Like a lot of Loudon Wainwright III’s fans I have nurtured an uncomfortable love/hate relationship with both him and his music over many years and many records. I’ve been a fan since my late teens, over 40 years now.
Some of his songs have really touched me and I have them burned into my memory. Some of his songs strike me as self-indulgent bordering on maudlin and some seem unnecessarily vicious. As for the guy himself, or at least the persona he projects, I waver between thinking of him as a fearless truth-telling troubadour and a self-absorbed sexist jerk.
I think that Wainwright shares some of my ambivalence. In his just-released memoir, Liner Notes, he positively revels in his own love/hate relationship with his life’s work:
“I have a jealous, frightened, competitive, and insecure nature,” he says. “… when I’m not thinking of myself as the greatest singer-songwriter that ever lived, I consider myself to be a talentless fraud.”
He seems to be similarly torn when it comes to the many character flaws that he happily exposes in Liner Notes. He’s formally contrite, but can’t help turn his irresponsibility into a punch line. Here is his description of the night of his wedding to the late Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle:
“I spent most of my wedding night in front of the tape recorder, drinking beer (with a friend) and listening to mixes of my soon-to-be-released second album, while my bride softly cried herself to sleep in the bedroom down the hall. It was a fraught and inauspicious beginning for the marriage, and I’m sure you’re thinking, What a selfish bastard! But wait a minute, it gets worse.”
And, of course he goes on to tell us how much worse it did get, not just with McGarrigle (who he zings with passive aggressive jabs every chance he gets) but almost all the other women in his life. He cops to being serially unfaithful to his partners and an absent and inattentive parent to his four children, but on the other hand he turned their unhappiness into art, so I guess he feels even.
Then of course there are his parents, major players in the Loudon Wainwright III songbook: his father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., a hard drinking womanizing Life magazine editor and columnist from a wealthy Old New York family and his mother, Martha, an equally hard drinking Southerner from what Wainwright describes as a “white trash” family.
Wainwright writes about both of them very vividly. He hated and resented his “old man” for years, especially after he ran away with a younger woman and divorced Martha. Recognizing his own relationship-wrecking patterns only made it worse for Loudon III. As for his mother, he adored her and harboured what he calls “semi-incestuous” feelings for her, which have worked their way into some of his best songs, particularly “White Winos.”
Overall, the book has a breezy quality to it and Wainwright rarely digs too deeply into what it all means, despite his famous addiction to Freudian analysis.
He does dole out a lot of unpleasant stories, but in Liner Notes he employs the same technique he says he uses in concerts where “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.” Then he throws in a funny song, or in this case a funny anecdote. And the circus carries on.