Coming Clean with a Critic

Wainwright spills his guts, Irish ‘Cowboys’ and a must-see Musak

Rufus Wainwright was funny, self-deprecating, sometimes inaudible, but altogether captivating, interviewed by Stephen Holden for the “Times Talks Gay & Lesbian Series” on September 14 at FIT’s Katie Murphy Auditorium. With his nerdy machine-gun laugh punctuating his rambling, yet lucid discourse, Rufus enthralled the crowd of hardcore fans.

“I love turning 30, it’s been an amazing couple of years,” was his sly comment about growing older.

When Holden expressed admiration for his being so uncompromisingly out about his sexuality, Wainwright recalled how Judy Garland was always a major influence on him, something that didn’t go down all that well when he would skip across the quad in Catholic school.

He said, “It was so obvious to me that I was gay. I feel very gay. I knew what I wanted when very young.”

His parents, musicians Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, knowing how homophobic the music business was and having seen the ostracism and abuse of gay people, were fearful. But Wainwright said, “I always thought it was a great angle. Nobody else is doing this. Wow, I’ll take this bumper car! And I had that great tradition of gay songwriters and singers for me to hearken to.”

He recalled opening for The Barenaked Ladies and being heckled by some front-row audience members: “I was in some ridiculous get-up, thinking I was Callas, and that immediately destroyed me. I was more hurt than I ever expected to be. And then The Barenaked Ladies said, ‘We’d like to welcome some of our audience members from the 1950s.’”

Wainwright spoke candidly about his substance abuse: “I spent a good year, dipping in and out of hell. Crystal meth is a really terrifying thing. In the Middle Ages, there was this notion of demons and the dark side possessing evil, which exists today, with heavy drugs for gay people being demon number one. The end for me came after a four-day period of trying harder and harder to get high and not being able to, no matter how much I did. The most frightening thing was equating sexual satisfaction with death, the ultimate orgasm, terminal sex. The real crash came when I became blind and couldn’t speak anymore. I didn’t know if I could come back and then I cried and cried. I called Elton John, who knew exactly what I was going through, and he helped me into rehab.”

Wainwright added that he enjoyed every period of his life, even his breakdown, because despite the horror, he knew that he was loved and worthy of existence. Joseph Campbell’s PBS interviews, Thomas Mann’s book “The Magic Mountain” and opera, always a big influence on him, helped him through it.

“Opera trained me in a certain way to handle this sort of drama,” he said. “I needed the tragedy. I had a fascination for addiction. I’m definitely a son of a bitch, always going for that fallen star. For years I loved this addict, Danny Boy, who now has two kids and lives in Nova Scotia.”

Asked if he was now clean and sober, Wainwright replied, “I don’t talk about that.”

Wainwright continues to love New York, which he has immortalized in songs like “14th Street,” the route he always took on his way to his therapist.

“It’s a town where I can party my brains out or stay in and watch PBS, or porn,” he said. “It has supported every variation of my life and I also feel that it is a city that really needs me. I feel useful here.”

 

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

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