Loudon Wainwright III: ‘The good news is, think of all the cool people that have died!’

Loudon Wainwright III is letting me in on the realities of life at 75. “Just the other night I was moaning and groaning about my orthopaedic problems, my bad back and my hip which is probably going to be replaced,” he says, a subtle smile playing at the corners of his mouth. We’re speaking via video call from his home on Long Island. Over his left shoulder, an antique map sketches an aerial view of his surroundings in Suffolk County, the easternmost tip of New York state. “I was doing what we call the ‘organ recital’,” he says. “How many times I have to pee in the middle of the night, and all that.”

Pondering this irrefutable evidence of physical deterioration, Wainwright turned to his partner Susan Morrison, an editor at the New Yorker, and came up with some words of reassurance. “I found myself saying: ‘The good news is, think of all the cool people that have died!’” he says, a toothy grin finally breaking across his clean-shaven jaw. “If you think about it, Muhammad Ali is dead! Wow! William Shakespeare is dead. Katharine Hepburn is dead. It’s a pretty cool club!’” He pauses for a moment, spotting a flaw in his reasoning. “Adolf Hitler is dead too, but we’re gonna kick him out of the club.”

Wainwright has spent his life getting older and writing songs about it. He points out that the first words on his first record, 1970’s Loudon Wainwright III, were: “In Delaware, when I was younger…”. “Ageing and mortality,” he says, “Has always been in my wheelhouse.” Even so, turning 75 last September represented a significant milestone for Wainwright. It meant he’d outlived both his parents. His beloved mother Martha was 74 when she died in 1997. His father, the Life magazine writer Loudon Wainwright Jr, died of cancer nearly a decade earlier. Wainwright sings about them both on “How Old is 75?”, the wry penultimate song on new record Lifetime Achievement. “Mom made it to 74, though we all thought she’d get a bit more,” he croons over a rickety banjo. “My daddy kicked at 62 / Way too young, but then what can you do?”

One thing Wainwright did was write and perform a one-man-show about his father. Surviving Twin, filmed as a Netflix special in 2018, combined Wainwright’s own songs with spoken-word performances of his father’s columns, including his gorgeous 1971 obituary for John Henry, the family dog. “He was a terrific, terrific writer,” says Wainwright. “To have done that show and shared his work with people was really very rewarding.” He can see the similarities in the sort of writing they each produce. “He was a little straighter than I am,” he says. “He grew up in a different generation, but I think my father was confessional and he was also very concerned with his parents and his kids. He wrote about it in maybe a more conservative way than I do, but he was a very classy, stylish writer and at the bottom of his writing, the emotion is there.”

Wainwright has outlasted his progenitors and entered what he calls “chronologically my last years”, so it’s no surprise that his thoughts on the new record turn to weighing up his accomplishments. What is it, exactly, that he’s achieved with his lifetime? He tots it up on the album’s title track. “I mean, I won a Grammy whenever that was,” he says (2010, Best Traditional Folk Album for High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project).“And I picked up a BBC [Radio 2 Folk Awards] Lifetime Achievement Award a few years back, but the hardware doesn’t really count. It always comes back to… What have you done with other people, your family and your loved ones?”

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