On Aug. 9, Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter and master storyteller Loudon Wainwright III presented an engaging private showcase of songs from his new album Lifetime Achievement at the Paris Review offices in New York. Accompanied by long-time collaborators Chaim Tannenbaum and Joe Henry and bathed in the cheer of friends and family, Wainwright engaged the crowd in the intimate and blisteringly hot space with his characteristic humor and candor, his warm voice and his confessional songs. The mood was celebratory, with all eyes focused on Wainwright.
Introducing Wainwright, Henry said Lifetime Achievement — Wainwright’s 31st album, released today — is more optimistic than some of his prior work. He suggested that Wainwright, fueled by the intensity of the pandemic, was driven to write about his current experiences, offering sharp, ironic and honest songs about aging, families, love and loss.
“It feels good to have written some new songs during this period,” Wainwright, 75, said in an interview this week from his home in Eastern Long Island. “I like the songs and I like the record we made, so I’m feeling pretty optimistic about things.
“Yeah, I think there are some optimistic songs — the title track and the song ‘It Takes Two’ and even the last song, ‘Fun and Free.’
“I think the album ends on an upbeat and optimistic note. And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, I would agree with (Henry) that the album is more hopeful or optimistic.”
I wondered if his optimism extends to the state of the world.
“I don’t know about the world at large,” he said. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘optimistic’ in that regard. The only thing that I can control is what’s happening in my own life. And I can’t control a lot of that anyway. So I’m learning to give up control a lot, on all kinds of levels, but I’m happy that people still want to come and hear the songs and that I’m able to go out and do that job.”
You can hear Wainwright’s soulful and familiar voice at City Winery in New York, Aug. 30, and at City Winery in Philadelphia, Sept. 1; visit citywinery.com. The New York show can be live streamed at bit.ly/loudon-wainwright-cwnyc.
The pandemic disrupted his ability to perform at live shows. “There was a period when everything got cancelled,” he said. “I had a European tour that got cancelled twice and I’m actually going to leave next month to do that in the U.K. In the last year or so I’ve gotten out and performed a bit, so I’m getting back into the groove.
“I’m a little out of practice, but it’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t entirely forget what to do and it’s exciting because I haven’t been doing it. It’s exciting for me to perform in any setting because I’ve always been a showoff.”
Indeed, Wainwright said he was driven to perform by the time he was 7 and does not like to be creatively idle.
“I can let some time go without doing anything, but after a while I have a gnawing need to write a song or do a show,” he said.
The evocative Lifetime Achievement, co-produced by Stewart Lerman and Dick Connette and released on the StorySound label, is his first album of original songs since 2014’s Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet) and features him both solo and supported by artists such as David Mansfield (mandolin, pedal steel, guitar, viola, violin), Tannenbaum (vocals, banjo), Andy Burton (piano) and Rich Pagano (drums).
Wainwright’s energy for performance reminds me of a Bob Dylan lyric: “He not busy being born is busy dying” from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Wainwright’s drive brings him back to the stage at a time in his life when less energetic people might retire or resort to nostalgia.
Wainwright was one of several young folk artists in the ’60s and ’70s labeled the next Dylan. But the comparison was not spot on. “I don’t think Bob has the confessional streak that I do, but those songs are fabulous,” said Wainwright. “But we are different. I don’t think I’m Dylanesque, but I use the same guitar chords. I’m singing a Dylan song, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ at City Winery.
“What can I say? Bob Dylan is the new Bob Dylan and always has been.”
In “Talking New Bob Dylan” (2009), Wainwright sang:
Well, it musta been about ‘62
I heard you on record, you were brand new
And some had some doubts about the way you sang
But the truth came through and loudly it rang …
So I got some boots, a harmonica rack
A D-21, and I was on the right track
But I didn’t start writing until ‘68
It was too damn daunting, you were too great
I won a whole lot of Bob Dylan imitation contests, though…
Yeah, I got a deal and so did John Prine
Steve Forbert and Springsteen, all in a line
They were lookin’ for you, signin’ up others
We were new Bob Dylans, your dumbass kid brothers
“The other night we listened to Another Side of Bob Dylan,” he said. My girlfriend went to the town dump and picked up a couple of Bob Dylan records. Sounds good. That man can really sing and play.”
Spending much of his time taking walks, writing and swimming in Eastern Long Island, he visits New York only on occasion; in “Town and Country,” from the new album, he chronicles his visit after an extended stay away with a rousing arrangement, balancing the thrill of returning after lockdown with the sounds of sirens, and sightings of masked masses and rodents in the outdoor temporary restaurants. His observations deftly reference his family history with grace and humor. (Watch the video for “Town and Country” below).
Backed by an all-star band, he sings:
My dear mother was afraid of the city
She’d say, ‘Don’t go there, Loudie, it’s shady and it’s shitty’
She was raised in the country, what could that poor woman know?
My father went to town, he was a workin’ slob
Getting into trouble was his other job;
There’s plenty of trouble in the city, that’s why folks go
“When you get to be older, it’s hard to move around,” he said of city life. “I’m afraid I’m going to get killed by one of those delivery guys on the motorized bicycles. I’m convinced of it. The city has changed for me, but I think if you’re young and starting out, it’s probably a great place to be.
“I have to go in tomorrow for maintenance. I go in for medical appointments. But I don’t really love going into New York.”
“Town and County” reflects his ambivalence, he said, adding “I get excited about going and then I get there and I feel, ‘Oh my god, get me out of here.’ ”
Like “Town and Country,” many of the tracks on Lifetime Achievement apprise us of what Wainwright values.
The title track, a gorgeous, poignant country testament to what he most appreciates, begins with him reviewing his material accomplishments. But those awards and citations are not his greatest solace.
He sings: “All these honors don’t add up to all that much, it’s true … the biggest surprise, the great surprise, is I managed to win you.” (Watch the video for “Lifetime Achievement,” filmed at his home, below).
I asked him whom he was referring to. “It could be anybody or anything,” he said. “My fans. It could be my girlfriend Susan (Morrison), who has been very good to me, but I also talk, at the end of the song, about the idea of love with a capital L — the thing we all want — it could be that. So, all of the above … The album is dedicated to (Susan), so that’s an important piece of information.”
In “Fun & Free,” he advises us to appreciate each day, never knowing when the party ends. He sings, “The cops keep getting younger and the car salesmen do, too/Just how long can this go on? I can say I wish I knew/But I’ll say this — hear what I say — spend life like it’s a spree, ’cause it’s one and done — that’s it, son — so do it for fun and free.”
Pondering the passage of time and our identity as we age, Wainwright includes gems such as the gentle, bouncy bluegrass tune “Little Piece of Me” (“I’ve been coming here since 1971/I didn’t get a lot of sleep back then, but I sure had fun/Half a century come and gone/How much longer can this go on?”) and the boisterous “How Old Is 75.” (Watch the video below of “Little Piece of Me.” featuring great photos Wainwright performing at various stages of his life, and a beautiful photo of him and his daughter, singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche).
In “How Old Is 75,” he ponders what this age means and answers, “So old that you’re barely alive.” Mortality and aging have plagued Wainwright and been frequent themes in his songs for years (listen to “Over the Hill” from his 2012 album Older Than My Old Man Now, for example). But now that he actually is older, he said, his feelings about the subject change from day to day.
“I can often feel like a 10-year old,” he said, adding “there’s a picture of me in the artwork on the CD, having just blown out my three candles on my third birthday. I often feel like that three-year old or 10-year old or 16-year-old. I don’t really feel much like that 30-year old guy. And I’m quite shocked to walk by a window and catch a glimpse of that geezer I see in the reflection. The whole thing of who are you now as compared to what you were like then … I mean, you are the same person, obviously, but so much has changed in the last 75 years, physically and in other ways, too. So I’m the same, but I’m different.”
In “One Wish” he shares the idea that birthday cake traditions should allow us to have more than one wish, and instead give us a “few for yourself, and a wish for the whole world.” He told me that his wish for the world is “a little bit of peace for all of us.”
We talked about finding forgiveness and appreciation as we age, rather than holding onto the burden of regret, and I wondered if he feels grateful.
“On a good day, yeah,” he said. “I can certainly sink back into a pessimistic self. And again, comparatively speaking, I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve had this job for the last half century and then some. I was talking the other night at the Paris Review about wanting to be a performer from a very early age and my dream came true, so I feel extremely lucky.
“I wanted attention and approval and love. I think that’s what we are all trying to do when we are starting out in this world. I figured out a way to do it.
“I appreciate the people who like the work and buy the records and come to the shows — a lot of gratitude about all that.”
In “How Old Is 75” he sings, “Was your time wasted or well spent?” I asked him how he feels about how he has spent his days.
“Of course I’m human, so I wish I’d done more, I suppose,” he said. “But I have made 30-something records, and written a couple hundred songs and done a lot of shows, so in terms of my work, I feel like I’ve got the work done. The other parts of my life were chaotic and some things didn’t work out. Overall, I did the best I could.”
Many of Wainwright’s songs, including the new album’s title track, resonate so deeply they can be painful to hear, but necessary and healing. “Homeless,” from Last Man on Earth (2001), is an example of an exceptionally raw and revealing depiction of grief, written after his mother died.
When you were alive, I was never alone
Somewhere in the world, there was something called home
And as long as you lived, I would be all right
There were reasons to win, and incentives to fight
Now I’m smoking again. I thought all that was through
And I don’t wanna live. But what else can I do?
Is it cathartic to sing this song? “It’s not therapeutic singing about a lot of stuff and things that have happened,” he said.
“The death of my mother was a huge event for me. It wasn’t just sad; it was almost tragic and I fell apart when it happened. She was the rock of our family. The homemaker, to use that old-fashioned expression. She made the home. My father, like me, was a travelling guy and was often not at home and very wrapped up in his own work, which was journalism and writing, so my mother really created a place for myself and my siblings, and she did a pretty good job of it and certainly the best she could have done under the circumstances.
“I went into a major depression. I can operate on low levels of depression and have done so for years. But this was catastrophic. I write about it in the liner notes (of the album). I couldn’t write, I couldn’t eat. I lost 20 pounds. I fell apart, but fortunately I started to feel better after a while.
“My mother was a yoga teacher and I was actually the one that turned her onto yoga in the ’60s. In the late ’60s, I lived in a yoga ashram and had a yoga teacher. But at the moment I don’t really do much yoga. I just walk around and go swimming whenever I can.”
His stunning “In C” from Older Than My Old Man Now creates a portrait of family disharmony and loss that is unmatched, with powerful images and emotional charge.
Oh, there used to be a family
Brothers, sisters, father, mother and me
We were living in a little home
We were fending off the great unknown
But the great unknown, it got inside
And what had been home, it did divide
In the end, the father had to leave
When he did, the mother had to grieve
That’s the time real troubles start
It’s when a world can fall apart
And there’s not a thing I can do
Except to sing in C to you …
After referencing his own marriages and children, he ends by singing, “If families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art/Oh, but you and I know they do/So I sing in C to you.”
His family of gifted musicians — including his late ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, his sister Sloan Wainwright, his former partner Suzzy Roche and his children Lucy Wainwright Roche, Martha Wainwright and Rufus Wainwright — have all been the subjects of his songs. Some of them have, in turn, written about him.
“I have written a lot about my family and a lot of issues with harmony and disharmony … I think you need that stuff with art,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s true or not — some people think we have to be grateful for our misfortune, that we can learn from them or write songs about them, so I suppose I am in that camp, too.”
How did the devastating “Dinner at Eight” from Rufus Wainwright’s 2003 album Want One impact him? “It’s pretty great song,” he said. “I love when the kids do great work and it comes with the territory. I’ve written songs about all of my kids. Some of the kids have written about me and if you’re gonna dish it out, you’ve got to take it.”
Indeed, he has written about his grandparents, too. “Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics and it’s a family disease and I write about it.”
We talked about how powerful emotions can fuel lyrics. “You can feel shitty and then a song can result from that, so I suppose it can be useful to feel shitty,” he said. “I don’t know if you have to feel shitty, but it couldn’t hurt.
“For me, when I get a song, it is a gift. I don’t quite understand where the hell it comes from. Certainly, I can understand that a song came from the death of my mother or a breakup of a marriage or the joy of jumping in the water and moving my arms around. I can see where the song comes from, but there is something mysterious and miraculous about them and a lot of it, I don’t understand. What’s important is that it’s a good song.”
In “Family Vacation,” from the new album, Wainwright reveals the dark side of family gatherings and the strain on patience that comes from family tensions. He sings, “I’m gonna pack up the car, load up the bike and the kayak and leave the fucking family alone.”
“Families are complicated and difficult,” he said. “And when I perform that song, the audience roars its approval. There’s a big recognition factor. We love our kids and parents and siblings and aunts, and uncles, and cousins, but they also are the biggest people in our lives and make us crazy. And that’s the reality for everybody, pretty much. So there’s a lot of recognition in that song.”
Wainwright performs with family members at times. “I like to do that,” he said. “It’s a show. But it’s a good context to be in. We are all musicians. I was with Rufus a week ago in the Adirondacks and we wound up singing and playing. It’s fun to sit around the old campfire and sing the family songs. I like it and I think audiences like it, too. It’s a good way to experience each other.
“I like being onstage. It’s exciting. What could be more exciting than to be there onstage and have 300 or 3,000 or 300,000 people, if you’re talking about Bruce (Springsteen), in the dark looking at you. That sounds pretty exciting to me.”
Despite the contentious and competitive nature of their relationship, Wainwright’s father, the Life magazine writer and editor Loudon Wainwright, Jr., looms large in his life and appears repeatedly in his songs and in his tremendous 2017 memoir, “Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things.”
His father also figures prominently in the powerful and engaging 2018 Netflix film “Surviving Twin,” where Wainwright sings songs about his father and Rufus, and “becomes” his father by wearing his suit and reciting his columns, having memorized every word. If you have not seen this show, put it on your short list.
His 1992 album History contains songs about his father and he released a 2020 album with Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks, I’d Rather Lead a Band, that features songs he heard his father spin.
I wondered what his dad meant to him. “I can tell you in four words or less,” he said. “He was a giant. Your parents are the first big people in your life. He had a huge effect on me. We had a contentious, competitive relationship, but there was also love there. He died in 1988, but I still think about him all the time and appreciate him, I think, more.”
His father wrote on a variety of subjects, and those he interviewed included The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “I think the greatest column he wrote was ‘Another Sort of Love Story,’ about when our family dog John Henry died,” he said. “That was a great work of art.
“I like it when he gets personal and confessional. The things he wrote about his own father were very powerful … he wrote a wonderful column about the Maharishi that people should read.”
I asked Wainwright if his father told him about his interviews when he was a child. “Yes, he did,” he responded. “He recorded the MLK (Martin Luther King) interview on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and I can remember him playing those tapes for us excitedly when he came back from Atlanta.”
Unfortunately, those tapes were destroyed in a 1969 house fire and “all that stuff, along with everything else, burned to the ground.” Occasionally he visits Bedford, N.Y., the Northern Westchester town where he grew up, “to do a drive-by around the old stomping ground … that whole neck of the woods is evocative for me.”
I wondered if he feels that his songwriting relies on journalistic techniques, possibly that he learned from his father. “I wouldn’t deny that,” he said. “I pay attention to detail; beginning, middle and end; and try to make it clear … I think I might have inherited some of that stuff from him.”
We talked about his father’s difficult father and the notion of breaking family patterns.
“I don’t know that I broke any patterns,” he said. “I was distracted as a young dad. I was absent a lot of the time and focused on my own swinging life, and the beat goes on. I could have made different choices, but I made the ones that I made.”
I wondered how “Hell,” from the new album, developed. “A lot of these things start with the first line: ‘Welcome back to hell, boy, where the heck you been.’ That was the jumping-off point,” he said. “Then I started to rhyme a bunch of couplets and that’s how it started to come together.”
Was he talking about an internal hell or hell on this planet? “Hell and heaven are everywhere,” he said. “Just check it out. It’s all happening.”
As to the hell of Donald Trump, he said “I’m full of dread about anything having to do with that guy.”
This sense of dread is captured well in “It,” an eerie a cappella song from Lifetime Achievement that he sings with Tannenbaum. They sing: “It’s a chase, it’s a race, it’s gonna scratch you, it’s bound to catch you, so vacate your bed … it’s a sphinx, it’s a jinx, it’s a total stranger. You’re in grave danger. The danger is it.”
He wasn’t sure what the song was about when he wrote it, though the pandemic fits nicely.
“I think Chaim Tannenbaum answered that question pretty good the other night (at the Paris Review event),” he said. “It’s about everything we dread. And there’s plenty that’s dreadful.” (See the video for “It” below).
He credits many people with influencing him, including Frank Loesser, Tom Lehrer, Bob Dylan, Louis Prima and Elvis Presley. “I watched Marlon Brando the other night on Turner in his movie ‘The Wild One’ about the motorcycle gang, and I realized what an influence he was,” he said. “You’re just an influence sponge when you come into this world. I have been influenced by all kinds of people and they have all helped make me who I am. And George Gerdes was a huge influence, a dear friend. People should go to my website and look at (the film) ‘The Great Unknown — A Musical Tribute to George Gerdes.’ Richard Thompson, Suzanne Vega, Jill Sobule and others sing on it.”
He’s excited about playing “some shows with Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks. Plenty to look forward to and I’m going to go swimming later and I’m excited about that.”
Wainwright has acted for years, with credits including television’s “M*A*S*H” and the Judd Apatow-directed and -written film, “Knocked Up” (he also contributed music to both).
“I’d love to get an acting job,” he said. “At the moment, I’m focused on doing the shows that I’ve got coming up to support this record. But I’m always happy to get an acting job.
“I’m in a pretty good place, considering the state of the world at large and my bad back. I feel extremely fortunate and lucky that I’m singing and playing and have enough money for the time being. Life is a snap for me.
“That’s an old expression that my father’s generation might use, rather than my generation or your generation. It means that life is a breeze. There’s a little wink involved because, of course, the truth of the matter is that life is very difficult and can be brutal. But on a good day, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Wainwright achieved what he set out to do with Lifetime Achievement.
“I wanted it to be 50 minutes or thereabout of a sonic experience that will affect people,” he said, “not necessarily change them but move them one way or another, amuse them or make them think, make them remember something in their own lives. That was my goal.”
For more on Wainwright, visit lw3.com.
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