Rufus Wainwright and Family: A Life in Song
Now in its 20th year, the CQAF’s 2019 line-up is the most impressive that I can remember. And amidst an embarrassment of riches, the pick of the bunch might well be Rufus Wainwright. When one night sold out within hours, a second night was quickly added; the first in the festival marquee this bank holiday Monday, the second on Tuesday 7th in the beautiful St Anne’s Cathedral.
For anyone unfamiliar with Rufus Wainwright’s music and looking for recommendations for the festival, take my advice, try to nab one of the last few tickets for that cathedral gig, and I predict you’ll be a fan for life. He’s a true superstar with a fascinating family and life story to boot. Rufus’s parents are folk singers extraordinaire, Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle. His sisters are Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche. His only child, Viva Catherine, is his progeny together with Lorca Cohen, daughter of the late great Leonard.
To try to discuss all of the complexities of the Wainwright dynasty is too ambitious for here – I’ll save that for my doctoral thesis. But the most interesting aspect for me is the fact that by dissecting the music of the Wainwrights, one can trace a life story, more revealing than any biography. To the members of this family, it seems that no subject is off limits in terms of songwriting, and the results at times are painfully raw; open letters from one family member to another. After years of listening to their music, I feel like I know the subtleties of their family relationships almost better than if I lived with them! With the important caveat that I’ll undoubtedly leave out some people’s favourite songs and miss some important familial links, I aim here to give a taster of what I am talking about, and perhaps tempt you to dip your toe in the Wainwright pool by coming along to see Rufus at the CQAF.
So where to begin? Right back in the ‘40s, Rufus’ grandfather Loudon Wainwright Jnr., lost his father, Loudon the first, when he was just seventeen. Loudon Jnr. was a formidable man; a writer, a Times magazine columnist, who rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. His feelings on the loss of a father with whom he had a very difficult relationship, and his thoughts on his relationships with his own children, were recorded in monologue form for posterity. Decades later these monologues would be incorporated in Loudon III’s songwriting; they preface songs on his 2012 album Older than My Old Man Now and form the basis of his Netflix film, Surviving Twin. What’s weird though, is how listening to them now some half a century after they were written, they could easily have been written by Loudon III about his father, about his children, so much have the same struggles permeated one generation after another. Examples like this of history repeating itself are plentiful, as you’ll see.
In one such monologue Loudon Jnr. declared; “If I remain still, if I am alone and silent and still long enough, my father is likely to turn up… even though years of therapy have led me to make the claim that he is finally dead and gone, my father, who died when I was seventeen continues to be my principal ghost, a lifelong éminence grise and only my own end will finish it.” Loudon III is evidently haunted in a similar way as these words precede his own lyrics; “I’m older than my old man now, he died at 63 that’s way too young… I don’t feel so free, I don’t even feel like me, now that there’s no race left to run.” I predict that in years to come, Rufus will express in song how he struggles with similar emotions once he loses his own father.
Throughout his life LW3 has worn his heart on his guitar strings and there’s barely an aspect of his life that you can’t learn something about through his lyrics. The salubrious childhood afforded by Loudon Jnr’s Illustrious journalistic career, prompted LW3’s first foray into autobiographical songwriting. On his debut album, the track Liza was inspired by a childhood infatuation with Liza Minelli who lived on their street. In the first of many thematic lyrical links, Rufus would later pen Me & Liza when it transpired that she was less than impressed with his interpretation of her mother’s Judy Judy Judy concert which he recreated as Rufus Rufus Rufus in Carnegie Hall.
But it’s Loudon’s relationship with his first wife Kate McGarrigle and their two children together which I find most fascinating. Their musical memoir is so public that it reminds me of hearing about how when Joni Mitchell first played the songs that would become the album Blue to her friends, she was advised against making public something so personal, so raw, she was told to keep something of herself for herself. These Wainwright offerings are like that. A tell-all expose of the best of times and worst of times in family life.
When Loudon and Kate met in the early 1970s, their love was instantaneous and all-consuming. Kate claimed when she met him that she knew immediately he’d father her children. Though the flame ignited immediately, it burned out quickly, and their marriage was to last only three short years. In that time though they had two children together. When expecting Rufus’s birth in 1973, they recorded Dilated to Meet You about his imminent arrival. Surprisingly they wrote and recorded very few songs together, but in the original recording of this for Loudon’s Attempted Moustache, any couple who have ever gone through the anxious time of a first pregnancy will recognise the nervous exhaustion in the voices of the two inexperienced parents as they sing, “We’re wondering when you will arrive, We wonder what you’ll be,We’re wondering if you’ll be a her or if you’ll be a he… We really think you’ll like it here, We hope that you like us”. It’s peculiar to peek inside such an intimate moment.
At the time, Kate and her sister Anna were very successful as folk duo The McGarrigle Sisters and it was on their album Dancer With Bruised Knees that the song about Rufus’s earliest days was released. First Born is a veritable hymn to the new born son and heir. If, as many people suspect, Rufus was to later in life develop a messiah complex, this maybe where it started! The besotted mother dotes about the baby born with the silver spoon in his mouth, “No matter what comes next, no matter what comes along, Be it another boy or a sweet baby girl, The family’s the oyster and he is the pearl.” If Martha, who came along three years later ever felt any sibling rivalry, it’s undoubtedly justified.
Loudon’s first ode to Rufus was somewhat less adoring and indicative of the challenges the father and son would face in their relationship over the next four decades. Rufus is A Titman appears on first listen, to be a light-hearted ditty about breastfeeding the new baby, but hints at the jealousy Loudon would come to feel often; “Ah son you look so satisfied, I envy you.” His appeal to the mother, Kate; “so put Rufus on the left one and put me on the right, and like Romulus and Remus we’ll suck all night” and the image of the mythical twins being suckled by a she-wolf before one eventually slays the other, betrays the competition Loudon would sometimes feel with Rufus, in life and in their careers.
As Rufus grew older, Loudon’s leaving the family home did little to relieve the tension between them. In 1992 when Rufus would have been about eighteen, Loudon released the track A Father and Son in which he acknowledged explicitly the cracks not only in their own father-son relationship, but those of the Wainwright men for generations before them. “When I was your age I thought I hated my dad, And that the feeling was a mutual one that we had,” he sings, and subsequently, “But your grandfather was just as bad, And you should have heard him trash his dad.” Knowing that those issues exist doesn’t resolve them, but Loudon makes an attempt at least to explain why they have carried down into his relationship with Rufus; “You’re starting up and I’m winding down, Ain’t it big enough for us both in this town?” There’s that envy again. At eighteen Rufus’s star was rising, Loudon had already been in the business for almost thirty years with little success of note. Clearly it was hard to take. He softens the blow somewhat though by ending the song with; “This thing between a father and a son, Maybe it’s power and push and shove, Maybe it’s hate but probably it’s love.” At least there’s that.
Following in the family tradition, Rufus responded to this envy in lyrical form. It didn’t come until more than ten years later, but the issues remain the same. In a track on the Want One album, Rufus recalled an evening when, by his own admission he’d goaded his father by telling him that a recent photo-shoot they’d done together for Rolling Magazine had only been possible because of his rising popularity and hinted that Loudon should be grateful to him for getting him back in the public eye after so many years. Well that was too much for Loudon to take and the evening ended with him threatening to kill Rufus. Dinner at Eight was his retort to that threat; “No matter how strong, I’m gonna take you down with one little stone, Gonna break you down and see what you’re worth, Dinner at eight was okay before the toast full of gleams, It was great until those old magazines got us started up again.” Some might say Rufus was justified in wanting to hit out at his father after the years of distance between them, and certainly the poignant lyrics of the song suggest the hurt, as well as the anger, is real; “Why is it so that I’ve always been the one told to go, when in fact you were the one long ago who left me.” Even more moving is the admission, “Daddy don’t be surprised if I wanna see the tears in your eyes,” – rarely has the sense of abandonment felt by the children of divorce been voiced so eloquently.
Despite their many differences, a penchant for pouring his heart out in song is one thing Rufus did inherit from his dad, and the greatest highs and lows in his life are there for all to see in his work if you look closely enough. Even as a novice songwriter, his ability to convey the human condition in the most beautiful lyrics seemed to come naturally. On his self-titled debut album, the songs sensitively explored the pain of a young boy coming out, only to fall in love with a straight man. To Danny, real name used, he dedicated the lines; “My smile, a trick, tricking me and trying not to scare you… You broke my heart Danny Boy.” In Foolish Love he conveys the desperate all-consuming nature of unrequited love, “I don’t wanna hold you and feel so helpless, I don’t wanna smell you and lose my senses.” Anyone who’s been through it knows that’s just how it feels.
His second, and many would say his definitive album Poses, was written and released at a particularly hedonistic time in his life and when by his own admission he was game to try just about anything when it came to sex or drugs. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk paints a pretty distinct picture of his addictive personality; “Everything it seems I like’s a little bit stranger, a little bit harder, a little bit deadly.” The title track of this album is regarded as a masterpiece in depicting the glorious, glamorous decadence and hollow superficiality of the gay club scene at the time. “There’s never been such grave a matter as comparing our new brand name black sunglasses.” I am quite certain his contemporaries had no difficulty recognising themselves in that description.
By the time his third and fourth studio albums Want One and Want Two came out in 2004 and 2005 respectively, Rufus had established himself as the icon of a generation of beautiful gay men – whether he wanted to be or not. In Gay Messiah he uses religious iconography to warn the closed-minded that the time for ignorance and bigotry has run out and the saviour of the gays is coming; borne of the homeland Studio 54, dressed in tubesocks and rocking up on the shores of Fire Island – so the straight, or at least the straight-laced, better pray for their sins. He rejects the title of “Gay Messiah” for himself though; “No it will not be me, Rufus the Baptist I be.” The ballsy irreverence, the “take me as you find” me attitude, are typical of Rufus during this period as evidenced by the likes of Old Whore’s Diet and Oh What a World.
Little sister Martha did not escape the probing pen of their father either and her childhood, for better or worse, is immortalised in some of Loudon’s most powerful, and sometimes most cruel songs. With Loudon, nothing is ever cloaked, real names and details are used, it’s a rare and sometimes uncomfortable trait but ultimately makes his body of work all the more affecting. It beggars belief, but in Hospital Martha will have learned that Kate almost decided to have an abortion when she was expecting Martha. In I’d Rather Be Lonely, of which he later admitted Martha was the subject, he declares; “I think I need some space, every day you’re in my face, I’d rather be lonely.” That’s tough for a kid to swallow!
At times the songs were pretty, and somewhat sentimental. In Pretty Little Martha he states plainly, “I wrote a song for your big brother and I’m gonna write a song for you too.” Equally plain is the gut aching honesty of lines about the breakdown of the family; “You’re in Quebec with your mother and I’m down here in New York State. The world is cruel and so is fate.” The distance that swells between a daughter and an absent father is seen even more clearly in Five Years Old when an out of touch dad sends a wholly inappropriate gift for a little kid; “I know you cannot play with flowers, they’re nice to smell and see, But if you get some roses on your birthday they’re from me.” Out of touch he may be, but that doesn’t mean we don’t sympathise with him over the closeness lost. “I won’t forget the day that you were born five years ago, We were so excited and we loved you so. You’re growing up so quickly now I feel a little sad, After all I am your daddy.” If it wasn’t for the fact that their troubled relationship is well documented, one might see this simply as a lovely tribute from a loving father – which in a way I guess it is.
Most of us have moments in our childhoods, painful memories we’d rather not carry into our adulthood. In the Wainwright household the children don’t always have that luxury. An incident that happened when Martha was a little kid, a snapshot of a moment that might have been best forgotten, is immortalised in Hitting You. Loudon recollects hitting out at Martha for messing about in the back seat of the car, hitting her bare leg in her bathing suit so hard as to make her leg redden and his own hand sting. “On your face I saw the shock, and then I saw the pain, then I saw the look of fear, the fear I’d strike again.” He recognises it as a crucial turning point for them, an act not easily forgotten, and reason in part perhaps why years after he recalled it and said, “These days things are awful between me and you. All we do is argue like two people who are through.” At least here there’s evidence of regret.
Not to be outdone by her big brother, Martha also got her own back in song when years later she wrote the dad-inspired Bloody Motherfucking Asshole, the message of which is… well… fairly self-explanatory. Actually the lyrics of the song vacillate between a longing for her absent father; “there’s no more fire, only desire for you, whoever you are”; a sense of anger at having to deal with the fallout of his leaving; “And you have no idea how it feels, to be on your own, in your own home… with the mother of gloom”; and finally a flagrant refusal to assuage any guilt he might feel by pretending to forget the past; “I will not pretend, I will not put on a smile, I will not say I am alright for you, you bloody motherfucking asshole.” It’s pretty brutal, but perhaps justified.
That’s not to say that Martha and Loudon don’t have a relationship now, they do. In fact in typical Wainwright fashion they have sung together many times, even addressing their deepest issues in these duets. In Father and Daughter Dialogue, penned by Loudon, Martha berates him mercilessly; “Dearest Daddy, with your songs, do you hope to right your wrongs? You can’t undo what has been done to all your daughters and your son.” She accuses him of over-sentimentality in his lyrics about her and Kate, and of his songs about Rufus she says; “You sing of a father and son, when all you do from him is run.” She calls him out on everything – it’s remarkable to think that Loudon actually put these words in her mouth, perhaps he was listening all along. He responds to her accusation that he thinks “things are okay by singing things that (he) should say” with the somewhat feeble explanation; “Darling daughter can’t you see, the guy singing the songs ain’t me. He’s someone people wish I was… They’re just songs and life is real. They’re just my version, how I feel.”
Similarly, in You Never Phone, also written by Loudon, the two discuss the lack of communication that clearly stings. Loudon sings; “You never phone, you never write, hey I’ve stopped hoping that you might, You’re trying to hurt my feelings, right?” Old grudges are dragged up over and over; “This birthday came and went, no call was made, no card was sent, but I got the snub you must have meant.” Ouch! But Martha responds; “This year my birthday went and came, last year what happened was the same, and your excuses sure are lame.” Touché. Together they intone; “Sometimes I wonder what you must think of me. My address and phone number must be misty in your memory.” The tongue-in-cheek lyrics and the flip delivery seem to belie an ingrained resentment. Many a true word is spoken in jest.
Over the years it would seem that Loudon has tried to make amends with his children through his song lyrics. Your Mother and I could be the theme song for fathers of broken families, in which he tries to explain to Rufus and Martha while they were still quite young; “Your mother and I are living apart, I know that seems stupid but we weren’t very smart. You’ll live with her, I’ll visit you at Christmas, on weekends and the summertime too.” It’s so simple, but conveys the message so clearly. And the intent to reassure his children while explaining their decision is there too; “Things will get better, they won’t stay this sad. And I hope when you grow up one day you’ll see, that your parents are people and that’s all we can be.” The often blustering, sometimes cruel patriarch is just a fallible, faltering parent like the rest of us.
Even now Loudon still seems to be striving to explain himself to his children, In Older than My Old Man Now he admits to feeling “Guilty I’ve outlived my ex,” Kate, the one parent Rufus and Martha could consistently count on who was taken from them far too young. In I Knew Your Mother which Loudon penned for Rufus’s 40th birthday he says sentimentally; “I knew your mother, let me be clear, we were lovers before you got here… I still remember somebody who was amazing and crazy and somewhat like you.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, that even after a bitter divorce and years of estrangement Loudon’s abiding memory of that relationship is that; “Love was the means, and you were the end.”
Guilt about Kate was never far from his mind though. Back in ’72 when they were still a couple, he wrote Red Guitar in which he recalled a drunken incident when he smashed a beloved guitar in anger and the upset it caused her; “I smashed it in the classic form as Pete Townsend might, I threw it in the fireplace, I left it there a while, Kate she started crying when she saw my sorry smile.” Right from the beginning of their relationship, he wasn’t easy to live with. In 1975, around the time their marriage was ending, he wrote Mr Guilty. On paper the lyrics seem heartfelt and sincere; “I’m so sorry, sorry as a man can be, I’m so guilty, this is my apology. I done you wrong and I strung you along, and now I’m full of shame.” Sweet huh? However if you’ve ever heard Loudon actually perform the song, the bitter sarcasm with which it’s often delivered smacks of a pointed jab at his ex, rather than a true apology.
Rufus has composed his own tributes to his beloved mother. On his very first album, Beauty Mark was a sort of love letter to a devoted parent whom he took after not just in appearance, but in a love of music, particularly opera, and who accepted his sexuality with unconditional love. “But I do have your taste, and I do have your red face and long hands.” Most touchingly he added, “I may not be so manly, But still I know you love me.” Like his father he has the knack of getting to the point with simple elegance. In Martha, written during the latter stages of his mother’s terminal illness, he speaks directly to his sister, telling her “it’s time to go up north and see mother. Things are harder for her now.” The perspective offered by the situation even allowed him to consider his father’s place; “Have you had a chance to see father? Wondering how he’s doing and there’s really not that much time for us to really be that angry at each other any more.” Is Rufus developing the sense of his own mortality that had caused his own father to feel so much envy years earlier? After her passing, in Montauk Rufus sadly sent a message to his daughter about the grandmother she would never get to meet. In Candles he remembers how during his mother’s illness he would light candles at cathedrals throughout the world and found it very comforting. Then she died and he went to three different churches in the week after she had passed, “But the churches have run out of candles.”
I don’t think there has ever been a family of musicians who so wear their whole lives on their collective sleeve. And they show no signs of stopping. To this day every album they release holds songs which give away something so personal it feels almost like an intrusion to listen. Martha’s last album Goodnight City brought us two beautiful odes to her youngest child; Franci written by herself; “Franci, everything about you is magical… Francis was my mother’s middle name and you never knew her… you’ve got a brother who’s gonna need you and a dad who will never leave you”; and Francis, by Uncle Rufus; “How many hours within a day, How many days within an hour? I cannot tell the difference Francis, When I’m with you exchanging glances.” Beautiful, admittedly. But then, in the same album she addresses the painful subject of her marriage to Brad Albetta which unbeknown to her fans was crumbling at the time. In Before the Children Came Along she laments the changing times; “I forgot to tell you, Just how much I really loved this time, Before we fought across the lines, I thought of leaving.” In One of Us Will Lose, co-written with our own Glen Hansard, she continues; “Some of us will make it, Some of us will bear the bruise, Oh how this body’s breaking, To think I’m losing you.” It’s the most brutally honest representation of the beginning of a breakup which so many will identify with.
Rufus nowadays is happily married and settling into middle age with only a little discontentment peeking out in occasional lyrics. Tracks like Song of You depict his devotion to his beloved Jorn Weisbrodt whom he married in 2012 and the happiness he’s finally found; “There are many melodies to choose from but there’s only one of you.” His latest offering, Sword of Damocles does hint that his perennial dissatisfaction with American politics hasn’t tempered as he’s aged. Referencing the ancient Greek myth, the song is a barely veiled commentary on Trump, for whom Rufus has never tried to hide his scorn. The scrolling introduction to the video for this song reads; “The smug, inexperienced commoner becomes the king. But his joy is short-lived. He quickly realises that being king isn’t all crowns and cheeseburgers. With great power comes great responsibility.” In the lyrics he implores; “Raise kindness above all else, avoid the books of hatred behind the shelves.” In the guise of a splendorous, ornate ballad, it’s actually a scathing social commentary. Well done Rufus!
Father Loudon may have mellowed somewhat in his old age. The entire album Older than My Old Man Now addresses, with wit and pathos, the trials of growing old. From needing a pill or potion to perform the simplest bodily function in My Meds, to bemoaning his loss of libido in I Remember Sex, to numbering the friends and people his age dropping off this mortal coil at an alarming rate in Somebody Else, Loudon is poking fun at himself throughout. Family relations are never far from his mind though and in Song in C, All in A Family, and 10, that familiar theme is given another rattle. But there is a sense that they have finally reached some resolution, or at least a grudging acceptance. In Here and the Now Loudon details his life decade by decade; his childhood, his questionable career success, his various failed marriages and troubled relationships with his kids, and still he manages to persuade all four of his children and two of his ex-wives to provide backing vocals! Perhaps he was right when he sang by way of explanation; “Love heals heartache and familial pain. And what family is not insane?”
Before I finish, I must mention the beautifully moving father and son duet, Days that we Die. The song is tinged with sadness when Loudon asks; “How did it start, when did it go wrong? Why in this world can’t we get along?” Finally Loudon acknowledges the past rivalry with his son, and admits; “Folks wanna win, when they can choose, More important than that, Folks don’t wanna lose.” It’s a brave admission, but little consolation to Rufus who responds; “Each victory should be good news, But when I have to win, you’re the one that I lose.” In the end there’s forbearance if nothing else when they each sing; “You’ll never change, neither will I, we’ll stay the same ’til the days that we die. I’ll never win, neither will you. So what in this world are we gonna do?” Things could be better – but I suppose they could be worse.
At the beginning of this piece, I said my aim was to give a taster of how the Wainwright family communicate with one another – and with us – through song. Believe it or not, this was it! I didn’t even touch on Loudon’s relationship with his second or third wives, (Suzzy Roche and Rita Kelly) or the songs he’s shared with his daughter, Lucy Wainwright-Roche – and already I needed something resembling a police evidence board to make the connections thus far! And Loudon’s youngest daughter Lexie is coming up behind and by all accounts she’s quite the singer too so no doubt this saga will continue. The next generation too are seeped in music; the father of Martha’s children was her bass player for many years, and Viva Catherine Wainwright Cohen had Loudon Wainwright and Leonard Cohen as her two grandfathers for goodness sake! I think it’s destined to continue. To experience just the tip of this phenomenal, familial, musical iceberg, get to St Anne’s Cathedral on Tuesday night and start discovering connections of your own.