In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Singer, songwriter, and character actor Loudon Wainwright III specializes in songs that make people laugh and songs that make people cry, sometimes at the same time. The sharp-witted troubadour scored a surprise radio hit in 1973 with “Dead Skunk,” but otherwise, he’s succeeded primarily as a critic’s darling and a songwriter’s songwriter. Wainwright is also known as the patriarch of an impressive musical dynasty: With his late ex-wife, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, he had two children, Rufus and Martha, both of whom became acclaimed musicians themselves. Wainwright’s marriage to musician Suzzy Roche spawned another musician, singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche. In addition to writing and recording music for more than four decades (in 2011, Shout! Factory released the essential box set 40 Odd Years, featuring liner notes by fan and sometimes-collaborator Judd Apatow) Wainwright has moonlighted as an actor, appearing as a singing surgeon on the hit television show M*A*S*H and popping up in supporting roles in films like Big Fish, The Aviator, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Elizabethtown. His newest record, Older Than My Old Man Now, is an alternately haunting and funny concept album about aging and death.
“Older Than My Old Man Now” (from 2012’s Older Than My Old Man Now)
Loudon Wainwright III: Well, I’ve been around a while. I’m 65 now. The themes on the record, a lot of it has to do with aging and even death. The songs that I have been writing the last couple of years have been addressing these subjects. The goal was to make a record that wasn’t a complete bummer. First of all, as I mentioned in the liner notes, singing about death and decay, one person singing about it can be tough, so we’ve got a lot of guest singers on the record. A couple of my heroes, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dame Edna Everage, also known as Barry Humphries, do duets with me, my kids sing with me on the record. The other thing was, again, not to make it a bummer. So I have some songs on the record which hopefully will amuse people.
The A.V. Club: You mention in the liner notes that the title comes from you now being older than your father was when he died. Was that a big milestone for you?
LW: It’s always been lurking in my mind. It was lurking in his mind. His father died, as I mention in the song, at the age of 43. My father always used to talk about how he was worried that he wouldn’t make it past 43. I think fathers and sons, it’s a heavy-duty type thing. Outliving your father, I think is something people think about, sons and fathers think about.
AVC: Did you think you would make it to 65?
LW: Well, in the last couple years, I thought my odds were pretty good. When I was a younger guy and not taking care of myself and full of romantic ideas of dying early, I used to say that I wouldn’t make it past 25. But I’m relaxing now and taking better care of myself, so it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve lived this long.
“Whatever Happened To Us” (from 1975’s Unrequited)
LW: That was in the ’70s. I had a rocky marriage going on. I wrote a lot of songs about that issue. That’s a generic song. Anybody having a crappy love affair hopefully can identify with that one.
“The Heckler” (from 1978’s Final Exam)
LW: I did a show years and years ago, and there were some drunk hecklers at it, so I wrote a song about it. If something happens to me that upsets me or amuses me or angers me or whatever, chances are I will write about it. So that’s an example of that, really.
AVC: Is it cathartic to write a song like that?
LW: I think it is, on a level. It doesn’t solve the problem, though. There will always be hecklers. I supposed the next time I got heckled, if I played that song, maybe that would quiet them down.
“The Here & The Now” (from Older Than My Old Man Now)
LW: That’s a kind of “look at why I’m here” in terms of the biological imperative. We have a lot of backup singing on the record, including all four of my kids. So you just wonder—or at least, I just wonder—what the hell I’m doing here. Then if you think about it, well, I suppose it could be argued that I’m here to procreate. And now that my procreating days are pretty much over, there’s no point in being here anymore, if you want to take a hard line on that. So that song just plays with that idea.
AVC: You’ve outlived your evolutionary function.
LW: Yeah. I think I say in the song, “It’s the 21st century and I’m downright old. My seed’s been spent, and my loins are cold.” Perhaps this coldness… [Laughs.] There’ll be some even colder coldness coming. Just an idea; messing with an idea.
AVC: Death is a big presence on the album.
LW: Yeah, well, I’m also old enough to have a lot of friends that have died already, people I knew and were close to. The mother of my first two kids, Kate McGarrigle, died a couple of years ago. Friends, parents. So it becomes a powerful part of your life as you get older.
“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” (from 1973’s Attempted Mustache)
LW: That’s a kind of strange, long, allegorical song. I just kind of made that one up about somebody, although the idea of not being able to cry is an interesting one, particularly for men. The exciting thing about that one is that Johnny Cash recorded it, which was a huge thrill, to have somebody of his stature think it was good enough to record. I always think of that when I think of that song.
AVC: Do you remember the first time you heard Johnny Cash’s version?
LW: Yeah, they sent it to me and I loved it. It was recorded at the Viper Room in L.A. in front of a live audience with just a guitar, and he actually got laughs. I love that. The fact that he got the audience to laugh was terrific.
“In C” and “All In A Family” (from Older Than My Old Man Now)
LW: Well, that’s a song not really about death at all. It’s about the legacy of—my parents had a difficult, rocky marriage, which eventually ended, and that can be passed on. I, myself, have had a tough marriage and a broken family. It’s just about that thing, which is a very common, prevalent thing, but it’s highly dramatic. I’ve written a lot of songs about that.
AVC: You do have a lot of songs about family, and it seems like a lot of them are fundamentally sad.
LW: Well, hopefully not all of them are sad.
AVC: Not that it’s a bad thing necessarily. It just seems like a lot of them are melancholy.
LW: Yeah, melancholy, but what about “All In A Family” on this record? That’s a rather uplifting song about the positive aspects of family life. Like the fact that I sing, “What family is not insane?” [Laughs.] Life is sad, and it’s ridiculous and funny too, and wonderful and beautiful. Maybe I write sad songs. I couldn’t deny that.
AVC: Do you think there are any families that aren’t insane, or do you think that’s endemic to the structure?
LW: I think it is endemic. Obviously there are some families that are more insane than others, and have more issues, problems. Although, again, who’s to decide about that? I’ve never met a family, or a person for that matter, that isn’t somewhat insane.
“I Remember Sex” (from Older Than My Old Man Now)
LW: That’s a song I actually wrote quite a few years ago, and now it’s a perfect time for me to sing it. [Laughs.] Barry Humphries, who’s one of my heroes, duets with me on that one. He and I met on a television [show]. We had an acting job together on a couple of episodes of Ally McBeal about eight or nine years ago. I played him that song, and he loved it. So I just thought, “What a perfect person to do it with as kind of a duet.” It’s one of the highlights for me, that track.
AVC: You obviously have a lot of songs about sex, and for it to be so permanently in the rearview is kind of interesting.
LW: Well, again, when you’re 65, everything seems to be somewhat in the rearview, or at least in the side view. Well, not everything, and hopefully your windshield wipers are still working.
“Unhappy Anniversary” (from 1986’s More Love Songs)
LW: That had to do with another tough relationship, another sad breakup relationship. I got a lot of good songs out of those breakups.
AVC: Does that make relationships more difficult, when the other person knows you’re going to be using everything as grist for the mill?
LW: I think relationships are difficult no matter what, whether you’re an investment banker or a singer-songwriter.
“The Days That We Die” (from Older Than My Old Man Now)
LW: That’s the song I sing with Rufus. It was really inspired by our relationship, which has been difficult for all concerned. He’s written about it, and I’ve written about it. It’s just an idea that, how we’re going to get over the stuff that happened, and start just living with who we are now. The great thing for me, anyway, was that I found these things that my father wrote years ago, and they’re kind of a recitation before that song. And this is something that was on his mind, because he had difficulties with his kids. So to match the song, “The Days That We Die,” and to sing it with Rufus and then to have a kind of prologue by my own father addressing the same issues, seemed kind of perfect and dramatic. To me, anyway.
AVC: Do you think it’s possible to completely let go of the past?
LW: Well, the past is always there. I guess William Faulkner famously said, “The past is not even past.” We’ve got to work harder at being who we are now, as opposed to what we thought we were, and get over shit, get over the resentments. It’s not easy, but life is not a cakewalk either.
“Something’s Out To Get Me” (from Older Than My Old Man Now)
LW: The title says it all. Again, I’m just aware of something’s coming after my ass [Laughs.], and this song is about the feeling of dread about that. But it’s also, as I say at the end of the song, it’s coming after your ass, too. It may get to my ass first, but you’re going to get yours also. It’s part of the human condition, and we’re all in that same boat.
“School Days” (from 1970’s Album I)
LW: That was the first song on my first record. It was indicative of what I would be writing about for over 40 years. It’s personal, it’s autobiographical. It’s about this boarding school in Middletown, Delaware, that I went to. In fact, it was the same boarding school my father was sent to when he was a kid. We mentioned the idea that I’m already a little obsessed about getting old, but it’s really just a description of that time in my callow youth.
AVC: On “School Days,” you’re already talking about the past, and aging, and the passage of time. Why do you think that’s been such a pervasive theme in your work?
LW: I just think we’re all alive, yet we all somehow know that’s not going to be the case after a while. It’s just a powerful thing, which I guess some people don’t think about or write about, but I think about it all the time. And as you point out, I was writing about getting older when I was quite young. There are a lot of songs in the beginning of my career when I was addressing this subject, so this entire record, the new one, is all about it.
AVC: Folksingers often describe hard times and hardscrabble upbringings, but you sang about coming from a place of privilege. Was that on your mind from the beginning?
LW: Yes, comparatively speaking. I didn’t grow up as a rich kid, but we were well off. We lived in an affluent suburb of New York, up in Bedford, New York, and Westchester. I went to boarding school, and my parents were members of a country club. So yeah, I didn’t see any point in trying to hide that, any more than taking the Roman numeral III off my name. This is who I am, for better or worse. On my first album cover, I’m wearing a Brooks Brothers blazer, I think. I mean, I’m unshaven and look like I’ve been in prison for a couple days. [Laughs.] I’ve written about who I am. I didn’t ride the rails or grow up on a farm picking cotton. I grew up in Bedford, New York, and I write about it.
AVC: You didn’t feel the need to adopt a hardscrabble persona.
LW: Musically, a lot of the guitar chords I play and the styles that I use come from folk music and country music, which is again, rural, more hardscrabble. You know, my mother was from the Deep South, and she did grow up non-privileged. Her father was a tobacco farmer. So I think it’s a two-sided thing. I had that funky white-trash thing going on, and then my father grew up on the Gold Coast of Long Island, so there’s a little of both in there. But in terms of my own autobiography, I’ve told it like it is, or was, as I’m going along.
“Dead Skunk” (from 1972’s Album III)
LW: Ah, yes! Well that’s a perfect example of how ridiculous show business is. I wrote that song in 12 minutes or something. I ran over a skunk that had already been run over. Some of my songs are very nonsensical, and that was one of them. I went in and started to perform it, and I realized people loved it. Sure enough, we went into the recording studio and recorded it, and it got to be, I don’t know, what? No. 12 or No. 14 on the Billboard chart in 1972. So I became the “funny-animal-guy songwriter.” [Laughs.] Which got to be a drag after a while. But I certainly made a lot of money that year.
AVC: It sounds like you’re pretty ambivalent about the fact that it was not only successful, but your biggest hit.
LW: It was nice to have a hit. It’s fun to have a hit. It’s really fun to be driving around and listen to yourself on the radio, and boy, that record got a lot of airplay at that time. So I’ve enjoyed that, but I don’t think it’s one of my best songs. Very infrequently, people occasionally call out for it, and if they pay me extra money, I do it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why do you think it was such a big hit?
LW: I don’t know. It’s silly. It’s just kind of silly and goofy, yet it’s something everybody could relate to, and actually, if you listen to the record itself, it’s very well-produced, kind of country-rock. It’s a nice track, with the fiddle and banjos. It’s a nice-sounding record. And the other reality is that the record company at the time that I was on, which was Columbia Records, Clive Davis was at the helm in those years, they decided they were going to make it happen. So they did whatever it took. [Laughs.] God knows what it took. Radio stations were encouraged to play the record.
AVC: And by that, you mean they were given large amounts of cocaine.
LW: It’s entirely possible, if I remember myself.
AVC: It seems like with the record business in the ’70s, everything involved just giving people giant amounts of cocaine.
LW: Giant amounts of one thing or another.
AVC: You had a reputation for writing funny songs.
LW: I still try to write funny songs. I put funny songs on my new record.
AVC: Do you feel like funny songs aren’t taken as seriously? That they’re stigmatized and ghettoized?
LW: If you think about it, to get a group of people to laugh all at the same time—I mean, this is if you’re performing a song live, and mostly when I write my songs, I think about how they’re going to work in a live performance setting—it’s a tricky little thing to actually grab people and make them laugh. Some of my absolute favorite songwriters are so-called “novelty-song writers.” People like Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman, Ray Stevens. I love to laugh, and it’s a wonderful feeling to make an audience laugh. I think of myself as a switch-hitter. I can go both ways. I can make people laugh, and then I can be rather serious. And in some cases, I can do it in the same song.
“Drinking Song” (from 1972’s Album III)
LW: That was originally recorded and written in the early ’70s, and then I re-recorded it with a band, with my friend Joe Henry a few years back on a record called Recovery. I used to drink a lot, certainly a lot more than I do now. It’s just about that, really. I had a lot of songs about drinking. I had a song called “Down Drinking At The Bar,” I had a song called “Wine With Dinner,” “The Drinking Song,” “Central Square Song.” Alcohol is in the songs a lot. Not so much now. Well, actually, I have a more recent song called “White Winos,” so I continued to write about alcohol, in fact.
“The Swimming Song” (from 1973’s Attempted Mustache)
LW: “The Swimming Song” came out on the next record after “Dead Skunk,” an album called Attempted Mustache. The label, which was Columbia at that time, said, “Where’s the funny-animal song?” I said, “Well no, this is a better song. This is ‘The Swimming Song,’ It’s a great record produced by a wonderful producer called Bob Johnston in Nashville.” But for some reason, they couldn’t shell out enough money and cocaine to make that one happen. But it’s a song I still play all the time, and it’s one of my best songs, I think. I play it on the banjo, which is also kind of fun.
AVC: Is it just about swimming, or are there multiple layers to it?
LW: I was just thinking about swimming, but you know I mentioned, “I’m a self-destructive fool.” For me, it’s just about the joy of swimming.
“Hollywood Hopeful” (from 1976’s T Shirt)
LW: Well, I’ve written a lot of songs in my career about “making it” and about being in show business. I had a whole album that was called Fame And Wealth. “Hollywood Hopeful” is an example of one of those types of songs. I was living out there, just talking about trying to make it, and the billboards on the boulevard, and “tequila to drink, and avocado to eat,” and all that.
AVC: You’ve been an actor for a very, very long time, have you not?
LW: I have. I studied to be an actor. I thought I was going to be an actor instead of being a musician. I’m an actor now. I’m actually in a play in New York, working. We have another week of performances. So I work from time to time, get little parts in movies and TV shows. Yeah, acting is something that I like doing. I don’t do it a whole lot, but it’s fun to get an acting job.
AVC: Do you think that informs your work as a songwriter and performer?
LW: Yes. As I mentioned before, I write my songs to perform. I make records, but I’m always thinking about an audience’s reaction to the songs: whether they’re going to laugh, whether they’re going to gasp, whether they’re going to wince, even. And I think of myself as being the one who’s in the driver’s seat, singing the song. The songs are written for performance, and certainly being an actor, or a sometime actor, and having experience doing that, yeah, there’s a definite connection.
“White Winos”(from 2001’s Last Man On Earth)
LW: That has specifically to do with me and my mom, how we used to sit out on this porch, drink white wine, and get a little loose. Stuff would come up and come out. That song is on a record called Last Man On Earth, which was written right after my mother died, so a lot of the material on that record has to do with that momentous event. The life circle was present on a lot of those songs.
AVC: Do you see a lot of your mother in yourself?
LW: Oh yeah. Both parents. I’m a great believer in heritance and genetics. I think we’re very much like our parents.
AVC: Do you see yourself in your children?
AVC: In what ways?
LW: I know we’re all trying to become individuals and find ourselves, but again, as I get older, I think of myself and my father as almost being the same person in a different time.
AVC: How so?
LW: I don’t know, it just feels that way. That’s why it was such a pleasure to have him on my new record, in a sense. He’s been dead for over 20 years, but to bring him back to life to put his picture—it just felt wonderful to me. If you look at my children, now my kids are grown up pretty much, even heading toward middle age. I just see there’s a definite throughline. [Laughs.] I feel like bursting into “We Are The World,” but I won’t.