musician child, his daughter Martha. “I think we’re working through it better than my father and I worked through ours. And at the end of the day, hopefully there won’t be as much regret.

“I’m competitive with everybody,” Mr. Wainwright continued. “The people I’m [most] competitive with are my contemporaries–the Randy Newmans and the Tom Waitses, the people who sell more records than I do. That’s what really pisses me off. When it’s pointed out to me that Rufus sells more records than I do, I’m more pleased than anything else. The parental pride kicks in before the sniping, jealous shit. But I’m jealous of everybody.”

Bob Dylan, for example. As he does for many musicians, Mr. Dylan remains Mr. Wainwright’s professional measuring stick–practically mythic, seemingly unreachable. Mr. Wainwright said he couldn’t even listen to all of Mr. Dylan’s celebrated new record, Love & Theft . A friend played a couple of tracks for him, and he ordered him to stop. “I understand it’s a wonderful record,” Mr. Wainwright said. He paused. “It’s true, isn’t it? Don’t tell me it’s true!

“I dream about him all of the time,” Mr. Wainwright added. “And the dreams are changing. Always he’s been such a gigantic, mythical, scary figure in the dreams, but more and more I have been meeting him on common ground. I think in the last one, we were kind of walking across this long room and shook hands, and I felt a certain equality. But you know what Freud says about dreams: It’s all wishful thinking.”

–Jason Gay

 

How to Dive Downtown

Taking your mother to the Village Idiot, on West 14th Street, is asking to be written out of her will. It doesn’t matter how many times they clean this place–a honky-tonk truck stop of wood paneling and linoleum–it always feels dirty. Tonight, When Animals Attack and vintage porn play on the background TV’s, but no one cares. It’s Catholic-schoolgirl night.

I’ve been brought here by Kevin Fitzpatrick, editor and publisher of nycbp.com, the New York City Bartenders & Patrons’ Web site. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s site is sort of an underground, anti-Zagat New York City night-life guide–a tip sheet to Manhattan dives and the wild women who serve drinks. It’s not a place you consult to find out where to bring a date after the Philharmonic.

Our tour began earlier that night at Nice Guy Eddie’s, a nondescript joint on Avenue A and Houston. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who rarely enters a saloon where the bartender doesn’t give him a kiss hello, walked right in and got a peck and a Budweiser from Valerie Leonard, the evening’s hostess. “You missed it, Kevin,” she said. “We all got naked.” Apparently Mr. Fitzpatrick had left a recent party early, before it got frisky.

There was some talking and some drinking, and a short while later, Ms. Leonard– dressed in a tight, cleavage-baring I LOVE N.Y. tank top–posed as Mr. Fitzpatrick clicked his digital camera. Most of the women Mr. Fitzpatrick chronicles want to become actresses or models, so they love to pose. The site has actually turned some of them into minor celebrities. Ms. Leonard said that people on the street often recognize her.

“Some guys aim to date a girl from the Ivy League,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “But I always wanted an Avenue A bartender.”

Of medium build, with close-cropped hair and glasses, Mr. Fitzpatrick looks like Kevin Spacey after a bender. He’s a journalist by trade–we became friendly 10 years ago at the Reporter Dispatch in White Plains, now called the Journal News –and he started the site to teach himself Web design for a job at Nickelodeon.com. “The business plan was to get as much alcohol as possible,” he said.

Later we went next-door to the Library, a dusky den with bookshelves lining the walls and a jukebox thick with 1980’s Brit punk. Mr. Fitzpatrick sidled up to the bar and asked our hostess, Elizabeth Banks, what the best underwear for bartenders was.

“I love sporty thongs,” Ms. Banks said, bringing us a pair of Reingold’s. “The Brazilian cut is great for ass-cleavage jeans.” She bent over to expose the “T” of her pink thong. A friend of Mr. Fitzpatrick’s had arrived with his camera, and the two of them set off a round of exploding flash bulbs.

To finish off the night, we headed for the Village Idiot. It’s crowded for a Tuesday, and country rock blares. Chaundra Hillary and Jenn Magnotta–the winners of Mr. Fitzpatrick’s sexiest-bar-team award–are dressed in short, pleated plaid skirts, white blouses with halter knots and white knee socks. Mr. Fitzpatrick regularly records their fantasy nights, where they’ve poured drinks dressed as French maids, Playboy bunnies and dominatrices.

They pour us vodka shots. “Two guys from Kansas University printed out the site and came to New York just to see me,” said Ms. Hillary. “They spent every night of their spring break here.”

Later, Mr. Fitzpatrick revealed that one bar owner, desirous of his Web site’s readership, is offering him a bar to manage. He sounded giddy at the prospect. He exclaimed: “It’ll be like Superman telling Lex Luthor, ‘Here’s Metropolis–do what you want.'”

–Lawrence Carrel