(Photo by Danny Clinch)
IN ONE OF THOSE FLASH but anonymous hotels at the harbour end of the city centre, Lucinda Williams has just come down from her room, a large takeaway coffee in her hand. In denim, a shock of silver unruly hair, and some serious boots, she seems happier, chattier, more relaxed than any previous interview I’ve had with her.
More than anything she seems ready, even eager, to laugh. While guitar playing is now out of the question, today the only signs of the stroke she had in late 2020 are a slight slurring of some words and some unsteadiness in her hand gripping the coffee.
Williams is heading up the coast for a festival show, and there’s Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart, an album of new songs on the horizon (read about that in part two of this interview on Thursday), but for the moment the focus is on Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You, her memoir that, like her songs, offers a kind of physical and emotional roadmap of American life.
There’s literature and cars, mental health (her mother’s; her own) and redemptive music, the crumbling marriage of her parents and her own sometimes wayward choice of lovers, her father the college professor and his literary friends and the drugs and drinking that underpinned that life, the small towns of the American south and the cities where culture dabbles with business.
And there’s a powerful revelation of a horror at the centre of her wider family that resonates through generations, and in a way through multiple careers.
Did she feel like she had to tell everything with the book?
“I try to balance it out between my personal life – my childhood, growing up – and then the music world. I think I balanced that out pretty well,” Williams says. “I ran into an older gentleman one night in a bar when we are on the road, and I told him I was writing a book. He is one of these old-timers you know and he seemed like he knew what he was talking about, and he said ‘let me give you some advice: don’t write about your childhood. Nobody wants to hear about that. Just write about the music. Make it all about the music.”
Was he right?
“I remembered what he said but I decided not to take his advice,” she says. “People would ask me about my childhood, and it’s connected with my songs so much. Some of it I’ve told them when I perform: I do a song and I’ll tell the story behind the song. I feel like the book is kind of an extension of those stories.”
Just because you can write a song or tell a story doesn’t mean you can write a book. Or should. Williams admits that “I had no idea, I didn’t know where to start”, and once started, keeping track of the chronology, remembering where in her peripatetic childhood she was at particular times, was the next difficulty. Though memory is a mixed blessing.
“Other people were helpful though with remembering things, like my sister. Everybody remembers things differently and she remembers things that I don’t remember at all. I even had a friend from high school that happened with,” Williams says. “He insisted that this story was true: we had a party at our house in New Orleans when I was a teenager, my dad was kind of chaperoning, and my friend said these kids were coming down the street and started harassing him, like they were going to beat him up and – he insisted this is true – he said my father came out on the front porch with a gun, like in the movies or something, and he scared them away. He said your father saved my life, I’ll never forget that night.
“I said, I can’t imagine my father with a gun; we never had guns in the house, he never liked them.”
The idea of truth, the last truth, is also central to her album, which in some ways is an extension or continuation of the album. Or of a life spent surrounded by stories that weren’t always being told, except in song, like that of her brother, Robert who she addresses in the song Little Angel, Little Brother.
As she writes in her book, “It’s a list of images and impressions I had of my brilliant little brother, with a touch of sorrow. … Something had happened to him that I still don’t understand to this day. I can only speak to the traumas and struggles of my childhood; I’m not sure what Robert struggles were.”
Does it feel like an unquenchable truth what she is telling on the page and in the songs, or is it more nebulous, more like this is how she feels about what may or may not have happened?
“I definitely think it’s true. I really went to great lengths to get the facts straight,” Williams says firmly. “But that’s an interesting topic, an interesting dilemma when you are writing a book like this. I was talking to [songwriter, singer and celebrated country music sideman] Rodney Crowell, because he wrote his own book not too long ago, and I was impressed by some of the details in his book. We were talking backstage at a show one night and I said, I need to ask you how do you know what you were wearing when you were six years old?”
If it seems a slight question, the opposite is the case as for Williams it brought up the question of can you elaborate on things that that? Does every little detail have to be exactly the truth?
“He said, that he had gotten advice from the writer Mary Carr, who he’s been collaborating with, and she told Rodney that you are allowed: it was okay for the writer to create a little picture of him or herself. You can say you were wearing a plaid shirt and overalls and it’s okay. I think that’s interesting, but I didn’t do that.”
I tell her about a personal experience recently where several members of my close and wider family have remembered things that happened to me as a child involving one parent, that I have no memory of at all. It’s more than a little perplexing if not disturbing before we even get to what the truth is. Had she found people’s memories filling in the blanks in hers in ways she had never expected?
“It’s something I’ve been struggling with. My father had told me that apparently, as far as he knew, my mother had been sexually molested in her family. We don’t know by who or anything, but I put that in the book. Then I was worried because my sister said I don’t know if you should say anything and I said well I don’t want to protect anyone if it actually happened. Because it could have been my grandfather, which was horribly upsetting.
“So just when the book was getting ready to be published I was having second thoughts: maybe I shouldn’t have put anything in there about this. What if somebody in the family reads this and they get upset and it hurts their feelings? Or what if it actually didn’t happen?”
Some of us think we have stories to tell but don’t want to deal with them until certain people are dead. That doesn’t mean it’s right of course: protecting the reputation or the memory of people being a double-edge sword.
“I can’t believe you said that, because I said that to people for years when I said I should write a book. I’d say I can’t do it yet because I’ve got to wait with until more people die,” says Williams.
“My mother is gone now, but still it doesn’t matter. You would think, oh she’s not alive anymore so I can say whatever I want to say. But you don’t want to do that really because you feel like it’s disrespectful. See, that’s why this is so hard.”
As a songwriter, one of the beauties of her songs has been not just the frankness of them but the understanding. It’s not that she tells truth, which is what she does of course, it’s that she tells the truth with compassion for herself and for the other people. Even when it’s really ugly and she is angry with someone, there is still a sense of her not sticking the knife in all the way.
“Right,” she says with her long drawl. “Unless you have compassion you can’t really write about something very well. I remember when I was first experiencing that as a songwriter, one of the songs would have been Drunken Angel, and the other was Lake Charles. Both of those guys were big drinkers, they kind of screwed up their own lives, and it would have been easy to point the finger. But I didn’t want to do that. I remember thinking that very thing when I was first writing the songs: how am I going to do this?
“Little did I know that it was practice for when I was going to write a book.”
It is as if she has a responsibility to them too, not just to be compassionate but to tell the truth with some understanding.
“And,” says Williams. “It’s also a lesson for those listening.”
THURSDAY: Lucinda Williams talks about trust and collaboration in the aftermath of a stroke that might have ended her music career. And why Bruce Springsteen didn’t say no. READ HERE.
Don’t Tell Anybody The Secrets I Told You is published on July 5, Simon & Schuster.
Stories From A Rock N Roll Heart is out on June 30, on Highway 20/Thirty Tigers.