It was an entrance worthy of Oscar Wilde himself.
Two-and-a-half years ago, at the Los Angeles offices of his label DreamWorks, decadent dandy Rufus Wainwright came slinking in like a fox fresh out of the henhouse. In his chic Kenneth Coles, leather slacks and a rumpled dinner jacket he’d worn the night before, he collapsed into a meeting-room chair, brushed just-washed strands of shoulder-length shag out of his bloodshot eyes and croaked “Coffee!” to the nearest intern. “I need some coffee as soon as possible.” The New Yorker had been up all night at the post-Oscars Vanity Fair party, he hastily explained, squinting against the sunlight, and he’d finally crept back to his hotel room around eight a.m. And the list of celebrities with whom he’d hobnobbed was stunning: Sting, Eugene Levy, Joaquin Phoenix, Simon LeBon, Courtney Love, Patty Hearst, John Waters, Catherine O’Hara, and, of course, one of his best friends in the music biz, Melissa Auf Der Mar. He didn’t need java, I reckoned—his champagne-induced hangover called for some stiff hair of the dog.
But Wainwright—who was then just preparing to release his second set of fey piano-folk songs, the debauchery-themed Poses—was flying so high on his own hard-partying profile, he couldn’t return to ho-hum Earth. The chisel-cheekboned, muttonchop-whiskered son of legendary artists Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle had—since his critically touted eponymous debut in ’98—somehow managed to become everyone’s pet party guest, a regular recipient of every A-list invitation imaginable. Wingdings he not only attended, but often closed down in a typically drunken and/or chemical-related stupor. He was fun, all the stars seemed to agree, because he dared to be obnoxious, dared to teeter on the brink, dared to be a Wildean train wreck. Should he derail? Bravo, they might applaud. All the more charming.
In the early years of hawking his craft, Wainwright said at the time, he’d show up at bars and—after quite a few cocktails—begin to croon his originals from the pub piano. It was shameless self-promotion, he admitted. “But there was something kind of endearing about it, too, because I was probably the one who was the most drunk. I was not afraid to have a good time, not afraid to be outrageous and say, ‘I’m gonna be a star!’ There was nothing at all very subtle about me.” And he just couldn’t help it, he concluded—once night fell in Manhattan, he was out on the town boozing, usually bouncing from drawing-room sambucas to supper-club cosmopolitans, then straight into nightspot standards like beer, whiskey and tequila. Then, like a vampire, home to the mystic crypt before sunup.
Wainwright’s hands trembled as he steadied his coffee, a full five months before the 9/11 tragedy would change the world. Was there really anything wrong with such a selfishly carnal existence? he wondered. Especially when it led to such striking collections as Poses, which noted “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” as a couple of his less deadly physical cravings. The singer’s answer would come soon, and in life-altering ways he wasn’t expecting.
Wainwright’s dad, Loudon, was famous for his ’72 novelty hit, “Dead Skunk.” His mom, Kate, was notorious as one-half of an eccentric folk act, the McGarrigle Sisters. But Junior—despite his delicately nasal singing voice and operatically grand keyboard melodies—was fast becoming known as a blinding Roman candle of a personality—a performer whose self-destructive behavior was bound to burn him out way before his time. The only remaining question: Exactly how much wick was left?
Cut to New York’s swank Soho Grand Hotel, a few weeks ago, a day before the summer blackout shut down the bustling metropolis. Right on time, in strolls Rufus Wainwright, and some differences are immediately apparent. Gone are the long hair and whiskers—he’s sporting a new Friends-short style and boyishly clean-shaven face. No suitcases sagging beneath his lids, either—in his suede sandals, flared jeans and skinny T-shirt, he’s bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, totally alive. No double espresso required. Grabbing a seat in the bar, he surveys a phalanx of liquor bottles, shakes his head and orders an iced tea instead. Soon he’s pawing through his messenger bag, looking for a shirt he might wear to that afternoon’s photo shoot—a vintage U.K.-sold McGarrigle Sisters tee, with his mom decked out as a toil ’n’ trouble witch. He cackles over it with his peculiar laugh, a rat-a-tat-tat report somewhere between Fran Drescher and Woody Woodpecker.
Why do fans become so Rufus-rabid? Perhaps it's his way of making all that decadence sound positively regal, through lace-latticed phraseology and majestic piano chords. One Poses madrigal, “The Consort,” for example, sounds like some dusty minuet beamed in from the harpsichord Elizabethan age. And it actually was influenced by the pomp-and-circumstance Queen, as played by Cate Blanchette in the picture-perfect Elizabeth. As the track builds to a trumpety crescendo, you can almost see the young Liz, walking warily into her own turncoat-rife royal ball. That's the unique power Wainwright has—to take visuals, whether cinematic or inspired by real life, and re-paint them through his piano palette into panoramic new vignettes. It's a rare gift. Because his subject matter means so much to the artist, it ends up feeling important to his listeners, as well.
The singer has a new album to discuss—Want (aka Want One), the first of an intended double-disc set, with the second (Want Two) to follow early next year. Produced by hip newcomer Marius DeVries, the 14-track set (recorded in London and New York) also features such stellar side-folk as guitarist Charlie Sexton, drummer Levon Helm, Linda and Teddy Thompson on backing vocals, mother Kate on banjo and accordion, even two orchestras and the London Oratory School Choir. And it’s quite a collection, from an opening monastic musing, “Oh What a World,” through gorgeous acoustic acrobatics like “I Don’t Know What It Is,” “Go or Go Ahead,” and “14th Street,” to the ornate off-Broadway-ish compositions “Vibrate,” “Vicious World,” [Ed: S/b “Vicious World”?] “Pretty Things,” “Dinner at Eight” and “Harvester of Hearts.” With, naturally, some delectable strictly pop sing-alongs sandwiched in between: “11:11,” “Beautiful Child” and “Movies of Myself.” All sung and played as if they were composed in formal tie and tails; Wainwright’s persona to a T: offstage disarray contrasted with polished onstage perfection.
Sipping his tea, Wainwright explains that the material just rocketed forth—he wrote and tracked 30 songs in only six months. Many, he adds, were penned while arena-rawk maestro Andrew W.K. was pounding at his piano upstairs from his nearby flat. “We didn’t talk that much,” he recalls. “But our common whining pleas to the cosmos would collide in the backyard.” Which leads him to a new theory he’s hit on: Wainwright is now dividing his life into decades, with his 20s revolving around “pop records in my version of that genre. But I hit 30 a week ago, July 22nd, Saturn returns, got my shit straightened out that I had to and realized that I don’t necessarily have to limit myself to the recording industry in terms of what I could do, musically.
“I mean, my first love is opera. And when I was a child, my mother told me over and over again that I could be “Annie” in a musical because sometimes they cast young boys.” Another Woody Woodpecker Titter (henceforth annotated as “WWT.”) “So I was brought up with that, and also my favorite singer as a child was Al Jolson. And needless to say musicals—especially musicals involving film—are the hottest ticket around right now, so music for the theater is pretty imminent for me. And certainly with the way the rock scene’s going, I don’t know … if I can hack it. I’m tired of trying to be too cool for school, but I still wanna be accepted by a wide audience. So it’s … difficult.”
Wainwright, however, has graduated from cravings to wants this time around. And yes, he says, he’s definitely entered a questioning phase with his two new forays. Part one covers deeper philosophical issue; part two is reserved for what he terms “more racier stuff, and longer stuff that’s sort of harder, perhaps even more theatrical, like nine-minute songs. And we assumed that once people had part one, they would buy part two. And there may be more answers on the second, but I think there might be bigger, more confusing questions too.”
Which brings us full-circle to the issue at hand. What brought on such sudden introspection? What dramatic occurrence in Wainwright’s life sparked this emotional sea change? He pauses, stares out the window for a minute. “Wellll … I … pretty much had a nervous breakdown” (WWT.) “From constant touring, excessive drug use and alcoholic drinking. I was doing a lot of speed and a lot of boozing. And I’m going public with the crystal meth thing just because if I can help anybody out and if anybody can not go through what I went through, or if anyone’s in that sort of predicament, then so much the better.”
How did the artist wind up living through a private version of the film Spun? It was a fairly easy trap to tumble into, he sighs. “I think what happened with me is that I had such a heavy schedule, and such a chip on my shoulder in terms of the” and he waggles his fingers to denote quotation marks “‘load I had to bear,’ and being hounded down all the time and being the center of attention. But once I did a little bit of crystal meth, I was off—I would just disappear. And especially with being gay and stuff, it just tied into all of those dark feelings that gay men have. You know, years of sexual denial and low-grade oppression in that department.” The escalator kept right on descending. “Every time I did [speed], it was like I was taking the biggest vacation, and death would be the best vacation. In that mind frame, the closer you got to death, the better it seemed. I was just really wasting my life for about a year. And after 9/11, it just got too dark in general—there was no longer any room for that type of denial and decadence, because it was just another world after 9/11.”
Wainwright doesn’t shy away from the gory drug-abuse details, either: “I went blind for about an hour—really blind, I couldn’t see anymore. And I lost my mind for about one second, and I knew it. … See, what happened to me was, I didn’t do [speed] a lot, but when I did it, I would do a lot of other drugs too—a lot of Ecstasy and Special K, until it just became a big snowball of drugs.” And he goes on to relate his absolute worst under-the-influence tale—of when he should’ve left a bar when he sensed things were going wrong in his drugged-out system, but didn’t—that’s downright hair-raising, everyone’s worst nightmare personified. He also found himself becoming “politically toxic”—yelling at his TV screen whenever news about Bush or his war in Iraq came on. Finally, it hit him. “I realized that if I’m gonna be at all effective in this dangerous world, or have an opinion at all in my next projects and go out and face the public, then I had to get my own shit in order, I had to rearrange my own house. So I had to go away and do that—I went to rehab, Hazeldon. I was there for a month.”
Whether you choose to follow a 12-step program or not, there is one important lesson that almost every rehab patient understands upon leaving: You use, you die. Period. With no gray areas in between. Wainwright is in total agreement. “My opinions vary on a lot of things,” he frowns. “But one thing for certain is There is no such thing as recreational, or casual, crystal meth use. And I think it’s really playing in the gay community big-time now—cardiologists must be making a fortune.”
Clean and sober, he dove into Want. “Part of the songs had been written beforehand, and then part of them are sort of answers to the questions,” he continues. “Because I do believe that I wrote some great material in the depths of my despair. But I also had to write some answers to that despair, to accompany these melodies. And that’s probably why I had so much material at the end, because a lot of these songs have their shadow images.”
For example, Wainwright cites “Go or Go Ahead”—a softly strummed sonnet with the lines “Thank you for this bitter knowledge, guardian angels who left me stranded / It was worth it, feeling abandoned”—and its post-Hazeldon reflection “14th Street” (“You walked me down 14th Street for the doctor to meet after thoughts of the grave / In the home of the brave and of the weak”). Another subtly chiming processional, “Natasha,” ponders “Do you really know how scary this is for you and me? / Do you really know?” Wainwright confesses that it was composed for a friend who’s currently “on the other side of the fence from me, who’s just gone through what I went through. There’s this space between us and I can’t really help them, so all I can do is lead by example. All I can do is write a song about it.”
Wainwright has few regrets about his trip into the abyss. He reasons that “I didn’t kill anybody, I wasn’t arrested, I made two albums, and maybe my eyes got a little puffy.” Fair enough. And he finally came to see the party scene for the shallow, pleasure-seeking sham that it is. He’s been working out, gulping vitamins and generally following an early-to-bed, early-to-rise regimen. When the sun sets each night he still gets uneasy, even a bit scared, he admits—”I equate it with going out, and Poses starts to play in my brain. So I don’t really go out to bars anymore—I’ve got DVDs and I still love going to the opera. And I also spend so much time at my piano, hours will just go by.”
In several Want selections, this former Good Time Charlie openly admits to having the blues: “Oh Lord what have I done to myself / In this vicious world” (“Vicious World”); “I’m looking for a reason, a person, a painting … a love that is longer than a day” (“Movies of Myself”); “I don’t want to know the answers to any of your questions … But I’ll settle for love, yeah, I’ll settle for love” (the title track). The irony is rich. The openly out Wainwright is the charismatic kind of star whose kinetic energy inevitably attracts a host of acolytes. Gay fans want to bed him. Straight women want to convert him. And just about everyone who falls under his intoxicating, self-deprecating spell (one kooky, aside-riddled concert is usually all it takes) covets, at the very least, a small spark of that fire to keep for themselves. Wainwright sees some of those hangers-on as “vampires,” scenesters who’d suck every last drop of blood from his desiccated body, then champion him as one more dead rock martyr. “A lot of people said to me ‘We did expect you to die,’” he murmurs, uncomfortably. “Which kinda shocked me’ ’cause some of ’em were people who were dear to me. And it’s an odd thing, because you expect them to try to run in there and save you at that moment.” He shakes his head, No—it never works out that way. “I suppose there’s a certain entertainment in just … watching. And I don’t think the people around you can be blamed for doing that, because if you’re gonna save yourself, it’s really up to you.”
Throughout Want, Wainwright considers the nature of true love. “But right now,” he says, “I’ve gotten to such a point in my life where I have to look inward and fix a lot of that yellow brick road that’s there. So the more I work on myself, the more attractive I become to that other person who can now see me in the daylight, as opposed to the haze. The hazy evening, where nothing ever really gets done.”
For confirmation, Wainwright gestures toward the glowing rays of afternoon sunlight, refracting through his iced tea glass. This, he sighs. “This feels wonderful.”
To test himself the night before, he dropped by one of the city’s jumping gay joints for a few minutes. It felt almost abstract, he reports. “My friend looked around and said ‘Are there any gays who aren’t alcoholics?’ And I said ‘Are there any gays who aren’t gay?’ Not to put the culture down—although I have every right ‘cause I’m one of ’em—but the whole club-centric, bar-centric thing is just so mediocre in my mind, in this day and age. I mean, 8th Avenue on a Sunday morning is such a wreckage zone. And the more ghettoized it’s gotten, the more being gay has become a party-centric lifestyle … I dunno, I just find it boring. And if you’re not doing that, then you’re really high and dry. That’s the only bone I have to pick with it. But I certainly love debauchery and decadence, but when there’s no artistic clout involved, or it’s all purely about size and sex … I dunno. I’m just sick of scenes entirely, maybe.”
If you listen closely to the Want title cut, striated within a roster of ‘don’ts’—“I really don’t want to be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen”—is a telling, perhaps Freudian slip. “I just want to be my Dad,” Wainwright warbles. “With a slight sprinkling of my mother.” And in retrospect, he’s quite cool with such a touching confession. “Certainly in my breakdown period, right before I was gonna go to rehab and when I was really screwed up, I was gonna either of two things,” he explains. “I was gonna go to rehab, or I was gonna go live with my dad in his backyard. He’d moved to L.A. and had a house out there. And I think that drugs can be revelatory, so I’d had a revelation of my father being the key to this cycle that he and I have been caught up in. And that it has to be broken and dealt with, and that it can be dealt with on this earth.
“Then when I got to rehab, I realized that this was a common thread through a lot of men. We were in all-male wards, and once you get to issues with their fathers, that’s when they break down. It’s odd—the love between a father and a son is really volatile. Then when I got back … I dunno, I just respected him more. I mean, for all the crap that he’s done to me and leaving me as a child, at least he’s always been honest and always taken care of himself. My father has always been able to survive, musically and career-wise, and he’s always been able to transform and better himself. So that’s when I realized that I do wanna be my dad, in a lotta ways. I mean, I wanna do my own thing and have my own career. But he’s such a survivor, and that’s what I wanna be.”
But what happens when that next Vanity Fair invite arrives in the mail? Could the inquisitive, fun-loving Wainwright truly decline such a five-star bash? “Parties?” he sniffs, confidently. “I can go to them. But I’ll tell you, there’s something far more intelligent in showing up at the party and leaving elegantly early. Show up elegantly late, leave elegantly early. I’ve done that many times lately—show up, do a little circle, then head for the exit. Thank you, and goodnight!”
As with much of Want, there’s a strong karmic undercurrent to what this artist has just said that warrants further investigation. The metaphoric message? Wainwright smiles contentedly. “I have to stick around for awhile, mainly because a lot of the other people—whether it’s Jeff Buckley or Kurt Cobain—have gone. And this industry has become such a grinding factory that a lot of songwriters aren’t even getting to come to fruition. So it’s very important for me to stick around and keep my wits about me, otherwise … there’s just not gonna be much out there for people to listen to. If I self-destruct, I do believe that it’s socially irresponsible because a lot of people need me right now, which I have to respect.” WWT.
“Oh yeah—and also, I really wanna live. I have family and friends, and I love being alive. You know, stuff like that. And I need those bigger answers! On my desk by Monday!”