Loudon Wainwright III

Trust in Dysfunction:
Loudon Wainwright III on Outliving His Father While Watching His Offspring Enter the Spotlight

His old friend Rambling Jack Elliott can describe, in a snap, the abiding allure of Loudon Wainwright III’s craft – so often applied to troublesome life-or-death themes.

“He has mirth in his voice,” says Elliott, who first met Wainwright on the Greenwich Village folk scene nearly four decades ago. “He has a way, through his humor, to utter those words in a palatable manner.”

That’s never been more apt than on Wainwright’s latest collection of songs, Older Than My Old Man Now, in which the 65-year-old singer-songwriter reflects on outliving his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., who died in 1988 at the age of 63. Wainwright’s father was a journalist and essayist who wrote “The View from Here” column for Life magazine in the 1960s, and stayed on through the magazine’s incarnations as an editor and contributor. He also did a little songwriting himself, although he never pursued it professionally. As an introduction to the title track, Loudon Wainwright III reads a passage that the elder Wainwright wrote about his father, “who continues to be my principle ghost.”

I met up with LW3 one spring afternoon in a cafe at Lincoln Center. He was wearing his signature straw hat – an Australian number made by Akubra – and was abundant in charm and a form of wit that isn’t so much self-deprecating as a hell of a lot more forthright (and forgiving) of human failings, both physical and emotional, than most people are comfortable with expressing themselves. Although, for Wainwright and his extended clan of singer-songwriters, an incisive streak is part of the DNA.

“We can’t help it,” says Martha Wainwright, who memorably wrote a song about her father called “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole.” “What seems to be the thing that overtakes us and interests us is family life. Although the singing should be seamless and feel good and feel right, there is also putting yourself on the line and being honest and exposing your feelings. It’s about being very particularly transparent people, too.”

I used to live in Atlanta so there’s one question that is imperative. How did you enjoy your visits to the Clermont Lounge?

“Oh. Jeesh. That was a while ago. How could you not remember the Clermont Lounge? Is it still going?”

Yep. Amazingly. It’s the pride of the Peach State.

“I went a couple of times, actually.”

Because once …

“Isn’t quite enough.”

I went down there one night and outside the entrance was a guy on a stretcher, paramedics everywhere. I walked in and told the bartender, “I’ll have what that guy was having.” Which turned out to be 14 Jagermeister shots.

“Oh, jeesh. I love that place. I love Atlanta, too. I spent 10 weeks there once working on a movie a long, long time ago so I kind of got to know the place. My mother was from Tifton. As a young woman she lived in Atlanta also. I went to Mary Mac’s. Loved that place.”

How long were you thinking about this record?

“I’ve written songs about the same stuff, but there just seemed to be such a lot of them. I was passing this mark of being older than my father was. He was 63 when he died on December 12, 1988. I’m 65 now. This is big. Big enough to think about. The records I’ve been making I’ve been trying to get some themes going, have the songs interconnect rather than just be a bunch of songs. There were a lot of songs available to do that with. There were songs that didn’t make it. I have a song called ‘Hip,’ which is about getting an artificial hip.”

Did you get one?

“I did. Yeah.”

I imagine this subject matter has even more relevance to your base.

“My demographic, they’re going to love this record … or hate it. The trick was to take songs that deal with this topic of death and decay and make it entertaining and interesting, rather than a total bummer. There’s novelty numbers and comic relief and other singers to kind of leaven it.”

There’s a great tradition of mordant wit, like your pal Richard Thompson’s “Now That I am Dead.”

“The reality of getting older is something to write about. It’s not so much the topic itself but how you write about it. Other than this event, getting older than my father. His father died when he was 17 and he was very hung up about living to be 43, which is how old his father lived to be.”

That’s like my father when he turned 67. He was very concerned if he would make that. Science keeps us alive a lot longer than previous generations.

“Yeah, keeps us alive and miserable longer. I think I’m going to have to stop writing about this now. I’m going to write a nature album next. A whole album about waterfalls.”

Obviously, some of the songs are very funny – you have a jocular manner in which to approach the theme. Is there a certain way that you write songs? Do they come tumbling out after the first cup of coffee?

“Well, it comes dribbling out. I’ve been able to keep up. There was only one period in my life when I seized up and didn’t write anything for six months. But I got over that. I just get an idea for a song and it takes on – I think I mention in the liner notes, ‘In C,’ the second song, was starting out in my mind as a novelty song about being a shitty piano player, and then it changed. Some people laugh at it but I wouldn’t call it a novelty song by any stretch of the imagination. I just try to write songs and sometimes they end up being funny and sometimes they wind up being not so funny.”

As with your song about getting an artificial hip, is the basis always personal?

“What happens to me, I will invariably write about. And the people who are in my life, I write about them and have done so since the beginning.”

Notably your family.

“It’s great topic. Lot of territory. Family’s about as big as it gets.”

And you got everybody in the studio for this project.

“I have four children and they all sing on the record. My youngest is a college student in California and she sings backup on the first song. The other kids are professional singers, so they step out. Rufus and Martha’s mother [Kate McGarrigle] has died, but my daughter’s Lucy’s mom, Suzzy Roche, sings on the record, and so does my daughter Alexandra’s mom, my wife. It’s a family affair, as Sly would say.”

The folk dynasty.

“The dysfunctional Von Trapps.”

All your kids have written songs about you.

“Yeah, they sure have!”

Sometimes, in very pointed ways. How does everyone get along?

“It’s like any other family, there’s ups and downs. Things are going well with the kids, I’d say. It’s always referred to that it’s a family of singers and musicians, so why not go with that? Martha sang on a record of mine when she was 14 … As little kids they would come up and sing ‘Dead Skunk’ with me. I used to have to do that song. I don’t have to do it anymore. It’s an easy, fun sing-along.”

Are there other songs you’re happy to have retired?

“Well, there are songs just get phased out. I get tired of them. I forget them. I come back to them. I did ‘Dead Skunk’ not too long ago. I can’t remember where. Someone paid me an extra thousand dollars to do it.”

Are there songs that you always do, that are permanent fixtures?

“When I go out and do a show now a lot of it is new material, but I will play ‘Your Mother and I’ or ‘Unhappy Anniversary’ or ‘Motel Blues,’ songs that are 20, 30, 40 years old. Not because they’re hits. They’re old songs that fans like to hear and I still like to sing. They’re your little puppies, you love them all. Some of them you have to euthanize.”

Getting back to the main theme here …

“Speaking of euthanasia.”

What was your relationship like with your father?

“Tortured. We had the same name, I went to the same boarding school. We wore the same signet ring. Rufus has one too. It was Oedipal and combative a lot of the time. Things got better when I got a little bit older and stopped being such an asshole. I think when you’ve lived a little – I went through my own divorce – we had stuff we could talk about. He’s been dead now 25 years, I feel closer to him now than I ever felt, which is one of the great pleasures of including him in this record and giving people a couple of samples of his writing. I’m also kind of turning into him. I say in another song, it’s not on this record, I am him. And that’s a good thing. I love the fact that he’s on the album. And he’d get a kick out of it, too.”

What’s on the signet ring?

“It’s the Wainwright family crest. It’s a Latin inscription. It’s all backwards because you put your wax down there.”

And what does the inscription say?

“Trust in dysfunction? I don’t know what the Latin is.  ‘Pacem Deo,’ which means ‘My hope in God.'”

How many generations have worn it?

“I imagine his father has worn one of these and now Rufus has one. At least four. It was given to me when I graduated from this boarding school. And Rufus got his ring at his graduation. Now the girls in the family are all pissed off about this of course.”

You still tour a lot?

“I’m touring all the time. I’m taking more work. I hate to tour but I like to do the shows. They pay you to go from A to B. You have a nap and then you go and have fun and then they give you some money. You go back to work the next day when you go to the airport. It’s a brutal existence. Fortunately, I can stay in a nice hotel. I try not to bitch too much about it. But it’s getting harder and harder to haul myself through the airport. With the artificial hip and all.”

You read about songwriters who make a 9-to-5 job out of it.

“I’m like a guy who has a 9-to-5 job and goes there and stays for 15 minutes. I pick up the guitar everyday. I figure I’m working if I noodle around on guitar or ukulele. Then weeks or months go by and I don’t write a song, I get scared. I assert myself. I kick my ass a little bit. I don’t work at it.”

You’ve got the knack. There aren’t too many people who started in the ’60s who are as good now as they were then.

“You just try to do the best you can do with what you’ve got. I started getting paid in 1968. It’s been 45 years. It’s a challenge to come up with a good song but it’s very exciting when it happens.”

Do you remember your first gig you got paid for?

“I got $50 to go do a show at Brandeis University and that was huge. I certainly don’t want to give you the impression there were years of struggle because there weren’t. I wrote my first song probably in 1968 and I was recording my first record in 1969. So there were weeks of struggle! And travel to Massachusetts! Somebody saw me playing at the Gaslight in New York and pretty soon I had a record deal. It was ridiculously easy. Male singer-songwriters were a commodity then, and the music biz in 1970, there was a lot of money in it. I was so lucky. Easy. I’m not nostalgic for it. It was fun to be a young Turk, be a maniac. Who doesn’t want to be 26 again? I’m not nostalgic for the time, really. The music business wasn’t any better then than it is now. It’s just the same idea: Write the next song and show up at the next show. Which is not to say I don’t look back, but I’m not nostalgic for it.”

Photo by Ross Halfin.