It’s hard to choose just one song from Loudon Wainwright’s skeletal, bruised, shocking – and yes, at times extremely funny – 1979 live album a live one. Wainwright is a far more versaitile songwriter than he’s often given credit for, and this collection, perhaps more than any other, shows off his talent in a raw expose.
I brooded over School Days, a beautiful song, full of melody, passion, and sex – not bad for a pigeon-holed folk song! But it took a step-backwards, admitting a certain po-faced seriousness as its limitation. To choose a song by Wainwright, that fails to provoke even a twitch of laughter, seemed somewhat pervers. I smiled and swayed to Whatever happened to us, with it’s bilious narrative (“you said I came to early, but it was you who came too late”) set to the folk-world’s equivalent to the classic rock riff, simple, repetitive, and unforgettable. It, though, declined the honour, aware that its gurned final line – “it’s a whole-lot of crap about a tender trap, what it is is a suicide snare, all I want to do is to forget you, and our lousy love affair” – while fitting, leaves the song leaning to much on smart-arsed ryhme. One song, more than any, stood out – albeit in a ‘sitting in the back of the classroom uncomfortably’ kind of way.
Red Guitar is one of the shortest songs on offer on the album, or elsewhere for that matter. It clocks in at just 1.58 seconds (including opening applause), and within two lines has Wainwright’s almost-too-smart signature:
“I used to have a red guitar, till I smashed it drunk one night
I smashed it in the classic form, as Peter Townshend might”
It’s a song that hinges on drama. It opens with an action – and a violent one at that. The old dictum that ‘character determines action – action reveals character’ was never truer, and in less than two minutes an arch storyteller manages to create a complex tragedy.The action, smashing the guitar, is initially jokingly underestimated. It’s treated flippantly, but with savage brevity the act is put into a different context.
“I threw it in the fireplace, and left it there awhile
Kate she started crying, when she saw my sorry smile”
No laughing matter, the narrator and the listener are jarred. With that simple line, we’re suddenly thrown into history – without underlining it, it becomes obvious that this is an action that is characteristic, and so lined with tragedy.
While the two, presumably, lovers contemplate the burning guitar, we have a moment to consider the weight of the word red. Now, it’s perfectly plausible that the song was provoked by an actual incident involving a red guitar. In that context, there’s little to dwell upon. It could also be simply that to sing ‘red guitar’ instead of ‘guitar’ helps the metre and rythm – true. Instead, we’re going to read too much into things – because a sparse and haunting song like this deserves that, at the very least. The color red takes on a different significance, when paired with the word used to describe the replacement guitar that our narrator buys in New York city at the end of the song. The replacement is a ‘blonde guitar’. Now, pause a moment, and recall the last time you heard a guitar described as ‘blonde’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time was, in all likelihood, never. So, suddenly our red and blonde guitars announce themselves as something else – and what do we most often describe as ‘blonde’? People, or, more often than not, given the patriarchy, women. So with this contorted, but substantiated line-of reasoning, our singer’s destruction of one guitar in favour of another, has a much darker resonance. No wonder Kate cries, and tells him ‘you are a fool, you’ve done a foolish thing’ (a line that, perhaps, has been devalued in recent years thanks to forest gumpery).
Thus far, we’ve paid scant attention to the music, but the bare piano that pauses and plays alongside the narrative makes the song. It’s simplicity incarnate, and yet it poses plenty of questions in and of itself. Wainwright plays the majority of his songs (more than ably) on the guitar. The one song about a guitar is played on a piano – go figure. And yet it provides a narrative coherence – as, in the universe of the song at least, he is guitarless by the end (let’s not give away the ending exactly, though, eh – you have to listen to the song, as part of the deal). The simple melody, that moves between major chords, and – dare we say it – the minor falls, is devastatingly appropriate. They’re small steps, that giddily balance the song between positivity and despair.
End the song, and while you think you’ve been told so much, in reality the question that is begged from the opening lines has remained defiantly unanswered. Why did he smash the red guitar? And, after the traumatic journey in the song, has some kind of self-awareness been reached, or are other ‘guitars’ in for the same treatment?
Add in to the mix Wainwright’s voice, which while lacking the multi-range versatility of his son Rufus, makes up for it tenfold by unfussedly allowing the words to speak, as it were, for themselves, and you have a near-perfect song, from a song-writer who, more-often-than-not during his career has sabotaged himself.
Or maybe it’s just a throw-away ditty, about a guy with a Who fixation.
Tags: singer songwriters