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Loudon Wainwright III Opens Up About The 'Exes & Excess' That Inform His Music


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest is Loudon Wainwright III, a longtime singer-songwriter whose often confessional approach to his writing seems to run in the family. He has children from three different women, and three of those children are songwriters. He's written songs about them as they have about him.

But this sometimes autobiographical perspective actually began with Loudon's father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., who, from the 1960s to the 1980s, wrote a column for Life magazine. The column was called The View From Here, and its subjects often included his children and his father, the original Loudon Wainwright.

Loudon Wainwright III, in his new one-man Netflix special called "Surviving Twin," deals with all this complicated family history. He performs songs about his dad, his grandfather and his children. And he also recites verbatim and very effectively some of his father's columns for Life magazine. Often, a quotation from the father leads to a song from the son, and the combination makes for a wonderful and an intimate experience.


LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: This is my father talking to you about his father. (Reading) If I remain still, if I am alone and silent long enough to hear the sound of my own blood or breathing or digestion above the rustling of leaves and the whirr of the refrigerator, my father is likely to turn up. He just arrives unbidden in the long-running film of my thoughts like Hitchcock in his pictures. And he looks for all these 40-plus years of disembodiment much like himself - big and sandy-haired with freckles on the backs of his hands, perhaps a bit more diffident in the way he holds himself than I remember. It doesn't stay long.

As far as I can tell, his visits have no message. Yet even though years of therapy have led me to make the dark, whistling claim that he's finally dead and gone, my father, who died when I was 17, continues to be my principal ghost, a lifelong eminence grise. And only my own end will finish it.

(Singing) I've seen the family photos, and the man's a mystery - died in 1942 at the age of 43. My grandmother was his widow, and my father was his son. Whoa, I know next to nothing of the first Loudon. They say he was an SOB who liked to smoke and drink. In the photos, he looks handsome. Trapped is what I think. And there's one of him in uniform. It be World War I. They say he was an expert sailor and could handle a shotgun.

BIANCULLI: Loudon Wainwright III specializes in writing lyrics that are honest and deeply personal. Today we're going to revisit two of his conversations with Terry Gross. We'll start with one from last year after he published his memoir called "Liner Notes." He brought his guitar to our studio and performed a song he had recently written called "All In A Family."


WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) It's all in the family. That's no lie - even stays that way after we die. Leaves, branches, twigs on a family tree and the forest can be hard to see. Mother and father are in charge, and the brand new baby will loom large. Brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts - it's a family life, so take a chance. It's a work in progress. Can't you see? And the why, wherefore is a mystery. When the family fights, they know next door. No one wins in a family war. Then there's that thing it's all made of. Dare we sing that the thing is love? Love heals heartache and familial pain. And what family is not insane?


That's Loudon Wainwright performing in the studio. Thank you for doing that. Let's talk about family. Let's start with the family you were born into. Your father was a columnist for Life magazine in the '60s through the '80s. He wrote a column called The View From Here. You were raised in an affluent suburb of New York. Your father went to prep school. You were sent to prep school. And you felt that part of your job in life was not being him (laughter). What parts of him did you especially not want to be?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, he was a - he sent me to the same boarding school that he was miserable at. Let's put it that way. We can start with that. He was kind of a depressive fellow. I'm sorry to say. I mean, he - I think incredibly talented and charming and handsome, and people loved him - and a big, powerful guy. But he suffered from depression and alcoholism also.

So growing up, I watched him try to write and meet deadlines and try to write books and not succeed at that. And he was a - had a kind of tortured existence. At least that's the way I perceived it. So I decided I did not want to be a writer. I certainly - so I kind of got interested in acting and performing and went to drama school and all that. But then I circled back and started to write songs. So I guess I could run, but I couldn't quite hide.

GROSS: He had affairs. Some of them were long as well as secret. He drank a lot, like you said. How did your mother find out about the affairs that he was having, especially the one that was, like, seven years long?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I don't know. I think, like, certainly from the generation that they were from, I think there was a - denial was a way to go (laughter), you know? And I think probably my mother knew that he was out and about but maybe didn't want to know the details or didn't want to face the reality of it. And then - again, both my parents are dead, so there's no way I can check on that. But I think there was denial, and she didn't want to know. And he worked hard at keeping it a secret and then either got caught or confessed or something like that.

GROSS: You know, we mentioned that some of your patterns, like, you know, having relationships with other women while you were, you know, married or raising a child with someone who you were in a long-term relationship with - and you realized that at some point, you were repeating some of the behavior that your father had followed. Did you see his life differently when you realized that your life was in some ways an echo of some of his behavior?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, it's funny, and one of the things I write about in the book is about this trip to Australia that we took. I think it was probably - the two of us. I did - I went to Australia for the first time in 1982, and they threw in an extra plane ticket. And so my father, who'd always wanted to go to Australia, came with me. And he was a new father. I have a half-sister called Anna Wainwright - Anna Fay Wainwright. And of course he had four kids, me and my siblings from his other marriage.

So we were a couple of guys out on the road with split-up families. And now, he had quit drinking at that point, so it wasn't like we were sitting around getting smashed every night. But there was a feeling, again, that we are - we're a little bit like the same person or there are a lot of similarities. And, I mean, I don't know if that answers your question in any way, but - does it?

GROSS: I guess part of my question is when you re-examine his life through the lens of your adult life...


GROSS: Did you have more sympathy for him, or were you equally angry at him and at yourself?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I know that I have a lot - I have more sympathy for him now. And that's just because I'm much - I'm older, and I - I've lived a while. I'm not - I don't feel like I'm angry at my father at all anymore. I can appreciate - he was a creative guy. He wrote beautifully these columns he wrote in Life magazine, some of which are included in my book. He was a beautiful, elegant writer, I thought. And his dream was to write books, you know? Like most writers, he wanted to write short stories and novels.

He did have a few short stories when he was a very young man in The New Yorker. But because he had kids really quickly, he had to go out and earn a living. And he got hired at Life magazine, and he worked there for his entire life. And so his dream had been deferred. So I think I understand, you know, that was very painful and difficult for him. And I can appreciate how that could have informed some of his behavior.

GROSS: You have his name.


GROSS: He was Loudon Wainwright Jr. You're Loudon Wainwright III, and my impression from your memoir is that you kind of resented having the same name as he did 'cause, I mean, you didn't want to be him. And here you were just connected even by name. And just seeing your name on paper, people would have to ask, is that Loudon Wainwright the magazine writer? And so how did it feel when you put out your first album and you were Loudon Wainwright III - 'cause I think a lot of people, maybe me included, thought, oh, the III is probably ironic because it sounds so kind of, like, formal and kingly (laughter), you know, like...


GROSS: But it was your actual name. Did you want to use the III on the album?

WAINWRIGHT III: Not particularly. But, you know, we have the same name. Loudon - get a load of the middle name - Loudon Snowden Wainwright is the name. And - but I got a record deal in 1969 with the Atlantic. You know, and I was going to make my first record, and I was going to call it what my name was. So there was a discussion between me and my father about whether or not to use the roman numeral III, which, you know, had a kind of highfalutin, preppy - I mean, Loudon is a weird enough name to begin with.

But he convinced me to use the roman numeral, the argument being that this confusion between who was who would be solved by that and also that the memory of my grandfather Loudon Wainwright I would somehow be honored if - or dishonored if I didn't use it. So I did use it. And - but then I realized soon after that that in his byline, you know, his name in the - in his articles of "The View From Here" column, he didn't use junior. It was Loudon Wainwright. And I had a - I thought, wait a minute.

So sure enough - I waited until he was in the hospital dying. And I said, you know, dad, I got to talk to you about this thing that's been bothering me for years; you didn't use your junior thing, and you made me use the III thing; what's all that about? And he kind of looked up at me in the hospital bed and said, you can have the name when I die. So...

GROSS: Which is an interesting thing to say, but you didn't change it. Like, on your book cover...

WAINWRIGHT III: No, I used the III. I...

GROSS: ...You're Loudon Wainwright III.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. Sometimes when I use - when I get work as an actor, I lop off the roman numeral. But I'm comfortable with being the III.


WAINWRIGHT III: My first album was called "Loudon Wainwright III," and then the second album was called "Album II."

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT III: And then I said to my manager at the time - I said, why don't we call it the III's third 33 1/3?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT III: And he said no, so we called it "Album III."

GROSS: Was your father angry that you were bringing this up basically on his deathbed?

WAINWRIGHT III: Probably, and (laughter) he should've been. I mean, I was trying to get last licks or something like that. It was a pretty tacky thing to do. On the other hand, though, I'm glad I got to air my feelings, as they say.

GROSS: And to find out the information and, like, why.


BIANCULLI: Loudon Wainwright III speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's conversation with Loudon Wainwright III from last year. His one-man stage show, featuring his father's columns in Life Magazine, is now on Netflix. It's called "Surviving Twin."


GROSS: You know, you write about how your father's death was in some ways liberating. But at the same time, you were just, like, overcome with this grief you didn't even know you had. You just - you heard yourself bawling.


GROSS: And then you write about how when your mother died, you just fell apart. I mean, you just, like, sank into this depression. What was the difference between those two deaths for you emotionally?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, you know, my father and I had a - we're competitive. You know, we went to the same boarding school. We had the same name. We were, you know, father-son competitors in that kind of Oedipal way. You know, so when he died, I felt somewhat liberated. And he was kind of out of the way, in a sense. When my mother got sick and - I knew it was going to be bad because she was the most - my biggest fan, my biggest supporter. You know, she was at every show and every little league - you know, she would come to see me play baseball.

And I wasn't a very good baseball player. And I would literally hit a home run when she was in the stands. I mean, that's how much power she had to kind of free me up and relax me. So I knew it was going to be bad when my mother died. But when it happened, I was living in London at the time. And I just - I completely fell apart, really. I mean, I couldn't hardly do anything for six months or a year.

GROSS: You have a beautiful song about that called "Homeless." Would you play some of that for us?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. (Singing, playing guitar) When you were alive, I was never alone. Somewhere in the world, there was something called home. And as long as you live, I would be all right. There were reasons to win and incentives to fight. Now I'm smoking again. I thought all that was through. And I don't want to live, but what else can I do? And I feel like I've faked all that I ever did. And I've grown a grey beard, but I cry like a kid.

GROSS: It's a really beautiful song. So several of your children were not planned. They were surprises.


GROSS: And now they're adults.


GROSS: And it must be so - I don't have children, but it must be so interesting to have watched children who you didn't expect to have become not only born but then, like, become full people and to see what that moment in your life led to.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. I have four kids, and they're all formidable. You know, three of them are singers and talented - and songwriters and very talented. Rufus and Martha and Lucy are in the business and doing well in their own particular and interesting ways, and Lexie is just out of college. And yeah, they're all powerful, complicated, swinging kids.


GROSS: Let's end with another song that relates to your father. He had said to you once - no, I think you read it actually in one of his columns...

WAINWRIGHT III: Right, right.

GROSS: ...That he wrote I want to double lifetime.


GROSS: He wanted to live longer.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, he - it was on this trip that we took in '82 to Australia. And I - after he died in '88, Martha Fay, the woman that he had lived with for the last 20 years of his life, gave me these little black notebooks that he used to carry around and write in. And he talked about what it was like to be with me on this trip. But he also - he had just become a father at the age of 59. And he wrote this in book, I want to double lifetime, which I always thought was a pretty cool line. And so I wrote this song.

(Singing) I want a double lifetime. I want to start over. One lifetime is not enough. I need another 70 years on a practice run. Practice makes perfect. I'm about half done. I want a double lifetime. Want a double lifetime - I don't want to snuff it. Three score and ten just enough it - feels like I finally got it all figured out. I'm almost free from the shame and the doubt. I want the double lifetime.

Yeah, a lot more time, that's what I need. I can make my move back. I can do the deed. I know I'm greedy. What do I care for the afterlife? I don't want to go there. I want a double lifetime. Man, I deserve it. I want it so bad, I even got that nervous. It's going to take to get down on my bended knees, begging, praying, saying pretty please. Give me a double lifetime, all right.

I want a double lifetime. I wasted my first one. The first time around, that's always the worst one. You don't know what you're doing, and you just can't wait. So you go ahead and do it, and then it's too late. You need a double lifetime. I led a double life in public and private. I want to lead it again. I'm not going to deny it. I'm just like you. It's true, you know. Yeah, ask yourselves, are you ready to go? No, you want a double lifetime.

Yeah, a little more time because, you know, I never - want to keep living forever and ever. I know it sounds funny if the truth be told. But 140 don't seem that. I want a double lifetime - not going to get it. But if a miracle happens, you know I'm going to let it. If I eat enough yogurt, maybe I might. And the second time around, I'm going to get it right. Give me a double lifetime, all right.

GROSS: Well, I wish you'd get a double lifetime, so you could just keep writing songs for us.


WAINWRIGHT III: I'll take it.

BIANCULLI: Loudon Wainwright II speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. After a break, we'll listen to an earlier conversation between Terry and him from 1992. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new animated Spider-Man movie "Into The Spider-Verse." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) That's my daughter in the water. Everything she owns, I bought her - everything she owns. That's my daughter in the water. Everything she knows, I taught her - everything she knows. Everything I say, she takes to heart.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interviews with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. His one-man stage show "Surviving Twin," in which he sings and talks about four generations of Wainwrights, is now streaming on Netflix. And also this year, he released a boxset of rare and unreleased music called "Years In The Making." In 1992, Terry interviewed Loudon Wainwright III about his then-new album called "History," which was full of songs about him and his family. One of the particularly raw songs was called "Hitting You." It was about his daughter Martha, who was 14 but who hadn't seen him much since her parents' marriage ended when she was 2 years old. The father and daughter spent a year together, and it was often difficult.


GROSS: I'm going to ask you to do a song from the new album called "Hitting You" that's - it's a really - it's a kind of song that I imagine is very difficult to write. Why don't we hear it? And then we could talk about why I think it must have been very difficult to write it because you don't hear a lot of songs about a subject like this. Do you want to introduce it in anyway before you play it?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, it's about Martha. This is a pretty heavy song. The song - well, the song explains itself really.

(Singing) Long ago, I hit you. We were in the car. You were crazy in the back seat. It had gone too far. I pulled the auto over. And I hit you with all my might. I knew right away it was too hard. I'd never make it right. I was aiming for your buttock, but I struck your outer thigh. You had on a bathing suit, and right before our eyes, sun-tanned skin turned crimson where the hand had hit, and my palm stung from hitting you so hard that I hurt it. Against the law in Sweden - charges can be filed. Here, it's all too common. A parent hits a child.

(Singing) On your face, I saw the shock, and I saw the pain. Then I saw the look of fear, the fear I'd strike again. Then I saw your anger, your defiant pride. Then I saw one tear drop. The rest, you kept inside. I said I was sorry. I tried to clean the slate, but with that blow, I'd sown a seed. I saw it was too late.

(Singing) These days, things are awful between me and you. All we do is argue like two people who are through. I blame you, your friends, your school, your mother and MTV. Last night, I almost hit you. That blame belongs to me. Long ago, I hit you. We were in the car. You were crazy in the back seat. It had gone too far. I pulled the auto over, and I hit you with all my might. And I knew right away, it was too hard. And I'd never make it right.

GROSS: It's a wonderful song, and I can't think of another one like it. I can't think of another song about a parent hitting their child and regretting it.


GROSS: Why is it really unique to write a song like that? I mean, I don't think it lends itself to most pop song - most pop songs are about, first of all, pretty simple subjects, not something as emotionally complicated as what's happening in that song.

WAINWRIGHT III: I think the thing that - for me, the interesting thing was that it was written from the point of view of the perpetrator...

GROSS: Yeah.

WAINWRIGHT III: ...Rather than the victim. When I wrote the song - and actually, Martha was the first person that I sang it for because that was a case where I called her, and I said, I want you to hear this. It's about you. And I'm interested in what you - and she knew all the events, including the recent event of almost - me almost hitting her. She liked the song, and felt that it was, you know, on the money, so to speak. But I was - I, you know, I went out and I started to play, and I was wondering - when you play it in a club for people, there's kind of a queasy thing that happens in the audience. People really don't quite know how to react to it.

And after the show, this young woman - one of the waitresses in this club up in someplace up in Massachusetts came up and said - she was about 23 or something, and she said, boy, that song about hitting your kid - God, that's - and I said, yeah. Did your dad hit you or did your mom hit you - and said, no. I have a couple of kids, and every once in a while, I lose it and haul off and hit them.

That's when I knew that that's where it was going to get people - not from the point of view of the victim, but at the point of view of the - the hitter rather than the hittee (ph), so to speak.

GROSS: Did your - how well did your daughter remember that first time when...

WAINWRIGHT III: The incident with the bathing suit.

GROSS: I mean, obviously, it had a really big effect on you. Did it have that big effect on her?

WAINWRIGHT III: I don't think it did. I mean, it isn't as though I hit her a lot of times. I mean, surely, she probably - she may have remembered it. But I was the one who remembered it the most, I think.

GROSS: You have a song called "A Father And A Son" that's about you as an adult dealing with a teenage son.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, that one that's dropping out of college now.

GROSS: Oh, really?


GROSS: Tell me what was on your mind when you wrote this song.

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, a lot of the songs - again, it's that thing of - I have another song, an older song called, "Your Mother And I" where I'm explaining to a child about the breakup of the marriage. And this song is addressed to my son who's - who was 18, about, you know, the difficulty that we're having. And then I bring in the difficulty that I had with my own father and actually throw in a whole bunch of other relatives, too, including his maternal grandfather.

GROSS: Let me ask you to do the song for us.


GROSS: This is Loudon Wainwright, and the song he's about to perform is also featured on his new album, "History."

WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) When I was your age, I was just like you and just look at me now. I'm sure you do. Your grandfather was just as bad. You should have heard him trash his dad. Life's no picnic. That's a given. My mom's mom died when my mom was 7. My mom's father was a tragic guy, but he was so distant. Nobody knows why. Now, your mother's family, you know them, each and every one, a gem, each and every one a gem. When I was your age, I was a mess. On a bad day, I still am, I guess.

(Singing) I think I know what you're going through. Everything changes, but nothing is new. And I know that I'm miserable. Can't you see? I just want you to be just like me. Boys grow up to be grown men, and then men change back into boys again. You're starting up, and I'm winding down. Ain't it big enough for us both in this town? Say it's big enough for us both in this town.

(Singing) When I was your age, I thought I hated my dad and that the feeling was a mutual one that we had. We fought each other day and night. I was always wrong, and he was always right. But he had the power, and he needed to win, his life half over, mine about to begin. I'm not sure about that Oedipal stuff, but when we were together, it was always rough. Hate is a strong word. I want to backtrack. The bigger the front, the bigger the back. The bigger the front, the bigger the back. The you in me or me in you, and it's a different ball game - no, not brand new.

(Singing) I don't know what all of this fighting is for. We're having us a teenage-middle age war. I don't want to die, and you want to live. It takes a little bit of taking, a lot of giving. Never really ends, though each race is run - this thing between a father and a son. Maybe it's power - push and shove. Maybe it's hate. Probably, it's love. Maybe it's hate. Probably, it's love.

GROSS: That's Loudon Wainwright.

Did you play that one for your son after you wrote it?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, he's heard it.

GROSS: What did he think?

WAINWRIGHT III: I think he likes it.

GROSS: Is this a way for you to...

WAINWRIGHT III: To communicate with my children?

GROSS: Yeah (laughter), exactly. Can you say things through your songs that you wouldn't just sit down and talk at the...

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I think it is...

GROSS: ...Kitchen table?

WAINWRIGHT III: ...Probably. You know, I think - you know, writing songs and singing songs is probably the best thing that I can do as a person. Everything else is - I don't do as well...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT III: ...You know, including order breakfast. So - and it's a condensed way of doing it. And it's musical, and they're musical. And it is a way to, you know, say something or give them something.

BIANCULLI: Loudon Wainwright III speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1992 interview with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. His new Netflix special is called "Surviving Twin."


GROSS: There is a song on your new album that - it's a beautiful song about your late father, who died about four years ago. And it's much more of a pure love song in a lot of ways than most of the songs that you write.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. Yeah. Well, as I sang in the last song, you know, my father and I had a difficult relationship. But obviously, when somebody dies that's so important, like a parent or a family member - or, you know, anybody that you're close to, I guess - you know, you're - the purer feelings come out, you know. And then the - a lot of the anger subsides. It doesn't go away - I mean, it just subsides for a moment. And this song, I guess, is a song of kind of regret - at least, the first two thirds of it. And then - well, you'll hear what happens in the third verse - something nicer.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you to play the song.


(Singing) Sometimes I forget that you've gone. You've gone, and you're not coming back. And it's hard to believe you're still a lot here. What's left behind disputes that fact. Your closet's still full of your clothes and your shoes. Your bookcase still holds all your books. It's as if all you've done was to go out of town You'll be back soon. That's just how it looks. But your suitcase is empty. It's right here in the hall. That's not even the strangest thing.

(Singing) Why would you leave your wallet behind, your glasses, your wristwatch and ring, your glasses, your wristwatch and ring? Sometimes, I forget that you've gone, and that we'll never see you again. I think for a moment, I've got to give him a call. But I can't - now I realize that. No, we can't meet for lunch at the usual place, at the place where we always would go. And there was something I wanted to tell you so bad, Something I knew that you'd want to know. Oh, I can go by myself to our old haunt. But that seems such a strange thing to do. But the waiters would wonder what was going on. Why weren't you there? Where were you? Why weren't you there? Where were you? Sometimes I forget that you have gone. I remember it, and I feel the ache. How could it have happened? How could it be? It's not true. There must be some mistake.

(Singing) Mementos, memories - tell me what good are they. No, they're not much to have and hold. It's true that you've gone, and you're not coming back. This world seems so empty and cold. But sometimes something happens, and it doesn't seem strange. You're not far away. You're near. Sometimes I forget that you have gone. Sometimes it feels like you're right here. Right now, it feels like you're right here.

GROSS: That's a really moving song. How long after your father died did you write that?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I got to work on it right away. I mean, since I'm a songwriter, you know, when something big happens, my first instinct is to write about it. And I knew that somewhere somehow I had to do something in that way. So a couple of weeks, I'd say.

GROSS: Well, I can't thank you enough for coming and doing this concert with us. It's really been a pleasure, and I love the new record.

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, thanks.

GROSS: Thanks so much for being here.

WAINWRIGHT III: I've enjoyed being here.

BIANCULLI: Loudon Wainwright III speaking to Terry Gross in 1992 - his new Netflix TV special called "Surviving Twin" features him singing songs about his family. As FRESH AIR's TV critic and a fan of Loudon's music, I'd like to say it's a TV program I consider a highlight of 2018 television. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews the newest film in the Spider-Man cinematic canon - an animated movie called "Into The Spider-Verse." This is FRESH AIR.


Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.