“If families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art.”
Things Loudon Wainwright III Doesn’t Do:
Play music every day
Know what it all means
It’s fifty years since Loudon Wainwright III—son of the exemplary Life magazine columnist, Loudon Wainwright Jr.—began writing and recording his songs—fifty years of astounding music, fifty years of bleak passages and struggle, fifty years of confessional lyrics on a scale few have attempted, fifty years of openly failing the women and children in his life, fifty years of black humor, great rhymes, despair, and full-on entertainment, fifty years of (most often) standing in a club by himself with an acoustic guitar. As befits such a moment, Loudon Wainwright III has been involved in a great many retrospective projects recently. The first of these was last year’s autobiographical literary opus, Liner Notes (Blue Rider Press), which dishes some serious dirt about the dead, and which is also full of excoriations and painful truths about the author himself. The second of these retrospective projects is a brand new collection of rarities, Years In the Making, b-sides, lo-fi recordings, a cappella rants, organized into suites, like “Kids” and “Love Hurts,” which find a hindsight-is-twenty-twenty poignancy in the Wainwright songbook even when tragicomic truth-telling is the order of the day. And the third project, just released on Netflix (and directed by the redoubtable auteur Christopher Guest), is a film of a show he has been doing on the road for a few years now, Surviving Twin, in which Wainwright both reads from his father’s columns and performs songs that collide with the biographical facts of his father’s life, as well as that of Loudon’s own celebrated son, songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
That’s a lot of retrospective work for a guy in his seventies. Wainwright, less acerbic in person than in some of his work, seems somewhat at peace with the retrospection, the somewhat here being, perhaps, a lifelong qualifier, likewise with the well-known ups and downs of his life now, and happy to take pleasure in the work of his extended family, as well as his own capacity to continue to entertain. I have been keen to interview Wainwright since I first saw him perform some twenty years ago, at Bennington College, in a barn, where the very literary songs of the guy with the solo guitar played extremely well, and after which Wainwright came to hang out and chat with David Gates, Sven Birkerts, and Amy Hempel. A memorable night. Some songwriters, in addition to excelling at their craft, make a profound virtue out of surviving. They become an entertainer everyone has known at one time or another, and thereby a legend. Wainwright, by having lived through some musical hits, and some great acting gigs, and some marriages, and some fatherhood, has become an adept, a wizard, a necromancer in the sharp-elbowed world of entertainment. Will he keep going until he’s eighty? He shows no signs of slowing down, and he apparently has few fucks left to give. Of such things are unvarnished truths composed, in word, song, and onstage. We did this interview at the French Roast on the Upper West Side. I believe Wainwright may have recently come from a swim, as that is his habit, to swim in the mornings. Independently, we both chose oatmeal. For a while, after the tape recorder was off, we spoke about the horror of divorce settlements. Wainwright was always funny, and always sly and reasonable, also perhaps always a little sad. It was never clear to me, in this encounter, who was observing whom, nor who was better at it.
I. “A Real Dad Thing”
THE BELIEVER: Let’s talk a little bit about your memoir first. What was the writing process like? Different from writing songs?
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT: I had written some liner notes before, where I had to sit down and write three or four hundred words, but this was a little different. I hadn’t intended to do it. Someone came up to me—Peter Gethers, do you know who he is? He’s a fan. He said, “I think you have a book in you.” It sounded like a medical diagnosis. My dad was a writer and I know some writers so I knew that I had to work at it every day, which is something I don’t do with my music. The music is kind of random; I can go a week without picking up a guitar. So, in this case, I got up every morning, drank a lot of coffee, and worked for two hours. That seemed to make it happen.
BLVR: What was the elapsed time from beginning to end?
LW: I think, all in all, it took about three years. That’s the amount of time it took and I worked every day, and, overall, it was very enjoyable. It wasn’t agonizing for me and, if I had a shitty day, I would keep going. I just told a lot of the stories I’d been telling people in real life and in some of the songs.
BLVR: Did the process make you feel closer to your dad and his craft, his work?
LW: Well, yeah. The desk that I sit at and the chair that I sit in at the desk were his. I have a real dad thing; this show I’m doing for Netflix (Surviving Twin) is about me and my dad. I’ve been writing a lot about my dad, particularly after he died in 1988. It started with a record called History; a lot of the songs on that record were about him and us. He didn’t write a lot of books; he would get advances and have to give them back. He suffered from writer’s block, not so much as a journalist but as a guy writing a book. That kind of energized my spirit. Here I was writing a book. He had such a hard time writing so maybe there was a competitive aspect to it; we were rather competitive.
BLVR: What’s your relationship to literary writing generally?
LW: I’m not an avid reader; I go back and read stuff I’ve already read. I’m on a Graham Greene jag.
BLVR: Which one?
LW: Power and Glory. I saw The Fallen Idol: you know, the film based on a short story of his. A great movie that Carol Reed directed (who also did The Third Man). So, anyway, I got into Graham Greene and started reading books of his, movie reviews and I read The End of the Affair, so now I’m supposedly into his great book, his first novel, and it is pretty great. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of what’s happening with writing now. I’m kind of retro in that regard; it goes for music, too. I’m listening to records I listened to thirty or forty years ago. I don’t know what that’s about; maybe I don’t want to know what’s happening.
BLVR: Your dad’s prose reminds me of those writers he aspired to be like, Cheever or Updike. Did his ambitions in the direction of that kind of sophistication rub off on you at all?
LW: As I say in the book, it didn’t look like much fun; he was rather tortured up there in that room trying to make deadlines, to get a book written that didn’t get written. I mean, he wanted to be those guys and he started out as all those guys did writing for The New Yorker. He had three stories published in The New Yorker, one of which I wanted to put in the book—it was really a really good one, too—about a boarding school that was surely the boarding school that he and I went to. About a kid whose parents come down to watch him play football and how he fucks up on the football field and how awful his father is. My dad’s father was not a nice guy.
Initially, I didn’t think I was going to be a writer at all; I thought I was going to be an actor. I went to drama school and I loved it but I liked to sing and play the guitar and then when I started to write songs, in about 1968. My songs, in the beginning, certainly were very confessional. My dad was a much more conservative guy than I was. I had the tendency to lay it out in the songs; I kind of enjoy “Oh yeah? Look at this!,” you know, and he was more tucked in, which I admire in a way. He liked my songs, a lot of them. It’s not that he didn’t like them.
I had a song called “April Fool’s Day Morn”—it’s thirty years old now—but it’s about this terrible night at this party in LA. We all got drunk. Now it would be kind of a dangerous to sing today because of the situation; it’s about hitting on a woman and then kicking her out of the house because she wouldn’t have sex with me. It’s almost graphic, I would say. It’s just a description, which is something that I do all the time. Anyway, I found out that he really hated that song. It made him uncomfortable but I feel that his best stuff was the confessional stuff, his personal stuff, as opposed to writing about the Johnson administration (which he had to do a lot of).
BLVR: When you included his pieces from Life in the memoir, did that occasion a lot of full-scale engagement with his old work?
LW: I was staying in this place—now it’s probably eight years ago or something—and there was this old Life magazine there. I picked it up and it was the dog column, “Another Sort of Love Story,” which is, pound for pound, the greatest, most moving column that he wrote, at least for me. I read it and I just started to read all the columns—there’s over two hundred of them. A lot of them are not that interesting. They’re all very well done but “The Good Stuff,” “The Dog,” visiting his mother in the nursing home, when the house burned down, the fire, his columns about his own father—there was a group of about twelve of those that I really loved and, at that point, I began starting to fashion theater shows.
I memorized those columns. I know them by heart, but, when it came time to write the book, I thought, “Well, maybe I should put some of this in the book.” But there was a voice that said, “Don’t do that; he’s a better writer than you are.” So I had a little battle between pro and con and then I talked to Peter Gethers and some other people and I thought what a treat for the audience to read those beautiful columns: the Mickey Mantle columns, the dog column, the buying-the-suit column. So, I just decided to put them in. I got the rights and they’re in there. There’s never been a collection or an anthology of his work.
BLVR: That sounds overdue.
LW: Well, the woman that he lived with—Martha Faye, also a writer—she and I talked about that after he died. They never really got around to it. You know, in my show, I read from the book. Tomorrow night I’ll read the Mickey Mantle column because it’s baseball season. I love the idea that I’m spreading his words.
BLVR: How is the show structured?
LW: Surviving Twin is ninety minutes, about seven columns and about thirteen songs and also some letters that he wrote as a marine, at boot camp, at the age of seventeen to his mother. So I come out, I play the song “Surviving Twin,” I explain to the audience what they’re going to see (this kind of posthumous collaboration between me and my father) and there’s some visuals. There’s explanation and then this visual comes up of The View From Here, Loudon Wainwright, Life With—And Without Father and then I read about two minutes of that column which segues into a song.
That’s the format of the whole show; it’s just column, song, column, song. There’s a five-minute film we show where I took a trip down to the boarding school we both went to. St. Andrews in Middletown, Delaware. That’s a part of the show and then the show ends with a song of mine and a montage because people haven’t seen what anybody looks like till the end (the family, the dog that’s referred to). So, it has a nice finish and that’s all it is. It’s a two man show: me and his stuff.
II. “An Oedipal Urge”
BLVR: If someone looks at where you are now and what you’re working on now it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of retrospection. The new album is retrospective. The autobiography is retrospective. The show is retrospective. How does that all feel for you?
LW: I’m looking back. I’m 72. I have a new song and one of the lines is “My future is being subsumed by my past (every time I come here might be my last).” Ten years ago I put out a box set. I’m looking at a career of fifty years and then I’m also looking back at my whole life. And a huge player in it was my father. The book is a memoir so you’re remembering, of course; I don’t know what it all means.
BLVR: You don’t know what it means?
LW: Not really. You don’t believe me? Well, it depends when you mean by “mean.” It’s interesting to me. In terms of the show, which, kind of, in a way, is the most interesting thing I’m doing now. Now I’m running around and playing the songs and that’s great and I’m doing that, but I love to perform the show and I love the idea that I can be in some town and not have to travel. From a logistical point of view, it’s an appealing idea. It’s true that I didn’t get along with my father; I wasn’t close with him. We had a combative, competitive, not-good relationship. It wasn’t horrible. I mean, he didn’t beat me or anything and he had a terrible relationship with his father. It feels, when I do the show, as I say—I don’t know where I say it—“I’m getting along better with him than I ever did.” That’s powerful for me and I think men particularly relate to it. I’m always meeting guys where the wife is standing off to the side saying “He’s been making me listen to these songs for thirty years.” You know, dads are completely hung up about their fathers. It’s just powerful for them.
BLVR: The title, Surviving Twin, implies that there’s more resemblance than you would have thought at an earlier point in your life.
LW: Well, I think when you start out in your life… I don’t know what your relationship was like with your dad. What did your dad do?
LW: Finance. Well, you don’t want to be like your father; that’s an Oedipal urge. Not only do you want to be more successful than him, but you don’t want to be him. I didn’t want to be a writer; I wanted to be a singer and a performer but, then, after a while, no matter what, you’re him. You can catch the way you look in a reflection in a store window and you are him.
BLVR: Is it possible that songs, your medium, and his medium, the magazine-oriented column, are somewhat similar?
LW: I use a lot of journalistic techniques. You know, if I’m writing a song about a picture of me and my sister when we were five and six, all I do is describe it. There’s only one line in the song that makes some sort of a pronouncement about it. I mentioned the song about the party in L.A., “April Fool’s Day Morn.” The other thing I do: my songs are—not because I decided; it’s just the way it turned out—in addition to being descriptive, they’re clear. There’s no concealing of experience like with Bob Dylan. A lot of times you don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s poetic but you don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Maybe it’s because I’m more conservative or WASPy or whatever, but the songs are very clear and, you know, if you write a four-minute song, maybe that’s how long it takes to read a column.
BLVR: Has the show led to any additional rumination on being a father itself?
LW: One of the songs in the show is about being a dad. Another song is called “I Knew Your Mother” which I wrote for Rufus when he turned forty. Rufus, my son, is in the show. It’s about my dad’s dad, my dad, and me and Rufus. It doesn’t end neatly, the show. The last song in the show is a song called “In C”; I sit down at the piano and play it. My parents had a broken marriage and I had a broken marriage, you know, things get broken. If families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art. There isn’t anything particularly uplifting about this, you know, as if now I know how to be a good dad. I have four kids and now they’re all grown up. The process is still full of danger and confusion. You’re a new dad, right?
BLVR: I have a two-year-old and a nine-year-old.
LW: I don’t really know what I’m doing.
BLVR: I don’t either. Failure dogs my every step. Though I occasionally feel, as a dad, that maybe the children-making is my most significant body of work.
LW: You mean “significant” as important? That’s the most important thing you’ve done?
BLVR: Yeah, as an artist. Maybe the children are better and more important than my art.
LW: Right. So that would include not only conceiving them but raising them?
BLVR: I suppose, yes.
LW: Well, in the case of my own situation, I have four kids and the first mom, Kate McGarrigle, she and I split when Rufus was three and Martha was two months old. Then I had a daughter with Suzzy Roche and we split up when Lucy was three. And then with my fourth kid, I was actually around for her school years, but I’m not with her mother anymore. In terms of the nurturing, I wasn’t around.
BLVR: But your kid is Rufus Wainwright! He’s one of the most important songwriters of his generation. (No slight on Martha, either!) So you did something right. That’s what’s thrilling in a way; there could have been no Rufus Wainwright but there is one and you’re responsible for him.
LW: Well, I was involved in it and I think, yes, his history, the smashed-up marriage of his parents, the acrimony that existed afterwards… that was a bad one. I had dinner with Suzzy Roche last night; we’re still in love in a way. She’s my best friend. I mean, I was there with my girlfriend. But all that drama with Rufus and Martha, I’m sure that informed a lot. I wasn’t thinking, though, to make life weird so he could be interesting. I was just trying to survive in that marriage. I was a young person dealing with trying to make it in the music business, being successful, being unsuccessful, being in this very weird marriage. Not a good marriage, but a really interesting person.
III. “Nothing About Music”
BLVR: Has all of this reflection opened any new doors for you? Are there epiphanies associated with it? In a way, I’m asking as a 57-year-old, because I want to know what’s going to happen in the next fifteen years. I want to know if you arrive somewhere peaceful.
LW: On a very good day, you feel relaxed and calm and positive and at one with whatever. It’s funny: I’m at this apartment on 86th street, there’s a piano there and I had old snapshots of me and my family and I was looking at it this morning; it’s a pity I bring them with me. I have a picture taken of me—it looks like I’m three or four—and it’s black and white so this would have been 1950 and I’m curled up in my pajamas reading probably a comic book with a serious look on my face. I feel like that guy all the time, you know?
LW: That’s who I am! More so than that guy on my first album cover who looks like a preppy psycho killer. I’m more that kid with the comic book. Again, maybe that’s a fixation with what I was as opposed to what’s coming. I don’t know.
BLVR: For me, one feature of your memoir is that it’s sad. Or perhaps the right word would be plangent.
LW: Right. Yeah, I’m kind of a depressive guy and I go in there and work with that. It’s not therapeutic necessarily.
BLVR: Is work itself, the act of doing things, helpful?
LW: I’m grateful that I found something I really enjoy, which is performing and the magic of getting to write a song is pretty powerful too. If I hadn’t had this outlet as they used to call it, I don’t know, axe murderer? I don’t know. I’m glad I found something to do that I think is worthwhile doing and that I enjoy and can earn a living with and all that jazz. It hasn’t been therapeutic necessarily except that it’s given me confidence, you know, I can think “Yeah, I wrote that book; I wrote that song; that’s a pretty good record; that was a pretty good show,” and that’s great. That I feel very happy about, that I can still go into a room and effect an audience for seventy-five to ninety minutes.
BLVR: The book is extremely disinclined to talk shop about music. There’s almost nothing about music in it; there’s a ton about lyrics and writing words, and nothing about music.
Is it suppressed because you thought it might not be interesting or because you just don’t think about that stuff now?
LW: I don’t think about that stuff. I use the same five chords I learned when I was fifteen. I think I’m a solid musician—a rhythm guitar player—and a good singer but that’s all it is. I can’t read music. I’m very bored in a recording studio; it’s my least favorite place to be. I wasn’t that interested in talking shop because I’m not that into it. The songs are written to be performed. That’s the moment: when somebody’s in a room with you or in their car listening to you. That’s the shit.
BLVR: That idea is consistent with the folk traditions that were in the air when you were getting started. Isn’t Bob Dylan saying the same thing by recording all the Sinatra songs in one take?
LW: Yeah, but I wasn’t going for consistency. When you’re doing it you’re not really thinking about it. And I can’t understand, for the life of me, why Bob Dylan is doing those songs right now. I don’t get it; I don’t think it’s good. Have you heard Tony Bennett sing those songs? I mean, come on. But you got to love him…
BLVR: He’s going to go where he’s going to go.
LW: Yeah, but I don’t necessarily want to go there with him.
BLVR: So, if the music is a secondary part of the discussion, does that imply, in your case, that it’s a lyrics-first compositional methodology?
LW: Pretty much, although I certainly love it if somebody comes up and says “I like the melody to that,” or, “That’s a nice tune.” I don’t really have chops; I’m not Richard Thompson. In so many ways I’m not Richard Thompson. You know, Rufus has just written his second opera, which we’re going to go see up in Toronto next weekend.
I can’t read music; it is the same five chords. My heroes play those same five chords.
BLVR: I was interested to hear you say you played piano.
LW: Yeah, I kind of play piano but not much. I make fun of it in this song “In C,” actually: “Here’s another song in c, when I play piano, it’s my key.” And then the song swerves into something a little heavier. I’ve got four or five songs I play on the piano. Another line in that song, at the end of the song, is “Sometimes a fella has to sit/To sing about the heavy shit,” because that song is heavy.
BLVR: Does a line like that just come instantaneously?
LW: Yeah. It comes to you; it’s a gift from I don’t know where. That’s the magic part.
BLVR: I think Alexander Pope said, it’s always the second word in the rhyme that has to be really magical, otherwise it’s no good.
LW: If you can see the second one coming, you say “it’s going to be ‘night,’ ‘light’…” That’s a good filter for rhyme. I enjoy playing around with words. I love those clever songwriters that were in my father’s music collection: the Frank Loessers and the Cole Porters. And Tom Lehrer, another hero of mine. I like that.
BLVR: So let us note that we are having this conversation on the day when Brett Kavanaugh is getting installed on the Supreme Court. Like you, I went to boarding school and I knew many—hundreds—of guys like him, the drunken and privileged guys with their dicks hanging out. What are your observations about where we are today?
LW: I feel depressed. You know, Susan Collins is someone that I really want to like. She strikes me as a reasonable, nice, kind person and I kind of like Jeff Flake and I wonder “Why?” I guess there’s a political reason why they did what they did, and they believe they are supporting their constituents. But I’m disappointed by them. With Trump, you don’t even bring your disappointment to the table. He’s just nothing. But those people struck me as being thoughtful human beings. So I feel disappointed by the fact that they got Kavanaugh through and that’s the way it is. It’s a pretty weird, bad, depressing time. And now we’ve got two mashers on the Supreme Court.
BLVR: One last question and then we can stop. Has the retrospection of your seventies brought about a list of further regrets?
LW: Well, I’ve had so many regrets along the way. What I’m doing now is trying to lighten up on myself so when I start to go “Oh god, did I fuck that up” or “Why did I do it that way” I’m urging that voice in my head to say, “Don’t beat yourself up.” That was my father’s biggest problem: that he beat himself up. The regrets can come up like something as concrete as “Why the fuck didn’t I buy that house when I had that amount of money,” and then it gets to, “Why did I do that to that person?” But I’m trying to lift myself up. I’m trying to take it easy on myself. It starts with that thing: “You’re not good enough.” Where’d you get that from? Your parents or your school? It’s a very powerful message. So, I’m trying to tell myself that I am good enough. I’ve done fine. Sometimes I’m whistling in the dark.