Rufus Wainwright is a hero of mine. One of about ten musicians through time, who I literally have to own and memorize everything they produce. He is the prodigal son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, the brother of Martha Wainwright, and the heir to a folk music dynasty.
In the way that most princes do, Rufus has explored decadence and debauchery. Experimenting heavily with drugs and promiscuity in his late teens and early twenties, and falling out with his father for a great many years after a fight over his ego & sexuality. You see, Rufus is gay, not just ‘gay’ gay, but ‘gay and proud to wear fairy wings and stilettos on stage’ gay. He is a gay ICON.
But beyond his sexual preference, and his camp and boyish charm… he is a MUSICAL GENIUS. Now that is a term that is chucked around at random these days (see Pete Doherty et cetera), which few people deserve, but Rufus is actually true musical genius personified. He is pop music’s Mozart, with the lyrical sensibilities of Leonard Cohen, the free vision of the Beatles, and a baritone voice that could fell a mountain.
He is fucking astounding.
I first discovered Rufus through the Sean Penn film ‘I Am Sam’. The film itself was quite good, but interestingly was sound tracked entirely with contemporary Beatles covers. One of the standout tracks of the film was Rufus’s cover of ‘Across the Universe’. It is not very often that you hear a cover that is on par with the original, (especially when the original was from one of the world’s biggest band, but like Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends”, Rufus’s version arguably surpasses the original in it’s beauty.
From there I explored his then, quite slim, back catalogue, first rejecting his self titled debut for being too chipper, but falling in love with his second effort “Poses”. A record steeped in traditional songwriting, but with a touch of the austere about it. Or at least, something that I could sense was more ambitious than your average singer/songwriter. The unusual phrasings, the complex harmonies, and the delicate strokes of light and dark.
I was hooked.
I attempted to interest any and all that I could in his work, but found some difficulty in interesting young people… his music was too complex, too varied, too… interesting.
Adults however, seemed to respond much better, his talent and bold vision, although in a different genre, harks back to the likes of Queen etc. Adults understand music that is both intricate and bombastic, younger people, it seems, do not.
A while later saw the release of his masterpiece double set “Want 1” & “Want 2”. A collection of some of the greatest songs any modern songwriter has attempted. The cover of “Want 1” even originally brandished a sticker with a quote from Elton John, stating that Rufus was the “greatest songwriting talent of our time” (or words to that effect), A strong sentiment from a songwriter of Elton’s calibre.
The “Want” series really demonstrated the depth and breadth of Rufus’s vision. It contained the solid melodies and hooks of his former efforts, but now dressed in all the flourishes of Classical Music, and with structures that allowed the listener to take more of a journey with the songs. The second part of the series also showed so much more of Wainwright’s dark side, allowing him to play more with his ideas of religion, pain, and death.
It wasn’t until the release of the first disc of “Want” that I revisited his debut and finally understood it. I absolutely love that record now, it’s naivety and youth. It really shows that sometimes you have to give things a second chance.
It was during the “Want” tours that I first saw him in concert. I took my mother to the show, having introduced her to his music via the underrated medium of the ‘mix-tape’, and we went there expecting a stripped down version of the records. On the contrary, his live show was just as ambitious as his records, with the band swapping instruments constantly, and handling all the harmonies. It was really quite special. Since then me and my mum try and catch him every time he hits Europe.
After a short break, Rufus went on to deliver his most ‘pop’ record in: “Release the Stars”. His first album to receive any overground acclaim and success beyond that of the respect of his peers. It still had some of the audacity of the “Want” series, but this time he presented his musical medicine in the form of a sugar pill.
I was lucky enough to accidentally happen upon him performing the songs live in HMV Oxford Street, London on the date of it’s release. I had gone into the shop to buy the record, and then heard his voice coming from down the stairs! And although the stairs were shut off, I could still see and hear him from the balcony… extremely fortuitous timing I think.
Since then Rufus has tried his hand at writing an Opera, “Prima Donna”, performed as Judy Garland, and is in the process of creating new work which will doubtlessly change my perception of the possibilities within music once again.
Seriously, if you have never listened to Rufus, or indeed given him a second chance, then you really should. He comes from a family that makes music great until they DIE, so with any luck we’ve got years ahead of us to enjoy his work. I’ve selected a few of his songs to dot about this Retrospectivism piece… but felt I needed to write more than usual to truly demonstrate the love I have for his work.
Listen. Enjoy. Spread the word.