To call Loudon Wainwright III “the “Dead Skunk” guy”, is a bit like calling Chuck Berry “the “My Ding-a-Ling” guy”. In Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Favorite Things, Wainwright III not only tells the story of a life well (if rather eccentrically) lived but attempts to right a few wrongs, and shares his view of aging gracefully in the entertainment industry. All of which he does with a dry good humor and the kind of insight one would expect from a man whose stock in trade has been observational songwriting for the last 48 years.
Liner Notes is a rarity in the arena of the rock biography in as much as it’s good from beginning to end. So many of these things become tedious exercises in self-aggrandizement after the first 100 pages (or the first visit to rehab), but not here. We all want to read about the ’70s excesses and the messy divorces and the trips to therapy and Wainwright III is happy to oblige. But then he does something rather lovely: he shifts the emphasis onto his interactions with his extended family and the book becomes less the story of moderately successful musician and more of a story of a man who’s trying to be a good parent; and through that, a good man.
The core of Liner Notes is the huge influence (both positive and negative) that his father had on him. Loudon Wainwright Jr., was a notable journalist, writing for Life magazine for many years and a handful of his essays are reproduced here. It’s not surprising to see that both father and son share a similar sense of humour and sharpness of the eye. Of the contributions by Wainwright Jr., the 1965 story “Disguising the Man” is a standout, recounting a series of suit fittings in Saville Row in soon-to-be-swinging London. “I selected my tailor because he was nice about a button,” says Wainwright Jr., which is exactly the kind of line his son would use in one of his songs. The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, it seems. This relationship formed the basis of Surviving Twin (2017), a one man theatrical show which combines Wainwright Jr.’s writing with Wainwright III’s songs. “My old man and I are getting along better than ever now,” quips his father’s son.
Wainwright III is in no hurry to cast himself in a good light. He describes his stage persona as “jerky body gyrations, replete with leg lifts, facial grimaces and lots of tongue wagging.” On second thought, that does sound a little like Mick Jagger, but you get the idea… He’s had his share of brickbats hurled at him by his nearest and dearest and to his credit, he holds his hand up and says “mea culpa”. Two of his children, Martha and Rufus, have attacked him on record, but rather than sulking, he tentatively builds bridges. There’s no patting himself on the back here, just a recounting of a period of which he is less than proud. When he writes about his marriage to Kate McGarrigle, it’s easy to see why it didn’t last: “I spent most of my wedding night in front of the tape recorder, drinking beer 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.” A less than auspicious start to married life.
Much of Liner Notes is written in Wainwright III’s typical, droll style, which throws certain passages into sharp relief. “Scrambled Eggs”, a piece he wrote in the mid-’80s, details a particularly harrowing visit by his estranged children which quickly goes horribly wrong. There are no snappy one liners here. No happy endings. Just an unhappy chapter with just enough pathos to avoid self-pity. It’s sad, but not maudlin.
When we get beyond all the juicy, salacious stuff, we’re left with Wainwright III’s ruminations on old age and mortality. It’s hard to make stories about the disposal of remains or endless hospital visits interesting (or even palatable), but he does. He also, rather gleefully, thinks aloud about his own inevitable memorial service. He describes the adoring throng, who “leave the service and head homeward to resume their futile, humdrum and now much emptier existences après me.” The humor is darker here, but it’s still as witty as when he writes about his almost accidental second career as a TV and movie actor. Ever been curious about film star, life on set, trailer etiquette? The “Day Player Blues” chapter holds all the answers for you.
Throughout Liner Notes, Wainwright III peppers his prose with choice lyrics from his back catalogue. He’s managed to seamlessly integrate them into the narrative so rather than screaming “look at me – I wrote these words! Great aren’t they?”, they enhance what he’s written and add another facet, another voice, to his writing. His matter-of-fact style works very well in this context – some writers’ lyrics look slightly bemusing when separated from their musical environment, but not Wainwright’s. An illustrated book of his lyrics would be a fine, limited edition, probably posthumous artifact to own.
You don’t need to be a fan of Wainwright to appreciate Liner Notes. The father issues, the commitment issues and the wrestling with mortality issues are peculiar to the male of the species and are incredibly relatable. Some women may treat this book as a cautionary tale – “beware of musicians – they’re all immature and end up behaving like their fathers!” Whatever your reasons for picking up this book, you’ll probably find it hard to put down.