Loudon Wainwright III – Motel Blues

I had this song on the New Age of Atlantic sampler LP when I was a kid. At that point it was one of the most emotional things I’d ever heard. Going through Wainwright’s back catalogue years later I was surprised – and a little disappointed – to discover he was much more irreverent than Motel Blues suggested he would be.

In this performance the audience also seems to be taken by surprise – laughing at parts that aren’t meant to be funny. Then again, they can hardly be blamed for being caught off guard, given that Wainwright was well-known for his sardonic humour and novelty bent (as with Dead Skunk, his biggest hit).

Essentially a document of the loneliness of life on the road, what we have here is a musician who’ll say anything to secure a bit of company for the night. He doesn’t care about the girl he’s trying to seduce – or care about her age – but this is where the song’s emotional strength lies: he’s so desperate not to be alone that he’s willing to pretend (to the girl and to himself) that this humdrum sexual encounter could be a grandly romantic drama. We don’t discover whether he succeeds in getting her to stay but we can guess that he does: the line about writing her a song for his next LP is so corny that it could only be delivered by someone who has confidence in its effectiveness.

It’s telling, of course, that he has to work so hard. He obviously hasn’t got the status, or star quality, that should make it easy.

Along with the delicate and lovely guitar playing, it’s Wainwright’s voice that gives the song its depth: yearning, lost, frightened and slightly creepy. It’s a wonder he can stand to do this to himself every single night.

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About Paul Saxton

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