It’s hard to say that Loudon Wainwright III is the sole subject of a filmed Netflix one-man show, “Surviving Twin,” directed by Christopher Guest and produced by Judd Apatow, because he really isn’t. In it, Wainwright dons his father’s suit; he speaks his father’s words. Loudon Jr. wrote the massively popular LIFE Magazine column, “The View From Here,” and Wainwright sings songs and tells stories, but also performs moving monologues straight from his dad’s pen, in the form of some of the columns but also in private letters written by his dad to his grandmother during World War II.
And he also talks about Loudon Jr.’s relationship with his father, “the first Loudon,” making the film a poignant, completely honest, and eerie glimpse into the dysfunction and complexities of familial relationships.
“My father wasn’t around much; he traveled a lot,” Wainwright, a Shelter Island resident, said. But a trip to a cabin in Maine, after his father’s death in 1988, found Wainwright — already a well-known singer-songwriter, actor, and humorist for near on four decades, with deep connections to the East End — leafing through a wooden magazine stand filled with old LIFE Magazines. “I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if any of my father’s columns are in here?’ And there was a LIFE with Tricia Nixon on the cover, and in it was one of my favorite of my dad’s columns, ‘Another Sort Of Love Story,’ the one where we had to put down our dog.” The piece hit him on a visceral level, and so began “a posthumous collaboration,” as Wainwright calls it.
“I’ve written so many songs about you/This is the last one, after this I’m through/It’s taken so long to finally see/My songs about you are all about me.” (“So Many Songs,” 1992.)
“Me and my dad get along better now than ever,” Wainwright said.
Along with Wesley Stace and GE Smith, Wainwright will be performing at Guild Hall of East Hampton on June 28, part of the “Portraits” series produced by Taylor Barton. And of course, Wainwrights abound in East Hampton, although Loudon III was born in Westchester. “My dad was a journalist,” he said. “So, although the town we lived in was pretty posh, we weren’t like the Stuyvesant Wainwrights, who were investment bankers, and real estate mavens, and so on; great people, all. And we’re all descended from the one-legged governor of New York,” he said, referring to Peter Stuyvesant, who served as the last leader of New Netherland in the 1600s before the Dutch seceded the area to the British.
“My father is buried in the graveyard here,” he said about Cedar Lawn cemetery. “Stuyvesant Wainwright is there too, buried with his dog, Flash.”
Wainwright has performed here frequently over the years; the Stephen Talkhouse is a favorite venue. “I celebrated my 70th birthday there a couple of years ago,” he said. “And I’ll be playing there later this summer.”
Wainwright has also appeared in, and provided tunes for, several Judd Apatow projects, including the films “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” But just how did he get hooked up with the Apatow crowd in the first place? “When Judd was 12 or 13, growing up in Syosset, he caught me on the David Letterman show. It wasn’t the late-night show, it was earlier than that, on in the morning or the afternoon, and they would have a musical guest on all week. And I was very animated back then, with a big red beard and a lot of novelty songs.” “Dead Skunk In The Middle Of The Road” is probably his best-known tune.
“Judd reached out to me years later, through his people, for the TV show ‘Undeclared,’” Wainwright remembered. “I didn’t know who he was, but he wanted me to play the dysfunctional father, and that was something I knew about,” he said with a laugh. As to his own children’s reactions to his recent bare-all biographical performances, Wainwright said, “They’re very polite. You would have to ask them what they really think.”
Of his four kids, three are also singer-songwriters: Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Lucy Wainwright Roche; his other daughter, Lexie Kelly Wainwright “is a very talented writer as well,” Wainwright said. But whether it comes from nature or nurture, Wainwright isn’t sure.
“It’s all in a 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.” (“All In A Family,” 2012.)
Besides the show at Guild Hall and later this summer at the Talkhouse, and the Netflix film, Wainwright also recently published a book, “Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & A Few of My Other Favorite Things.” The book is available in hard copy at the local bookstores, “Surviving Twin” can be seen on Netflix, and tickets for the Guild Hall show are available at www.guildhall.org. For more info about Wainwright, visit www.lw3.com.