Posted by: facetothewind | August 11, 2007

Crazy About the Guy: how I became a Rufus Wainwright groupie

The musical score of my youth was all wrong — just wrong. Looking at my adolescence as if it were a movie, one thing stands out: someone had hired the wrong composer to write the score. It consisted of the harsh noises of the rock bands Van Halen, Kiss, and Aerosmith. This screaming soundtrack of my high school was not befitting of the delicate kid who loved the piano, collected wines, and planted night-blooming jasmine flowers outside his bedroom window for (imagined) romantic evenings. Inland rural Florida was no place for a prissy kid with a passion for Chopin.

I discovered this ever so rudely one night when some teenage boy from my white trash neighborhood drove past our house and screamed out the window, “Chopin sucks!” My first thought was, at least he got the pronunciation correct. He didn’t say “choppin” like one would do onions. I was not going to be defeated by some moronic, pimply loser who saved his lawn-mowing money to go see the J. Geils band when the came to the Lee Civic auditorium.

After that drive-by shouting, my affection for classical music went somewhat underground. I never played the piano for anyone in public. I spent the better part of my two years of community college sequestered in a practice room in the humanities building rehearsing my nocturnes, preludes, and etudes in a tightly sealed and acoustically insulated room the size of a twin mattress. I wasn’t rehearsing them for any public performance so much as I was finally performing the appropriate score to my melancholy life.

After many months of wading through the rich minor chords and maudlin melodies of Chopin’s piano music, I began to feel a kinship with the composer — it was as if we knew each other’s suffering. We met on the pages of his sheet music each afternoon. I’d sit there and say to the black notes scattered over the pages, “Frédéric, show me your pain.” And he would speak through my fingers, his heart bleeding all over the black and white keys of the Yamaha upright. It was a perfect little pity party that went on for years. Well, in fact, it never stopped.

Outside of my family I rarely ever met anyone, and certainly no one my own age, who knew anything about classical music. The kids in my high school and college would come to class raving about seeing Gene Simmons and Kiss in concert in Tampa or Miami. They all proudly wore the merch of rock concerts: the black t-shirts listing the band name and all the cities on tour. The boys played the air guitar in the lunchroom to impress girls. On Halloween they all painted their faces black and white like the band members of Kiss. I simply couldn’t imagine the devastation to my eardrums at those concerts. Not surprisingly, no one ever invited me to a rock concert.

Thus I grew up missing one (questionably important) rite of passage: the all-American rock concert. I avoided pop music like it was an infectious disease, cowering at the idea of standing in a swaying crowd screaming and waving my arms overhead. I moved to New York at 21 and then to San Francisco at 23. I spent my 20s and 30s cheering Kiri Te Kanawa and Carol Vaness in the standing room section of the opera houses. I attended every opera, symphony, and chamber music recital that I could afford.

So it was a bit odd to find myself, last week in Portland, standing on a packed and steamy dance floor, a mere 5 feet from the stage at a rock concert, cheering with school girl excitement and flashing the sign language “I love you” in the air. The message I was flashing overhead was directed at one person — egad — a pop musician. His name is Rufus Wainwright. Although Rufus’ music isn’t exactly rock, he’s most definitely a rock star.

I stumbled upon Rufus’ music one afternoon in the summer of 2002 on the way to the airport in Tucson. My friend Rob was driving and listening to Rufus’ new Poses album. The title cut was playing when I interrupted our conversation.

“Excuse me Rob, but what IS that we’re listening to? WHO is that singer?”
“Oh that’s Rufus Wainwright — he’s a new musician. I just got his latest album. It’s nice, huh? And he’s gay, too. I thought you might like him.”

Nice was not the word. Gorgeous. Luscious. Fresh. Lyrical. Intelligent. Invigorating and touching, too. I examined the CD jewel case and scribbled the words “Rufus Wainwright: Poses” on an ATM slip in my wallet and when I got to Albuquerque, I asked my friend Darren to immediately drive us to a record store to buy an album I had just heard in the car. We got back to Darren’s place with the disc and Joe Miron was there – a horn player for the Berlin Symphony. “Joe, you gotta hear this guy I just discovered!” I told him, handing him my headphones. He put them on and closed his eyes as the first piano motif of Rufus’ Poses song rang through his head.

Poses starts with the right hand repeating a simple 5-note subject on the piano. Then the left hand comes in like a fugue introducing its 5-note counter subject on top of it. At 22 seconds in, Rufus’ amber tenor-into-baritone voice intones about mundane objects – red leather jackets and brand name black sunglasses — the gay bill of goods.

What was he doing, I wondered? He’s making fun of gay culture and the narcissistic meanderings of drunken boys in flip flops on Fifth Avenue. Wow – a commentary I would have written myself. The song modulates with Rufus’ voice still droll at this point lifting us up a bit and then dropping us back down into minor chords. I’m now in love – a pop singer not attached to happy music. Rufus it seemed was a man unafraid of his dark corners.

Rufus continues into the Poses song. I wondered where he was going with all this negative commentary on self-consciousness: “…all these poses, such beautiful poses, makes any boy feel as pretty as princes…” Then something happens at 1:26: a simple tapping of a drumstick on a cymbal heralds a classic Rufus launch upward into an operatic crescendo. The strings start a pizzicato and the piano has dropped its subject for a suspenseful syncopation. “…baby you said watch my head about it…” Surely this is his father telling him he has lost his way as a materialistic homosexual.

Rufus’ angelic back up singers rise up like the Greek chorus, “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” He resolves acknowledging the implied paternal rebuke overtaking the chorus with his, “No kidding.” The cello then takes the right hand subject of the piano and welcomes back the opening piano subjects. They play together until Rufus returns with the 2nd verse. He ends the whole song with a simple bowing of the strings with one small bass chord on the piano. It’s a masterful synthesis of classical, pop, and show tunes. It is Gershwin meets Brahms meets John Lennon — nothing short of genius.

Joe appeared to be as spellbound as I. After listening I was eager to hear what a trained world-class classical musician would have to say about Rufus. He took off the headphones and chose his words carefully, “I think it’s very rich, very thick and emotional. It’s almost operatic. I think it’s quite beautiful.”

Hearing Rufus’ music that day was the beginning of my first real pop music obsession. It was the first time since my childhood that I left the bosom of Chopin for someone else. I have since bought all of Rufus’ albums, picked apart his songs in piano lessons, written the sheet music out so I can play his song at home on my piano. I spend at least a couple hours each week scouring the web for any morsels of his music or to see interviews with him on YouTube. Rufus’ music rivals any composer of the last 60 years. He gives Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and Freddie Mercury some stiff competition. Los Angeles musicologist Roger Bourland compares his music to Schubert in his UCLA music school course on the music of Rufus Wainwright. I hear influences of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Philip Glass and of course, Chopin.

And so, five years after that first listening in the car, I was looking like a seasoned groupie standing in line early at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, staking out a place near the stage to get as close as possible to the rock star of the evening. After a couple opening acts, Rufus’ band precedes him onto stage and begins riffing with the title cut of his new Release the Stars album. Up jumps Rufus in his lithe frame, feathery hair bouncing as he walks, dressed in a candy-striped suit adorned with many large, glittering brooches. He grabs the microphone and begins his song. At this point I’m cheering wildly, swooning even. Hearing his voice live gave me goose bumps.

In Release the Stars, he sings about the draconian contracts of Hollywood and how the big movie companies keep their stars locked up and controlled. When he gets to the point in the song where he says, “No need to hold on to what isn’t yours…release the stars…” the spotlight hits the spinning disco ball and the giant room is filled with sparkling white light. Rufus has just exploded like fireworks and the crowd goes wild as if Babe Ruth just hit his record-breaking home run.

It’s pointless to try to describe a transcendent, ineffable experience, so I won’t try. I now know why people fainted at Chopin and Liszt’s salons. There were moments when I actually felt faint at his concert. It could have been the heat and crush of the crowd. Nah. It was the enormity of the experience — of witnessing someone who was dragging his guitar around in the snow in New York and Montreal only a few years ago step before an ecstatic audience of people who know that they are truly lucky to be in the room with a musical giant.

Uncut Magazine wrote this about him:

“…Rufus Wainwright, spawn of Loudon and Kate McGarrigle, has ten times the talent of admirer Elton John – or even of a Jobriath. This torch-song troubadour, trading in elegant melancholia, is one of the only great singer-songwriters working in pop music today. With that effortless tenor – bel canto with a vital edge of petulance – he’s Thom Yorke reborn on the stage of La Scala. In this facile pop-idol age when actual talent counts for so little, Rufus’ extravagant gifts should be clung to like life rafts. Part-throwback to a golden era of post-folk-boom auteur…”

In a final stroke of my teen-like obsession with Rufus, I offered him a gift. Before the show I wrapped a vintage green glass brooch for him in a gift box. Never having been a “groupie,” I had no idea how to get it to him. I arrived at the theater early and went bus-to-bus with a big smile bearing the little gift box with his name on it. He was not on any of the buses — the roadies wouldn’t even tell me which bus was his. I kept the box with me and finally, near the end of the concert, I produced the box from my bag. My friend John’s face lit up when he saw it and the other fans around me said, “Throw it up on stage!” So John grabbed the box and looked at me for approval. I nodded and he tossed it up to the stage. It landed about 3 feet from the piano where Rufus was seated introducing another song. A roadie in a black t-shirt swooped in and grabbed it lest Rufus step on it.

After the show we tried to go back stage where a post-concert party was taking place. All the “in” people had passes and we didn’t. “You guys are going to have to leave,” the security guard barked at us in the dingy basement hallway leading to the green room. When he saw that we weren’t menacing but that we were just gentle fans, he softened his tone and smiled, “Folks, there’s nothing I can do. You need a pass.” This time he asked us kindly to leave.

Standing out on the street after being asked to leave was kind of a let down. For years, I have been listening to Rufus croon away my dark moments. In lonely nights in Hawaii, I would put Rufus on and sing with him. He would accompany me in the car going into town for a lonely piece of pizza on a rainy night. There is a certain music to those poignant moments of life that we hear in our heads. It’s the music of disappointed romance, of forgiveness for your father who left you when you were a child. Rufus heard that music in my head and gave it a voice and some lyrics. It seemed like such a personal and deep connection to finally find that someone understood my heart — someone I never met.

Being turned away at the party, having the little green brooch spirited away by a roadie, it was clear that I’m not the only one who has found some comfort in the soft folds of Rufus Wainwright.

He has been discovered. It had to happen.

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