One Man Guy
One Man Guy
A Q&A with Loudon Wainwright III
By Geoff Gehman
“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” was the first song by Loudon Wainwright III that made me realize that the man has the goods. Released on his 1973 album “Attempted Mustache,” it’s the shaggy saga of a writer whose inability to shed tears leads to calamity after calamity: financial ruin, divorce, humiliation by a prostitute, assassination by critics, investigation by theologians, sexual interrogation by prisoners, death by dehydration. In the afterlife he gets justice by proxy as his wife dies from stretch marks, cancer cancels the whore’s beauty and the theologians are “found out.”
“The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” is packed with great goods. It’s a hilarious tall tale about cosmic disaster, a disturbing allegory about hypocrisy, a touching short story about the male animal forced not to weep. It’s also an excellent time capsule of Wainwright’s 45-year career as a biographical, autobiographical troubadour. His songs are woundingly funny whether he’s singing about being miscast as Bob Dylan’s successor, finding a parking space in New York City, or wishing a wife an unhappy anniversary. He’s especially painfully humorous singing about himself as a cheating husband, a negligent father and a jealous son. He has no problem whatsoever being a burr in the ass of complacency, or an ass.
Wainwright reigns as the chieftain of a clan of confessional singer-songwriters who can be tit for tat. His son Rufus criticized his father in “Dinner at Eight,” a measure of revenge, perhaps, for Loudon declaring his envy toward his then-infant child in “Rufus Is a Tit Man.” His daughter Martha skewered her dad in “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole,” a measure of revenge, perhaps, for Loudon sending a new song, “Five Years,” as an absentee gift to her fifth birthday party. She premiered the ditty while opening for him, getting a chip off her shoulder while chiseling herself as a chip off his block. It took Loudon a little while to recognize that the title character wasn’t a bad boyfriend.
When it comes to performing together, however, the Wainwrights are a harmonious tribe. Loudon regularly plays an annual Christmas show hosted by Martha and Rufus; the Wainwrights happily call themselves The Dysfunctional Von Trapp Family. Father and kids are booked on a musical cruise in February with Loudon’s sister Sloan, his daughter Lucy and Lucy’s mom Suzzy Roche, a founding member of the Roches, the well-known trio of sisters. All of Loudon’s musical relations have seen his solo show “Surviving Twin,” a portrait of his rollercoaster relationship with his late father Loudon Wainwright Jr., a fabled Life magazine reporter, editor and columnist. Matching his songs with his father’s columns, his dad’s letters with his own memories. Loudon III creates a wry, poignant, laser-cut “posthumous collaboration.”
Wainwright will perform “Surviving Twin” from Jan. 21 to Feb. 5 at People’s Light in Malvern. On Jan. 14 he’ll play the Mauch Chunk Opera House for the first time. Below, in a conversation from the Shelter Island home he shares with his second wife, actress Ritamarie Kelly, and their daughter Alexandra, he discusses everything from the etiquette of writing numbers about family members to a terrific version of “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” by Johnny Cash, his songwriting, singing, living hero.
Q: I’ll start you off with a slightly surreal question from your deep past: Did Elton John really have such a crush on you that he helicoptered to one of your shows?
A: That actually happened. I remember the venue: the Brighton Dome in England, a kind of crazy-looking place. It must have been in the early ’70s. Elton appeared with a coterie of his friends and a case of Dom Perignon. They saw the gig and afterward flew up to his mother’s house outside of London. It was quite a surprise
Q: Did you get to drink the Dom Perignon?
A: I think we imbibed a bit.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely floored you?
A: It’s hard to remember being knocked flat by a song. I do remember really liking Fats Domino’s music when I was a kid. And I do remember the first record I bought. It was a 45 single, “All Shook Up,” by Elvis Presley–B side “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” I had seen him on Ed Sullivan and rock and roll had burst on the scene. Speaking of being all shook up, it was a seismic time.
Q: You’ve said that your dad’s writing helped shape your songwriting. As you’ve pointed out, his columns in Life magazine helped teach you to write lyrics that are specific, structured, personal and universal. Did any of his musical tastes rub off on you? Did you dig his record collection?
A: He had a great record collection and I remember it very well. My father loved music and his tastes were quite eclectic. He loved Broadway show tunes—Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Frank Loesser of course. He loved jazz—I remember he had a [trombonist/band leader] Kid Ory record—and blues-folk—I remember he had a Huddie Ledbetter record—and he loved Louis Prima’s wild, goofy stuff. I really enjoyed watching him being delighted by music. He also introduced me to Tom Lehrer’s records; I don’t know if you’re hip to him. Lehrer had a big influence on my songwriting, especially the humor and the word play.
Q: The late arts journalist Charles Champlin, who came up through the ranks with your dad at Life magazine, wrote a lovely eulogy about him in The Los Angeles Times. He recalled your father serenading him quite often with his song “Man Is Just a Handful of Dust.” Do you remember that one?
A: I remember it very well. My father used to sing it at parties; he even made an acetate demo of it in the ’50s. I actually rewrote the tune for a record of mine called “History” that came out in 1992, four years after my father had died. It was our first posthumous collaboration.
Q: “Surviving Twin” is your first major posthumous collaboration with your dad. Was there a key writing of his that convinced you to hang a show on his columns and your songs?
A: A few years ago I was staying in a Maine cabin where I happened to find an old Life magazine—Tricia Nixon is on the cover—with a beautiful column of his about the death of a beloved family dog; it’s called “Another Sort of Love Story.” I read it for the first time in years and I was knocked out, moved. That spurred me on to find as many of his columns to reread and read for the first time.
Q: Did putting together “Surviving Twin” give you any major revelations about your dad and your relationship with him?
A: I realized that the quality of his writing is very strong; it looks good on the page. It wasn’t written to be performed but it performs well; it’s a lot of fun. There are revelations big and small every night I perform the show; every night I learn things about him and us and it.
Q: Any memorable reaction to the show from Sloan?
A: You mean sister Sloan? All my siblings have seen the show, as have my kids. All have had positive, strong reactions as far as I know; you’ll have to check with them.
Q: Why did you sign up for next month’s Wainwright family musical cruise to Mexico and Honduras? Did you guys have so much fun on your musical train ride through Alaska in 2015 that you wanted to repeat the treat on a ship?
A: The Alaska trip was definitely a lot of fun. My daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche knew the cruise people; she got that ball rolling. She also approached the Cayamo [cruise] people with the idea of a family show. I’ve done Cayamo a couple of times solo and they took the bait.
Q: Is there anything different about this Wainwright family extravaganza?
A: Well, Martha [his daughter] is going to be with us; we didn’t have her in Alaska. We’re also going to be bringing along David Mansfield, an all-purpose musician. He plays guitar and fiddle and mandolin and god knows what else. And some of the grandchildren will be along, so we’ll be doing some babysitting. People will get the full Wainwright experience.
Q: Lucy has mentioned another new thing for the Wainwright clan: If you’re having a bad time with one another, you won’t be able to jump off the ship.
A: Yeah, we’ll be trapped [chuckles].
Q: What’s next for your tribe? A Wainwright family song camp? “Being Wainwright: The Reality Show”?
A: [Chuckles] All of us musicians are too busy doing our things, individually and collectively, to do a TV show. We have fun performing together and people seem to enjoy seeing us in various configurations. I recently performed with Lucy and Sloan in Rufus and Martha’s annual Christmas show in Nashville; we call ourselves The Dysfunctional Von Trapp Family.
Q: The Wainwrights are renowned for writing excruciatingly personal, sometimes nasty songs about yourselves and one another, as a sort of blood sport. Is it accurate to say that the family creed is: You can get away with writing about anybody and anything as long as the song is good, as long as it passes muster?
A: Yeah, that’s the way I feel about it. Obviously, you want to avoid being gratuitous, shocking for shock’s sake. If the song is good, my philosophy is put it out there; that’s been my plan all along. If it upsets or stirs somebody [chuckles], well, then that’s part of the plan, too.
Q: Is there a song you shelved because it was too close to the bone?
A: I wrote a song called “Laid”—that’s “L-A-I-D”—that I put aside because I thought it was too close to the bone. But, sure enough, I included it as a bonus track when I put out my box set [“40 Odd Years,” 2011]. People can listen and cringe along if they like.
Q: Is there a song you’ve struggled to write for decades, one that’s just too damn slippery to grasp?
A: I can’t think of one. I‘ve always maintained that it’s possible to write about anything if you put your mind to it, or if they pay you enough. I’ve felt that way ever since I had an assignment in an English class to write about a piece of chalk.
Q: I’m sure you’re fascinated, as I am, by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them into the world. Is there a song of yours that you never, ever expected would be a part of rituals and rites: funerals, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs?
A: There’s a song that people associate with me that I didn’t write. It’s called “Daughter” and it was on a  record [and soundtrack] I made called “Strange Weirdos” that Joe Henry co-produced. “Daughter” got a lot of attention in the movie “Knocked Up” that [longtime Wainwright fan] Judd Apatow made [Wainwright plays a gynecologist in the film]. People tell me they danced to my song “Daughter” at their daughter’s wedding; they say I married their daughter off and their eyes are brimming with tears. It’s delightful, even though I didn’t write what they think I wrote [“Daughter” was composed by musician/cartoonist Peter Blegvad as a witty, tender kiss and kiss-off. Sample lyric: “That’s my daughter in the water/I lost every time I fought her”].
Q: Chalk up yet another case of an interpretation so distinctive, many people think the performer is also the author. Just like many folks believe that Johnny Cash just had to have written your “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” because he juiced it with so much heart and soul and humor.
A: That was a thrill to get that recorded by Johnny. It was also thrilling to have one of my songs [“I’m Alright”] recorded by [jazz pianist/vocalist/composer] Mose Allison, who died last year. They were my heroes. [Allison returned the favor, claiming in a 2008 article in JazzTimes that Wainwright was his favorite active songwriter: “Anyone who writes that people in love make me sick—that’s my kind of songwriter.”]
Q: Your son Rufus covered your song “One Man Guy” on his album “Poses.” Have you recorded a Rufus song?
A: I’ve never recorded one, but in our show together we play his wonderful song “Poses.” I think there’s a live version of that somewhere.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you seriously considered another trade? I know your mother’s death in 1997 left you feeling barren, emotionally and creatively and every which way.
A: After my mother died, I went into a kind of tailspin. I stopped writing songs; I didn’t know if I could do much of anything. That changed after I started feeling better after a while. But that was not my worst time in the music business. And I’ve never thought about quitting, even when I’ve been feeling generally overwhelmed.
Overall, it’s been an up and down, goofy, pretty cool kind of career for 45 years—50 years if you consider that I got paid to play in front of people in 1968 for the first time. I’ve had lots of vagaries and silly stuff to contend with. But I’ve been extremely lucky to earn a living at a job that I’ve enjoyed, basically.
Q: And how about your best time in the music trade, when you felt so on top of the heap you thought that, hey, maybe I’d do this all for free?
A: I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’d do this all for free. I’ve had plenty of thrills from people like Henry Gross [founding member of Sha Na Na, lead electric guitarist for Jim Croce, writer of the hit song “Shannon,” creator of the solo show “One Hit Wanderer”]. As we talked about, there’s been plenty of fun stuff playing with my family. Doing this show [“Surviving Twin”] has been fun and a thrill, too. It’s a real powerful feeling to be sharing my father’s work with an audience and collaborating with him.
Loudon Wainwright III: The Scoop
He studied theater at Carnegie Mellon University with future TV producer Steven “Hill Street Blues” Bochco.
He performed in the fifth episode of the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” played the singing surgeon Capt. Calvin Spalding in three episodes of the TV series “MASH,” and served as talk-show host David Letterman’s first musical sidekick.
In the song “Whatever Happened to Us” he writes about his troubled marriage to the late musician Kate McGarrigle, mother of their children Rufus and Martha. In the song “Ingenue” he writes about his blooming relationship with musician Suzzy Roche, mother of their child Lucy.
He attended his son Rufus’ 2006 recreation of a 1961 Carnegie Hall concert by Judy Garland, who babysat a young Loudon and his sister Sloan.
In his solo show “Surviving Twin” he performs “Dilated to Meet You,” a song about welcoming an infant Rufus to the world, and “Disguising the Man,” a song about his father, the late journalist Loudon Wainwright Jr., buying his first tailored, expensive suit.
He won the 2010 traditional folk Grammy award for “High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project,” a two-record tribute to Poole (1892-1931), a mill worker and semi-pro baseball player who became a singer, banjo player and an early country-music hero before drinking himself to an early death. Wainwright is on a mission to get Poole inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame: “He’s still not in and that’s still not right.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He has equal admiration and love for Loudon Wainwright III’s and Johnny Cash’s versions of “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.