Loudon Wainwright III, “Motel Blues”

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Loudon Wainwright III is best known for his song “Dead Skunk,” which did well on the charts in 1972 and revealed him to be a writer of uncommon literacy and wit. Because of this song he gained a following that has been with him for nearly half a century now, but those who have stayed with him since those days haven’t been doing it via the radio, because the airwaves haven’t been kind to him. But he has still enjoyed a healthy career, recording some two dozen albums and placing his music (as well as his face) in numerous movies and television shows. One song that may have been considered a little racy decades ago, but has a loyal audience even today, is “Motel Blues” from Wainwright’s second album titled, appropriately, Album II.

A song that practically any travelling musician who’s ever lived can identify with, “Motel Blues” is a song about a lonely picker in a strange town who is looking for a post-show date. The word “blues” never actually appears in any of the song’s three verses and there is no chorus, but none is really needed. Each verse almost tells a story by itself and can stand on its own, beginning with verse number one:

In this town television shuts off at two
What can a lonely rock and roller do?
The bed’s so big and the sheets are clean
Your girlfriend said that you were 19
The Styrofoam ice bucket’s full of ice
Come up to my motel room, treat me nice

In his 2017 biography Liner Notes, Wainwright talked about the song. “My depression, which I hasten to characterize as mild to middling, as opposed to crippling or severe, is chronicled throughout my oeuvre. There are enough songs about being down for an entire album: ‘Motel Blues,’ ‘Muse Blues,’ ‘California Prison Blues,’ ‘Golfin’ Blues,’ ‘Pen Pal Blues,’ ‘Vampire Blues,’ ‘The Krugman Blues,’ ‘Ghost Blues,’ ‘Depression Blues,’ and ‘Suicide Blues.’ … In my early song ‘Motel Blues,’ which is about being lonely on the road, the protagonist sings, ‘When you kissed me in the club you bit my tongue’ and later on begs the girl to ‘Come up to my hotel room, save my life.’ The idea that a guy would write a song about getting laid, and joke about it, was provocative in 1971, and on one occasion back then, during a live radio interview, I was threatened with castration by a feminist DJ. These days, of course, I, like everyone else, am at risk of being lynched by a Twitter mob.” The lyric never indicates whether or not Wainwright was successful in his quest for female companionship on the day he wrote this song.

Many feel Wainwright hasn’t gotten his due as both a forerunner of Americana, and as one of the most literate and erudite writers of his generation. His sense of humor, choice of words, unlikely rhymes and plaintive but perfect melodies never disappoint. He only gets better with time, and “Motel Blues” is a great example of how, even 45 years ago, he wrote honestly and realistically without worrying about who might be offended. Check out the upcoming January “Legends” issue of American Songwriter next month for an interview with Wainwright about his latest projects.

Read the lyrics.

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