|Photo by Ken Schles|
I wouldnt say anything good happened to you in New York.
Big Edie tsk-tsking Little Edie in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens
Rufus Wainwright materializes mid-afternoon in a Sunset hotel lobby. Hes wearing a tank-top undershirt, loud floral-fatigue print pants, sandals and a pair of Ray-Bans. Around his neck is a chain strewn with what appear to be baby sharks teeth. Theres a Snickers bar crumb dangling on his chin whiskers. Not exactly Caligulan decadence. Casual tastelessness? Studied informality? Maybe. Or perhaps, when one has no permanent home, one simply makes a sitting room of the world, with dissolute wardrobe and demeanor to match. As the title track on his new album, Poses, says, I did go from wanting to be someone/Now Im drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue. Home is where you lay your head, and a post-nap sugar rush is just a vending machine away.
Not that Wainwright is actually homeless. The 27-year-old baroque-pop singer-songwriter still has a room and piano in the Montreal home of folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who is his mother. Away from home, he travels in rare circles (he knows Leonard Cohen! Neil Tennant! Marc Almond! Nick Cave! Elton John wants to have a pint with him!). And in summer 99, five years after slinking out of Manhattan broke, defeated and bitter (a little like Grey Gardens Little Edie about-facing straight back to her mothers 28-room mansion in the East Hamptons after a few weeks on her own in New York City), Rufus returned to the scene of former shame to do a victory lap, to glory in the artistic accomplishment of his 1998 eponymous debut, to explore the spoils of his new demi-fame.
I got back to New York when I was allowed to finally pasture, sighs Rufus, with the endearing mix of exaggerated drama and chuckling self-mockery that seems to be his permanent demeanor, both onstage and off. Id lived in New York before, when Jeff Buckley was becoming very famous. Sine-és [a famous NYC folk club where Buckley first made his mark] refused my tape three times, didnt want to have anything to do with it. So I hated Jeffs guts! I was teeming with envy and jealousy. Because nobody would pay any attention to me. I eventually had to leave, cuz I was holding three jobs down and I couldnt even afford to take a cab.
By summer 99, Rufus was no longer the precocious son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle who couldnt get a gig rave reviews, 90,000 records sold and a Gap ad had changed everything. A friend was moving out of her room in the infamous bohemian/junkie Chelsea Hotel; Rufus got the room and set about conquering the town.
I was immediately, acutely aware how differently youre treated when you have either made a record, or youre signed to a company, or you have some sort of calling card, he says. I mean, everybody whos anybody in New York has to have some sort of résumé in order to function, or just to make friends. Its really not a slacker town. So I was very aware of that, and I did try and use that to its full advantage, just to get a glimpse of not so much high society but the fashion world, the Michael Musto sort of universe. Cuz Id always dreamt of that. Living at the Chelsea was probably the first time in my life that I ever felt comfortable being gay, or had friends who were in that world. It all of a sudden became a fabulous thing. It was one of the first times Id felt attractive! Dashing!
It was a real time.
Poses was written and recorded during the 18 months directly following Rufus time in New York. With the exception of a couple of songs he already had in hand (California, Greek Song) and the cover of his fathers One Man Guy, the album is a barely fictionalized diary set as song cycle: a young-prince-in-the-city-in-the-summer chronicle, with autumn-after reflections. Its a cautionary tale of an imperfect summer, with equal parts joy, fear, longing and resignation.
I wanted to write music about that period, capture that in my memory, says Rufus. And in songs like Poses, I did definitely try to figure out where I stood you know, am I gonna be a sort of young boy-toy of some East Hampton millionaire lawyer type? Or am I gonna have to be the john? That was the question on my mind.
I realized that, essentially, Im not gonna be either! He laughs. Unfortunately, the bigger the front, the bigger the back. What I realized is that as soon as I enter into most relationships, I revert back into that insecure teenage hiding-behind-the-oak-tree person in a lot of ways. I still have a severe Achilles heel dealing with that. Cuz a lot of people were very attracted to me, but I was never sure why or for what reason. I was never sure if it was cuz of my record, or my talent, or my personality, or my this or that. What I learned is that no matter how many records you sell, or how many tables you get seated at, you need serious therapy in order to really solve any problems. Or medication. You need a few new coats of paint, a little construction.