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Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk 

Rufus Wainwright poses as rock star, makes an imperfect-summer record

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
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Photo by Ken Schles

I wouldn’t 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. He’s 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 shark’s teeth. There’s 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 I’m 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.

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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 mother’s 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. “I’d lived in New York before, when Jeff Buckley was becoming very famous. Sine-é’s [a famous NYC folk club where Buckley first made his mark] refused my tape three times, didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So I hated Jeff’s 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 couldn’t even afford to take a cab.”

By summer ’99, Rufus was no longer the precocious son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle who couldn’t 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 you’re treated when you have either made a record, or you’re signed to a company, or you have some sort of calling card,” he says. “I mean, everybody who’s anybody in New York has to have some sort of résumé in order to function, or just to make friends. It’s 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 father’s “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. It’s 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.”

And?

“I realized that, essentially, I’m 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.

“And I know this sounds so silly,” he laughs, “I was sooo attractive! And I had to figure out, songwriting-wise, why. But, I’m always gathering material — I’m always on the make.”

“Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which bookends the album, coyly hints at other habits “which for several reasons we won’t mention/Everything about ’em is a little bit stranger, a little bit harder/A little bit deadly.” Which verse might remind one of the recent headlines regarding an uptick in the number of young gay men contracting the HIV virus.

“I quite recently have been tested,” says Rufus. “I mean, I’d been tested .a few years earlier, but I was not one of those people who do it every six months. And I was fine. But, during that winter, I had a serious sort of anxiety attack about it, only because there is definitely a slackening in terms of attitude. I think the main problem is drugs, personally. I think there’s a big drug problem in the gay community. On one hand, it’s denial about everything that’s going on, but it’s also that people just don’t care about each other. You know, I’ve done drugs, and I’ll probably do drugs again at some point, but I do believe that drugs connected to sex equals AIDS. I’m talking about crystal and Special K and GHB, those club drugs — those kinds of wild sexual drugs. The attitude is, if you’re taking pills to have fun, just to get your dick hard, why not just take some extra pills for your virus, you know? You do meet a lot of people who, I guess after years of being so sexually repressed, are just like, ‘Gimme the fuckin’ virus, they have these new medications, I don’t really care about it anymore.’ And even I have felt that way, in the heat of passion.

“Then again, I think that sex will always be reckless. Anything involving that kind of energy is always gonna be.”

“Grey Gardens,” the album’s centerpiece, continues the theme: The refrain of “Tadzio, Tadzio” summons visions of Mann’s Death in Venice — of impossibly idealized love (Tadzio, a beautiful 14-year-old boy, is the middle-aged male protagonist’s object of distant desire) and deadly plague. “Grey Gardens” also draws a parallel between contemporary gay life and the aging, recluse mother-daughter “stars in their own heads” of the documentary film of the same name — a film that Rufus has watched dozens of times.

“There’s a certain barrenness in the film, of not having any kids, of losing your beauty,” explains Rufus. “Old age, when you’re past your prime in the gay world, you’re discarded very quickly. It’s pretty harsh. On the other hand, it’s amazing how many gay clubs or bars you go to and you’ll still see those old guys out there, 75-year-old guys with their private go-go dancers. Or in the backrooms. And that’s something that’s in the movie, the attitude that ‘We’re just gonna keep fighting being our way, being rugged individuals.’ So I think that relates to it. Big Edie and Little Edie are certainly animated — they’re certainly not dead. They have a certain energy — they’re not afraid to be ridiculous.”

As good as Poses is (and it’s very good, easily one of the finest albums released this year) and as far afield as its songs sometime venture (especially the string-laden epic “Evil Angel”), one senses that Wainwright is compromising in a way the Edies never did — that the three-and-a-half-minute pop song is not his native habitat, that he’d be more at home applying his obvious skills to more rarefied genres: to operas and Broadway musicals, or cabaret torch songs and piano concertos. It’s as if he’s posing as a conventional singer-songwriter, allowing his musical ideas to be shaped into pop-palatable tracks by high-profile collaborators, which on Poses includes people who have produced Adult Alternative–format staples like Sarah McLachlan, Emmylou Harris and Crash Test Dummies, as well as Alex Gifford of the electronic outfit Propellerheads. The wry name of Rufus’ publishing company — Rock and Roll Credit Card Music — suggests that his DreamWorks solo records may just be a means to the more commercially perilous ends that ’til now have only surfaced in projects like setting a Shakespeare sonnet to music for a forthcoming benefit album. So: Is Rufus slumming?

“Well, I look at it in a pragmatic kind of way,” he says. “At the moment, I’m 27. I know that, you know, I have a good face for this stuff, I’m slim and healthy — with a certain healthy dose of unhealthy, heh heh. I feel like when I signed up with a major label that there was a certain obligation, let’s say, to spread the wealth in my success, and that that counted on me having a traditional kind of success in that field. So this is more of a way to allow me in the future to really be heard, when I make the decision to go in that direction. And I’m aware that that’s a very dangerous road to walk — one can sort of forget about why they started on this.

“I’d like to write a musical. I’d like to write an opera, a mass. But I want it to be done really well and right, and that requires either a solo-piano record or a 200-piece orchestra. And I’d love to do a Southern record, not set in New Orleans or anything — maybe Virginia. Have a big plantation with gay slaves or something. Something Gothic, involving a murder and some sort of affair with the stable boy. And a hoop dress.

“My main objective is to get back on the road to promote my record, to really set up some kind of theatrical thing,” he says. “Some great lighting, maybe a little orchestra . . . And I like traveling. Right now I’m thinking of St. Petersburg a lot, only because I’m intrigued by violent Russian people. I find them sexy, that sort of nuts, nonsensical attitude. But I often find I’ll imagine a place to be something, and when I get there, I’m disappointed. Like I imagined Barcelona to be this mix between ancient Greece and The Wizard of Oz, and of course when I visited there I was really unimpressed by it.

“But I don’t get bored when I’m on the road. What’s great about touring is, you meet all these bored teenagers out there. In Detroit, there were these young skater kids who came to my show and they were like, ‘Rufus, we’re so bored out here in Detroit!’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, let me stay here and entertain you! I’ll stay in your bungalow! In your garage!’ That’s all I want to do, is move into some kid’s garage.”

Rufus laughs again, almost spilling his pink lemonade.

“I dunno — I like traveling, but I still find the best place for me to write, in terms of bringing it all together, is Montreal. With my mother downstairs, cooking up pork chops.”

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