Rufus on the Couch

Pin it


Rufus On the Couch by Austin Bunn


I don’t know where else to start except to tell you where things ended: twenty-seven-year-old troubadour Rufus Wainwright leaning against the back of a couch in a corner of the nightclub, his leg swung across mine, reclining into the prospect of a kiss. I know I’m not supposed to mention this. There are other, more proper subject matters, like Wainwright’s lush new album Poses; his escapades in karaoke at New York’s raunchy bar, The Cock; and his family tribe of musicians. But then, the utterly un-closeted Rufus Wainwright isn’t one to keep secrets. In fact, he seems to relish revealing them. I’m sure he would understand.


Hours before, still in the professional phase of our conversation, the effusive Wainwright, dressed in a red hooded sweatshirt, corduroys and red leather boots, mentions that he’s really into this book he’s reading, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. It’s the imagined autobiography of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian, whose spectacular, insouciant young lover Antinoüs drowned in the Nile so that he would not age. In his grief, Hadrian ordered statues of Antinoüs spread across the Roman Empire, christening stars and cities with his name. It’s perfect reading material for Wainwright, who lives like Antinoüs but feels more like Hadrian.


There are few dynasties in the music business, but Wainwright has the pedigree of a prince. He’s the child of esteemed singer/songwriters Louden Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. The marriage lasted only three years, but his parentage has worked in Wainwright’s favor, far beyond the genes and the holiday a cappella versions of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” After he recorded his first demo, his father passed it along to the reps at Dreamworks, who signed him immediately, and his mom has been a continually ferocious critic of his work. (Wainwright now lives on the top floor of his mother’s three-story condo in Montreal. “We have coffee in the morning together and lunch,” he says. “I’m there because she feeds me.”)


Imagine Cole Porter crashing out of his closet — and taking his genius with him — and you get an approximation of Wainwright’s melodic charm, the offhand brilliance of a young roué. His infectious, critically-adored first album ranked in the Top-Ten lists of Rolling Stone, Spin, The New York Times and The Village Voice. His grand stage shows draw broad audiences, who share his exquisite musical taste, if not his penchant for So-Cal bad boys. Poses, his sophomore effort, feels wider, riskier — more purely Wainwright. Hadrian’s operatic longing lives at the center of songs on the album like “Greek Song,” “Grey Gardens” and “The Rebel Prince.”


Except that Wainwright plays a variation on that unresolved chord: the gay man’s impossible love for straight men. “My most successful relationships have been with straight men; they are the ones that endure and are the least tension-filled,” he says. His one totemic “relationship” — which threaded through his first album — was with a dyed-blond, straight junkie that he met cruising the streets of Montreal. “He was such an addict I don’t even know if he knew I was alive,” he says. As intense as Wainwright’s affection was for him, the involvement between the two was totally chaste. “I never saw him naked,” he says.


Since then, Wainwright has dated casually but nothing has been “as powerful or as mind-fucky as that,” he says. “I guess I’m still waiting for something like that to happen again.” As if physically sensing his inevitable fall from grace, Wainwright grabs hold of the table at the bar. “I’m going to be like the older professor in the film The Blue Angel,” he says, shifting himself in his seat and flipping his shoulder-length hair from side to side. The guy doesn’t like to sit still. “The professor falls in love with some nineteen-year-old hooker,” he says. “He goes from being this respectable person to being dragged through the streets.”


Of course, as with many gay men, you start in the streets. Wainwright’s sentimental education began with a cruise that went wrong in Hyde Park, London, when he was fourteen. “It bordered on rape,” he says, “but I got out of it pretending I was epileptic.” That summer, back in Montreal, he went out to bars alone wearing “skimpy clothing.” “I was out for sex, and boy did I get it,” he says. “It was insane, and basically I ended up thinking I had AIDS for the next seven to ten years.” Wainwright didn’t get tested during that period and just assumed that he was positive. The fatalism fed into his musical tastes. “I used to write little operas, and I wrote a requiem for myself.”


The street cruise and the fleeting glance — the poison of unacted desire — fuels much of Wainwright’s poetry. “I see a guy on the street, and then I go into this whole thing in my head where we’re going out together, we have
a kid together, then we have this horrible divorce — and by the time I meet him a week later I’m like, ‘You bastard. Look what you did to me.'” At this point, Wainwright can’t keep the minor key from his voice. “I would argue that I’m more in love with people who I’ve never been with before than someone who I’ve been with.”





At his musical center, Wainwright is a torch singer, an Ethel Merman channeling Nick Drake. But that passion-from-afar can make his understanding of love feel received, almost translated from opera. I couldn’t help but want the guy to fall sloppily head-over-heels, if only to hear the music that would come from it. His understanding of sex, I should say, is well-schooled. “I’m basically a slut, but I’m also really really shy,” he says. “I’m a real prude, but once the prudishness is gone, I’ll have sex with twenty guys.” His mother calls him “The Tart.” He calls himself a “sicko” and cops to his collection of French pornos, which he describes this way: “It’s all farm boys, and the city slicker comes to town and he hangs out with the hurdy-gurdy man and his monkey.” Does the hurdy-gurdy guy get involved? “No, but the monkey does.”


One gets the sense that Wainwright is totally and enthusiastically available, which is disconcerting, especially for someone with his kind of ascendant celebrity status. Wainwright thrives on ignoring the fences that handlers
ordinarily provide, which might be one of his greatest and gayest qualities. “If somebody really likes me and they’re relatively great, I’ll usually go for it. I’m not a very picky person,” he says over dinner, laughing. “I like people. I’ve never been mean to anyone who liked me a lot — I’ve given it a run.”


For all the unrequited affection in his life, at least one of Wainwright’s loves has been perfectly mutual. In junior high school at Montreal’s F.A.C.E. (Fine Arts Core Education), Wainwright met and fell for tomboyish late-bloomer Melissa Auf der Maur. “She was the first woman I was really in love with and probably the last,” he confesses. At thirteen, they fell into a heavy romance that consisted of “staring at each other on the floor at a party — then the equivalent of having sex,” says Auf der Maur. They were both inversions of the gender roles: Wainwright was the effeminate choirboy, and Auf der Maur, the Tom Sawyer–ish redheaded girl. “I fantasized that I wanted to rescue her from a burning building,” Wainwright says, a dream as much about being her savior as about having the kinds of arms that could lift her. Once she was rescued, Wainwright adds, “the fantasy sort of ended at that point.”


Then they hit puberty and started angling for the same boys. The pair separated for high school and college — Wainwright attended Millbrook Academy in Upstate New York and later dropped out of McGill University — but lived together in L.A. while Wainwright recorded his first album. Now, just as Wainwright is kick-starting his tour, Auf der Maur is consciously settling down. After spending her twenties on the road playing bass for Hole and then for Smashing Pumpkins, she lives in an airy TriBeCa loft with her boyfriend, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. She’s in her first long-term relationship after lusting, just like Wainwright, for the “unattainable, fuck-up alcoholic type.” Besides photographing covers for the feminist ‘zine Bust, Auf der Maur’s main project these days is assembling a visual diary of her “transient lifestyle” as a rock star from hundreds of snapshots she took — ecstatic fans, bandmates and Hopper-esque hotel self-portraits. “This is my year to prove to myself I can initiate my own artistic projects,” she says, “and that I don’t need that big group to tell me when and where to go.” Auf der Maur plays on two tracks on Poses, and she and Wainwright are still close.


Wainwright’s artistic projects, meanwhile, are at a crescendo. With the
album released in June, he’ll be on the road for months. It’s his personal life that needs attention. “Yeah, I’m lonely, very lonely,” he tells me over pecked-at sushi, “but I do a lot with my loneliness, and I’m very productive.” Later that night, we meet up at the “Click+Drag” party at Fun, a club on the Lower East Side. Jameson’s in hand, we evade the crowd up in the V.I.P. room on the second floor, watching Debbie Harry perform, somewhat lifelessly, onstage. Wainwright bumps into a tall, straight musician and model he knows who wants piano lessons. “Yeah, I could give you some pointers,” he says to him. “The key is internal melody.” The guy eyes him blankly. Down on the dance floor, Wainwright looks back up at the model. “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?”


Soon, we are on the couches. I can’t remember how or who initiates the kiss, but it is brief, as much an idea of desire as the real thing. Sure, it’s a rush to make it with the source of so much beauty, but the first thought that comes to my mind is: “He’s ‘giving me a run.'” I think that kiss, so spontaneously given, is just Wainwright’s way of saying, “Write something nice.” At the end of an evening of intoxications, it is one more drug for us to try, a sweetness to experiment with. Wainwright falls in love with longing, and I am just the nearest, most available object. Maybe there is romantic possibility there, or maybe it is just the love of possibility that brings us together. I haven’t heard from the guy since. Then again, I haven’t called. But I do have his songs, twelve new love stories, playing in my head, which is longing enough for me.



Austin Bunn has worked as a game designer for reality television, boat carpenter, and written for The New York Times Magazine. For the record, he is no longer working on a book about intergenerational sex — thank God — nor does he have anything to do with this story.

Austin Bunn and Nerve.com