Loudon Wainwright III can’t help but look back lately. Last year, the 72-year-old songwriter released a memoir, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay & a Few of My Other Favorite Things, and in 2018, he’s followed it up with Years in the Making, a comprehensive boxset pairing live recordings, bootlegs, demos, covers, and live tracks with detailed notes, drawings, and ephemera from his personal archive. With characteristically grim wit, Wainwright sums up his recent retrospective work: “I have been looking over my shoulder for a long time, but the reality is that we are getting close to the big finish here.” There’s a laugh, but it’s a knowing one.
As a new notch in his vast discography, Years in the Making is a testament to Wainwright’s particular breed of fearlessness. Few songwriters can match his candid approach to writing about life, love, and generally wrecking things. But what makes his sardonic songs click — aside from the abundant humor coursing through them — is Wainwright’s always apparent heart, which shines through his tenderest songs, especially those about his highly musical family, including his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, their children Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, his former partner Suzzy Roche and their daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche. It’s been “fun to go back and look at my life, my childhood, my parents, my romantic misadventures, my kids,” Wainwright says.
Family guides Wainwright, and his new project, a theater piece titled Surviving Twin, which debuts on Netflix next month, finds him connecting to the work of his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., a renowned writer known for his “The View from Here” column in Life Magazine, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by Christopher Guest. Sitting down with Aquarium Drunkard, he touched on how his personal life has informed his work, the process of digging into his “man cave” archives, and the terrifying time he got stoned with his mother. Surviving Twin will be available to stream on Netflix November 13th.
AD: Years in the Making pulls from a lot of very different sources. You’ve got home recordings, radio gigs, live recordings, and bootlegs. Did all this material come from your own archive?
Loudon Wainwright: A lot of it did. I had this little man cave thing in my house where I go down and try to work. There are boxes and boxes of cassettes, reel to reel stuff from the 70’s, old hard drives [down there]. So most of it came from my archive, as it were. It took three years to put it together, and I worked very closely with [producer] Dick Connette. He and I listened to a lot of stuff, and we made a list of winners, maybes, and no fucking ways, [guaging the] quality of the stuff.
AD: In the case of some of the radio shows or home recordings, the fidelity is not outstanding, but the content is. Did you find yourself kind of weighing those two qualities?
Loudon Wainwright: Yeah, it’s all over the place sonically [but] we realized that didn’t really matter. In a way, it can kind of pull the listener in, if it’s a scratchy cassette recording of Steve Goodman singing in my apartment in New York in 1974, whenever the hell that was. I like the kind of mashup of sonic qualities.
AD: With streaming, so many people consume music piecemeal now. You can approach this set that way, but I’ve found that it works really well as a solid listen straight through.
Loudon Wainwright: I know that people juggle their sequences when they listen to records, and only listen to two songs over and over again, but I am old school enough that I like the idea somebody could spend 50 minutes or an hour listening to something.
AD: The book lends itself to that, sitting down and really diving into the notes, letters, drawings. Sometimes artists can be very unsentimental about their archives, while other artists are maybe more inclined to keep these sorts of things. Do you consider yourself a sentimental guy?
Loudon Wainwright: I can certainly burst into tears at a TV commercial at 11 o’clock. You know, I also can be cynical too. I throw away a lot of stuff, but it’s hard. Like with a drawing my daughter made [included in the boxset]. Why would I throw that away? I imagine my daughter in my little man cave and going through this paraphernalia as I slide away, you know.
AD: You famously, before embarking seriously on your music career, sold your guitar to take yoga lessons. Did the yoga stick too?
Loudon Wainwright: You know, I did some yoga the other day. I do very gentle, careful yoga. I use to really be, well I wrote about it in my book. I lived in a yoga ashram, I was really gung-ho. Yoga was different in 1968 than it is now. It was less of a physical exercise thing, but yeah I still do some yoga. My mother was a yoga teacher actually.
AD: Did you take classes with her at all?
Loudon Wainwright: I turned her on to yoga about 1960. I dropped out of college, moved to San Francisco; I was a hippie, I took LSD a lot, blah blah blah. Then I kind of switched over to yoga and I got very into it, and I gave her a yoga book, Fundamentals of Yoga by Rammurti Mishra. She totally got into it and wound up being a yoga teacher.
AD: But you never got her to try LSD?
Loudon Wainwright: I got stoned with her once and it was the biggest mistake of my life!
AD: [Laughing] Oh no, why?
Loudon Wainwright: Oh you know, it’s kind of a bittersweet story. Her marriage had ended with my dad. She was living alone, and us grown-up kids were trying to take care of her. She was very straight. She was from the deep south and had been a Baptist, never swore or anything, but her life was turned upside down. One night we were in the house she was renting and she asked if we had any marijuana, this was me and my sister Teddy, and she said she wanted to get stoned as she had never gotten stoned before. I think she was desperate to find something to make her feel better. So we rolled a joint I guess, and she had a couple of hits on it, and then turned into a kind of marshmallow, a clinging marshmallow. Completely terrified me, of course. That was the last time we did that together.
AD: Your family factors into your work greatly. When you look back on your work are you struck by how prominently your family, both your parents and even their parents, and subsequently, your partners and your children, are featured in your songs?
Loudon Wainwright: It feels really natural to write about them. These are big, big people in my life [and contribute to] most interesting, complicated, pleasurable, difficult situations. It always seems to be a no-brainer to write about them.
AD: One of my favorite lines comes from “Your Mother and I.” You sing, “I hope when you grow up/One day you’ll see/Your parents are people/That’s all we can be.” So often family history is something we keep quiet about, at least publically. But I wonder, if we can’t discuss the difficulty co-existing with our own family, how can we hope to discuss co-existing with people less closely tied to ourselves?
Loudon Wainright: The gory details of family life really interest me. I present them in some of the songs and people have objected to all that has been divulged. But if we’re talking about the personal material, I know [that’s the same] stuff that’s happening to the people in the audience and their families. There’s nothing arcane or weird about it. They know exactly what I am talking about. They know exactly how weird Thanksgiving dinner can be.
AD: There are some very funny songs on this record, including “Cheatin’,” which you wrote for Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, though it didn’t make the cut. I once read a quote from Alice Cooper discussing Spinal Tap, and he said something along the lines of it being hard to watch because it hit too close to home. Did you feel any familiar pangs watching Walk Hard?
Loudon Wainwright: I mean, there were similarities. [Laughs] It’s funny you should mention that both Spinal Tap and Walk Hard. Last night I was at the New Yorker Festival with Judd Apatow and Christopher Guest, who’s an old friend of mine. Chris and I sang a Spinal Tap song called “Give Me Some Money.” I’ve done stuff with Judd [appearing in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up] and I wrote nine songs for [Walk Hard], none of which they used. [Laughs] We were all together last night because the three of us have been working on a new project just coming out next month on Netflix called Surviving Twin. It’s a theater piece Chris directed and Judd produced that we shot it in May in Los Angeles. It’s a 90-minute piece I’ve been developing where I perform some of my father’s writing. You know, my dad [Loudon Wainwright Jr.] was a well-known journalist, he wrote for Life. He had a column called “The View From Here.” So I have this show called Surviving Twin where I combined and connect some of my songs with his writing.
AD: Is it comedic or more serious?
Loudon Wainwright: There are some funny songs. I do a couple, like “Being a Dad,” and there’s a song about walking my dog. But a lot of it is performing my dad’s text. Some of that is funny, too. There’s a very funny piece that he wrote about buying a suit London in 1965 on Savile Row. It’s got humor in it and it’s got some…other stuff, too. It was very exciting to film. I hope people get something out of it. words/j woodbury