Over the course of his five decades releasing records, Loudon Wainwright III has never been amongst the most commercially successful songwriters working, but he has never been less than one of the most fascinating. The son of the decorated Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright, Jr., his is a literary vision of folk music often so personally revealing as to engender intense discomfort. Over the course of frequently traumatic, failed relationships with fellow folk-music icons Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, he never shrunk from chronicling in forensic detail the minutes of those romances on songs like “Crazy Kate,” “Mr. Guilty,” and “Unhappy Anniversary.” His compulsive truth-telling extended to the children born of those relationships, including the performers Rufus, Martha and Lucy — arguably no one in the tradition has ever written with such unvarnished honestly about the fears, resentments and pitfalls of parenting. Wainwright recently published the memoir Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay and A Few Of My Other Favorite Things. It is, unsurprisingly, a funny, fast, and intense read that doesn’t waste a lot of energy prevaricating. We spoke to Wainwright about his long career in music, his ongoing preoccupations and the necessity to settle emotional affairs before it’s too late to do so.
I think of you as a tough-minded humanist, but no kind of Utopian or hippie. So one thing I was surprised by in the book was your connection to the counter-culture of the 60’s and being in California during that time. When you reflect on those times does it feel nostalgic or painfully naive?
Well, a little of both. We were naive. The Summer Of Love was a lot of fun – we were young people having fun taking drugs and having sex and not working much and growing our hair and going to free music concerts. I mean, it was a hedonistic thing, but what better time to have fun than when you’re young, in your early 20’s? I don’t cast any aspersions on that experience. It kind of freed me up. It had a direct connection to the next thing that I did, which was to write songs and find my job as it were.
You mention having seeing the Band perform around that time and that having been a transformational moment. Were there other musicians who had that spark for you?
Well, the bands that I saw when I was in San Francisco were the Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service and Janis Joplin and all of that – that was mostly just fun. I didn’t really say, “Wow! That’s great! I want to form a psychedelic rock band.” I had sold my guitar for yoga lessons. So seeing those bands wasn’t any kind of a kick in the ass to get into my own music. It wasn’t until I was back on the east coast and involved in that macrobiotic community. And when I saw the Band – I mean, I had made my first record, I had found my job – but seeing the Band that night in Cambridge really made me want to get out on the road and start doing my own shows and it kind of shook me up. It was a good thing that happened.
Did you have any chance to meet those guys? It’s just so incredibly sad – the ends that came to Manuel and Danko.
I met those guys in L.A. in the mid-seventies, but I didn’t met Robbie Robertson then. I met Robbie Robertson years and years later when he working at Dreamworks and my son Rufus had just made his first album for Dreamworks. So I think I said hello to him and shook hands with him at a Dreamworks thing. But I met and hung out in Malibu with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. And I’ve met Garth more recently too. But I don’t think I really shared my story with them. I might have, I mean that was a long time ago – I can’t really remember for sure.
Another thing that comes up in the book that was surprising to me is your mother’s roots in Georgia and the ways in which that informed you aesthetically. Do you feel a deep connection to the folk and the roots music of the American south?
I do feel a connection. It came to fruition when I made my Charlie Poole Project record. I love that music; I grew up listening to Poole and Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. That whole southern thing. Now, my mother wasn’t a fan of that music, she wasn’t the one that turned me on to it. But still, the rural, southern thing always meant a lot to me and I think it’s something to do with the fact that she grew up way down there in Tifton.
I wanted to ask you about writing about family. I can’t think of anyone in the tradition that has demonstrated such an unflinching willingness to depict the hardships of family life – the conflicts, cruelties and occasionally destructive devotion. For lack of a better way to ask the question, what gives you the nerve?
Well, I’m not sure. You know, the family – my family, and I think anybody’s family – are the big people in one’s life. There are parents and the siblings, and then you start making your own families, and then you have kids and wives and ex-wives. It’s pretty interesting stuff. And it’s tough stuff. It’s tough to make a family work. I certainly failed at it in a lot of ways. That has to do with the nature of my job and my general egocentricities and selfishness, and, you know, fear. My parents stayed married, but it wasn’t a good marriage and I observed that as a kid. But anyway, it’s really interesting stuff to write about for me, and I sense that people want to hear about it because they’re in their own screwed up families. So there’s a connection, and after all that’s what you want with an audience, whether they’re sitting in a club or a hall or listening on a CD. You want to connect with them. I’ve always been happy to do that and I’ve done it a lot.
Another thing I really enjoyed in the book was your discussion about your relationship to your audience. You describe your experience becoming friendly with some audience members over the course of years and this becoming increasingly disappointing on both sides at a certain juncture. I wonder, do you ever consider when you go on stage that you are telling strangers your darkest secrets? Isn’t this sort of perverse?
[laughs]. Yeah, yeah I guess it is. You know, I refer to these fervent fans of mine as “the Loud-heads” and there is a perversity about it and it does often end in tears or recriminations. And there’s a kind of similarity between that and going out and playing and then sleeping with the waitress in the club, or the opening act, and I write about that too. It’s getting intimate with people after the show, and it’s probably not a good idea. But it’s tempting. I mean, I’m out there by myself and I’m flexing whatever I’m flexing. But there is a perversity about it. At this point, having been a traveling singer and performer for almost fifty years now, I think I appreciate the perversity of it.
You were trained as an actor, at a time when the notion of the Method and deep immersion into character was at a kind of point of conflict with more traditional notions of acting as a discipline that favored craft. And I’m wondering as such a personal songwriter and performer, which of these approaches you’ve drawn from more over the years. It could be draining having to live through some of these songs every single night on stage.
You know, it can be tiring. There is an aspect to it that is emotionally draining. At the same time I’ve always wanted to be a performer – ever since I was a kid I wanted to perform for people – it’s a natural environment for me. And even though it seems like it might be searingly painful for me to sing “Hitting You”, or “Your Mother And I” or “White Winos”, or whatever, it isn’t. You know, I execute the song. There is craft involved and a certain amount of detachment. I don’t get lost in my characters the way Method actors talk about. When I was in drama school I tried to get into that, and I wasn’t very successful. I certainly admire Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro and Julie Harris and the great Method actors. But I myself- my acting career is secondary. I do it occasionally. And I’m much more of the old school of just “don’t bang into the furniture.”
As a fan of your material and then reading your book, you sort of leave it as an open question as to whether you believe in the viability of romantic love. If someone you cared for deeply came to you and said “I’ve fallen in love and I’ve met the perfect person and it’s gonna be forever” — I wonder what your reaction to that would be?
[laughs]. My reaction would be, “Well, good luck with that!” The forever thing – I don’t know. It’s funny, I’ve recently – you know sometimes, I go back – I write songs and then they get lost in the shuffle, so I have a song which appeared on a record some years ago and it was only released in the United Kingdom. The Best of the BBC. There’s a song on that called “It’s Love and I Hate It.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it – I think it tells the whole story right there. There’s even a verse about, you know, “It will last forever, I’ll push you in your wheelchair, Promise if I die, you’ll join me.” I mean, I like being in love. It’s exciting and fun and like everybody else, I’m looking for love – I’ll say that for sure. As to whether or not it works or can work – I suppose there are cases where it does work – but it’s a rough one. But I haven’t stopped trying.
You’re a writer I consider to be in the tradition of American song dating back to Cole Porter and early Tin Pan Alley and maybe even things that preceded that and then runs through contemporary figures like Father John Misty or Courtney Barnett. I wonder where you see yourself in this continuum. As a singer-songwriter in the 70’s did punk rock make an impression on you? Or some of the angry-young-men stuff? I always group you more aesthetically with an Elvis Costello or Graham Parker than say James Taylor.
Yeah, I mean those guys you mentioned in particular I recognized were really good songwriters. And Ian Dury. You know, I lived in England – I was there in the late 70’s and saw some of that Pub Rock stuff start — Brinsley Schwartz and Chili Willy and The Peppers, so yeah I recognized those bands and admire them. But I also admire James Taylor. What an interesting guitar player. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about him.
There was a period in the mid-70’s when sensitive folk was the dominant sound in radio. In my mind guys like you and Warren Zevon had too much edge to connect to a mass audience like James Taylor or Jackson Browne.
Well, you know, I kind of half-heartedly tried in the late 70’s with a couple of producers to come up with – the expression was, in those days, something more “radio friendly” I don’t know if they still use that. I made two records for Arista – T Shirt and Final Exam – and that was kind of my last shot to come up with something that could be on the radio and would sell records. And the records are the least favorite records that I’ve made. And there are some good things on them, but overall I kind of cringe when I think about those records. And by the end of the 70’s, I just thought, “Fuck it.” I mean, I had been dropped by three labels and besides the novelty song “Dead Skunk”, nothing had really happened in terms of commercial radio. So then I just went back to letter A again and started to make really simple records, and records that were not as adorned and I stopped trying to get on the radio. And that was a relief.
Your memoir is threaded through with essays by your father who wrote for Life magazine. How did you make the decision to place his work in your memoir? I think at one point you refer to the two of you as “twins.”
My father was a big deal for me. We didn’t have a great relationship. It got a little better toward the end of his life, but overall I would have to say we were not close. On the other hand, he was – like most parents – a big influence on me. And then when he died in 1988, I made this record called History, which was almost driven by that event. There’s lots of songs about him and me, and fathers and sons, and there’s even a song that he wrote called “Handful of Dust” which I recorded for that record. And it began a whole new thing for me about writing about my parents, and I’d say that was kind of a turning point event. And then about five or six years ago, twenty-something years after he died, I re-read one of his columns – this column called “Another Sort of Love Story” about having to put the family dog down. And that was so beautifully written and it was such a powerful experience for me that it led me to work on this thing that I also do now, which is this one-man show that I do called Surviving Twins. I perform his writing – it’s not like I read it, I’ve actually memorized it – and I’ve done it in London and L.A. and a few times in New York. And that brings into this whole thing my training as an actor. And then the decision to include my dad’s writing in the book – I’m a fan. I just like the idea, as I say in the beginning of the book, that I like the idea of him riding shotgun with me on this trip or journey or ride or whatever you want to call it. And I wanted to share some of his writing. You know, when he died he was only 63 and he was kind of a big deal when I was a kid. I love the idea that my fans – or even people that would have remembered his work – could read it again. And that’s why I included it in the book.
Do you look back and feel that you understand that guy better? Not to be hokey, but is there anything you wish could have said to him when he was alive?
Yeah, you know, we didn’t get to spend enough time together really. You want to let your parents know that you love them, and that you forgive them. That’s a really important thing. Because if you don’t forgive your parents, you’re never going to forgive yourself. And if you don’t forgive yourself you’re fucked. That’s my experience.
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