Of blessings and curses
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
Over the years, I have written about a number of the children of musicians who are carving out music careers for themselves. In doing so, I have done a fair amount of thinking about the ways in which having a musically famous last name can lift a person up while simultaneously weighing them down. And how blessings and curses are two sides of the same coin.
For musical progeny born with a modicum of talent, having a well-known last name imparts knowledge, opens doors and grants the kind of access that’s as hard to get as it is invaluable. However, with that comes the full weight and measure of everyone’s expectations—industry folk, fans of parent and offspring alike, critics, casual passersby with opinions, etc. Add to that the issues that have been known to arise from the high-impact hardships a musical lifestyle can inflict on a family, and having a famous parent starts to seem like a tough way to make it.
But Rufus Wainwright doesn’t just have one famous musician parent—he comes from legendary artists on both sides of his family. I’m not sure the factor by which hailing from a musical clan increases the degree of difficulty when seeking a music career of one’s own, but I know it doesn’t exactly simplify things.
Wainwright’s father is Grammy-winning folksinger Loudon Wainwright III, and his mother was Kate McGarrigle, a highly esteemed folksinger in her own right, who inspired everyone from Emmylou Harris (who wrote the song “Darlin’ Kate” for her friend) and Norah Jones to author Michael Ondaatje with her lively and lovely music.
Perhaps Rufus considered the weight of that family legacy when deciding what direction his life would take, but if he harbored any doubts, his personal biography doesn’t betray them. He was just 6 years old when he began playing piano in earnest, and by the time he was old enough to drive, he’d already toured for years with the McGarrigle Sisters and Family (featuring Kate, sister and musical partner Anna, Rufus, and his sister Martha, who is also an accomplished musician) and been nominated for his first Juno Award.
Despite being firmly ensconced in the bosom of his family, life wasn’t exactly sing-alongs by the piano and coexisting in perfect harmony in the Wainwright/McGarrigle clan. In fact, Rufus’ family isn’t just famous; they’re also famously messy. And they’ve tended to act out their troubles in song.
As the story goes, it was Loudon who started it, writing, among many other songs—Wainwrights being musically prolific—“Rufus is a Tit Man” about his son’s penchant for his mother’s milk and “Hitting You” about striking Martha for the first time. His always stormy marriage to Kate dissolved into discord and acrimony, and after five years of yelling and cheating and tears and exhaustion, he’d walked out and she’d packed up and headed back to her native Canada with her children.
That was when Anna got into the act, writing “Kitty Come Home” (Kate took the directive to heart, moving into an apartment across the hall from Anna), while Kate, not to be outdone, contributed the succinctly and pointedly titled “Go Leave” to the growing musical canon dedicated to detailing the family’s many dramas.
In this family, the current of controversy that can arise out of having musical parentage flows in both directions, and with an enormous amount of god-given talent and equally large grudges to act as song fodder, Rufus picked up the poison pen where his elders left off, writing “Dinner at Eight,” in which he tells his father he’ll take him down “with one little stone.” And while Martha may not have had the last word in this voluble and volatile family, she’s definitely been responsible for some of the more memorable ones with the song that’s become her signature, “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole,” also directed at Loudon.
But even all this high drama, public feuding and the songs that have resulted can’t overshadow one thing: Rufus is a brilliantly talented, breathtakingly skilled musician. Despite the lifetime supply of angst that is his inheritance from his family, despite the drug addiction that left him temporarily blind and nearly killed him, despite having spent a number of years being equal parts bon vivant end enfant terrible, Rufus has continued to amass a critically lauded body of work that is remarkable for its sheer beauty.
His musical sensibilities have always trended in the direction of extravagant and dramatic, whether he’s performing in front of a full orchestra or sitting solo at a piano. Luckily, he’s gifted with a voice as big and evocative as the music he loves to create, and the way he uses it is less like a vocalist singing and more like a musician playing an instrument. And, as befitting someone with his particular musical lineage, he’s every inch the showman and consummate performer who’s equally capable of being nominated for a Grammy for reprising a famous Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall as he is writing an opera (he’s been an opera fan since he was a teenager) that delights and confounds critics.
At present, Rufus is touring solo, just him, his piano, those lovely songs and that undeniable voice. When he plays a Sat., Jan. 6 concert at Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre, he’ll probably have some stories to tell and possibly political opinions to share—he’s notoriously outspoken—but he’ll save the secrets and the skeletons for his songs. It is the family way, after all.
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