Family Values

Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III marks his spot in the circle of life.

Wainwright's take on his failed relationship is just as moving and devastating as his reflections on his sainted mother. In songs like "Out of Reach," he depicts the poignancy involved in tying up the loose ends in a failed relationship. "Missing You" and "Living Alone" address the almost universally terrifying prospects of waking up alone and growing old(er) alone. Seeing "Our parents are dead now/And your kids are full grown and/You're fifty-three now/ You're living alone" on paper can send chills down a lonely spine, but these lines are delivered in such a jaunty, cheerful way, it's almost easy to overlook the darkness of the fear involved in aging.

"Aging is powerful and a big drag, and [it's] very interesting what happens, but it's happening to anybody. It's a big part of the human condition. I refer to it and have been referring to it for quite a while. I've always been aware of my age and the realities of it and the fears about it, and it's a topic that I've been referring to and written about since I was young," muses Wainwright. Any tips on aging for those whose personal odometers haven't reached fifty yet? "Everything they say about growing older is true." Stock up on those Centrum pills, kids. It's not going to get any easier.

It can't be all bad, though, to watch your kids grow up and come into their own, seemingly following in your footsteps. Son Rufus (28, currently on tour supporting Tori Amos) has established a name for himself as a sort of postmodern troubadour. Twenty-five-year-old Martha, Loudon's other child with ex-wife and Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle, also channels the same sort of sensitivity exhibited by her parents. And while Loudon played a role in Rufus's demo landing in the hands of DreamWorks exec Lenny Waronker a few years back, he is quick to deny stage-fatherhood, and even that he's much of an influence.

Perennial singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is still climbing.
Perennial singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III is still climbing.

"I'm quite happy that they're in the family business, so to speak. I think they're very talented," he says. "As far as being a mentor goes, certainly now I'm not much of a mentor. They lived with their mother and were raised mostly by their mother in Montreal, so I wasn't around to be much of a parent."

Wainwright is getting a second chance at fatherhood, sort of, in his casting as the dysfunctional dad on the new Fox series Undeclared. (Wainwright's other acting credits include a stint on M*A*S*H* as Captain Calvin Spaulding, a doctor and protest singer, and a role as a depressed-looking fellow in the Sandra Bullock vehicle 28 Days.) Wainwright's character is the quirky, beer-bong-hitting father of a college-age son -- a role that provides a stark though comic counterpoint to the image of Wainwright as a virile young man in the early days of his career. How strange it must be to have that kind of transformation documented in such a public way.

The upshot to aging, though, is that (in a perfect world) there's a certain sense of authority that's gained in the dusky years: You become a sage, someone people turn to for wisdom. Younger generations can look to The Last Man on Earth for insight into dealing with the loss of one's parents, something we all have to contend with eventually, as well as sailing smoothly into the AARP years. This wisdom, recorded artfully, has the potential to make us all feel a little more connected, a little more human, a little more forgiving of the mistakes we make as children, parents and lovers.

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