“I want to write him a fan letter,” my mom said. “But I feel silly. I’m not really a fan-letter-writing person. And I’m 75 years old.” She was talking about Rufus Wainwright, the openly gay singer/songwriter, and man-about-town, 44 years her junior.
It was a Saturday morning in 2004, and Mom and I were on the phone, catching up as we did once or twice each weekend. She was on Long Island, in the ranch house that she, my dad, and I had moved into when I was two. I’d lived in that house most of my life, but at age 39, I was living in Manhattan, ten blocks from the apartment my parents were renting, when my mom became pregnant with me. I was an only child, unmarried but straight, and a Rufus Wainwright fan.
“You know, Mom, he lives near Gramercy Park. I’ll probably run into him sometime.”
“No, really! I’m always walking in different parts of town. I have the feeling I’ll bump into him. I’ll give him your message. What would you want to say?”
After a long pause, Mom said, in a little voice: “I just want to tell him how talented he is… and that he should always be inspired.”
“Okay. I’ll tell him.”
We laughed, but I was serious. I really felt it might happen.
* * *
My parents loved music and inspired my love of it. When I was little, Mom played classical music and records she had bought in Spain in the late ’50s. Dad sang along with his Broadway cast recordings and Judy Garland albums. (He was a fan of theatrical music and singers who could deliver dynamically.)
In my early teens, I played records all the time. That music, mostly pop/rock, became a soundtrack for the years – and our memories of the years – when I spent a lot of time in my room, reading and writing, thinking and dreaming, feeling weird. Through the years, I introduced my parents to a lot of music. Wainwright’s eponymous debut CD (1998), with its intricate and stylistically disparate arrangements, reminded me so much of music that Mom had come to love – especially the Beatles and their friend Harry Nilsson – that in 2002, rafter I heard it for the first time, I bought her a copy.
Rufus initially struck her as “the saddest guy in the world”, but she couldn’t stop listening. Soon after, I bought her a copy of his second CD, Poses (2001), which had been re-released with a bonus track: Rufus’ cover of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe”, one of Mom’s favorite songs. When Wainwright’s third CD, Want One (2003), was released, I bought a copy for myself and one for Mom.
Want One’s baroque, theatrical, confessional, psychedelic folk/pop/rock became a huge hit with the Wildermuth family. After its release, my parents made one of their infrequent trips into Manhattan, so the three of us and my then-girlfriend could see Rufus perform at Town Hall. He was perfect that night – tender on the quiet songs, tougher than we expected on the rockers – and we became even bigger fans.
When record-label trouble delayed Want Two, Rufus released a few songs from it on iTunes as Waiting for a Want (2004). A co-worker burned me two copies, and I mailed one to my mom. That Saturday morning, on the phone, Mom and I were agreeing that Rufus had done his best work yet. She wished she could tell him how much his music meant to her.
Two days later, I met Rufus at Bryant Park.
* * *
I was having a lousy day at work. The park was a block from my office, and during my lunch hour, I walked there to clear my head. It was Fashion Week, and I walked along the park’s northern, western, and southern edges – 42nd St., 6th Ave., 40th St. – to avoid the huge tent and the crowds. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and the sidewalk seemed to rise toward me in waves.
Wainwright’s speaking voice, a distinctive whiney drone, caught my ear as I passed him. He was sitting on a low wall to my left, talking to two young women who appeared to be fans. For a moment, I thought I was hallucinating. I continued along 40th St., then stood outside the front of the Public Library and gathered my thoughts. Could I go back and talk to him? Ordinarily, I would have gone back to my office instead, phoned Mom, and said, “Guess who I just passed on the street near Bryant Park?” But on that day, I had to tell Rufus about my mom.
When I returned to the spot, the young women were gone. Rufus’ back was to me, but his hand was stretched out and holding a cell phone. Calling him Mr. Wainwright seemed wrong, so I said, “Rufus?”
“Y-y-e-e-s-s?” He turned, searching my face. We both kept our sunglasses on.
“You don’t know me,” I said, and he relaxed. He looked pretty much the way I felt, as though he might not have slept much. “I had to stop because I’m a huge fan.” He smiled. “And I’ve introduced your music to a lot of people.” He smiled wider. “Including my mom, who’s 75 years old.”
His face froze. He was listening, but he had retreated. Was I telling him he made “music for grannies to dig”, as John Lennon once accused Paul McCartney of doing? I reminded myself that Rufus, as a Lennon fan, a New Yorker, and especially the son of two performers – the singer/songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III – surely had learned to buffer himself from potentially crazy fans. I tried to sound calm, normal, and down-to-earth. “Two days ago, we were on the phone…”
As I told him the story and relayed my mom’s message – “I just want to tell him how talented he is… and that he should always be inspired” – Rufus sat perfectly still, watching me but not reacting. I wanted him to emote, to tell me how touching, charming, or surprising- or anything- he found the whole business. I wanted him to give me memorable quotes for telling Mom this story. But I was grateful he hadn’t reacted badly, told me off, and made me regret taking up his time.
Rufus allowed himself to look pleased when I mentioned how much we enjoyed the Town Hall show and how much Mom and I liked Waiting for a Want. He said Want Two would be released soon, and I said we’d look forward to it. Still probing for a little emotional response, I brought up his close relationship with his mother, but he didn’t take the bait. Finally, he thanked me and, again scrutinizing my face, held his hand out limply. The exaggeratedly effeminate gesture seemed like a test. Would I accept him as this person – a bit of a diva, a queen dismissing a subject – and not just my version of him, a maker of extraordinary music? I smiled. We shook hands. I thanked him and left.
Back at my office, I called Mom. “Guess who I just met at Bryant Park.”
“Rufus Wainwright,” Mom joked.
“No, I really did!”
After a pause, she said simply, “Wow!”
Months later, we were amused by these lines in “Peach Trees”, a ballad on Want Two: “Is true love / A long walk / Through Bryant Park?” That coincidence had to be pure. The lines made us wonder if Rufus had ever been to the park before writing the song. Bryant Park really isn’t that big. You can take a long walk around it, but not a long walk through it. Was his “long walk” just poetic license?
* * *
Parts of Want Two were a bit too weird and difficult for Mom, but still, the disc ended up in my parents’ CD-player alarm clock. As Mom’s longstanding health problems became debilitating and she spent days incapacitated on the sofa, Dad would play the disc’s accompanying DVD, Live at the Fillmore West, and Mom would escape into it.
In 2005, Dad was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. The next year, Mom suffered a heart attack.
The last time I saw her was in the hospital. She had undergone a double bypass and was a wreck: haggard, swollen, glassy-eyed from pain medication, in agony because a breathing tube was stuck down her throat, and the doctors were decreasing the painkillers prematurely. She managed an amused smile when I told her that Rufus–- and Johnny Depp, her other late-life crush – would be stopping in to see her. She looked alarmed when I told her, seriously, that Rufus would soon be re-creating Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concerts, but I didn’t think Dad was up to going.
Mom died a few days later, and I made my Rufus Wainwright story the focal point of her eulogy. We ended her funeral by listening to “Foolish Love”, the opening song on his debut album. That song’s key lines had always put off Mom, “I don’t wanna smell you / And lose my senses”. “Across the Universe” would have been the more appropriate choice. But on the spot, right after the eulogy, I’d chosen a track that the funeral director would find easily. Life gets messy sometimes.
Dad and I listened to a lot of music during his remaining four months, but we didn’t play Wainwright’s music much. The first time I was awakened by Want Two as the sound traveled from my parents’ bedroom and down the hallway to mine, I got up, walked down the hall, and took the disc out of the player.
In 2007, Wainwright released two CDs. The first was Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, a live recording of his Garland tribute. Dad might have enjoyed it, but Mom didn’t like Garland’s music and wouldn’t have been won over by Rufus’ enthusiasm. I wish Dad had lived long enough to hear Rufus do Judy Garland’s songs and that Mom had lived long enough to hear Release the Stars – his best work yet. Even more, I wish she’d seen the back cover. Rufus’ design features a photo of him sitting beside his mother, Kate McGarrigle. His arm is around her. He is looking at her adoringly. A legend below it reads: “This album is dedicated to my mother, who still whispers in my ear that I’m great.”
* * *
In January 2010, Kate McGarrigle died from cancer, which she had been fighting since 2006. “I will miss you, mother,” Rufus wrote on his Web site, “my sweet and valiant explorer.”