Singer-Songwriter Rufus Wainwright Journeys to 'Gay Hell' and Back

New York Times - Art Section

August 31, 2003

There were a lot of `Boogie Nights' moments, with 20 naked people in my apartment and me in my bathrobe playing `Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,'" said Rufus Wainwright, describing his social life before a scarifying emotional collapse, a stint in rehab and the completion of his gripping new album, "Want One."

But as he was finishing his anecdote, he was distracted by a movement on his left. "There's a mouse right there," he said, indicating the entrance to the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, near the bench on which he was sitting. The mouse darted back and forth in front of the building, but never left. Mr. Wainwright, unfazed, resumed his narrative, adding one now-relevant detail. "Oh, and there were loads of mice in my apartment," he said.

The little visitor notwithstanding, Mr. Wainwright chose this location for his interview because of its proximity to the Metropolitan Opera House, one of his favorite places in New York because of his longstanding love of opera. As he spoke on a humid summer afternoon that was punctuated by a gentle rainstorm, the Metropolitan framed him and gave him comfort. "I'm a bit hesitant to talk about all this," he said. "I don't know what the impact will be. But I'm only doing it because it might help somebody — and to say that there is no such thing as casual crystal meth use!"

Mr. Wainwright, who is gay and has been out since he was a teenager, was not always convinced of that. Methamphetamine is one of a number of drugs — including ecstasy, cocaine, K (or ketamine, an anesthetic) and alcohol — to which he has turned over the years to bolster his confidence and to propel his quests for anonymous sex. Despite creating a body of work whose central theme is the search for true love, he has never been in a serious relationship, a consequence, he says, of having been raped by a man he picked up in London when he was 14.

Typically in recent years, he would get high, go online to discover willing partners and arrange meetings. Eventually Mr. Wainwright found himself drawn to a subterranean world that he described in the most lurid terms as a "gay hell."

"I'm not talking about a bar in the meatpacking district," he said.

Mr. Wainwright believes that crystal meth presents specific dangers — and specific temptations — for homosexual men, and that its use is a menace to their community. "Years of sexual insecurity, the low-grade discrimination you suffer, the need to belong — speed takes care of all that in one second," he said. "It was a world where people are going so crazy that they're not making sense any more. If you wanted safe sex, you were a nerd, uncool. I was one of the nerds who did have safe sex, thank God. But I'm still mentally shattered by the whole experience."

"For years, and I mean thousands of years, the gay man's mind has been treated as perverted, clandestine and dirty," he went on, "and speed reinforces and glamorizes that as an ideal. And with drugs, what's more dangerous is more sexually exciting. On that drug I had really horrible thoughts that turned me on. I had a few of those real gay lost weekends, where everything goes out the window, where you want to make pornos or you want to have sex with children. I mean, your mind is just completely ravaged."

Mr. Wainwright hit bottom last year when a morning line of cocaine designed to lend momentum to an apartment cleaning project led to a sex-and-drug binge that left him devastated. "I really crashed," he said. "I hadn't slept for a couple of days, and I started seeing visions. I remember hallucinating thousands of boxes of pornography with Jerry Garcia in them!" He laughed hysterically at the thought of that image.

"I felt like New York was a painting that I was looking at and couldn't enter," he continued. "It felt tragic, and it made me wildly depressed. For a moment, I thought I wouldn't make it back into the world. But I did. I realized that I need help, so I went and got it."

Mr. Wainwright spent a month at Hazelden, the addiction treatment center in Center City, Minn. When he returned to New York, he was filled with renewed energy, and he began to collaborate on "Want One," his third album, with the producer Marius de Vries, who had been the musical director on the "Moulin Rouge" soundtrack, to which Mr. Wainwright had contributed a song. While Mr. Wainwright's last album, "Poses," which came out in 2000, chronicled his attraction to forbidden pleasures — of which "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" are merely the most quotidian — his new songs reflect the tumultuous journey he has made since then. While the lyrics are often more poetic and elliptical than nakedly confessional, Mr. Wainwright delivers them with undisguised emotion.

Musically, if "Poses" was stripped down by the singer's unabashedly baroque standards, "Want One" (Dreamworks) more than lives up to the wry judgment his mother, the Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle, once delivered about his songs: "somewhere over the top." The more robust Mr. Wainwright was so productive that the "Want" project, which he initially wanted to release as a double CD, is now to be released in two parts. "Want Two," filled with even more elaborately wrought songs, is set to come out next spring, though Mr. Wainwright fears, given the music industry's persistent doldrums, that such a grand plan might fail to achieve fruition.

"I really don't want/ To be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen/ I just want to be my dad/ With a sprinkling of my mother," Mr. Wainwright sings on the song "Want." Mr. de Vries said it was precisely Mr. Wainwright's willingness to jump into the emotional deep end that infused heart into his music's luxurious orchestral arrangements and rescued them from preciousness. "It wouldn't work without that element," Mr. de Vries said. "The reason he can get away with being so ambitious in the arrangements is because there's a quite raw, and at times quite painful, emotional honesty in the way he writes. A really strong personality comes through in his singing and in his lyrics, and that authenticates the production."

Perhaps the rawest song on "Want One" is its concluding number, "Dinner at Eight." In Mr. Wainwright's characteristic fashion, the song juxtaposes a jaunty, cocktail-society title with a charged portrait of his relationship with his father, the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Mr. Wainwright's parents divorced when he was 3, and the abandonment he experienced when his father left home still roils at the core of his personality. Since that time the two men have had a rich, difficult, complex, competitive and, ultimately, loving relationship that bedevils both of them.

"Dinner at Eight" describes a meal the two men had after they had done a photo shoot together — a rare occurrence in itself — for Rolling Stone in support of Rufus's debut album, which came out in 1998. Simply called "Rufus Wainwright," the record had generated a great deal of attention and praise, and the young singer's ego was puffed up. Beneath a surface cheerfulness, the photo session was tense, and the two men had to be persuaded to show some semblance of familial affection. At the meal later, Rufus crossed a line. "In interviews I had been flippant about surpassing his career and surpassing him," he said of his father, who had released more than a dozen well-regarded albums at that point. "And he had been attacked by some interviewers, who would ask, `Did you abandon your children?' So he was raw from that. Then, after a couple of glasses of wine, I intimated that I had gotten him into Rolling Stone. That was it. We didn't speak for a long time, and I went home and wrote this song."

Mr. Wainwright's piano and vocal provide the song's center, though they are eventually enveloped by strings. Anger, regret, self-loathing, bitterness and a desperate need for approval contend with one another in the lyrics, as Mr. Wainwright recalls the circumstances of his father's leaving from the vantage of a prideful, but rickety, adulthood. "But why is it so," Mr. Wainwright sings, "That I've always been the one who must go . . ./When in fact you were the one/ Long ago . . . in the drifting white snow/ Who left me?"

"During my drug phase and my subsequent breakdown, it all came back to my father," Mr. Wainwright said. "When it came time to make a decision, I either wanted to go to Hazelden or go live with him. And for every man in group therapy there, the minute they would get to their father, the tears came."

While Mr. Wainwright and his father do discuss each other publicly, each usually refuses to do interviews for stories about the other — partly as a result of the events described in "Dinner at Eight." Consequently, Loudon Wainwright III politely declined to discuss his son for this article. For her part, Ms. McGarrigle expressed relief that her son had taken steps to bring his excesses under control. Noting that as a family of musicians and writers, neither the McGarrigles nor the Wainwrights were particularly abstemious, they all recognized the need to preserve their ability to create.

"By nature, Rufus is a party animal," his mother said matter-of-factly. "The word in French is sauvage. But he saw that he had to stop it. None of us is self-destructive. We'd all rather live than die, so you do whatever is necessary to keep that life going. I mean, you can't make records when you're dead."

And Mr. Wainwright is determined to continue making records. "One of the reasons we're near the Opera House today is that I would really love to base my career on Verdi," he said, a bit sheepishly, but with absolutely no irony. "Each opera he did until the last one he wrote in his 80's got better. Nothing dramatic, but a steady rise upward." Mr. Wainwright is applying that ethic of incremental improvement to the rest of his life as well. Known for his boyish good looks, he now regularly works out. He had cut his hair, and he looked fit and strong.

But he is still wary, still finding his way in his new life. He turned 30 recently and, though he's young, he now realizes that his time is not infinite. He remains hopeful, however. "I'm always worried talking about my sobriety," he said. "That could change at any moment. That could change right after this interview. But I will say that the minute that I started taking care of myself, so many other things slipped into place. This record really just flowed. I took care of myself, and the music took care of itself. Something was very kind to me."