Monday, 26 July 2010

Rufus Wainwright biography

Kirk Lake (ORION) ISBN 978-0-7528-9838-4 Hardcover. 291 pages

The family is a perfect incubator for talent. It can also be a prison from which we struggle to escape all life long. Rufus Wainwright, flamboyant offspring of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, has experienced both sides of this conundrum.

Kirk Lake’s new biography of the star does rather more than it says on the tin. It’s actually a family biography, with Rufus at the centre (which is undoubtedly where he wants to be). Loudon emerges in unflattering light, though the picture is no harsher than the self-portrait he paints in his own lyrics. Martha struggles in her brother’s shadow until grabbing the attention she deserves. They all write disobliging songs about each other, criticise (and envy) each other’s work, then they all gather on stage at Carnegie Hall for a Christmas truce. It’s fiercely competitive, but out of this "algebraic equation" (Martha’s phrase) comes superb work from every family member, and Rufus’s is some of the best.

Lake demonstrates how Wainwright’s sense of difference as a gay man in a mostly straight business fuels his music. From the off, his frame of reference (show tunes, cabaret, opera) was way outside what his rock’n’roll contemporaries were doing. Out of his skull on crystal meth, convinced he’s a great artist, he pushes himself to the experiential limits because great artists thrive on unhappiness. All this would be insufferable hubris – as hubristic as his determination to recreate Judy Garland’s 1961 stage act – were it not that he probably is a great artist.

Lake’s perceptive analyses of individual albums make you want to go and seek them out and his control of detail is enviable (who'd have thought, for instance, that bassist Pat Donaldson relocated to France to become a professional clown?). The footnotes may beckon you down obscure literary byways but the focus always remains sharp in this impressive biography.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

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