Loudon Wainwright III Wants a 'Double Lifetime'

Ross Halfin
Loudon Wainwright III reflects on his extraordinary life
Loudon Wainwright III didn't plan on writing a memoir. A friend in the publishing industry suggested that he translate the life he has documented richly in his music into prose.

“They gave me some money,” the songwriter deadpans. “Not a lot, but enough to come up with something.”

Three years later, that something has arrived in the form of Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things. Much like the 71-year-old’s discography, it's a collection of straightforward stories.

The book comprises essays and anecdotes on his music and acting career, his complicated relationships with musicians Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, and his observations on being a father to his children Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, who are singer-songwriters in their own right. (He also has a daughter named Alexandra with actress Ritamarie Kelly.)

Portions of the column his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., wrote for Life Magazine are scattered throughout the book. Both men wrote so plainly and eloquently about their lives.

“My dad is a guest star in my book,” Wainwright says. “He wrote about a lot of different things, but the pieces that resonated the most for me were his personal stuff.”

Wainwright took time out of his book tour, which stops in the Valley on Friday, October 6, and talked with Phoenix New Times about his complicated relationship with his father, his unique style of songwriting, and his insights into the Summer of Love. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

New Times: You wrote the song “Double Lifetime” [from the 2012 album Older Than My Old Man Now] about something your dad had written. Is living two lifetimes something you want for yourself?
Loudon Wainwright III: I’d like to live on for another 70 years. Why not? That’s not going to happen, but there is a lot of things that are not going to happen. World peace, for instance, comes to mind.

The song was inspired by something my dad wrote in one of his notebooks. Sadly, he did not even make it to 70 years of age. He only made it to 63. That seems unfair, but you never know when it is time to go.

There is a line in that song that resonates with me: “Feels like I finally got it all figured out / Almost free from the shame and the doubt.” Do you feel like you are finally getting over those things that may have held you back?
Not all the things, but the simple things like a fear of bank tellers and hotel clerks. When you have been walking around for a while, you start to feel entitled to be here. I think that has happened to me as I have gotten older. That is a good feeling.

Did you not feel entitled to be here before?
I have always had a certain amount of confidence. As a young person, I think I was scared. There is a lot to be scared about. The world is a complex, difficult, and scary place. When you are starting out, you have to figure out how to fit in and earn a living. I think what has happened to me in my life has happened to everyone. It’s a sweeping statement, but what the hell, it is a nice day here in Boston so I will make a sweeping statement.

You’re very honest and forthright in some songs, and others are satire…
Silly songs.

How did you develop your songwriting style?
I’m not quite sure how it developed. My dad was a journalist. He wrote very clearly. My songs reflect a little bit of that. There is something very mysterious about them.

The first song on my first album is about me going to boarding school called “School Days.” Since then, it’s been a lot about my life. In the book, I compare it to fishing. I’m not disciplined. I don’t get up every morning and try to write songs, but I’m out in the boat hoping to get a nibble.

I became a dad over a year ago. I try to let my son know I love him despite the frustrations of crying and poopy diapers. Were there ways your dad let you know he loved you? How did you show that to your own kids?
I think you’ll find out you do the best you can. Telling your kid you love him or her is a really good idea. Showing them that is maybe even better. My life as a young dad was chaotic. I was not around a lot. I was traveling and doing my job. Looking back, I don’t think I did as good a job as I should have, but I did the best I could. That’s what you have to do, I guess.

I interviewed your daughter Martha a decade ago. She said that your songwriting style gave her the confidence to not hold back in her work. Does that make you feel as though you passed something on to your children?
I’m sure I have set an example, whether it is good or bad. Martha does not hold back. She goes out there, grabs her audience, and pushes the proverbial envelope. She is an exciting performer. I think people have always reacted to her willingness to walk the tightrope.

From what you wrote in your book, because of your father’s and your own career, you have a unique insight into the late '60s. You talk about being a hippie for a year. Do you think books and movies get that moment in time right?
That’s 50 years ago, right? I just try to write about that time in my book the way I remember it. It was a bit of a drug-induced haze at the time.

The one that comes to mind for me is Inside Llewyn Davis. You wrote you knew folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who the film is loosely based on.
I like that movie a lot. I felt that the Coen Brothers really captured something there that I can remember. They even got the guitar capos right. There used to be this elastic guitar capo called a Russell. Everybody used them and there they were in the movie. That was cool.

You wrote that after your hippie life was over, you went back home. Did you feel jaded by the free love movement?
It was certainly a hedonistic fun summer, but I don’t have any regrets or guilt about having fun. Part of being a young person is having fun. It is part of being an old person, too. It was happening and exciting at the time. I was happy to be there.

Do you see any parallels from that time to the events of today?
I’m old school and I don’t think there is a whole lot of new things under the sun. There is plenty of differences, like the internet. People are people and the world still operates in the same way. I don’t think all that much has changed. As Bob Dylan would say, “It’s life and life only.”

Loudon Wainwright III is scheduled to appear Friday, October 6, at Changing Hands Phoenix, 300 West Camelback Road. Details can be found on their website.

He is also scheduled to perform Sunday, October 8, at Musical Instrument Museum Music Theatre, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $32 to $40 and can be purchased on their website.