Loudon Wainwright III.
Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images
Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III released his self-titled debut album in 1970 and had the only hit single of his career in 1972 with “Dead Skunk,” which hit No. 16, but while he hasn’t had any further songs find their way into Billboard Hot 100, it hasn’t hurt his career longevity: Not only has he regularly continued to play shows and release new material since then, but he’s also managed to sustain an occasional acting career, turning up in episodes of M*A*S*H, Undeclared, and Parks & Recreation, as well as in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
Now, Wainwright is making his way into the world of streaming services with a special — a one-man show called Surviving Twin — but while he might be the only one onstage, there’s definitely a second man whose presence is felt within the proceedings from start to finish: his late father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., who found fame before his son did, thanks to his acclaimed columns for Life magazine. Wainwright spoke with Vulture about the origins of his special, his work with Judd Apatow and John Hiatt, and his brief stint in one of the most famous semi-fictional heavy-metal bands of all time.
What made you decide to do a one-man show?
Well, my original life’s plan was to be an actor. That is to say, I went to drama school in the late ’60s at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Back then it was called Carnegie Tech, but it was a very well known, highly regarded drama school. Then the summer of love happened, and I kind of dropped out and wound up writing songs and doing music. But I’d always thought of myself as a performer, and I’ve been looking for many years to … I’ve been trying to take my songs and present them in a more dramatic setting, using my skills — if I can say that — as an actor. I mean, my regular music shows have a performative quality, but I’ve always been thinking about presenting something more theatrical, I guess you could say, in an actual theater setting. And I constructed a show called One Man Guy a few years ago, and I wrote another show with a guy helping me. None of these things really happened. But when I got this idea to connect my dad’s songs … I’m sorry, that’s a Freudian slip! [Laughs.] My father’s writing with my songs! But that struck me as a way to do this. So it took a while. I’ve constantly worked on the thing for the last six years!
I know Daniel Stern directed the original theater version of the show, but how did Christopher Guest enter the mix to direct the Netflix version?
Well, actually, the first theatrical production … I did it in 2013 back at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which — synchronistically — was also where my dad went to college in the ’40s. But the first director of the show was a guy called Joseph Haj. That was the first incarnation of the show. Then I did it in New York with another director called Peter Askin. Then at that point Danny Stern, he’s a friend of mine and I had been telling him what I’d been doing, got involved and really helped a great deal with the show and clarified a lot of things. The Chris Guest thing happened because I’ve known Chris since the 1970s, and we’re good friends. When I did it in Los Angeles … I can’t even remember when it was, but now it’s probably a year-and-a-half ago. But Chris came. He just came to the show because he often comes to see me when I perform in L.A. And he really had positive feelings about it and said right away to me that he thought that it should be filmed. And then we talked, and I said, “Well, would you like to be the director?” And he agreed to that, and then Judd Apatow got involved [as producer], and … that’s kind of how it all came about!
In addition to going way back with Christopher Guest, you also go pretty far back with Nigel Tufnel. I only realized recently that you were the original keyboardist for Spinal Tap.
I was! And you can see me on some YouTube video getting a beer bottle broken over my head. [Laughs.] Yeah, that was before it became a movie, when it was just a sketch on a Rob Reiner TV special.
Did you have any idea that they’d take it as far as they took it, or did you just think it was a one-off sketch?
Well, it felt funny at the time. I had no idea that it would become what it did become. I guess you could say that it has legs! In my shows now … I just did a regular music show, and now I’m playing a Spinal Tap song in the show, and people seem to love that.
Your father is the central focus of Surviving Twin. When you were growing up, at what point did you become are — or were you aware — that he was kind of a big deal as a columnist?
Well, he started working at Life magazine right after he got out of UNC in the late ’40s, but his column began around 1965, and it was immediately a big hit. And, of course, in 1965 everybody read Life magazine. So since we have the same name, I was the son of the famous Life magazine columnist. And in the mid ’60s, I was kind of finishing up at boarding school and getting ready to go to college, and everybody was going, “Oh, wow, you’re the son of the Loudon Wainwright.” [Laughs.] Who also happens to be called Loudon Wainwright! So I felt it was important when I started my music career to use my roman numeral to make it clear that I wasn’t the same guy. Although people did come up to me at the beginning of my career and say, “God, I loved those articles that you wrote in Life magazine!” And I thanked them profusely for that.
I read — and I don’t know if it’s accurate because I read it on Wikipedia — that your father was responsible for introducing you to Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg.
Well, he was in that he had a wonderful record collection. He loved music, and it was eclectic. I mean, there was classical music and music from the Broadway world, there was a Lead Belly record in the collection… And included in that were those original ten-inch Tom Lehrer records. Because he burst onto the scene in the late ’50s, so my dad would’ve heard and loved those records. I don’t know that he had Stan Freberg. That might have come from some other source. But he had a great record collection, and certainly that’s where I heard those Tom Lehrer records for the first time.
In regards to your own kids, they’ve obviously gone on to prove themselves to be tremendous musical talents in their own right, but they also ended up having a conflicted relationship with you like you had with your own father.
Yeah, I mean, it’s … [Hesitates.] Well, I have four kids, and three of ‘em are musicians. I also have four kids and three marriages, and they broke up those marriages. So conflicted is, I suppose, an accurate word. Difficult. Complicated. You know, my parents didn’t split up until 1966, but they were in an unhappy marriage, and my dad was also — like me — a travelling guy. He would go on trips to interview people and cover big stories for Life magazine. You know, the Project Mercury astronauts, he traveled with the Robert Kennedy press corps and was at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was assassinated. So he had kind of a high-powered position, and he wasn’t around. And that also can create conflict and difficulty. And when my kids were growing up, I wasn’t around a lot of the time because I was running around with my guitar.
When you popped up on M*A*S*H, were you still trying to see if you could balance an acting career with a music career?
Well, as I recall, M*A*S*H was in about 1975, I did three episodes of the show, but because it was such a big show, a lot of people saw them. I went out to L.A. in ’78 and got an agent, but I’ve never really done very well in that “get an agent, go out an audition, and get a lot of acting jobs” thing. I mean, that’s an oxymoron right there. It just doesn’t work that way. And the music thing has been my main job, and I’ve put most of my time and energy into writing the songs and then doing the shows and occasionally making records.
Well, just for the record, you were particularly great on Undeclared. Is that where you met Judd?
That’s where we first met, yeah, and that was a great opportunity. I got a call out of nowhere. I had not seen Freaks and Geeks, I didn’t really know who Judd was, but it turned out that he’d been a fan of mine as a teenager growing up in Long Island. That was a wonderful experience, to go out there and be in that show, with the quality of the writing and the other actors. That was a really great opportunity. And then we continued to do other things right up to Judd being a producer of Surviving Twin.
Speaking of the special, was the set list tweaked at all from the theater version? I know there’s a limited-edition CD of the theater show, but “Bein’ a Dad” isn’t on that, whereas it is in the special.
I’m trying to think. But, yeah, “Bein’ a Dad” has always been in Surviving Twin, even the first incarnation of it in 2013. You know, my regular music shows, there’s usually a fair amount of humor … or what I consider to be humor. [Laughs.] Whereas I think Surviving Twin is a little more serious. But “Bein’ a Dad,” I always knew that we had to have some comic relief, and “Bein’ a Dad” is a good example of that, getting the audience to sing along kind of loosens up the proceedings at that point of the show.
Is there any one song in Surviving Twin that speaks to you the most?
Well, the songs that are in the show run the range. There’s a song from as far back as ’74 — “Dilated to Meet You” — and then there’s one from 2016: “I Knew Your Mother.” So there are a lot of songs picked from pretty much my whole music career. But, you know, the songs are like my children: I try not to pick favorites. [Laughs.] And the idea was to pick songs that would keep the dramatic momentum going in the overall piece, that would compliment and enhance, if you will, the selection of my father’s writing that I had just done or that was coming up.
As far as the spoken-word portions, “Another Sort of Love Story” is … boy, that’s a rough one. But it’s one that pretty much anyone who’s ever had a pet can relate to.
Yeah. I don’t know if you knew this, but before I started to develop the show at UNC, what really kicked the whole thing off was that I was doing one of my regular music gigs, and I was staying up in Maine in a cabin-y, rustic kind of place, and there was an old magazine rack and an old Life magazine from 1971 or ’72. Patricia Nixon was on the cover. I picked it up, and sure enough, there was “Another Sort of Love Story,” which … I mean, you could argue about it, but pound for pound, that’s a very powerful, funny, beautifully written 1,200-word essay, and it really, truly sparked the whole idea of taking [my dad’s] writing and presenting it again.
It’s the sort of moment where a lot of kids see their parents as human — as opposed to just a parent — for the first time. We had a bulldog when I was a kid, and my father just loved that dog. He used to take it with him when he went to the bank, and the tellers would give the dog treats. And I remember my mother telling me that when the dog died, my dad teared up and said, “How will they know me at the bank without my dog?”
Yeah. My father loved that dog. We all did. He was a particularly wonderful dog. But not any more wonderful than anyone else’s dog! [Laughs.] Or cat, for that matter.
Have you contemplated doing a sequel to Surviving Twin, perhaps focusing on another theme?
Well, I don’t know. Now that it’s coming out on Netflix, maybe that’s it for Surviving Twin. I’d like to perform it some more in a live setting, but we’ll have to see how that goes. But, yeah, I’m thinking about some other things. You know, I run around and sing my songs, and now I’m doing a thing in my show … I wrote a book that came out in 2017, a memoir, and I’ve taken to reading that in the show. And there’s some of my dad’s writing in that book, also. “Another Sort of Love Story” is in the book, but there are some other things in there that aren’t in the show, and I’d love to perform those, too.
How did you and John Hiatt come to record a cover of the Temptations’ “My Girl”?
Well, we did a whole tour together of Holland. This would’ve been in the ’80s at some point. We played in pretty much every town in Holland, of which there are about 12 that are big enough to have a concert hall, and we thought it would be fun for us and the audience if we played some songs together, and we picked a couple and recorded them. The two we recorded and performed were “My Girl” and a Kate McGarrigle song called “Come a Long Way.” Kate was my first wife. So there’s a recording of that somewhere, too. We went into a studio somewhere — in London, I think — and just slapped them down. Yeah, that was fun. John’s a great singer, and I believe he played piano on that, too.
With the caveat that you’ve kind of been shoved into the niche of “cult musician,” is there any one album in particular that you’d hoped would get more attention?
Well, you know, there’s so much out there that I hope that all the records out there get the attention they deserve. But I have a new rarities collection that just came out in September called Years in the Making, which people should hear. It has all kinds of guests, including Kate McGarrigle, Steve Goodman, Bill Frisell, Van Dyke Parks, and Liza Minnelli, of all people. So I hope that people can find a way to listen to that. I put out a record in 2010 — I have my own little label called Cummerbund Records — that I don’t think many people have heard at all called 10 Songs for the New Depression. It’s basically all voice and guitar, and it’s topical songs, including a song I’m finishing my show with now called “Middle of the Night,” which, to me, anyway, feels very apropos for this situation that we’re into right now. I mean, the refrain that’s in the song is, “It’s not the end of the world / It’s just the middle of the night.” So for a guy like me who can get rather bleak, it’s somewhat hopeful. So I hope people can hear that song, and that record, too.