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Early last month, a host of show-biz notables gathered at Radio City Music Hall for a TV tribute to John Lennon.
Besides proving that Kevin Spacey can carry a tune (his faithful "Mind Games" was spirited, if a bit jarring), the show was a reminder that the work of a great artist is usually best left to that artist. But between the tunelessness of Lou Reed's "Jealous Guy" and the decaffeinated funk of Dave Stewart and Nelly Furtado's "Instant Karma," there was a moment of real transcendence.
Joined by Sean Lennon and Moby (one of whom inherited Yoko's pipes, and one of whom should stick to sampling other people's), 27-year-old singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright let fly with a gorgeous acoustic rendering of "Across the Universe." It was the one performance of the night that actually bested the original version of the song, and when he and Lennon returned near the end of the show and pulled the same magic out of "This Boy," there could be no doubt who had stolen the show.
Most likely, the performance will prove to be nothing more than a footnote in a long, brilliant career for Wainwright, but it helped him make an important point at a crucial time. Ever since the American-born, Canadian-raised Wainwright released his outstanding, self-titled 1998 debut album, he's been saddled with the burden of carrying on a pop-music tradition stretching back to Stephen Foster, and including the likes of Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman.
In such heavily orchestrated, expertly constructed compositions as "Foolish Love," "Beauty Mark" and "Matinee Idol," critics heard someone who was a throwback to a time when Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths spent long hours churning out romantic gems for the musical theater. Wainwright's songs sounded like they belonged in a musical, all right, just some idiosyncratic musical running around in his own head -- the kind where people break into songs about elite boarding schools, one-night stands with junkies, and the tragedy of not getting same-sex action at a Valentine's Day kissing booth.
Wainwright, the spawn of smart-ass folkie songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and folkie songbird Kate McGarrigle, didn't mind the comparisons at first. After all, the great American songbook had almost literally been his mother's milk, material that he and the rest of the family would sing around a parlor piano in Montreal. But being seen as anachronistic, even if it's an anachronistic genius, can get tiresome if -- like Wainwright -- you're still in your 20s and if -- like Wainwright -- you're ambitious and cocky enough to believe you should be on the radio, having your songs crooned by the masses.
The Lennon tribute show put Wainwright in a different context, and spotlighted what a remarkable and versatile singer he is: operatic, yet eccentrically nasal, blessed with an impossibly rich tone at even the lowest vocal registers.
"I'd never done anything of that magnitude, per se, live on television before, so it was certainly a rush. And I plan to do it as many times as I can," he says with a laugh. "What was cool about it is that for a lot of people to understand what I do, it's good for them to actually see me do it. What I liked about it was that I thought my stuff stood up next to the other stuff. It was encouraging."
Wainwright's bond with Sean goes back to the summer of '98, when Lennon heard Wainwright's solo debut and insisted that they tour together. Although Lennon was the tour headliner, when the tour reached Canada, he volunteered to be Wainwright's opening act. "I think everybody was still there to see him, but he somehow thought that people knew me like I was a big Canadian star or something," Wainwright says.
Children of celebrities (although Wainwright's parents were admittedly a bit less famous than Lennon's), and products of musical families, Wainwright and Lennon shared the strange bond that comes from having the people who changed your diapers for musical influences.
"Recently, it was Sean's birthday, which of course was also his father's birthday," Wainwright says. "We were hanging out late at night, and we just listened to some of his dad's stuff. It was quite moving and revealing, because I could see him listening to his father's music and see a similar reaction that I have when I listen to either my father or my mother's music. That is, you're almost listening to a part of yourself."
As part of Wainwright's effort to be seen as a contemporary artist, for his latest record, Poses,he and producer Pierre Marchand toned down the string sections and tightened up the grooves. Wainwright's DreamWorks labelmate Alex Gifford, of techno act Propellerheads, produced and played most of the instruments on the mildly danceable "Shadows," and Wainwright allowed the record's signature tune, "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," to recur at the end of the record with a funkier mix.
"Pierre and I thought it was important that with this record I not get pegged only as the piano-playing Americana guy, because innately what I'd like to establish in any case is that I'm a really good singer," Wainwright says. "And that I'm a really good pop singer, too. And that I can sort of go out and there and, whatever, groove. In some way or capacity."
Wainwright's audible embarrassment at the thought of his own groove acumen is a rare case of humility for this endearing egomaniac. Something of a musical prodigy as a child, Wainwright didn't follow the standard garage-band route as a teenager. Instead he spent his days "playing with the imaginary orchestras in my mind," or visualizing himself as one of the doomed romantic characters in one of his many beloved operas.
Wainwright's debut record -- as with many debuts -- featured material that had been accumulating for years, in his case between the ages of 17 and 22. For Wainwright, these were years of self-discovery as a gay man, and the record is loaded with tales of tragic, or doomed, love, with Wainwright as modern-day Oscar Wilde, getting his heart broken by screwed-up pretty boys.
Doomed love rears its romantic head on Poses, but the album's true theme is the artificiality of identity, and the notion that you can don a new persona by putting on a "new red fetching leather jacket." Written in a red-neon-bathed room during a temporary stay at New York's infamously seedy Chelsea Hotel, Poseswas Wainwright's direct response to finding himself the object of attention from strangers, for the first time in his life.
"I think with some of the songs, after finding this new position in society, as a songwriter, this was more about my offhand observances of the world that I'd found myself in," he says. "For instance, none of the songs are necessarily related to me personally. They're just related to the type of life that I was leading.
"It was night and day," he says of the change he experienced in the way people responded to him. "You can't really underestimate the power of having a record under your belt and having sort of a calling card, DreamWorks, behind you. People are easily seduced by bits of fame here and there."
Being a public figure might have required an adjustment, but Wainwright most certainly doesn't fall into the whiny, leave-me-alone school of pop stars. He's refreshingly open about his desire for stardom, and he has a way of saying ridiculously arrogant things about himself and getting away with it, because the whole thing is done with a laugh and a wink. It's the same way Muhammad Ali could charm people with his boasts, while Larry Holmes sounded strident whenever he tried to do it.
And Wainwright may be a drama queen (from "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk": "I'm just a little bit heiress/A little bit Irish/A little bit Tower of Pisa"), but he's nothing if not a self-aware drama queen.
"It's interesting, 'cause I always thought I was famous when I was young, even though I wasn't," he says. "I sort of acted that way. It got on a lot of people's nerves, actually.
"But in a funny way, especially when I go back to Montreal, people tend to say, 'Oh, my God, he wasn't kidding. He really did want to do this, and he really was going to make it.' And they're almost a little shocked. But I've had a lot of practice in front of the mirror, and I've stayed up long enough doing mock interviews with Letterman and Barbara Walters in bed, before masturbating. So I think I'm ready for it."
Talking about his love of opera, and the need for a good libretto, he weighs the relative importance of music and lyrics. Deciding that lyrics are tougher for him, he says, "I'd rather be a great lyricist any day over a great musician." Then, almost as if to make sure you're still listening, he adds, "But I don't have to deal with that problem, 'cause I'm both." Once again, he laughs at his own hubris.
One of the more intriguing facets of Wainwright's career is the Judy Garland-in-reverse effect he has on his female fans, who tend to swoon over him at shows, either because they like the fact that he's unattainable, they dream of making him a switch-hitter, or they empathize with all his sad songs about boys.
"I get a lot of it," Wainwright agrees, "and I wouldn't say it's weird, it's something that's absolutely unexplainable in a certain way. Well, not exactly unexplainable. I guess I'm pretty hot. But it's like a force of nature that, needless to say, I've got no control over. I think they're screaming, but I don't think it's due to anything that I'm doing purposely, so that's always bizarre.
"But gene pools are gene pools. They could always get some Rohpynols or something, drug me and mount me or something." He considers the thought and says with a laugh, "That's disgusting," before turning serious: "I've never made a distinction between straight men and gay men. In fact, I probably more often fall for straight guys as well. So I can understand it, for sure."
The only limitation on such female admiration has been the same one that's kept Wainwright in the "cult artist" category: restrictive playlists that don't know what to do with artists who can't be classified in simple genre terms. Thirty years ago, smart eccentrics like Randy Newman were able to find at least a small window for themselves on FM rock radio. These days, that window is shut tight and boarded up.
"It's incredibly frustrating," Wainwright says. "I mean, at the end of the day I've made a great record and I'm going to make a lot more great records, so I'm not worried about it. But in terms of what's sometimes allotted the primo attention, it's so generic and unimaginative that I think is not necessarily good for society these days. It just makes things boring.
"I don't know who's dictating all this stuff, it's very faceless and Big Brotherish. So I consider it, in a weird way, my duty to try to get on radio to try and relieve some of this dictatorship that's going on. But, whatever. I tend to be very dramatic."