Pity the folk singer raised in the Northeast. As John Gorka put it in “I’m From New Jersey,” a nearly perfect song, “It’s not like Texas / There’s no mystery / I can’t pretend.”
Texas-based singer-songwriter James McMurtry has examined this issue from the other side. On one of his live albums, he comments that while a good old boy can become an intellectual, an intellectual cannot become a good old boy.
One of the best things about Loudon Wainwright III, who was raised among the country clubs of Westchester County, is that he’s never pretended to be anything he isn’t.
“I’d mowed some lawns and had hitchhiked to New Canaan, Conn.,” he writes about the start of his career in “Liner Notes,” his new memoir, “but I hadn’t harvested a single bale of cotton or ridden any rails.”
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Instead of inventing a mythos, Wainwright simply wrote some excellent songs – rich, complicated, sometimes dorky (one of his biggest hits is the 1972 novelty tune “Dead Skunk”), marked by unexpected wordplay and often surprisingly dark.
His new memoir is all of these things, too. It’s a funny, rueful thing to consume. Wainwright has hurt most of the people he’s loved, and he’s loved some remarkable people. He’s written fond and sometimes acid songs about them; they’ve returned serve.
His marriage to Kate McGarrigle, one half of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and his long relationship with Suzzy Roche, of the Roches, ended because of his philandering. He’s been a sometimes remote father to his children, who include Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, who have gone on to have major musical careers of their own.
You could put the best songs these people have composed about each other on a triple album, and it would be among the great, troubled documents of our time – the back catalog of their own happiness and heartbreak.
Among the first songs on it might be “Dilated to Meet You,” Loudon’s duet with McGarrigle about the birth of Rufus. The last might be one written by their daughter, Martha, about her father, one that isn’t mentioned in “Liner Notes.” Its title is “Stinking, Traitorous Cretin.” (That’s not its real title, though, because its real title is replete with unprintable language.)
Wainwright does not go easy on himself in this book. In typically memorable prose, he describes how he got into “the nasty and destructive habit of picking up women after shows, bringing a sort of love hostage back to the hotel room, a raunchy token of esteem.”
He’s jealous of the success of others in his family. He likes reading his own good reviews and other people’s bad ones. He describes ogling women while doing laps at his local pool. He’s a stinking, traitorous cretin.
And yet, as he woos his memories back, there’s a great deal fondness in this book, too. Like the best songs of the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Roche clan (Rufus has a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca, so this dynasty might still be in its infancy), this straightforward book makes your heart wobble on its axis. And it sends you back to the songs.
“Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things”
By Loudon Wainwright III
Blue Rider Press, 306 pages