"Wainwright is an engaging and witty memoirist."
—Wall Street Journal
Loudon Wainwright III, the son of esteemed Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright, Jr., is the patriarch of one of America’s great musical families. He is the former husband of Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, and father of Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and Lexie Kelly Wainwright. With a career spanning more than four decades, Wainwright has established himself as one of the most enduring singer-songwriters who emerged from the late 1960s. Not only does he perform regularly across America and in Europe, but he is a sought-after actor, having appeared in many movies and TV series.
There is probably no singer-songwriter who has so blatantly inserted himself into his songs. The songs can be laugh-out-loud funny, but they also can cut to the bone. In this memoir, Wainwright details the family history his lyrics have referenced and the fractured relationships among generations: the alcoholism, the infidelities, the competitiveness—as well as the closeness, the successes, and the joy. Wainwright reflects on the experiences that have influenced his work, including boarding school, the music business, swimming, macrobiotics, sex, incarceration, and something he calls Sir Walter Raleigh Syndrome.
Wainwright writes poignantly about being a son—a status that dominates many of his songs—but also about being a parent, a brother, and a grandfather. His lyrics are featured throughout the book, amplifying his prose and showing the connections between the songs and real life. Wainwright also includes selections from his father’s brilliant Life magazine columns—and, in so doing, reestablishes his father as a major essayist of his era. A funny and insightful meditation on family, inspiration, and art, Liner Notes will thrill fans, readers, and anyone who appreciates the intersection of music and life.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
my cool life
Once upon a time there were songwriters and there were singers. The former wrote for the latter and the labor was usually divided rather than singular. Richard wrote the tune and Oscar wrote the lyrics. George did the music, brother Ira was in charge of the words. There were legendary musical tag teams: Gilbert and Sullivan, Comden and Green, Lerner and Loewe. Occasionally you'd get a genius who did it all-words and music-creative switch-hitters like Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin, but in Tin Pan Alley it was usually a two-person endeavor. And that continued right up into rock and roll. Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney (or vice versa, as McCartney would now have it). Of course, Paul and John had themselves in mind as the singers and protagonists of their songs, in the same way that their hero Chuck Berry wrote and sang about his cool life. When John warbled, "I once had a girl / Or should I say she once had me," you felt sure that he was the actual guy being had. In traditional folk, blues, and country, few songwriters, if any, could read or write music. They made up songs about what was happening to and around them and then they had the audacity to sing and play the stuff themselves, using guitars, banjos, and harmonicas for self-accompaniment. These were the first singer-songwriters I heard on records, pioneers like Huddie Ledbetter, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. Guys with guitars telling it like it was. The "it" in question was the life they led. They spilled the beans and gave up the gory details. As a listener you felt you were getting something at its source, something simple, direct, and easy to identify with, because it turned out that their beans were not unlike your own. Everybody has pretty much the same gory details, which is why autobiography, and art, for that matter, work.
When I saw Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, there was a whole lotta identification going on. Here was a guy just a few years older than I was, writing and singing about what was happening in the world-his world and mine. These were the heady days of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," when there were social issues to sing about and apostrophes in song titles. The not-so-nice Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota, sounded like a sixty-year-old black bluesman who'd listened to a ton of Woody Guthrie, but Bob was young and just searching for himself. On his first recordings, Ray Charles all but impersonates his hero Nat King Cole. By the time Dylan went and, for that matter, became electric two years later at Newport, he'd become a fully formed original who'd left his contemporaries and his own influences in the dust. After 1965, Bob seemed to be pretty much focused on his cool, albeit rather cryptic, life. It had gone from "Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen" to "You got a lotta nerve / To say you are my friend," which for my money is going from good to even better.
So what's the big rule/clich when it comes to writing? Write about what you know? When I started writing songs in 1968 I didn't know about much. Raised in an affluent suburb of New York City, I'd gone to a boys' boarding school, dropped out of college, been busted for pot, and had survived a few disastrous puppy-love affairs. I'd mowed some lawns and had hitchhiked to New Canaan, Connecticut, but I hadn't harvested a single bale of cotton or ridden any rails. Still, I somehow managed to write two or three songs per week, drawn from my pathetic dearth of experience. Like most serious, young, egotistical artists, I thought my life, though yet to be cool, was nonetheless interesting. At least I was smart enough to know I had to make it seem interesting. So I put some work into presentation. To separate myself from the pack of bell-bottomed, ponytailed, guitar-toting song-slingers, I wore khakis and Brooks Brothers shirts and kept my hair unfashionably short. To cope with coffeehouse stage fright, while performing I physicalized my fear into strange, jerky body gyrations, replete with leg lifts, facial grimaces, and lots of tongue wagging. I was trying to make sure people noticed me and, within a year, Atlantic Records did. I made my first two albums for them. The records were positively retro, unadorned, without a trace of the drums, bass, and tasteful pedal-steel-guitar lickage that was going around at the time. My instincts paid off, at least for the critics, who were always looking for the next new thing and desperate to fill the Dylan vacuum (Bob was out of commission at that time, holed up in Woodstock, recovering from a motorcycle accident). I was, to shamelessly quote one hyperbolic journalist, "a blinding new talent." All my work on packaging had paid off. I'd been noticed. The songs I had written were also good. That helped. Once I began in earnest, I also decided to stop listening to the competition. I didn't want to check out this new guy David Bowie or hear what Dylan's latest was. I put an embargo on any and all incoming influences, because I sensed it was important to be original, to not be like anyone else. If I was in a car and another singer-songwriter came on the radio, I'd turn it off or go looking for the jazz station. People always want to know what I listen to. My answer to that question has been and continues to be "Dead black piano players."
But nobody writes or works in a vacuum. There's a market out there, and unless you're writing, singing, shipbuilding, basket weaving, or whatever for the sheer pleasure of it, you have to deal with that market and all its vagaries. Since I've been in the music business I've earned a good enough living, mostly toiling away on the biz's outer peripheries. I've never written my songs for other people to sing and/or record, and, although I've had a few "covers" as they call them in the biz (a term that brings to my mind Hudson's Bay blankets), there haven't been a lot of publishing royalty checks over the last forty-five years. I made fun of this rather sad fact in a song called, brace yourself, "A Song." The opening lines are:
Here's a song for someone else to sing
With a universal and generic ring
It's all about the same old stuff
That you like and can't get enough of
How's about a minor chord right here?
Wasn't that rather pleasant in your ear?
-"A Song," 1997
In 1972, after releasing my two critically acclaimed but largely unpurchased LPs, Atlantic's crush on me was over and I was dropped. I was then picked up (yet another weird term, this one connotative of prostitution) by Columbia Records. On my third record, imaginatively titled Album III, there were more songs of inexperience and autobiographical angst, but also a novelty tune I had made up in twelve minutes about a dead skunk I had run over while driving in northern Westchester County, New York. Dumb luck, great karma, plus some good old-fashioned payola all combined in a perfect storm, and the result was my only hit heretofore, number twelve on the Billboard chart and number one in Little Rock, Arkansas, for six weeks. Suddenly, I did have a pretty cool life. I was the "Dead Skunk" guy.
Twenty-five years old and I pretty much had made it. The critics' darling was now a success. So what happened? Why is it that many people aren't quite sure who the hell I actually am? Where were the follow-up hits to "Dead Skunk," funny animal songs like "I Met Her at the Pet Store" and "Stay Away from My Aardvark"? I have bored a number of psychotherapists while coming up with answers to some of these questions and have chronicled quite a few of my resentments in song.
They spelled my name wrong again
With an E between the D and the N.
Some dope didn't know it should be an O.
They spelled my name wrong again.
I continued to write about my life as it went all the way from cool to cheesy. By 1973, despite or possibly due to having had a hit song, I was miserable. Married and the father of two small children, I was never home, drunk a good deal of the time, and apparently felt it necessary to sleep with every waitress in North America and the United Kingdom. These beans have been spilt in song: "Mr. Guilty," "Drinking Song," and "The Waitress Song," to name three of dozens.
Now we've stumbled onto one of the big important questions: Is it necessary to feel like shit in order to be creative? I'd say the answer is, unless you're J. S. Bach, yes. Or to put it another way: It may not be necessary to feel like shit, but it couldn't hurt.
I know that those legit guys I mentioned earlier-Oscar, Richard, Irving, and Frank-had the blues from time to time, but when they wrote about it and got Ethel Merman or John Raitt to sing it, you felt sorry for Ethel and John, not for Oscar and Frank. I suppose that was the idea; the remove was placed there intentionally. Less messy, I guess. But I also know that when Hank Williams sings his very own "Hear that lonesome whippoorwill / He sounds too blue to fly," it's powerful and I doubt if Ethel, John, or even Sinatra could top his version. The very names of the legendary blues and R&B singer-songwriters tell it like they were: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Mississippi John Hurt. These were performers and writers who were out to advertise their personas. They were musical memoirists. Autobiography was central to their ability to communicate not just their message but the emotion behind their message.
About twenty-five years ago, I wrote a song called "Hitting You." It was about hauling off and smacking one of my kids too hard. On the butt, I hasten to add. Nevertheless, she was five and I shouldn't have hit her. People were shocked when they heard the song, and some said I was very brave to sing it onstage. That's nice to hear, but I wasn't being brave. A stage-whether in a club, a concert hall, or a cow pasture-is usually a safe place for a performer. You appear to be exposed, but the reality is you're protected. There are lights, microphones, and often a fourth invisible wall separating you from the mob, a mob that hopefully happens to be partial to you. If you know what you're doing, you can get away with murder. And that, figuratively speaking, can be your intention. I've always held that provocation, unless totally gratuitous, is a good thing. Sometimes, like Barry Manilow, I write the songs that make the whole world cry, but often the response I'm going for is a shiver or a cringe. Making an audience uncomfortable for limited amounts of time ratchets up the dramatic tension. You then have the option to release that tension when and how you deem appropriate. Sounds like a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, doesn't it? I'm sure you've seen show biz movies where the performer states his desire and need to go out there and "kill 'em" or "knock 'em dead." Doing a show, or one's act as they used to call it, is a bit like cooking or sex. It's best not to hurry. Or so I've been told. Repeatedly.
Occasionally I get a reaction to a song that's not the one I expected. I assumed that people who heard "Hitting You" would be affected by their recollections of being whacked in the backseat by their own dads, and indeed some were, but many, if not most, identified not with the one being hit, but with the hitter. People came up after shows and talked to me about how they'd lost it and hit their kids and how awful and guilty they still felt about it. Now, that's entertainment!
Frequently I'm asked if writing and singing such personal songs is in any way therapeutic. It's true I have had people thank me for writing certain songs, usually ones about family, the passage of time, and death, just a few of my favorite topics (along with snowflakes on lashes and whiskers on kittens). I'm always happy to help someone, particularly a paying customer, make it through the night. As to whether what I do is therapeutic for myself, I doubt it. My career has provided me with a living and a half-assed identity, but having those things hasn't resolved any of my so-called stuff. I don't think songwriting is curative. In fact, it could be argued that, in the end, singing the blues just makes you bluer.
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 to me 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 my 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. Who ever heard of a song (other than a Leonard Cohen song) taking six months or two years to write? In the end, I got to be like my old man, but in my own way, and for guys, that's hitting the Oedipal jackpot, like making out with your mom without having to actually do it.
But I don't want you to think I'm totally well-adjusted. Or ungrateful. My father loved writing and knew it was important, and I think I inherited some of that love and knowledge. The primary techniques I use in my work are description and detail. These are journalistic techniques, genetically passed on to me from my progenitor, and I use them in combination with sprinklings of humor, dollops of irony, and great lashings of unreliable narration.
When I first began writing, my songs were coming at a rate of two or three per week. Sadly, almost nothing comes at that rate anymore. But when you're young, you're full of it and it pours out of you-piss and vinegar, fire and brimstone, and my personal favorites, Sturm und Drang. Later, the output slows down, and eventually you're left with just a trickle. If this is getting a little too urogenital for you, let's switch metaphors. Fishing. Writing songs is like fishing. You sit in the boat and you wait. It's true you have to know the best spot, time of day, what bait to use, the difference between a nibble and a strike, and most important, how to get the damn fish into the boat. Talent is essential, craft is crucial, but for me it's mostly down to waiting and luck. And in my line of work, luck is not random. It's definite and discerning. It's invisible, but it's there. It's mysterious and also obvious. I don't understand how inspiration works and I don't want to. Don't mess with grace and divinity. You can write songs with hard work, sharp pencils, and a rhyming dictionary, but without luck they won't swing. No luck means no fish.