It’s fair to say that growing up Loudon Wainwright III had some mixed feelings about his father, a columnist for LIFE magazine which he has summed up himself in a typically forthright and candid manner: “When they first were published in the magazine in the 1960s and 70s I mostly ignored them because having a famous father had been, by in large, kind of a drag. I was the son of the famous LIFE magazine writer Loudon Wainwright. Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t I proud? Those 2 questions always led to a third, which I invariably asked myself: How the hell was I going to top that?”.
It probably didn’t help that his father was not just any old columnist on any old magazine, this was a man who had interviewed Martin Luther King and was with press corps travelling with Robert Kennedy when the senator was gunned down at The Ambassador Hotel in LA. He wrote profiles of the original Project Mercury Astronauts and counted John Glenn and Scott Carpenter among his friends. That is the big time writ large.
This spurning of his father’s work changed when Wainwright III read one of Wainwright II’s columns whilst out on tour. He tells the tale like this – “It started in Maine. I was up in Vacationland to do a show and since there were no hotels near the gig that met my primary on the road requirement (windows must open, at least a few inches) I was housed in someone’s cabin. Not really a cabin per se though, since there were modern amenities, among them cable TV, laundry facilities, and a dishwasher. But the place had a cabin like feel to it, with a trace of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store ambience. Deer antlers and a pair of antique cross country skies were mounted on the interior walls and there were black and white photos hanging in carved wooden frames –a children’s Sunday school class from the 1920s and some strapping men with handlebar moustaches assembled in a 19th century logging camp. In the middle of the cabin’s living room was a swaying, upholstered easy chair and on the floor next to it, a magazine rack containing copies of old LIFE magazines. At some point I sat down and pulled out an issue from 1971 with Tricia Nixon on the cover, knowing it was possible that one of my dad’s The View From Here columns might be in the front section of the magazine. Sure enough there was one, and not just any old column but one of his best, for my money the very best. It was Another Sort Of Love Story a twelve hundred word essay about having to put our family dog John Henry to sleep. I started to read it and was laughing immediately. By the time I got to the pay off at the end of the piece I was sobbing, the perpetual Gordian knot in my gut having been relaxed and released for the first time in God knows how long. Of course I had known the writer, as well as the dog and had loved them both, although expressing that love to the former had always been a pretty tall order for me, practically an impossibility.”
And it’s also fair to say that Loudon made a dramatic volte-face – from ignoring his father’s writing he belatedly became his biggest fan to the extent of coming up with the concept for the Surviving Twin show. The performance is a game of creative catch between son and father, exploring issues like birth, loss, parenthood, fashion, pet ownership, and mortality. It’s a one man show in which Wainwright recites a selection of his father’s compositions interspersed with songs from his own catalogue. The material of his father’s that grabbed hold most closely was, perhaps not overly surprisingly, the stuff that struck closest to home – literally. Wainwright describes it thus: “My father’s “The View From Here” columns appeared when LIFE was ubiquitous, on every coffee table in America, way back when there were coffee tables. My father wrote a lot about politics and current events, the big stories of his day, but during my rereading process I quickly realized that my favourite columns of his were the personal ones: the one about having to put the dog down, the fire that destroyed our house in 1966, buying himself a Saville Row tailored suit in London, and visiting his mother for the last time in a nursing home. His political stuff didn’t really grab me when I read it because it was of its own time and that time had passed”.
Although Loudon Wainwright III has included some of the material from the Surviving Twin show in recent gigs, the complete Surviving Twin has never been performed in the UK. Well, it will be in March with a very limited run of five performances at the Leicester Square Theatre in London. Just like the columns – it’s going to be a hoot – it’s going to be revelatory – and it’s going to doubtless bring the odd tear to the eye as well.
Full March 2017 “Surviving Twin” dates
Thu 09 Evening
Fri 10 Evening
Sat 11 Matinee / Evening
Sun 12 Evening