Loudon Wainwright III Opens Up About The 'Exes & Excess' That Inform His Music

Originally published on September 11, 2017 3:15 pm
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Loudon Wainwright seems to have been an imperfect partner, husband and father. But he's written remarkable songs about family and how we hurt and heal each other only to do it all over again. Now in his new memoir, "Liner Notes," he writes in more detail about his life as a husband, father, son, philanderer and musician.

His first wife, Kate McGarrigle, was a singer-songwriter, too. And she wrote songs about their relationship from her point of view. Their two children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, are now well-known singer-songwriters. Loudon had a long-term relationship with another singer-songwriter, Suzzy Roche. And their child, Lucy, also became a singer.

The book, the memoir, includes lyrics to Loudon's songs as well as some of the columns written by his late father who worked for Life magazine from the 1960s through the '80s. Loudon is officially Loudon Wainwright III. His father was Loudon Wainwright, Jr.

Loudon brought his guitar and is going to perform some of his songs. I've emphasized his more autobiographical songs. But he's also known for his topical songs. He'll do his Donald Trump song a little later. He'll also do his first and only big hit, the 1972 novelty recording "Dead Skunk." And he'll do some really great autobiographical songs.

Loudon Wainwright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love your new book. I'm really glad you wrote it. So the book is dedicated - here's the dedication - (reading) for the family and all we put us through. That has to be one of the most emotionally-complex dedications I've read. It's usually, you know, for the person I love most in life - you know, for my beautiful daughter, for my loving husband, you know? (Laughter) So how did you come up with that as your dedication?

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: Well, as you know, or - for some time, I've been writing lots of songs about the family. I'm really interested in the dynamics of dysfunctional and otherwise. And then my family, like most families, has issues, I guess, to use that word. So, you know, I was just thinking about the dedication. And it came to me as sometimes these things do. And I liked the sound of it. So I just - it's also - I like the fact that the word put is - can also be - can be past and present and future.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAINWRIGHT III: So it's a kind of historical but ongoing thing.

GROSS: Right. And the other thing that's interesting to me about the dedication is it's for the family when you're a part of really, like, three families with children. You have children with three different women and are a part of three separate families. Do you think of it all as one family?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. I mean, the three - they're different, the three entities or families. But we are, occasionally - a lot of the time, actually, we were all thrown together for whatever reason. And then it feels like just one big - is it meshuganah? No, that's the wrong word. What's the right word?

GROSS: Mishpacha. Mishpacha.

WAINWRIGHT III: That's the one. I knew it was an M-word. Mishpacha.

GROSS: You were close. Meshuganah is crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, that, too.

GROSS: Which is fitting. OK (laughter). Since so much of your book is about family - the family you were born into and the families you helped make - let's start with your song "All In A Family." Do you want to tell us how you wrote it?

WAINWRIGHT III: Occasionally, people ask me to write for a specific thing - a movie or a television show or something like that. And I think, as I recall, there was a television show called "Parenthood." Am I right about that?

GROSS: Yes, I think. Yes.

WAINWRIGHT III: And the word went out to songwriters. They were looking for a song. And I wrote this song, "All In A Family," and thought it was great. And they rejected it (laughter). So it didn't work out. But it kind of did work out because I like the song a lot.

GROSS: I like it, too. Why don't you play it for us?

WAINWRIGHT III: OK.

GROSS: And I should mention Loudon Wainwright has brought his guitar.

WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) It's all in the family. That's no lie. Even stays that way after we die. Leaves, branches, twigs on a family tree and the forest can be hard to see. Mother and father are in charge. And the brand new baby will loom large. Brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts - it's a family life so take a chance. It's a work in progress, can't you see? And the why, wherefore, is a mystery. When the family fights, they know next door. No one wins in a family war. Then there's that thing it's all made of. Dare we sing that the thing is love? Love heals heartache and familial pain. And what family is not insane?

GROSS: That's Loudon Wainwright performing in the studio. Thank you for doing that. Let's talk about family. Let's start with the family you were born into. Your father was a columnist for Life magazine in the '60s through the '80s. He wrote a column called The View From Here.

You were raised in an affluent suburb of New York. Your father went to prep school. You were sent to prep school. And you felt that part of your job in life was not being him. What parts of him did you especially not want to be?

WAINWRIGHT III: Wow. Well, he was a - he sent me to the same boarding school that he was miserable at. Let's put it that way. We can start with that. He was kind of a depressive fellow, I'm sorry to say. I mean, I think incredibly talented and charming and handsome and people loved him and a big powerful guy. But he suffered from depression and alcoholism also.

So growing up I watched him try to write and meet deadlines and try to write books and not succeed at that. And he had a kind of tortured existence, at least that's the way I perceived it. So I decided I did not want to be a writer, certainly. So I kind of got interested in acting and performing and went to drama school and all that. But then I circled back and started to write songs. So I guess I could run, but I couldn't quite hide.

GROSS: He had affairs. Some of them were long as well as secret. He drank a lot, like you said. How did your mother find out about the affairs that he was having, especially the one that was, like, seven years long?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I don't know. I think, like, certainly, from the generation that they were from, I think there was a - denial was a way to go (laughter), you know? And I think, probably, my mother knew that he was out and about but maybe didn't want to know the details or didn't want to face the reality of it. And then - again, both my parents are dead. So there's no way I can check on that. But I think there was denial. And she didn't want to know. And he worked hard at keeping it a secret and then either got caught or confessed or something like that.

GROSS: Since things weren't great at home, did you want to be at home where things weren't great? Because it sounds like you weren't happy in boarding school. You weren't happy being away.

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, yeah, when it came time to go - you know, I wanted to go to high school where there were girls and, you know, high school stuff. But I was sent to this boarding school placed down in Middletown, Del., called St. Andrews. And as I mentioned, my dad went to the same school. I don't know if I would've been any happier had I gone to high school. And I wasn't completely miserable either.

I mean, I complain a lot about it. But I also say in the book that I got a pretty great education and started to play in folk bands. And, you know, there were some great - you know, played football and stuff. There were some great things that I did - and was in school plays, which was very important for me also.

GROSS: So after you got out of boarding school, you briefly went to college to study drama. You dropped out of college and went to San Francisco. And this was probably - what? - 1967.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah.

GROSS: Summer of Love.

WAINWRIGHT III: Summer of Love.

GROSS: Yeah. So did you renounce your privilege when you got to San Francisco? Because to come from a privileged family was considered so bourgeois, and nobody wanted to be bourgeois who was into being a hippie.

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I knew lots of other kids like me, you know, when we first went out there and lived in a crash pad, as they used to call them, on Frederick Street in the Fillmore district in San Francisco. Some of the other kids were - and I say kids - yeah, we were 19 or 20 years old. You know, they had also gone to boarding school.

And one of my crash pad mates was Donald Fagen from soon-to-be Steely Dan - Donald Fagen. So, you know, we were middle-class or upper-middle-class kids. And again, as I recall, that summer was not so much about political activism or social awareness, but it was more like, just getting up, and having fun and dropping acid. That's what I remember, anyway.

GROSS: Well, you dropped a lot of acid, and you also, for a while, studied Buddhist meditation and spent some time in a monastery as - you know, like, a Buddhist monastery. How did you realize that, actually, that path was not for you?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, the monastery that I was - that I went to, which was in Virginia City, Nev., was a yoga monastery. I think that for some of us who dabbled in psychedelics or took those drugs, there was a logical turn toward spiritual things, you know? You'd be on an acid trip, and you'd be sitting there for 15 hours.

So things like the Bhagavad-Gita, and the I Ching and the Upanishads - I'm probably mispronouncing some of these words - but, you know, they were kind of groovy and cool. And, you know, I used to - I was in that subset of hippies that was attracted to that Eastern stuff. And I have been at - in various parts of my whole life, been attracted to that Eastern stuff.

GROSS: Still?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, you know, I like a good plate of rice and vegetables every now and again.

GROSS: What about yoga or meditation?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I can do - I can still do some asanas. And I never could get the hang of meditation, but I still can do an asana or two.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Loudon Wainwright. And he has a new memoir, which is called "Liner Notes." So we'll be right back. And he's going to sing more and play more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BIG SHOE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Loudon Wainwright. He has a new memoir, which is called "Liner Notes."

So the first song that you became famous for was, you know, a comic - it was a novelty song called "Dead Skunk" in the middle of the road. And I'm going to ask you to just play a few bars from that and to tell us the story behind that because that story had - that song had a really big influence on your life.

WAINWRIGHT III: OK, here it comes.

(Playing guitar, singing) Crossing the highway late last night, should've looked left and should've looked right. Didn't see the station wagon car. Skunk got squashed, and there you are. You got a dead skunk in the middle of the road, dead skunk in the middle of the road, dead skunk in the middle of the road, stankin' (ph) to high heaven.

GROSS: (Laughter) Great, thank you for doing - that's Loudon Wainwright. And I should mention here that Loudon Wainwright has a new memoir, which is called "Liner Notes." So that song made you famous. It, I hope, made you a lot of money, and it kind of created expectations that this is the kind of thing you would do - you would write really funny songs. And you've written a lot of really funny songs and really funny topical songs over the years.

But you also wanted to head in other, you know, more serious and emotionally complex directions. So what were some of the, like, good things and some of the bad things that resulted from the popularity of that song, which I think - a song I think you actually wrote after running over a skunk in the middle of the road.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, yeah. Someone had already killed it, but I ran over it.

GROSS: Oh.

WAINWRIGHT III: ...And then, you know, said, stinking to high heaven, and then I went home and wrote that song in about 15 minutes. But I kind of sensed that it might catch on, and it did when I started to perform it. And it was exciting. What a thrill to hear yourself - hear your song on the radio - on the AM radio - what they used to call the AM radio. I don't know what they call it now. But that was fun. And certainly, there was money - money, that - as a result. I've said it's paid for a lot of child support, "Dead Skunk."

GROSS: Yeah

WAINWRIGHT III: But the problem was is that I was - became the skunk guy. And when you have a - I think it - you know, it got to something like No. 12, and in some parts of the country, it was No. 1. But you're expected - what's the next funny animal song, you know? Whereas - you know, about the aardvark or whatever. And that got to be a drag. And I played it for a while, and then I just got sick of it.

And I put out a record after that that didn't have a novelty song on it or a funny animal song on it in any way, but it had some great song - but the people at radio just didn't want to know. They - I was the skunk guy, and they wanted something along those lines. So I don't - I hardly ever do it, but today is special.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, today's autobiography day. And you do talk about the song in your book, so I thought it would be a good idea to include it.

WAINWRIGHT III: No, it will be in my obituary. The "Dead Skunk" thing will be there.

GROSS: It will be. It will be. So another really life-changing thing - you met the singer Kate McGarrigle. And she was a backup singer when you met her when she started writing her own songs and singing with her sister Anna McGarrigle, and they became popular. You write that you got jealous, that it was, quote, "too threatening" for your fragile ego. And then after that, you married Suzzy Roche, who also sang with her sisters. And...

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, Suzzy and I were never actually married.

GROSS: Oh, you were never actually married, oh.

WAINWRIGHT III: No, we were - we lived in sin for nine years (laughter).

GROSS: And had a daughter together.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yes. We have a beautiful daughter and - named Lucy Wainwright Roche. Yes. But we didn't tie the knot.

GROSS: So, you know, you were attracted to two really talented singer-songwriters before they became famous (laughter).

WAINWRIGHT III: Yes.

GROSS: And once they became really recognized, you seemed to find them more threatening. That's the impression I got from the book. I'm sure there's plenty of other complex things that had to do with the end of your relationship, including, as you describe it, you know, your relationships with other women. So how does it feel to you to write about that in the book?

WAINWRIGHT III: To write about those - about my marriage and my relationship with Suzzy? I actually have written all about those big relationships, particularly the ones where there were children...

GROSS: And songs.

WAINWRIGHT III: ...Involved. So how does it feel to write about it? Well, you know, I write about all these...

GROSS: I feel like you're confessing...

WAINWRIGHT III: ...People in the songs. So, I mean, they're all in the songs. So why not put them in the book? I don't know. I mean, it's tricky. And it wasn't easy, I think, to write about. You know, my relationship with Kate - the brilliant Kate, who is no longer with us, you know, that was - we fought like crazy. And then we split up. And then we fought for 30 more years after that about the kids.

GROSS: About how to raise them?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, we disagreed. And, you know, the marriage continued, I think, despite the fact that we, you know, were divorced in 1976. So - whereas, in the situation with Suzzy Roche, she's my best friend. I mean, I saw her yesterday literally. We were hanging out. So, you know, it can be - it can go all different kinds of ways. But I write about those people because they're the big important people in my life along with my parents and grandparents and siblings and kids, certainly.

GROSS: So you married Kate McGarrigle after she was pregnant - pregnant, quote, "due to our hit-and-miss birth control practices." Did you want to be a father?

WAINWRIGHT III: I think I had a romanticized idea about it, you know? And I thought maybe it would make me more manly or something. But I was woefully unprepared for the reality of it. And consequentially, I mean, I feel like I wasn't really on the ball the way I should have been.

I mean, I was - when Rufus was born, my eldest kid, my son, you know, I was in my early 20s. And I was I was grappling with my career. And I was traveling. And I was messing up on the road and fooling around and things. And I just was over my head with being a parent, I think.

GROSS: I want you to sing another song for us, if that's OK. And this is a song that I think you wrote after your break up with Suzzy Roche. And it's called "unhappy anniversary." It's a great song. Would you do some of it for us?

WAINWRIGHT III: Sure. (Singing) Unhappy anniversary. It's one year since we split. I walk and talk and get around. Lie down, stand up and sit. I eat and drink and smoke and sleep and live a little bit. Unhappy anniversary. It's one year since we split. Unhappy anniversary. It's 10 years since we met. There is no need to remind me. No way I could forget. We fell in love, and we fell out. Both times there was no net. Unhappy anniversary. It's 10 years since we met.

GROSS: My guest is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright. He's written a new memoir called "Liner Notes." We'll talk more and he'll sing more songs after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "X OR Y")

WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) X or Y. Do or die. Pain and joy. It's a girl or a boy. Friend or foe, you'll never know. But it's no lie that it's X or Y. If it's X, a gal is next. But if it's Y, you got a guy. If it's a pink or blue, it all comes from you. So you don't have to try because it's X or Y.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, who's known for his topical songs and his autobiographical songs about family. The lyrics to some of those songs are included in his new memoir "Liner Notes." He has a large and complicated family life he sung about. And some of his other family members have written songs about him.

His family has an unusually high number of singer-songwriters, including his late ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Loudon's former partner, Suzzy Roche, and their daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche.

So we've been talking about the relationships with women who you had children with and how those relationships ended, or at least the romantic parts of those relationships. The third woman who you had a relationship with - a romantic relationship - and had a child with was an actress named Ritamarie.

WAINWRIGHT III: Ritamarie Kelly, yes.

GROSS: And you had a child with her. Now, you already had another girlfriend when Ritamarie called you and told you that she was...

WAINWRIGHT III: This is really complicated, Terry. You're going to need a diagram.

GROSS: I know - a family tree. Anyways (ph), you found out she was four months pregnant. And when she gave birth, like, for the first year, like, you didn't really know - should you visit the child or not? What was your relationship with her? And that led to a song called "A Year." It's a great song. Would you talk a little bit about the song and perform some of it for us?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. Yeah, Rita and I had had a, you know, a love affair, but we weren't a couple. We certainly weren't married, at that point. And she got pregnant, and decided to have the baby and did. And, you know, I was not on the scene for that. In fact, I was in another relationship.

Actually, I mentioned my daughter Lucy - Suzzy's daughter and my daughter - and when Lucy found out that she had this half sister, she was determined that she would get to meet her. She was about 12 at the time. So she and I went up there.

They were living in an apartment in - on the Upper West Side in New York. And that's when I saw Alexandra, who's my now-24-year-old daughter, for the first time, but it was a - I had seen her when she was three weeks old, and then a year went by, and I didn't see her. So that's how that - you get the title "A Year."

GROSS: Would you play some of it for us?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, let me just check the tuning.

(Playing guitar, singing) The only time I've seen you was about a year ago. I was afraid to hold you, but I wanted you to know, I touched your tiny, perfect hand before I went uptown. I didn't pick you up because I'd have to put you down. For reasons that don't make much sense and you won't understand, I've stayed away for your first year. It's sort of what I planned. But I've been in your neighborhood, sometimes just blocks away. I didn't come to visit you because I couldn't stay.

GROSS: That's such a great song. That's Loudon Wainwright, singing his song "A Year." And he has a new memoir called "Liner Notes." And I should say here that you and Rita eventually got back together again...

WAINWRIGHT III: Yup.

GROSS: ...Restarted your romantic relationship and raised your daughter together...

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And then separated.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, this is...

WAINWRIGHT III: Gaga-bom (ph).

GROSS: There's this long history in blues and in pop music, in rock - songs about people who ramble or who don't want to be tied down. And especially in the '60s, there was a whole genre of songs, like, I am a free spirit, and nothing's going to - you know, you can't tie me down. I don't want to be with just one man, or I don't want to be with just one woman. And your life, for years, was kind of an echo of those songs. But you wrote about that kind of life in your songs in such a different way than all the other people who wrote about that.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, I was - I had a chaotic, you know, rambling life. And it was interesting, and it was the life that I chose, but I didn't feel good about it. I mean, I didn't have a lot of bravado, you know? It wasn't, like, for all the girls I ever loved or something like that.

GROSS: Exactly (laughter).

WAINWRIGHT III: You know, it was, God, what am I doing? And why am I doing it? You know, it's making them - you know, everybody's not happy, including me (laughter). But what an interesting topic of - to me, anyway - to write about all that stuff.

GROSS: You know, we mentioned that some of your patterns like, you know, having relationships with other women while you were, you know, married or raising a child with someone who you were in a long-term relationship with. And you realized that, at some point, you were repeating some of the behavior that your father had followed. Did you see his life differently when you realized that your life was, in some ways, an echo of some of his behavior?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, it's funny. And one of the things I write about in the book is about this trip to Australia that we took. I think it was probably - the two of us. I did - I went to Australia for the first time in 1982, and they threw in an extra plane ticket. And so I - my father, who'd always wanted to go to Australia, came with me, and he was a new father.

I have a half sister called Anna Wainwright - Anna Fay Wainwright - and of course, he had four kids - me and my siblings - from his other marriage. So we were a couple of guys on the road with split-up families.

And now, he had quit drinking at that point, so it wasn't like we were sitting around, getting smashed every night. But there was a feeling, again, of that - we're a little bit like the same person. Or we're - there are a lot of similarities. And I mean, I don't know if that answers your question in any way. But does it?

GROSS: I guess part of my question is, when you re-examined his life through the lens of your adult life, did you have more sympathy for him? Or were you equally angry at him and at yourself?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I know that I have a lot - I have more sympathy for him now. And that's just because I'm much - I'm older, and I've lived a while. I'm not - I don't feel like I'm angry at my father at all anymore. I can appreciate - he was a creative guy. He wrote beautifully - these columns he wrote in Life magazine, some of which are included in my book. He was a beautiful, elegant writer, I thought. And his dream was to write books.

You know, like most writers, he wanted to write short stories and novels. He did have a few short stories when he was a very young man in The New Yorker, but because he had kids really quickly, he had to go out and earn a living. And he got hired at Life magazine, and he worked there for his entire life. And so his dream had been deferred. So I think I understand, you know, that that was very painful and difficult for him. And I can appreciate how that could've informed some of his behavior.

GROSS: You have his name. He was Loudon Wainwright Jr. You're Loudon Wainwright III. And my impression from your memoir is that you kind of resented having the same name as he did because, I mean, you didn't want to be him. And here you were, just connected even by name. And just seeing your name on paper, people would have to ask, is that Loudon Wainwright the magazine writer?

And so how did it feel when you put out your first album and you were Loudon Wainwright III? Because I think a lot of people, maybe me included, thought, oh, the III is probably ironic because it sounds so kind of, like, formal and kingly (laughter), you know? Like...

WAINWRIGHT III: Yes.

GROSS: But it was your actual name. Did you want to use the III on the album?

WAINWRIGHT III: Not particularly. But, you know, we have the same name. Loudon - get a load of the middle name - Loudon Snowdon Wainwright is the name. And when I got a record deal in 1969 with the Atlantic, you know, and I was going to make my first record - and I was going to call it what my name was. So there was a discussion between me and my father about whether or not to use the Roman numeral three, which, you know, had a kind of a highfalutin, preppy. I mean, Loudon is a weird enough name to begin with.

But he convinced me to use the Roman numeral. The argument being that this confusion between who was who would be solved by that and also that the memory of my grandfather, Loudon Wainwright I, would somehow be honored - or dishonored if I didn't use it. So I did use it. And - but then I realized soon after that that in his byline, you know, his name in the - in his articles of The View From Here column, he didn't use Jr. It was Loudon Wainwright. And I had a - I thought, wait a minute.

So, sure enough, I waited until he was in the hospital dying. And I said, you know, dad, I got to talk to you about this thing that's been bothering me for years. You didn't use your junior thing, and you made me use the third thing. What's all that about? And he kind of looked up at me in the hospital bed and said you can have the name when I die. So...

GROSS: Which is an interesting thing to say. But you didn't change it. Like, on your book cover...

WAINWRIGHT III: No. I use the third. I...

GROSS: ...You're Loudon Wainwright III.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. Sometimes when I use - when I get work as an actor, I lop off the Roman numeral. But I'm comfortable with being the third (laughter). My first album was called "Loudon Wainwright III." And then the second album was called "Album II." And then I said to my manager at the time, I said, why don't we call it The III's Third 33 And A third? He said, no. So we called it "Album III."

GROSS: Was your father angry that you were bringing this up, basically, on his deathbed?

WAINWRIGHT III: Probably. And (laughter) he should have been. I mean, I was trying to get last licks or something like that. It was a pretty tacky thing to do. On the other hand, though, I'm glad I got to air my feelings, as they say.

GROSS: And to find out the information, like why.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: My guest is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright. His new memoir is called "Liner Notes." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Loudon Wainwright. He has a new memoir, which is called "Liner Notes." You know, you write about how your father's death was in some ways liberating. But at the same time, you were just like overcome with this grief you didn't even know you had. You just - you heard yourself bawling.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you write about how when your mother died, you just fell apart. I mean, you just, like, sank into this depression. What was the difference between those two deaths for you emotionally?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, you know, my father and I had a - were competitive. You know, we went to the same boarding school. We had the same name. We were, you know, father-son competitors in that kind of oedipal way. You know, so when he died, I felt somewhat liberated. And he was kind of out of the way in a sense.

When my mother got sick - and I knew it was going to be bad because she was the most - my biggest fan, my biggest supporter. You know, she was at every show and every little league. You know, she would come to see me play baseball. And I wasn't a very good baseball player. And I would, literally, hit a home run when she was in the stands. I mean, that's how much power she had to kind of free me up and relax me.

So I knew it was going to be bad when my mother died. But when it happened, I was living in London at the time, and I just - I completely fell apart, really. I mean, I could hardly do anything for six months or a year.

GROSS: You have a beautiful song about that called "Homeless." Would you play some of that for us?

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. (Singing) When you were alive, I was never alone. Somewhere in the world there was something called home. And as long as you live, 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 want to live, but what else can I do? And I feel like I've faked all that I ever did. And I've grown a gray beard, but I cry like a kid.

GROSS: That's a really beautiful song. So several of your children were not planned. They were surprises.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah.

GROSS: And now they're adults.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah.

GROSS: And now they're adults.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah.

GROSS: And it must be so - I don't have children, but it must be so interesting to have watched children who you didn't expect to have become not only born but then, like, become full people and to see what that moment in your life led to.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah. Now I have four kids, and they're all formidable. You know, three of them are singers and talented - and songwriters. And very talented Rufus and Martha and Lucy are in the business and doing well in their own particular and interesting ways. And Lexie is just out of college. And yeah, they're all powerful, complicated, swinging kids (laughter).

GROSS: So what's - can you give us some sense of your relationship with them now, now that you're all adults?

WAINWRIGHT III: What day is it?

(LAUGHTER)

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, it fluctuates, you know. Rufus is pissed off at me now, so we won't talk for a while. But we have these things, you know. And Rufus and Martha, at any rate, like to write songs about our relationship. But this stuff blows over too. I mean, we - in last February or at the beginning of the year, we went - we all went on this Cayamo songwriter cruise thing as the Wainright family. And we all sang together and were on this boat together and had a ball. We do great when we're on stage together. It's around that Thanksgiving table that's where the trouble starts.

GROSS: (Laughter).

My guest is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright. His new memoir is called "Liner Notes." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS SUPER SEVEN'S "CALLE DIECISEIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Loudon Wainwright. He has a new memoir which is called "Liner Notes."

You know, we've been focusing on your really emotional songs about family, but there's a whole other side to your songwriting which is the satirical, topical side. And in this age of the Donald Trump presidency, have you written anything about him?

WAINWRIGHT III: Well, I wrote a song. I wrote it before he was elected president, thinking, oh, this will be fun and funny. And, you know, nothing is going to happen. But it was interesting though, it's a song called "I Had A Dream." And it was somewhat prescient. I got two of the Cabinet members down way before they were picked. And shall I play some of it?

GROSS: That would be great.

WAINWRIGHT III: (Singing) I had a dream - I'm not sure what it meant - when I dreamed Donald Trump was our president. There on election night right by his side, his flunky Chris Christie along for the ride. But it gets worse. Wait. There's more. He made Jeff Sessions secretary of war. Just like he promised, he built him that wall. He blew up Cuba and he carpet-bombed Montreal.

(Singing) I had a dream. I woke up in a cold sweat. The Donald was elected in a huge upset. He made a bad deal with Putin, a secret pact on the side. He told the pope where to go. I swear to God. As for the Supreme Court, Trump got to choose. He filled the vacancy up with lying Ted Cruz. Remember him? His face was bright orange. His hair was just weird. But we were made great again, embarrassed, in fear.

(Singing) I had a dream, and here's how it went. I dreamed Donald Trump was our president, his little finger on the button. He was doing his thing. Our new national anthem was "My Ding-A-Ling." We were bought and sold like in Monopoly. He had the most hotels in the land of the free. Locked up the - well, locked up the opposition and the demonstrators too. That would be me and it might be you.

GROSS: Thank you for doing that. That's really funny. Do you feel a need to update it, or do you feel like you got it already?

WAINWRIGHT III: I think I got the general idea. I mean, it's not - it isn't big yucks now, but it's still kind of interesting to sing it.

GROSS: Do you perform that a lot?

WAINWRIGHT III: I perform it from time to time. I perform it more than I perform "Dead Skunk," let's put it that way.

GROSS: (Laughter) Let's end with another song that relates to your father because he had said to you once - or no, I think you read it, actually, in one of his columns that he wrote, I want a double lifetime.

WAINWRIGHT III: Yeah.

GROSS: He wanted to live longer.

WAINWRIGHT III: He - it was on this trip that we took in '82 to Australia. And I - after he died in '88, Martha Fay, the woman that he had lived with for the last 20 years of his life, gave me these little black notebooks that he used to carry around and write in. And he talked about what it was like to be with me on this trip. But he also - he had just become a father at the age of 59. And he wrote in this book, I want a double lifetime, which I always thought was a pretty cool line. And so I wrote this song.

(Singing) I want a double lifetime. I want to start over. One lifetime's not enough. I need another 70 years on a practice run. Practice makes perfect. I'm about half done. I want a double lifetime. Want a double lifetime. I don't want to snuff it. Three score and 10 just ain't enough. It feels like I finally got it all figured out. I'm almost free from the shame and the doubt. I want a double lifetime. Yeah, a lot more time, that's what I need. I can make my move. I can do the deed. I know I'm greedy. What do I care for the afterlife? I don't want to go there. I want a double lifetime. Man, I deserve it. I want it so bad. I even got the nerve it's going take to get down on my bended knees, beg and pray, say, pretty please give me a double lifetime. I want a double lifetime. I wasted my first one.

(Singing) The first one first time around, that's always the worst one. You don't know what you're doing and you just can't wait, so you go ahead and do it and then it's too late. You need a double lifetime. I led a double life in public and private. I want to lead it again. I'm not going to deny it. I'm just like you. It's true, you know? Ask yourselves, are you ready to go? No, you want a double lifetime, yeah, a little more time because you know I'd never want to keep living forever and ever.

(Singing) I know it sounds funny. If the truth be told, about 140 don't seem that old. I want a double lifetime. I'm not gonna get it, but if a miracle happens, you know I'm going to let it if I eat enough yogurt. Maybe I might. And the second time around, I'm going to get it right. Give me a double lifetime. All right.

GROSS: Well, I wish you'd get a double lifetime so you could just keep writing songs for us.

WAINWRIGHT III: I'll take it.

GROSS: Loudon Wainwright, it's always great to have you on the show. This was really special. Thank you so much and congratulations on your book.

WAINWRIGHT III: Oh, thanks. I always love talking to you, Terry.

GROSS: Loudon Wainwright's new memoir is called "Liner Notes." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRAD'S STATUS")

BEN STILLER: (As Brad Sloan) So many friends from college have become successful.

GROSS: The new film "Brad's Status" stars Ben Stiller as someone overcome by corrosive jealousy of his old college friends who are more successful than he is. My guest will be the film's writer and director, Mike White, who also wrote the film "School Of Rock" and created the HBO series "Enlightened." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III'S "DAUGHTER")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.