The storyteller: Loudon Wainwright III brings his songs, new memoir to The Iron Horse 

  • Loudon Wainwright III, who’s mined his life for years for songs both funny and dark, has written a memoir that tells his story in greater detail. Photo by Ross Halfinn

  • Loudon Wainwright III, who’s mined his life for years for songs both funny and dark, has written a memoir that tells his story in greater detail. Photo by Ross Halfinn

  • Cover of Wainwright’s memoir.

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

In “A Father and A Son,” a track from his 1992 album “History,” Loudon Wainwright III, the master of alternately dark and funny lyrics, offered a more poignant and straightforward tune about his troubled relationship with his then-teenage son, Rufus, and the one he’d had with his own father when he was growing up.

One stanza in particular summed up the yin-yang, push-pull dynamic fathers and sons can have, one often marked by competition: “But he had the power, he needed to win, / His life half over, mine about to begin. /I’m not sure about that Oedipal stuff, / But when we were together it was always rough.”

Now 71, Wainwright, who comes to The Iron Horse in Northampton on Friday, is still thinking a lot about his father (also named Loudon Wainwright), a noted columnist for the former Life magazine who died in 1988. And he’s also reflecting on his own life — something the folk artist and Grammy winner has done for years in his songs, until giving it a much broader examination in his just-published memoir, “Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things.”

Like his music, Wainwright’s memoir offers lots of acerbic wit, self-deprecation, anger, regret — a full range of emotions, including love. In a sense, it’s the latest chapter of a family drama that’s been played out in song for over 40 years by a musical clan including two of Wainwright’s ex-partners, Suzzy Roche and the late Kate McGarrigle, and three of his children: Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche (the last, coincidentally, opened last night for Mary Chapin Carpenter tonight at Northampton’s Calvin Theatre).

In a call from the Pacific Northwest — part of a tour that has him playing clubs and doing readings in bookstores — Wainwright said his memoir was a follow-up of sorts to a one-man theatrical presentation he’s staged over the past few years, “Surviving Twin,” in which he dissected his relationship with his father in part by reading/performing some of his dad’s Life magazine columns. (He calls it a “posthumous collaboration.”)

“My editor, Peter Gethers, saw one of the productions and approached me about writing a book,” he said. “I wasn’t sure about that — my father had been a tortured writer — but in the end I thought, ‘What do have I lose?’ and I got up with a certain amount of regularity in the morning to write.

“Overall it’s been a pretty positive experience,” Wainwright added.

Even if he’s had to recount some of the less savory parts of his life, like the chronic infidelities that ruined his marriage to McGarrigle in the mid 1970s, “That’s all been talked about before,” he said. “You know, every family has its weird stories, its heartbreak and trauma and dysfunction. The difference is I’ve been singing about mine for years.”

And the reviews have been good.  The New York Times calls “Liner Notes” 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…. And yet, as he woos his memories back, there’s a great deal of fondness in this book, too. Like the best songs of the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Roche clan … this straightforward book makes your heart wobble on its axis.”

The “Dead Skunk” guy

As Wainwright fans know, his first two albums, in the early 1970s, got favorable reviews but were commercial flops. His third record did much better, courtesy of a hit single, “Dead Skunk,” a novelty tune he’d dashed off after hitting such a critter with his car in Westchester County in New York.

“Dumb luck, great karma, plus some good old-fashioned payola all combined in a perfect storm,” he writes in his memoir. “The critics’ darling was now a success … [but] where were the follow-up hits, funny animal songs like ‘I Met Her at the Pet Store’ and ‘Stay Away from My Aardvark’?”

If further hits eluded him, plenty of great songs — many fueled by his turbulent personal life — followed over the years. In “Liner Notes,” Wainwright, who lives in New York, also writes pretty openly about dealing for years with depression, saying it has mostly been manageable and often a good source for new material.

“Is it necessary to feel like (expletive) in order to be creative?” he says. “I’d say the answer is, unless you’re J.S. Bach, yes. Or put it another way: It may not be necessary to feel like (expletive), but it couldn’t hurt.” 

He’s certainly gotten a lot of mileage out of failed romances, such as in “People in Love,” a song chockablock with mordant lines like this: “I see people in love and I feel sorry for them / There’s petals on the rose and a thorn on the stem and/ Like famine and earthquake, love’s part of the plan / Part of nature’s inhumanity toward man.”

Over the last several years, he has been drawn increasingly to memories of his father, as well as to thoughts of his own mortality. Aside from “Surviving Twin,” there was his 2012 album, “Older Than My Old Man Now,” the songs for which he composed after turning 64 (his father died at 63). 

“I’ve gotten to the age where it’s pretty common to look back and reflect on where I am and what’s happened, and who are all these people in my life,” Wainwright said. “[My father] is still a big part of my life — he’s in me.” 

Some of his father’s Life columns, in fact, are reproduced in “Liner Notes,” as are the lyrics from many Wainwright songs.

Wainwright, who’s also played numerous small roles in movies and TV shows over the years (“Knocked Up,” “Elizabethtown,” “The Aviator,” “M.A.S.H.”) thinks a lot about his role as a father, too. He’s had an up-and-down relationship with his kids, three of whom have performed live with him and on some of his albums but have also kept their distance at times; both Rufus and Martha took him to task in a few of their songs.

And in tunes like “When You Leave,” Wainwright offers a harsh self-indictment on what his behavior has cost him with his children: “Then you left women / One a wife / To save your skin you wrecked a life / When there’s kids, it’s not just one life you wreck.”

That said, he has been nothing if not prolific in writing those songs, with 27 albums to his credit. When it comes to choosing which tunes to play at his shows, he said, “I tend to be a bit impromptu, based on how I’m feeling. I don’t like to have a set list or have it become too staged.”

At The Iron Horse, he’ll also probably read from his memoir, and maybe from one of his dad’s columns, and perhaps he’ll pluck a really obscure song from his catalog — if he can remember it.

“The other night I played ‘Movies Are A Mother To Me,’ a song from my first album,” he said with a laugh. “But I had to go online to Google the lyrics first.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Loudon Wainwright III plays The Iron Horse Friday at 7 p.m. Christina Joy opens. Visit iheg.com for tickets and more information.