BookBeat: “Liner Notes” by Loudon Wainwright III
Review by Greg Haymes
In concert at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre on Saturday night (October 25), Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III will certainly sing about himself and his family, as he’s done on more than two dozen albums for most of his nearly 50-year career. In fact, you could say that singing about failed and flawed family relationships is his career.
Now the self-lacerating singer-songwriter has found a new outlet – the memoir. In “Liner Notes” – newly published by Blue Rider Press – LW3 cuts close to the bone, often uncomfortably so, as he details his repeated failures as a father and a husband.
It’s a candid no-holds-barred look at his life, as you might imagine from the book’s full title, “Liner Notes: Loudon Wainwright III on Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things.”
He examines his relationship with his father, a well-known columnist for Life magazine in the ’60s and early ’70s and even includes several of his father’s columns in the book. LW3 also includes lyrics culled from his deep songbag to help illuminate the book’s various chapters. (If you’re unfamiliar with his musical career, you might do well to pick up the audio book of “Liner Notes,” rather than the hardcover, as the audio version includes the songs, not just the lyrics.)
You won’t learn a whole lot about his children – including Rufus and Martha Wainwright (from his marriage to Kate McGarrigle) and Lucy Wainwright Roche (who will open LW3’s concert at The Egg with her mother Suzzy Roche), which is to be expected as he was largely absent from their lives as they were growing up and they have often been estranged over the years.
And you won’t learn much about his time living in Saratoga Springs, either. He only devotes one paragraph to his time living with Kate McGarrigle in a small apartment at 4 Franklin Square.
Here are a few quick excerpts to give you an idea of what’s between the covers:
“The marriage was over, though the battles, with our kids acting as foot soldiers, raged on, long- and short-distance, for thirty more years. I assumed the roles of despised shit-heel ex-husband and guilt-ridden long-distance father. The fallout from the marriage and divorce was traumatic for all four of us. However, crass as it may sound, it resulted in plenty of good songs.”
“I’m not sure I understand love, anyway. I have no doubt my parents fell in love, but there are all kinds of ways to crawl out of or be ejected from that hole. And I don’t think people fall as much as they jump. They run into someone they think or hope can ring their various bells, and then they take the leap.”
“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 on or about half-empty. When I wake up, doubt, pessimism, anxiety, and self-recrimination often kick right in, and throughout the day I spend a lot of energy fending off my own negative feelings. When I experience a moment of real happiness I’m struck by how unusual it feels. Suddenly I’m a different and, it would seem, much better person. How the hell did that happen? Surely it can’t last. And it doesn’t. Pretty soon I’m back to the way I usually feel, which is not so great.”
“It could be said (and certainly has been said be ex-wives and other authority figures) that I’ve embraced and even nurtured my depressive feelings, and I suppose I but the theory that artistic creativity springs from neurotic suffering. But which would you rather listen to on a desert island, ‘Sugar, Sugar’ or ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’?”
“Recently somebody was telling me about seeing a singer-songwriter contemporary of mine do a bad performance at a club. Hearing such a thing would usually lift my spirits, because, like most performers, I have a jealous, frightened, competitive, and insecure nature. If someone else fails or falters I can be perfectly happy to hear all about it, and, in certain cases, I’ve been absolutely delighted. For some strange but primal reason, when someone else is trashed, I feel safer. I guess that’s because, deep down, when I’m not thinking of myself as the greatest singer-songwriter that ever lived, I consider myself to be a talentless fraud.”