By Mike Greenblatt
Loudon Wainwright III is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, actor, humorist, all-around good guy and father of singer-songwriters Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright.
He was married to two folk icons: the late Kate McGarrigle (1946-2010) and the indefatigable Suzzy Roche of The Roche Sisters. He’s the son of acclaimed Life magazine writer Loudon Wainwright Jr. He’s older now than his old man was when he died. Despite 22 brilliant studio albums of witty, provocative, humorous and profound reflections on life’s inequities, he’s most known for his 1972 hit single “Dead Skunk" (In The Middle Of The Road). His new album, “Older Than My Old Man Now” (2nd Story Records) just may be his greatest album of all. And that’s saying something, considering his “High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project” won a 2010 Grammy. The new album faces death and decrepit old age squarely without sentimentality in songs like “My Meds,” “Over The Hill,” “I Remember Sex,” “The Days That We Die” and the fitting finale, “Something’s Out To Get Me,” where he likens life itself to a reservation in a fine restaurant:
“There’s a natural order, least that’s what I have found
There’s a limit on the time you get to stick around
Book a table in a restaurant, but you can’t sit there all night
There’s another party waiting and the maitre d’s uptight.”
“I’ve been writing songs about aging, decay and death for some time now,” he says. “I just waited until I had enough of ’em to make a proper presentation. The difficulty with the topic is its seriousness. What happens to all of us is ridiculous enough, but it’s rather curious while it’s happening. I didn’t want the album to be a bummer. It could’ve gone that way, I guess. I think it helps that we got some other singers to help with the heavy lifting.”
One of those singers is the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (“a real hero of mine,” Wainwright admits) on a song where the writer unabashedly and without shame asks for a “Double Lifetime.”
“I want to start over
One lifetime’s not enough
I need another.”
All four of Loudon’s children sing on the album, as do two of their three mothers. With recitations from the words of his father, references to his grandfather and a picture of him and his grandson on the back cover, five generations of Wainwrights are included.
GM: You say how “In C” started out as a novelty number. When did it change? “…if families didn’t break apart,” you write, “I suppose there’d be no need for art.”
LWIII: That’s not unusual in my case. Songs start out a certain way and go off in direct-ions on their own. I wanted to make a joke about being a lousy piano player, which I am. Then something happened. The song went off on a tangent … and I just went with it.
GM: “In C” is piano, cello, vocal. The title song is guitar, harmonica, bouzouki, bass, vocal. “Double Lifetime” is two guitars. “Date Line” is tuba, tenor sax, bari sax, accordion, banjo, guitar and vocal. The musical bed for each song is different. It gives the album its flow.
LWIII: Give that credit to producer Dick Connette. He’s a very intuitive, sensitive listener. His suggestions about the musicians paid off. I work with good people. All my kids are on the album. They owe me big time, anyway.
GM: Where’d all this family talent come from?
LWIII: Their mothers.
GM: What effect did “Dead Skunk" (In The Middle of The Road) have on your career and your life?
LWIII: There was an up side, in that I got my song on the radio. That was fun. Made a lot of money that year. After a while, though, it got to be a drag being the “Dead Skunk” guy. That’s all people wanted to hear. But I don’t regret it at all. It’s always nice to have a hit. I’m sure it’ll be in my obituary.
GM: When you look back on the 22 albums and 40 years, what stands out?
LWIII:Wow, well, y’know, because I have such a sh**ty memory, I can’t remember a lot of my highlights. Maybe Mose Allison recording my song “I’m All Right.” Winning the Grammy, that was a big, big kick.
GM: Did you go?
LWIII: Yeah. I went out there wearing a tuxedo that had belonged to my father. My wife and I were ecstatic when Mick Fleetwood announced my name. I remember one of the people I was up against was Jimmy Sturr, the polka king.
GM: You’re lucky that you have such great prose from your dad to draw upon for this album.
LWIII: My father was a writer for Life magazine and was quite well-known and admired for his work. He was a great writer. My father’s been dead for over 25 years. I’ve always felt that as I get older, I feel closer and closer to him. And I know some of the things he’s written about are things I’ve sung about. I harbor no illusions about this album being a major deal or getting radio airplay. My job is to make the best records, write the best songs and do the best shows I can. I’ll take it on road, get paid for it and hope folks will be touched.
GM: How do you want to be remembered?
LWIII: As the old skunk man.
GM: I prefer to think of you as a modern-day Will Rogers.
LWIII: When I started my career, I was compared most to Bob Dylan. I was also called “The Woody Allen of Folk” and “The Charles Chaplin of Rock.”
GM: You’ve acted in movies by Martin Scorsese and Cameron Crowe.
LWIII: That’s right. I originally thought I was going to be an actor. In the late ’60s, I went to drama school. I still get a few small parts in big movies, but it’s not my main gig. I was on TV in “M*A*S*H” for a couple of episodes in the mid-’70s. If I had to earn a living as an actor, I’d probably be a waiter.