One Sunday afternoon this past October, I dropped my wife and my kid off at a store at Desert Ridge Marketplace, then wandered into the Barnes & Noble there to kill some time. I happened to notice a small flyer on the wall announcing that Loudon Wainwright III would be appearing at the store at 2 p.m. that day to perform and to sign his new book, a memoir called Liner Notes.
I checked the time. It was about 20 after 1, so I called my wife and told her that I’d be hanging around for the event. I’m a fan of Wainwright myself, and my friend Dave is a true hardcore “Loud-head” with an encyclopedic knowledge of the man’s career and music.
For all you non-Loud-heads: Loudon Wainwright III is a folk singer and songwriter. He’s been on the scene since around 1970, when he was one of the artists briefly touted as “the new Bob Dylan,” and is most widely known for his only chart hit, 1972’s “Dead Skunk.” But he’s released well over 20 albums in the ensuing decades, been nominated for a Grammy three times, and won once. His songs tend to be humorous, though often with a troublingly poignant or spiky undercurrent.
He’s also an occasional film and TV actor — according to his book, his original aspiration — who played the “singing surgeon” Captain Spalding on M*A*S*H and has also appeared in such movies as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. I first remember seeing him as the musical guest on one of the earliest episodes of Saturday Night Live, back in 1975.
So I picked up a copy of Liner Notes for Wainwright to sign, as a slam-dunk gift for Dave, then headed back to the rows of folding chairs to wait for him to show.
I was the first person to arrive. The second person to arrive, as 2 p.m. rolled around, was Wainwright himself.
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Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. Minutes before showtime, the poor young woman from Barnes & Noble who was handling the event managed to dragoon some teenage, or maybe very early college-age, girl into the row of seats behind me. Then she led Wainwright, with guitar at the ready, up to the mic, explaining to him that the young lady had heard of Loudon’s son, singer Rufus Wainwright.
So Loudon Wainwright III, who once played to a packed house at the Royal Albert Hall (opening for the Everly Brothers), played a free private concert for the teenage girl and me, and later a couple of old ladies who wandered up out of curiosity. Well, not free — I bought the book, after all — but still, a pretty good deal.
Wainwright started the show by asking, I think half-jokingly, if we had any requests. I did. My favorite of his songs is “Tonya’s Twirls,” a topical ballad he performed on ABC’s Nightline about figure skater Tonya Harding at the height of that 1994 scandal (I was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t on the soundtrack of the upcoming I, Tonya). Like so many of his songs, it has a jaded, cynical wit, countered by a wistful pang for the lost innocence of little girls turned into cutthroat competitors by nationalist medal fever and the hunger for endorsement money.
“Do your Tonya Harding song,” I said.
Wainwright looked pretty astonished at the request. But he gamely started strumming.
“I hope I can remember it all,” he said.
He launched into it, but in the middle of the second verse he hesitated, then trailed off, and nodded toward the young girl in the row behind me.
“I’m sorry, I can’t sing the word ‘slut’ in front of this young lady,” he said. “How about my hit?”
And with that, he struck up a spirited “Dead Skunk.”
Even setting aside the oddity of the circumstances, Wainwright was pretty great. He played several more songs, and read passages from Liner Notes, the best being about a play-date he had with Liza Minnelli at Judy Garland’s house when they were in second grade. He also read a piece by his father, the longtime Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., about the passing of a beloved family dog, that was both so elegantly written and so emotionally potent that it easily brought tears to my eyes.
After the performance, he signed my book to Dave, then I went out to the car where my wife censured me for my stupidity at not buying a copy for myself. I decided she was right, ran back in, grabbed another copy, and caught up to Wainwright as he waited in line with a book for himself (Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop). He signed my book (“To Mark — Thanks for showing up! LW3”) and he asked if he could put me on the guest list for the concert he was playing that night at the nearby Musical Instrument Museum.
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So Dave and I ended up in the nearly full house at the MIM that evening. A few numbers into the show, Wainwright said to the crowd “I had a book-signing at Barnes & Noble today ... where were you? One guy showed up. Mark, are you here?” I yelled that I was and got a small round of applause, after which Wainwright played “Tonya’s Twirls,” this time in its entirety. (A later check of his website revealed that the Barnes & Noble signing somehow had gone unpublicized.)
Sometime in the weeks that followed, I got around to reading Liner Notes, in which Wainwright holds forth about his upscale childhood, his boys’ school and college days and his tenure as a “Summer of Love” hippie, his decision to get serious about his musical career, his poorly conducted marriages and guilt-tinged fatherhood. It’s a funny but surprisingly detailed and reflective memoir — the subtitle is On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things — told with a candor that makes the narrator likable in the face of sometimes unlikable behavior.
It’s also written with the same sort of impressive polish that Wainwright’s father brought to his “The View From Here” columns in Life (a half-dozen or so of these are reprinted in the book). And it’s stuffed with plenty of showbiz anecdotes, from encounters with Dylan and Leonard Cohen to accounts of his ill-fated gig as a bit player in the first Mission: Impossible movie.
From the stage at the MIM, Wainwright held up his book, and in a vaguely ironic tone called it “the perfect stocking-stuffer!” But for the obscure-pop-culture or music buff on your list, I will unironically agree: It’s the perfect stocking-stuffer. Just ask my pal Dave.