The man who has been described as the ‘Joni Mitchell of his generation’, lionised for his genius by such as the Scissor Sisters, Elton John, Neil Tennant and Michael Stipe, is changing onstage from jeans and shirt into a blue glitter thong, red pumps — and a hairy chest.
He’s singing a song from his new album Want Two called ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ — “Gets me goin’ in the mornin'” — as the finale to his show in Reading, England, the first of his UK dates. Rufus Wainwright, the rockstocracy son of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, keeps turning round and showing us his thirty-one-year-old decidedly, commendably non-circuit-party ass. A little later he turns into the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, before ‘melting’.
Rufus may or may not be referencing British Music Hall, but he’s definitely channelling Monty Python and Judy Garland. He may or may not now be teetering on the edge of global domination after years of critical praise and modest sales, but he’s clearly teetering on some kind of edge. Bless ‘im.
M: Want One had you dressed as a knight in armour, apparently dead. Your new album Want Two has you dragged up as a kooky, drowned Ophelia figure. This is horribly Freudian, but it occurs to me that you have now enacted the deaths of both your parents — your distant, armoured father, and your ethereal, spiritual mother.
R: [laughs] I haven’t heard THAT before! But I’m willing to go there. I’m going to see Bella Freud tomorrow, so I’ll ask her! I’ve had a real yin and yang existence: my mother’s very bohemian and Irish Catholic; my father is quite rigid and a disciplinarian and logical. Both of those forces have been necessary for my survival. I’ve had to learn to accept my parents for who they are, taking what you need, and not blaming them for it.
M: And, besides, you have your own gay daddy now, don’t you?
R: Yeah, I’ve got several actually, Elton John, Neil Tennant, Michael Stipe..
M: It could be argued that you’ve found another kind of daddy now in the ‘higher power’ of AA, now that you’ve kicked alcohol and crystal meth.
R: I don’t like to talk about whether I’m in that or not. Once I went to rehab, that was where it ended. My drug using and alcohol became a very private issue. Just because if I say, ‘Oh, I don’t drink’, then people see you drinking. What I will say is that I was spiritually bankrupt. And I needed God, really, in some form.
M: Were you looking for discipline?
R: It was just like surrender really. The thing about show business is that you spend so much time being in such control you think you can really rule the world. And that’s maddening – because you can’t! I wish you could. At some point you have to admit that there is something greater than myself.
M: I understand that Quentin was your fairy godmother.
R: I was thirteen when I was introduced to Quentin. Was that specific Summer when I came out to myself about my sexuality. I had a lot of sex that Summer but I definitely do believe there’s something called statutory rape. I was just too young to be in that world, but I wanted to go there so I went there! And both of my parents, understandably, just really kinda freaked out and didn’t know what to do, so my father called up Penny Arcade. She was a friend of the family and had been involved with the Warhol Factory and all those drag queens and was now Quentin’s babysitter so she had a lot
of experience of handling gays! My mother and father aren’t particularly homophobic, but my mother was not happy and my father just didn’t do anything really. He didn’t want to talk about it at all.
M: Would you perhaps have preferred a passionately negative response to one of apparent indifference?
R: I got what I got – and that’s what I have to work with. [laughs]. I think he handled it in the only way he knew how to. Sending me to hang out with Penny and Quentin was a pretty good option. I think I fared pretty well.
M: Did Quentin offer you any advice?
R: Gee, I don’t think he every really acknowledged me, to tell you the truth! I was in the same room with him many times. I noticed that the way he operated was that there was the audience and there were the servants. And I chose to be an audience member. But then, he deserved servants!
M: Your work seems to own that melancholy that contemporary gays have disowned. I have a theory that your music is what’s playing in the heads of circuit party boys when they’re coming down. But they don’t want anyone to know.
R: [laughs] Right, right! I would say, that it’s definitely not the sound in their heads when they’re going out! I have had a difficult time with the gay press in the US. It seems to be coming around now. I don’t think that they have a choice but to acknowledge me. They’ve tried their damnedest not to in the past.
M: Well, you’re a movie star now, you did that rather wonderful cameo as the strung-out lounge singer in THE AVIATOR.
R: Yeah! They’ve got to notice me now! I think it’s due to this limited aspect of gay life that is worshipped and publicised — one of FUN!, y’know, style, SEX!, nice physiques, and all that, which you know I’m prone to as well, I’m prone to the same fucking disease, the obsession with the middle of the body, and so forth, but I have always tried to illustrate the other side of the rainbow and be the Sunday morning music, the alone time. It’s very difficult to get that across to certain gay people. I remember a long time ago doing my first show in London. It was a real cross section of fans, young women, middle aged women, my father’s fans, gay people — gay people were the first ones to leave. Most people stayed to the end, but the gay people had somewhere better to go, something way better to do.
M: Today’s gay culture seems to be in denial about the ‘alcoholic homosexuals’ you sing about in ‘Hometown Waltz’ on the new album — The Judy Garland factor. Someone whom I understand was a friend of the family…
R: It’s true! She made my grandfather’s school sandwiches! Look, given the amount of kind of treachery tragedy that the gay male community has gone through for the last 2000 years, not to mention that the worst of it has been in the last 25yrs with AIDS, there is no kind of bouncing back fast from this. Homosexuality right now is really enemy No1 whether it’s Islam, or Catholicism, or even Judaism in my opinion, look at the Kabala. I don’t think you should live your life under constant awareness of oppression, but I think that you have to accept a certain amount of sorrow, and realise that
in a certain way it’s how we’ve survived.
M: You’ve suggested before that gay men take drugs because they’re oppressed. Is that really true? Don’t they just take them because they like them?
R: Let’s not underestimate the power of chemistry. It’s a very potent combination: gays and drugs! I strongly believe in that romantic idea that in primordial time gay people were shamans. I think we’re spiritually destined to have to dig a little deeper. And that is a role, a tougher role. Some people just don’t’ want to go there. Which is understandable.
M: You dedicated your performance of ‘Gay Messiah’ tonight to the Pope. I take it you didn’t go to see him lying in State?
R: Oh, no. I’m here, protesting in Reading.
M: Is there any religious background to your family? Your music is very Catholic.
R: My mother is kind of a latent Catholic, she doesn’t really go to church, but she has Catholic ways. So, yeah, I was brought up in a very Catholic environment. But I’m actually not baptised. In an odd way she tried to send me to church, but I could never take the sacraments or do confession. That was an interesting road to take.
M: If you’d been born in an earlier age would you have been a priest?
R: I think I would have been a priest. For sure. I’ve often thought that. And I mean a priest who has sex.
M: There are quite a few of those.
R: [laughs] Yeah, but with men. With other priests.
M: Not with the altar boys.
R: Well, maybe with the altar teenagers!
M: If you were made Pope what would your first Papal decree be?
R: I’d ban the folk mass and bring back everything in Latin so we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2006