May 8, 2004
As rock mavericks go, Rufus Wainwright has something of a dream CV: he’s gay, has done hard drugs and is the son of two folk heroes, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. He is handsome in a dissolute way. His songs are baroque and romantic; and combine pop and opera, classical and folk. For Elton John he is “the as-yet unheralded American treasure”. Sting will duet with him at the Albert Hall next week.
But is the swaggering balladeer — who poses as a slain knight in shining armour for the cover of his latest album, Want One, re-released this week — as devil-may-care as he’d like us believe? He is still recovering from a near-catastrophic brush with the club drug crystal meth. “I’m in a precarious state,” he says.
He is working on his fourth album, Want Two, on which a number of songs attack George W. Bush. “I see Bush, Cheney and the neoconservatives as akin to the Antichrist. My favourite expression is ‘You shall reap what you sow’ and that’s definitely happening with Iraq right now — there was such little planning, such a lack of sensitivity.”
Fine, but what would Wainwright have done differently? The 30-year-old singer pouts as if the question is just stoopid. “I personally believe environmentally and socially we have hit this point in the world where if we don’t take care of certain problems soon and shift the general mechanism of the planet, we’re f*****. I think we should be bringing our own cups to Starbucks and using electric cars.”
He holds forth opinions, rambling and predictable as they might be, with passion. Indeed, he’s supremely self-confident. His third album,Want One, is dedicated “to me”. At 6, he started playing piano. A score he composed for a film was nominated for a Genie (a Canadian Oscar) when he was 13. “I think the most unhappy part in my teenage years was realising I was gay. It happened to coincide with the onslaught of Aids. I felt doomed to death. I didn ‘t have sex for seven years. Every time I got a little zit, I’d think ‘Oh god’ . . .”
This fear was exacerbated when, on holiday in London aged 14, he was raped. “I went to a nightclub. I looked so young; I mean I lookedlike a newt. I was picked up by this guy. He brought me to Hyde Park. I thought it was for a romantic stroll. I really had no idea what was going on. During the rape, I was screaming and then he started to strangle me and threatened to throw me into the Serpentine. I eventually got out of the situation by pretending to be epileptic. Then he robbed me.”
He sounds very matter-of-fact. “It was character building,” he says wryly. “Hard knocks make you what you are, but I think the gay drive to have sex immediately when you’re younger does have its casualties — and 14 is too young to have sex.”
He didn’t tell his parents about it. They had separated when he was little (Wainwright and his sister stayed with their mother) and his relationship with his father has long been fractious. Six years ago, when he released his first album, Wainwright predicted that his career would surpass his father’s. He claims to have been hoodwinked into saying this, but Wainwright Sr believed he was trying to upstage him. “And maybe I was. But I really hurt him, which I regret.”
They have both sung about each other. When Wainwright was a baby, his father famously sang “Rufus is a tit man” in a reference to the competition between father and son for McGarrigle’s breast. InDinner at Eight, a song on Want One, Wainwright Jr writes: “So put up your fists and I’ll put up mine/No running away from the scene of the crime” and warns his father not be surprised “if I want to see the tears in your eyes ”.
It’s a beautiful song, but Wainwright has difficulty in explaining his feelings without lapsing into therapy-ese. “A lot of the things I hated about my father and resented him for, later on I realised I needed to take on and adopt some of those qualities in order to survive as a man in the world.”
Like what? “Being selfish, stern, being healthy, being mad (as in angry) — those kind of fierce survival instincts that lie mostly within the father.” As for his relationship with his mother: “It’s complex and dark. It’s about fierce love, hatred, competition, sexual politics. My mother’s the universe to me. It’s like I’m still in her womb a lot of the time.”
Which is bonkers, of course, but as his brilliant, rich songs suggest, Wainwright is an unfettered emotional creature. For this reason he loves opera, which he first came across aged 13. “A friend gave me a recording of Verdi’s Requiem with Leontyne Price singing on it. And that was it. Opera deals frankly with death and love. My voice really enjoys being acrobatic, so naturally I reacted to those singers.”
After boarding school (“I actually quite like institutions”) he went to McGill University to study piano and art, but dropped out when he fell in love with a boy called Danny, immortalised as Danny Boy on his first album. They experimented with drugs though never had sex. “I figured I’d be a bohemian for a while, then write about it and sing about it,” Wainwright says. “I had the luxury of knowing I could go home at any time and get a square meal.” On his second album,Poses (2001), Wainwright reflects on the persona he crafted. “I felt I had to be Wildean, fabulous, a party maven. Every time I walked into a room I’d cause this scene with an entourage of fellow drinkers and druggers.” But the drug use got out of hand.
“Taking crystal meth would become a six-day-long event. I would utterly disappear. Unfortunately I got gonorrhea a couple of times. I was very much spared something more serious by sheer miracle. I couldn’t have gone on. I lost 40lb. I was sick. At one point, I’d do whatever drug, whenever. I didn’t care how much. At the end of one binge, when I’d taken crystal meth, Ecstasy, special K (ketamine) I went blind for an hour. I didn’t know if my brain was ever going to come back.”
In tears, “my life flashing before me”, Wainwright did what not many addicts can do. He called Elton John. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to do’ and he said, ‘You have to go to rehab’.” Wainwright spent almost a month at a Minnesotan clinic. “It’s a privilege,” he accepts, “but it was the best thing I did in my life.”
He won’t say if he still uses drugs (“everyone has their own private journey”) but he’s obviously taken his foot off the pedal a bit. He works hard: Want One is a beautiful, skilled effort and the family, despite its tensions, remains close — he and his mother will sing together next week. His songs are awash with tortured desire, so it is not surprising to discover he has never had a long-term relationship. He says he’s ready for a relationship only now. “I’m looking in Europe in case Bush wins the election.”
Wainwright wants to write an opera, “which will, like, still be around in 300 years”. He’s also acting, with parts in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, playing a Bing Crosbyish crooner, and in The Heights, a new Merchant Ivory epic.
“I have a scene with Glenn Close. We met in the green room which was on the 18th floor of this building with huge windows overlooking New York. She swept in, looking incredible and grabbed my hands and said, ‘Oh, Rufus, it’s so fabulous to be working with you’ and then she motioned out of the window. ‘And guess what? There’s an eclipse’. And so Glenn Close and I studied our lines while New York fell under an eclipse.”
His eyes shine with wonder; this is just the kind of strange magic he sets to music.