A Conversation with Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III. Photo: Mark Garvin

By Steven Brodsky
Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III wrote the words and music for Surviving Twin, recently performed at People’s Light and Theatre,  January 21 – February 5, 2017. Not one to avoid artistically drawing upon challenging aspects of his own personal history, this Loudon here addresses his relationship with his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr. Millions know Loudon Wainwright Jr. from the long-running column he wrote for Life Magazine. You likely know this third Loudon through his many records, performances, and acting roles in movies and on television (including a few episodes on M*A*S*H). And, yes, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Lucy Wainwright Roche are his children.

If you’ve ever passed a dead skunk in the middle of the road and sung out the words to “Dead Skunk,” you’ve another connection to him. He wrote that novelty song in 1972.  Enough with the introduction or reintroduction. You’ll get to know him better by attending Surviving Twin and, hopefully, with this interview.

Was there any reluctance on your part to share emotionally charged family and personal history in creating Surviving Twin?   
None whatsoever — emotionally charged family and personal history is a waterfront I’ve been covering for almost 50 years.

Was the scriptwriting process much different than what you experience when writing songs that touch upon similar autobiographical elements?
There are 3 elements to the show: my songs, selections of writing from my father, and the visual component (2 short films). The job has been to connect and combine the elements.

The opening scene begins with you performing the song “Sur viving Twin.” Was this song written for the play?
No, the song originally appeared on my 2000 album, Last Man On Earth.

The song raises the question: “Can a man’s son be his twin?” What similarities to your dad do you most regret? What similarities are you especially happy with?
My father was too tough on himself. Occasionally I fall into the same trap.

Issues of personal identity and parent-child rivalry are at the core of the song. At what age did you find yourself grappling with those matters?
I’m a fan of Sigmund Freud, so in my mind the grappling started early. Age 3 or 4?

Has writing and performing Surviving Twin helped you resolve some residual angst about your relationship with your father? (Loudon Wainwright III’s father passed away in December of 1988.)
Yes. My father and I are closer now than we’ve ever been.

These words are in the script: “…Even if we’re late, we can still reach out for fathers, and find good moments for ourselves in what they left behind.” Please speak of how you experienced this in connection with the play. 
The words are from my dad’s column “The Sum Of Recollection Just Keeps Growing”. They are self-evident.

I’m fond of “White Winos.” This song is performed in the play. What can you tell us about the song? 

Got some Oedipal stuff going on in this one. More Freud, I’m afraid.

Do you ever find yourself backing off from content in your songwriting, due to feelings of vulnerability? 

The script includes a recollection of being in a hospital room, awaiting the birth of your son Rufus. It’s a powerful and moving telling, concluded with “… I hadn’t realized how close all life is to sorrow.” Was there any dramatic  license in the depiction of what transpired? Please don’t divulge the story. I don’t want to spoil the impact of the scene for readers.
You’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion. The recollection of the birth in the hospital is my father’s. It’s from his column “Father’s Day.” The baby is me, not Rufus. I don’t think there was any dramatic license taken. It’s a straight ahead account.

What went into the decision to name your son Rufus and to not name him Loudon IV?
Three was enough.

The song “A Father and a Son” is in the play. If you are comfortable answering these two questions, go ahead. Has Rufus commented to you about the song and about the play? If so, how did he respond to what he heard and saw? 
All my kids have seen Surviving Twin and they seem to like it.

You’re not the only family member to take to song with emotionally charged family content. Rufus wrote “Dinner at Eight” and Martha wrote a song with an obscenity-containing title. Both songs are said to be about you. How difficult did  you find it to listen to those songs when they were released?
Not particularly difficult.

Have these songs furthered reconciliation? 
Don’t know.

When you first emerged onto the music scene, you were straddled with the label “the next Bob Dylan.” How’d you handle that?
Ignored it. It’s a stupid label.

Has songwriting gotten easier for you over the years? You’ve long been prolific. 
Songwriting is a bit like sex. Easy and constant at first. When you’re older songs come less frequently, but it’s still exciting.

What song of yours do you consider to be your artistic best?
I don’t pick favorites.

What song of yours is the most fun to perform?
Depends on the night.

Is there a fan favorite that you are tired of performing?
“Dead Skunk” — pretty much stopped playing it 30 years ago.

Is there a song that you wish you had never released?

Are you contemplating writing any other theatrical material? 

Is it likely that you will write a memoir or pursue other literary forms?

What do you most enjoy about performing in Surviving Twin?
Combining and connecting my work with my father’s.


Posted Jan. 3, 2017

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