Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir
- By Lucinda Williams
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Causey
- June 28, 2023
The famed singer turns her unflinching eye inward.
The difference between good art and great art is bravery. Superior craftsmanship soars only so high. Art infused with a transparent honesty about its creator and their surrounding world becomes transcendent and illuminating as we experience something genuinely new and thought-provoking.
As a singer-songwriter, Lucinda Williams has been a brave artist for decades. Her voice aches with the pain and exquisite beauty of her lyrics. Her new memoir, Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, is equal to her best songs; in its often-searing pages, she provides context and backstories to some of her finest work.
With relentless honesty, she covers her insecurities and ongoing struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She tells painful tales about her emotionally damaged, physically ravaged mother, who didn’t come close to providing a calm, consistent home environment. Her father, a professor and something of a poet, did better, but he’s not without his flaws. Williams’ relationship with her parents dominates the early part of the book, which chronicles a childhood marked by lots of moving and instability.
She’s also candid about her love affairs and propensity for a certain type of bad boy. Grappling for years with a weakness for substance-abusing dangerous types, she was long drawn to intellectuals with attitude. Think “poet on a Harley.” Many of these relationships ended poorly. Now happily married for several years, Williams shares her joy and sense that she’s evolved both as a person and a partner.
As a songwriter, she’s a fascinating mix of instinctual and dogged. She recalls several times when a line or riff popped into her head, and then she’d massage it — for days or even months — into the song she wanted. Those poignant songs speak for themselves, but several albums benefit from the origin stories featured here, including her commercial breakthrough, 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and its intentionally different follow-up, 2001’s Essence.
We learn a lot about Williams’ personal ethos, too, which is based more on how blues singers conduct their lives than on hippies or others in her early social circle. “The whole hippie thing could be so intimidating and limiting in its way,” she writes. “The blues guys taught me to be irrepressible.”
She includes a valuable postscript that distills down her approach to life and offers practical guidance and recommendations for what kind of art to explore. Among others, she suggests reading Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath. She tells us to listen to John Coltrane and Loretta Lynn. Embrace travel. Talk to people outside your own bubble. Take care of the earth. Dye your hair pink or blue. Most of all, enjoy the ride. (Personally, I appreciated our mutual admiration of Flannery O’Connor and distaste for the vaunted William Faulkner.)
Surprisingly, Williams doesn’t mention her own serious health struggles of late. She suffered a stroke in November 2020, and recovery has been slow. She walked with a cane for a time and still can’t play guitar, yet she’s also released some fine records and performed live since.
Nonetheless, there’s an echo throughout the book of what health issues can do to a creative person. As Williams’ aging father slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s, he tells his daughter he can no longer write poetry. In one of the most powerful and moving sections of the memoir, Williams recalls a visit to him during which she left a long note essentially saying he’d always be a poet whether he was composing or not.
It would be interesting to know if her own physical ailments frightened her in a similar way, and whether anybody offered her the same kind of support she’d given her father. We’ll have to hope for a second volume to find out, but I’m willing to wait. In the meantime, I may reread this one while playing a few of her classics in the background. They’re the soundtrack, after all, of a special life well lived.
Michael Causey is host of “A Good Hour” on WOWD 94.3 FM and takomaradio.org.