When the first song ended, I began to clap and suffered sharp rebuke at the hands of a middle-aged woman one row behind and two seats to my left.
Clapping is what you do when a song ends. I wasn’t the only one who screwed up. How was I supposed to know? Orchestra Hall–or its audience, rather–sat in silence for the next 45 minutes.
I felt like I was meeting an old boyfriend for coffee. I was nervous. I was already under-dressed in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops. Why couldn’t I have at least worn heels? I should have worn the floral print dress. It’s Orchestra Hall, for godssakes.
“Yeah, it’s Orchestra Hall,” my husband had reasoned soundly one hour prior as I tugged at the hem of my shorts in the mirror, “but you’re not going to see the orchestra.”
Then I got there, and I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.
The crowd was bizarre–50% middle-aged suburban couples, 25% 20-something urban hipsters, 24% khaki and average-dress young professional types, and 1% appearing to be…well, punk, to be perfectly honest.
Whatever was going on, it was nothing I had ever seen before. Even when I’d seen him before.
In 1997, I dragged a patient friend to a show at the Fine Line Music Cafe in downtown Minneapolis to see an as-of-yet essentially unknown and lick-your-lips gorgeous alterna-pop artist who (in addition to being worthy of all those hyphens) struck me as a good candidate for addition to my stable of troubadour obsessions. I had heard exactly five of his songs, but I was smitten. Absolutely in love.
We bought our tickets at the door.
He sat at his Casio (or whatever it was. Probably not a Casio. I just make these things up) in jeans and a button-up shirt and told us stories and pointed at people in the audience and carried on conversations with them. “You get that lime into your beer okay? Good. I think you squirted me, dude.” I stood six feet from him. No crush of people, no big deal. Just another new artist in the parade of new artists and club shows that dominated my experience of the 90s. But he wasn’t just another new artist.
There, in the dark at Orchestra Hall, I kept thinking about it. I was just sixteen rows from the stage–a handful of purposeful strides. I wanted to run up to the stage and tell him I bought tickets at the door to see him once, but these, THESE, we were only able to get because a very generous friend of mine had a very generous co-worker. “It’s incredible,” I would have said, “I’m here; you’re here…isn’t this fucking cool?”
You don’t go running up to the stage in Orchestra Hall. Especially not in the middle of the (apparently) no-clapping portion of the show when your entertainment is dressed in a high, feather-collared black coat with a 15-foot train like some kind of super-fabulous grim reaper or goth Liberace and no one is speaking, moving, or even breathing. He didn’t look at us. He didn’t talk to us.
And though I’m sure he would have agreed that it was cool–his ascendancy from pop maybe-it-boy to arguably the most exciting and talented singer-songwriter-composer-arranger of the 21st century to date (in Elton John’s opinion, anyway)–Orchestra Hall is not nearly as cool as sold-out stadium shows all over Europe or composing a full-length Francophone opera and watching it open in England. Not as cool as overcoming methamphetamine addiction. Not as cool as 90% of the things he’d done and seen in the thirteen years since we’d last been in the same room. He would have been confused by my excitement. I may have been escorted out. Besides, I was dressed like a bum.
He fit in just as well at Orchestra Hall as he did at the Fine Line, though he had apparently tired of the dingy main room of First Avenue, Minneapolis’ most storied and well-known music venue, where he has played a number of times and whose gritty urban ambiance he lamented openly later in the show after a wardrobe and demeanor change. “I have to admit, it’s nice to play somewhere that doesn’t have foosball tables. And Prince never did show up. Hey. Was Arsenio Hall in Purple Rain?”
His opening set was a presentation of his newest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Though it is not the opera I spoke of earlier, the album was presented in the truest, most Italian sense of the word: As a song cycle. A complete work. The songs were not the performance, the sum total of them was the performance. This, apparently, is why there was no clapping allowed.
Decidedly un-poppy, the album defies classification even under “popera,” a category that invokes images of il Divo and 50-something sex-starved cougars descending upon book clubs bearing cucumber sandwiches. I think it’s a shit classification for Rufus Wainwright. He is his own planet.
“Songs for Lulu” is Wainwright’s sixth studio album and the first released since the death of his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle. It holds day and night, light and dark, and dreams and nightmares as its thematic centerpieces. Wainwright acknowledges that it is his darkest and most melancholy album to date. It contains three adaptations of Shakespearean sonnets; the first half of the title is drawn from one of these sonnets, and Wainwright has implied that “Lulu” is comparable to Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady.”
Of the sonnets, he has said: “I had never really immersed myself in them and I came out the end with the traditional view that they could be the greatest pieces of literature ever written.” [click]
He’s intertextual enough to make even well-traveled literati sweat and, as such, adds a whole new sexy level of possibility to the term “music snob.”
Piano-focused and full of dirges and feints that spike into overwhelming dramatic outbursts, the new album puts his skills as a pianist on display. And his voice, an object of intense contention, I’ve found, has had some work. His range has expanded, mostly on the low end. His vocal control and capacity for incredible volume have matured considerably. It takes pipes to hold your own against furious hammering on the lower octaves of a Steinway; I don’t care who your sound guy is.
His voice. People either love it or hate it. Depending on who you ask, people will describe it as annoying and nasal or crisp and singular; the only truly safe thing to say is that, for better or worse, it is penetrating beyond most all comparisons.
As an aside, the best way to listen to Rufus Wainwright–and specifically his first, self-titled album–is in the bathtub with a bottle of wine.
I remember once, some bad day, when my husband (then boyfriend) and I shared a shitty apartment in Stillwater, Minnesota, I had worked myself into a tizzy about some thing or another. It doesn’t matter what. Could have been anything. Nerves in general. Neurotic overload. One of my quarterly minor breakdowns. I was on the verge of tears. He put me in the tub, dragged the speakers to the door of the bathroom, set an open bottle of wine on the floor and set the CD player to work. “Foolish Love,” “April Fools,” “Millbrook,” “Barcelona.” And he just left me there for two hours, starting the CD over when it quit.
I bonded with Rufus irrevocably that day. His music became a fixture in my life.
Rufus’ second set allowed clapping, and people took full advantage. Dressed in an orange pantsuit and white dress shoes a la cousin Eddie of National Lampoon fame, he played favorites. “Beauty Mark,” “Matinee Idol,” “Grey Gardens,” The Art Teacher,” “Hallelujah,” “Going to a Town,” and “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.”
The highlight of the evening for me was “Memphis Skyline,” introduced as such (I’m paraphrasing here, with no ability to remember verbatim but no desire to misrepresent him, either): “I wrote the next song for Jeff Buckley, who I didn’t like at all at first because I was furiously bitter and jealous of him, until I met him one night and I saw how delicate he was and so kind and full of love, but also how sort of dark and doomed he was, which sadly played out when he died about a month later. I realized then, with everyone else–or maybe a little later than everyone else–what a treasure the world had lost.”
Rufus’ dynamic nature is a mixed blessing. His diverse, rapidly-changing interests and influences–operatic, folk, and baroque underpinnings combined with his cheeky, even bawdy, pop sensibilities–are what make him an innovator. With lyrical content that makes regular references to literature, classical and European history, opera, and theater, it is not incorrect to describe him as an intellectual songwriter. But frank, self-deprecating, wryly humorous and even crass explorations of love, loss, and (gasp!) sex, are not hard to come by, either.
These complexities make it difficult, if not impossible, to categorize him and, according to the powers that be, render him largely unfit for mainstream radio.
Rufus’ blends of old and new, order and chaos, and culture and unseemliness–coupled with cynical humor set against a bleak backdrop–make it reasonable to say that he, in concept and treatment of his craft, bears some resemblance to T.S. Eliot.
I’ve thought about this for a long time. That the two men appeal to me, somehow, for similar reasons. I’ve struggled with finding a way to express that thought without sounding ridiculous. I have given up.
How can one compare a flamboyant singer/songwriter–whose often theatrical shows include feathered coats, bathrobes, lederhosen, and togas–to the stoic, saturnine, dry professionalism of a man like T.S. Eliot without sounding ridiculous? It can’t be done.
But I went there.
We’ll just have to live with it.
For thirteen years, I’ve resented Rufus’ scarcity around the Twin Cities. I’ve pined and pined to see him live again. To see first hand the standing product of the transformations I’ve watched him go through, primarily on youtube. To see what thirteen years of faithful evangelizing and a decade of bathtub communing had bought me. To see that I had faith in someone who proved worthwhile and impressive and deserving of the praise, admiration, and veneration I’d heaped on him for over a decade. And he gave me something surprising that was, on the other hand, perfectly rational in his endless recombination of all the best that music and his musical talents have to offer–something that intrigued me, something that defied a quick once-over, and something that will, undoubtedly, grow on me as every single one of his experiments have done over the last decade. He delivered something exceptional, which is exactly what I have always hoped for and come to expect from him.
The boy is all grown up.
You can learn more about Rufus Wainwright, his new album, and his current tour at http://www.rufuswainwright.com/