If you’ve ever listened to Loudon Wainwright III’s songs, it won’t surprise you that this memoir is unflinchingly honest about his failings as a husband, father, and person. He’s made a career out of mining the ups and downs of his life for material for his songs. He’s written songs about cheating on his wives and not being there for his children, drinking too much, and his complicated relationship with his own parents. It’s a warts and all approach to life that has its merits, but it can be a lot to take.
Liner Notes begins with the conventional biography stuff. How his parents met and married, his early childhood and school days, and the start of his singer-songwriter career. But fairly soon Wainwright transitions to a more scattershot approach, with short chapters devoted to wide-ranging subjects with no connection from one to the next. Each chapter ends with a snippet from the lyrics of one of his songs, and interspersed throughout the book are examples of his famous father’s Life magazine columns, which are similarly wide-ranging in subject.
Wainwright is exceedingly honest about the privileges he had as the son of a wealthy family, revealing how his father’s name and money kept him out of some fairly serious trouble in his teens and twenties. This trend continues in his accounts of his marriages and long-term relationships. Wainwright has four children by three women and describes himself as frequently unfaithful.
What’s missing from all these revelations is any real sense of reflection. While he’s perfectly willing to admit to his faults and castigate himself for his misdeeds, there’s no real sense that he’s learned anything about why he did those things. There’s a real “what can you do?” attitude coming from these passages.
As for his career, Wainwright doesn’t go into much detail about his songwriting or musicianship. There’s more about the business itself, his getting dropped by multiple record labels, his long wait for a Grammy, the loneliness of the road, etc. Some of it is interesting material but it’s hampered by the disjointed, out of order presentation. There’s not much sense of time passing or chronology in these chapters.
Perhaps it’s not too surprising that an autobiography from Loudon Wainwright III feels a bit superfluous. All this stuff is right there in his songs.