Anyone who’s ever seen Loudon Wainwright III perform knows he tells funny, poignant, cut-to-the-chase stories. He has a knack for drawing you into his stories, telling sometimes difficult stories with a wink and a nod; you don’t realize you’ve been taken in by his warmth and his hilarity until you come to the punchline, which might bring a tear to your eye, a laugh to your belly, or a growl to your throat. Wainwright remains one of our best storytellers, mainly because of his candor: he might clothe a dead skunk in rosy language momentarily, but he’s never going to let you forget the deep truth of a story. He has a knack for telling the hard stories about his own family, his failures and triumphs, and his struggles with songwriting. He tells many of these stories as prefaces to his songs, and of course he’s also written about them in his songs.
Wainwright comes by his love for telling stories honestly; his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., was a senior editor and widely-read columnist for Life magazine. In his new memoir, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few Other of My Favorite Things (Blue Rider), Wainwright regales us with stories that describe in detail exactly the subjects he lists in the subtitle. While the memoir scampers along with stories of his marriages to Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche—and his children: Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Lexie Kelly Wainwright—his early days as a songwriter, his various roles in movies and television shows, and even his favorite swimming holes, he also intersperses several of his father’s Life columns through his own narrative. For example, in a 1972 column, “the sum of recollection just keeps growing,” the elder Wainwright uses the death of an old friend as a channel into the deep memories of his own father: “A few years ago I saw a collection of old home movies that my father had made in the mid-1930s…even if we’re late, we can still reach out for fathers and old friends, and find good moments for ourselves in what they left behind.”
Liner Notes is an exercise in reflecting on what’s been left behind, but Wainwright is never maudlin nor sentimental. He’s often very matter-of-fact—just like the liner notes in an album reveal the unadorned facts about the songs and the stories behind them—and he weaves lyrics from his songs through his narrative to illustrate the ways he’s already sung the stories of his life.
Early in the book, however, Wainwright reveals his initial reluctance to be a writer: “I never wanted to be a writer. It seemed like a hard, boring, and lonely life. Growing up, I saw my journalist father at work torturing himself while writing, trying to write, and, worst of all, not writing. Being a writer looked like a stone drag and a must to avoid. By the time I was seven I knew that singing and performing would be part of my life equation. But I was surprised when wordplay entered the picture fifteen years later and I started writing my songs. Caressing a curvaceous guitar and singing little ditties was nowhere near as lonely as trying to fill up blank pieces of paper. It was spare-time stuff, easy and fun. Unlike what my dad was doing, songwriting was quick…In the end, I got to be like my old man, but in my own way, and for guys that’s like hitting the Oedipal jackpot, like making out with your mom without having to actually do it.”
In one funny and poignant passage, Wainwright shares his tendency to live his life with the perpetual blues. “I’ve had the blues for about sixty years now, and I expect I’ll continue having them until the day I die. Feeling down is a natural and familiar state for me, and most of the time I seem to operate about half-empty…My depression…is chronicled throughout my oeuvre. There are enough songs about being down for an entire album: ‘Motel Blues,’ ‘Muse Blues,’ California Prison Blues,’ ‘Depression Blues,’ and ‘Suicide Blues’.”
Reflecting on what has become one of his most well-known songs, “Dead Skunk,” Wainwright hilariously shares his love-hate feelings about the song. “Throughout my career I have been asked ad infinitum how I feel about the success of ‘Dead Skunk,’ and my glib answers include ‘It paid for a lot of child support’ and ‘Better a song about roadkill than one about getting high on a mountain on Colorado.’…Every once in a while I play the damn song, but mostly in uncomfortable situations where there is an understanding or an obligation that I do so, for instance when I’m the ridiculously overpaid surprise musical guest at a very rich drunk person’s seventy-fifth birthday party.”
Wainwright invites us along for a rollicking ride in Liner Notes, and sitting in the shotgun seat we get a glimpse of every colorful scene of his life and music. Liner Notes easily stands above the crowd of music memoirs because Wainwright is a raconteur who tells cracking good stories to which we can’t stop listening.