Song of the Week 22: Poses – Rufus Wainwright

Ten years ago, I walked into Tower Records, Dublin, and heard a song playing. It got my attention straight away. It was very well crafted, as if it had been written by one of the great songwriters. I asked who it was at the cash desk and was told it was Rufus Wainwright. The album was available at the listening post, so I had a listen to the first song again. The second , Greek Song, didn´t grab me straight away, but then the third song, the title-track came on, and that was even better than the first. I bought the album there and then and, for a while, played the first and third songs over and over in between listening to the full album. Other songs have since crept up on me gradually and bowled me over, the wonderful Tower of Learning (“I saw it in your eyes what I´m looking for”), Shadows, Rebel Prince (“Marigold, marigold, marigold”) and Grey Gardens, his cover of his father´s One Man Guy. For me, it´s one of the best albums in the last 20 years, by one of the best songwriters of recent times, the man Elton John called “the greatest songwriter on the planet.”

Wainwright was born into a musical family, a  real rock and roll dynasty. His father Loudon Wainwright III and mother Kate McGarrigle were both folk singers, who divorced when Rufus was aged 3. He began studying piano at age 6 and started touring with folk group “The McGarrigle Sisters and Family”, a group which featured his mother Kate, aunt Anna, younger sister Martha (these days also a successful songwriter in her own right) and Rufus himself, at the age of 13.

He realised he was gay as a teenager, and according to Rufus his father spotted this early on, however neither of his parents ever discussed it.  He talked about how he and his father would “…drive around in the car, he´d play Heart of Glass, and I´d sort of mouth the words, pretend to be Blondie. Just a sign of many other things to come as well.” Ironic then that Loudon had released a comical, and ever-so-slightly weird, hit about his son entitled Rufus Is A Tit Man, on his 1975 album Unrequited, while Rufus was still a baby.

Obviously folk music was an early influence, but he got into classical music and in particular opera quite early on, as you can hear on many of his songs, Poses included.

After playing for a while on the Montreal club circuit, he cut some demo tapes with Pierre Marchand, a family friend who had  previously worked with his mother and aunt. Those tapes impressed his father Loudon, who sent them to Van Dyke Parks, who in turn passed them on to Lenny Waronker, of Dreamworks. As a result, Rufus was signed to the label. Here´s a quote from Waronker about listening to the tapes for the first time.

“When I was about to listen to his tape, I remember clearly I was thinking, ‘Gee, if he has the mom’s musicality and smarts, and the dad’s smarts and voice, that’d be nice.’ Then I put it on and I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is stunning.'”

I´ll return to Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, both players on the Laurel Canyon scene, one of these days. There´s many a story to tell about the musical family tree there and in Topanga. Next week´s Song of the Week will feature one of those musical branches.

His first album the eponymously titled Rufus Wainwright was produced by Jon Brion, with Pierre Marchand and Parks also helping out with production duties on a couple of tracks. The album failed to chart, although it mostly got positive reviews from critics and Wainwright was named by Rolling Stone as the Best New Artist of the year and his album as one of the best of of 1998.

The second, Poses (2001), was inspired by the difficulties Rufus was having in his life.  Many of the songs deal with addiction, such as Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, and around this time Rufus was partying to the max, overindulging in drugs such as Crystal Meth, which he became addicted to. This addiction came to a head in 2002, when Rufus had what he described as “the most surreal week of my life”. That week included him playing a cameo role in Absolutely Fabulous, partying for several nights with George W Bush´s daughter Barbara, enjoying a debauched evening with his mother and Marianne Faithfull, singing with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and experiencing recurring hallucinations of his father. He decided that he was “either going to rehab or I was going to live with my father. I knew I needed an asshole to yell at me, and I felt he fit the bill.”

According to Rufus, the album´s theme grew out of the world of the title track, which was inspired by his time living in the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York. He said of his stay there that “”I went to all these parties and met all these people and found that, basically, it’s like a big revolving door. I thought if I could look at it as a series of poses and extract from it what I needed for my songs, then I would survive.”

I´m not really sure what he sings in the chorus: either “you said watch my head about it” or “you sat and watched my head about it”, but I love the climbing  and falling piano and strings with the voice rising, swooping and falling.

The main theme for the album is the debauchery of his then life, his struggle with addiction and thirst for fame, looking for things which were “a little bit sweeter, a little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me.”

It was produced by Marchand, with one track produced and co-written by Propellerheads Alex Gifford. The album also features his sister Martha on backing vocals. For many the Want One/Want Two albums are his masterpieces, but Poses is still my favourite. The only selection I didn´t really understand was Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk (reprise), which is basically just the same song repeated with an electronic drum beat. I thought it should have finished on the gorgeous In a Graveyard, the 2nd last song. Apart from that, it´s as good  a collection as songs as I´ve heard on one album in a long time.

The album, according to Ben Ratliff of Rolling Stone, is about a young, gay, narcissistic achiever in New York… but the Chelsea Boy is only a magnified version of practically every kid new to a big city who’s got a job and an apartment and worries about weekend plans: The Chelsea Boy just has sharper clothes, higher standards of beauty and a better tradition of mordant humour to console himself with.”

There´s decadence, romance, loneliness, self destructiveness, self awareness, hallucinations, hope and hopelessness in there. It´s a lifestyle most of can relate to on some level, whether or not we´ve lived a life of excess to the same degree as the protagonist had. I think that´s why the best songs work, because we can identify them. The artist writes about his or her experiences, but once the song is written he/she doesn´t own it anymore. The audience, the listeners do. Still, receiving royalties is always a nice bonus. 🙂

The album garnered much critical acclaim, but did not sell well at first. However, it won many awards, including the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Music Album, a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album, and was nominated by the Juno Awards for Best Songwriter (“Poses” / “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” / “Grey Gardens”). The album has since been certified Gold by the Canadian Recording Industry Association and included on Mojo´s 100 Modern Classics list.

“Poses”

The yellow walls are lined with portraits
And I’ve got my new red fetching leather jacket
All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel like picking up roses

There’s never been such grave a matter
As comparing our new brand name black sunglasses
All these poses such beautiful poses
Makes any boy feel as pretty as princes

The green autumnal parks conducting
And the city streets a wondrous chorus singing
All these poses oh how can you blame me
Life is a game and true love is a trophy

And you said and
Watch my head about it
Baby you sat and watched my head about it
My head about it
Oh no oh no oh no
Oh no oh no no kidding

Reclined amongst these packs of reasons
For to smoke the days away into the evenings
All these poses of classical torture
Ruining my mind like a snake in the orchard
I did go from wanting to be someone now
I’m drunk and wearing flip – flops on Fifth Avenue

Once you’ve fallen from classical virtue
Won’t have a soul for to wake up and hold you

In the green autumnal parks conducting
All the city streets a wondrous chorus
Singing all these poses now no longer boyish
Made me a man ah but who cares what that is

And you said and watch my head about it
Baby you said watch my head about it
My head about it
Oh no oh no oh no
Oh no oh no well you said
Watch my head about it
Baby you said watch my head about it
My head about it
Oh no oh no oh no
Oh no oh no no kidding

Well, this week we talked about a Chelsea Boy, so let´s make use of a musical device and make a seque to a Chelsea Girl next week: A Femme Fatale and a young boy from out West, Los Angeles, who while visiting New York, gave her a song to sing and got his heart broken for his troubles. Both of them were born in Germany. No more clues… You´ll just have to tune in to find out.

Take it easy…

7 thoughts on “Song of the Week 22: Poses – Rufus Wainwright

  1. Great informative post! Rufus Wainwright is one of my favourite artists and Poses is definitely my favourite song. Thanks for this pose, I really enjoyed it.

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