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Courtesy Ross Halfin
Loudon Wainwright III recited his father’s very personal words about family rejuvenation during the introduction to his single, “The Days That We Die.”
Courtesy Ross Halfin
Loudon Wainwright III said he has enjoyed watching his children become performers.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Looking back is akin to looking forward for folk singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III.
His father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., and Wainwright III's children figure into all of it.
The evidence is on display on Wainwright III's 2012 record, "Older Than My Old Man Now," as it will be when he performs tonight at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg.
The elder Wainwright - who had been an editor, writer and columnist of The View From Here for Life magazine - was 63 when he died in 1988. As Wainwright III himself approached 63, he began thinking about the idea of outliving one's father.
"I began to reread his columns and was pretty knocked out by them," Wainwright III said in a phone interview last week. "I also realized that there are connections between some of the things that he wrote about and some of the things that I write about."
Some of his father's work wound up on "Older Than My Old Man Now," in the form of spoken word recitations from the columns. The son recited the father's very personal words about family rejuvenation during the introduction to "The Days That We Die."
"We share a big chunk of the past, and there were awful bumps," Wainwright III says over a sweetly soulful piano line. "I've gotten used to the fact that they have their own versions of how things were. They're entitled, even if I recall some things different. No, it's not that I want to set the record straight. That could make matters worse.
"But change is possible, and I'd like to begin work on some sort of updated, realigned model for our connection. Something that will reflect not so much what we all were, or think we were, but what we have become."
Another number, "Double Lifetime," is also culled from his father's work. "I wanna double lifetime/I wanna start over/One lifetime's not enough, I need another/64 years on a practice run/Practice makes perfect, I'm about half done."
Turning to dad
On stages these days, Wainwright is incorporating even more of his father's work, reading without musical accompaniment two The View From Here columns, including "Another Kind of 'Love Story.' " That one, written in 1972, during the time that the movie "Love Story" was a hit in theaters, is about putting down the family dog.
"And it's a killer column, and of course, everybody knows what that's like," Wainwright said. "And it takes about eight minutes to [recite] it, so I actually put the guitar down and do the whole column. And it works, as they say.
"He's a huge influence, and I'm delighted to be able to share his work in my shows and on the new record."
It all comes from a natural and near universal interest that people have in their past, he said.
"Maybe it's because you're getting closer to the end of something," the 66-year-old Wainwright said. "So you look back.
"I've been really interested in reading my father's work recently. I think there was a time when I didn't want to read it. I'm going back to notebooks I recently read, some letters that he wrote when he was 19, to his mother, when he'd just gone into the Marine Corps."
Wainwright Jr.'s allusions to family strife are interesting in this context, because his descendants have spent some of their creative lives writing about their own grievances with one another. As The Guardian columnist Alexis Petridis wrote in 2008, there is a "sub-section of the singer-songwriter genre entirely devoted to songs about what a crap bloke Loudon Wainwright III is."
That subsection has included songs from his ex-wife, the late Kate McGarrigle and her sister, Anna. And more recently, his son, Rufus Wainwright, and a daughter, Martha Wainwright, have written on the subject. Martha Wainwright's 2005 debut single has a title this newspaper cannot print .
Wainwright III, discussing the art that comes from family struggles, half-quoted his father by calling them "family bumps."
"That happens in every family - every single family," he said. "[Wainwright Jr.] was a writer whose best stuff was his personal stuff. So to not mention that or even tackle that subject would be kind of ridiculous.
"And the same goes in my songwriting and in the songwriting of my kids. I can only speak for myself, but I think we write about what's going on. And, you know, the people in the family are the biggest people in your life - your kids, your parents, your sisters, brothers, wives and ex-wives. So to not write about them would seem to me, at least, to be a bit remiss."
None of this keeps Wainwright III and his children fully estranged. Rufus, Martha and two other children, Lucy Wainwright Roche and Lexie Kelly Wainwright, sing harmonies on the recent album's opening cut, "The Here & the Now," a snazzy lyrical synopsis of their father's life so far. Also harmonizing are two of the children's mothers, Suzzy Roche and Ritamarie Kelly.
Wainwright III said he has enjoyed watching his children develop into outstanding performers.
"Again, the mothers of my children were singers and actors," he said. "So it made kind of sense from a genetic point of view that the kids would wind up in the family business.
"The great news is that they're super-talented and are doing quite well. It's delightful, and occasionally they take me out to dinner. There's no real downside."
Wainwright, when asked what is his favorite among many cover versions of his songs - Johnny Cash and Mose Allison are among those who have recorded his work - plugs Rufus' version of "One Man Guy."
He said it is an "amazing" take on the song. "And of course I'm very happy that my kid wanted to do my song."
Movies and TV
"The Days That We Die" is a featured track in the 2012 Judd Apatow movie "This is 40." Wainwright's relationship with Apatow goes back to the short-lived TV series "Undeclared," in which Wainwright played what he calls the "weird, dysfunctional dad" of one of the college students in the show.
Apatow was a Wainwright fan from his teenage years on, and has cast the singer in previous movies "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." Wainwright noted that Apatow was executive producer for Wainwright's box set retrospective, "40 Odd Years."
"So thank God for Judd Apatow," he said.
Earlier this week, Wainwright worked a day on a new movie that Apatow camp members Jonah Hill and James Franco are making. In recent years, he has appeared on TV shows including "Parks and Recreation" and "Person of Interest," and in such movies as "Elizabethtown" and "The Aviator."
Wainwright went to college to study acting and thought early on that it would be his job.
"I don't know that I could make a living as an actor," he said. "But I have folk music to fall back on."
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