The Reluctant Hedonist

Rufus Wainwright's journey through sex, drugs and rehab

“I intend to write an opera one day,” says Rufus Wainwright. “Especially after these horrifyingly personal albums. I think I might need to concentrate on some other person’s dire life.”

Wainwright is one of independent music’s gay darlings, blessed with a silken, soaring voice and the ability to craft intoxicating melodies. His newest album, Want One (Dreamworks), is the first of a two-part musical chronicle that delves into the 30-year-old musician’s dark forays into crystal meth addiction and anonymous sex, as well as his eventual journey through rehab. Released this week, Want One is consummate Wainwright — filled with addictive melodic hooks, sweeping orchestrations and a playfulness that evokes everything from The Wizard of Oz to Maurice Ravel to Kurt Weill. It’s a magnificent pastiche, one that makes you want to drop everything else you’re doing just to spend time listening to it again.

Wainwright has been extremely forthcoming in the press about his days of wine and meth — a period that enveloped his life during the summer of 2002, following a tour promoting his previous album, Poses, which was darkened by the tragic stain of September 11. Still, there’s a side to Wainwright that seems uncomfortable with having to share so much of himself with the world. One senses that this queer son of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle would like nothing better than to retreat to his studio and create.


But for now, he’s content to talk.

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the period in your life in which drinking and drugs became an all-consuming factor.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: I have been in or around show business all my life. And I’ve always worked very, very hard to entertain the masses. After the last record, Poses, I felt very much like I was an observer of this kind of demimonde and was somehow detached from the world that I was surrounded by. I was writing a lot about this character who sort of has a foray into drugs and nightclubs. He enters in as this beautiful young man and leaves as a wrecked human being. I thought I was writing that about someone else, but in fact I was writing about me at the time. And I really didn’t think I was writing about me — I thought I was omniscient or something.

I finished recording Poses and then 9/11 happened and I went on tour. And [9/11] kind of set the tone for the Poses tour — utter shock. I don’t really remember much of it. It’s like a blank.

After the tour, I came to New York and got an apartment. It was the first apartment that I’d ever gotten in my life — I’d been living in hotels for about seven years. I set up house and was going to have this wonderful fun summer of love and forgetfulness and sort of brush off the dust from Poses. But the dust wouldn’t brush off. So I proceeded to hit the bottle and other things. All of the sudden I found myself crying all the time or yelling at people. I just got very angry, very mean, very unlike myself.

MW: When did you start doing the drugs?

RUFUS: In high school. But it wasn’t a major problem for me. I’m Irish and I’m really wired in terms of doing stuff. I had developed a system which was bound to fail at some point.

MW: Talk about your experience with crystal meth.

RUFUS: Crystal meth had sort of been around since my L.A. days and every time I did it, I was like “This is the one for me, this is the great drug.” It’s cheap. It lasts for twenty hours. Sex is great. You think you’re brilliant. And you can drive. Or so you think you can drive. When I was in New York the summer that all this was happening, [crystal] really made its presence felt in New York. And I was swept off in that direction. It was completely harrowing.

But I also in a weird way appreciated the experience. Because it brought me down to a level where I realized that I had to take care of myself as a human being and not only be some super-performer person.

MW: Do you consider yourself to have an addictive personality?

RUFUS: I consider myself to be a hedonist.

MW: That said, do you think it’s easier for gay men to fall into and court an addictive lifestyle?

RUFUS: This is what I think. The kind of historical hedonistic bacchanalian orgy-esque legend of the gay lifestyle is ancient and will always exist. It’s sacred and is a good thing — for a time. Some people think they can do it forever. But I think, unfortunately, a lot of these kinds of attitudes and things existed before chemistry really took off. And also AIDS, a problem which hasn’t been solved yet. And I just find that it’s a real conundrum at this point because we all love to have our wild times but we don’t live in the same sort of world any more. And you can ask anyone who was coming of age in the sixties and the seventies and the eighties how many lives have been lost already and how many casualties there are. And I just feel that sometimes in the gay world there’s just a total denial of that.

MW: Yet you entered into it as well.

RUFUS: I totally entered it.

MW: What can we do to help those in need of help?

RUFUS: First of all, in situations like that it’s really up to the person to save themselves. I don’t think there’s a lot of ways to get through to someone who’s on that kind of roller coaster. On the other hand, I think it takes a certain amount of compassion when you see someone in that situation. I find that the gay world, especially in the club scene, can be so vicious in terms of who is attractive and who is worthy and who is unworthy, whether you’re too old or sick-looking or on drugs or not on drugs. And I don’t know if that will ever change. All I can do is talk about it.

MW: Your celebrity must have given you a certain VIP status at the clubs. You’re certainly recognizable. Did you find that contributed to the problems in New York?

RUFUS: I think it contributed to it. But I had the opportunity to go through the situation that I went through and then all of the sudden end up in the studio and have the chance to sing about it and deal with it on a real gritty level. So I feel privileged in what I was able to do.


MW: Was there a particular low point that you recall during this period?

RUFUS: There were many, many low points. Many high moments, many low moments. I think the song on Want One that deals with this whole subject is “Go or Go Ahead.” That was a real low point. I just remember being in my car and pulling over and crying. It was very much about sitting down and facing the exterminating angel.

MW: You claim to have been addicted to sex during this period. Is there a point where you started to view sex in a different way?

RUFUS: I think sex is a serious powerful force that cannot be put under any heading of good or bad or this or that. It’s to be reckoned with. I’ve done a lot of sexual exploring — a lot. I’m like a sexual Captain Nemo. But it really hasn’t given me anything emotional in the end. In the end, I’ve felt quite bankrupt. I’m happy about what happened, but I’m really looking for love.

MW: But you have to cross a line, I think, to get to a point where you’re ready to look for love.

RUFUS: I think you do. I also think some people don’t. It’s really up to the individual. There is this idea that if you’re gay you have to go through this really ferocious sexual period, you know? And maybe not everyone should. Maybe some people can’t and some people can. I don’t know. I’m happy it exists, but there should be an alternative to that as well.

MW: Have you had a long-term relationship at all?

RUFUS: Not really. I’m not the one to ask about what one should do in terms of relationships with anybody. I’m just on step one with all this stuff. But I have been in love — many times. I haven’t tied the knot or anything. Yet. I had to go through this sex thing first.

MW: I imagine you haven’t sworn off sex.

RUFUS: No, I haven’t sworn off sex, but I’ve certainly decreased its dosage a little.

In all honesty, I think sex is stupid sometimes. It’s a fun thing and it’s a necessary thing, but it’s really the lowest form of energy on the planet, the lowest form of expression. It just has nothing to do with love. I think the two of them can meet at certain points — I’ve had great sex and I’ve been in love — but comparing all of that to the emotions that I have towards a friend or a member of my family or a work of art, it’s really quite low.

MW: Was there a point where you said, “I’ve had enough, I’m going into rehab, I’m going to save myself from this?” Was it a cumulative thing or a single incident in particular?

RUFUS: It was cumulative. I was just weeping twenty-four hours a day.

MW: Did any specific people help you along in this process?

RUFUS: A lot of people did. Everyone sort of rallied around the wounded artist and he went back and sewed up his wings and here he is.

I think everybody should go to some form of rehab. When the power went out in New York? That was a good example of what rehab is. Everything just stops. And this whole treadmill that we’re on and all these sort of earthly worries evaporate into thin air and you actually get to sit with yourself. I think every human has to do that at some point. I don’t think everyone does. And it’s unfortunate.

MW: Were you writing during your drug and drinking period?

RUFUS: Yeah, I wrote.

MW: And how did it impact your writing?

RUFUS: I think it added an extra little twist. [Laughs.] But it’s all part of the natural scheme of things in my life. And that it was just sort of the logical next move. I’m a survivalist, basically.

MW: So you’re completely dry now?

RUFUS: Well, that’s neither here nor there. That’s one subject I don’t really discuss.

MW: It’s odd that you don’t want to talk about drinking or drug use. Do you believe, then, that someone can go through these things and still come out a casual user?

RUFUS: It’s neither here nor there for me to say. I have no sort of belief in that. Or non-belief in that. It’s up to each individual.

MW: When can you tell that you might need to consider a rehab situation?

Related articles:

The Wainwright Stuff – A Conversation with the Gay/Lesbian American Music Award-Nominated Singer-Songwriter, Rufus Wainwright (3/11/1999)

Martha Wainwright – Review of Rufus’ sister’s CD.

RUFUS: Usually it’s when it’s suggested to you — even in the slightest way.

MW: The new album has two volumes to it. The first album, Want One, deals with your experience prior to and during rehab. Is the second volume a continuation?

RUFUS: They were both recorded at the same time, so there’s no distinction between what one deals with and what the other one deals with. We wanted to have no strikes against the first album so that it could be sold in [stores like] Wal-Mart. Whereas the second one is a little racier and sort of darker. I sort of lead you to a cliff and then push you off.

MW: What could be so racy that Wal-Mart won’t sell your next album?

RUFUS: Let me just say two words to you: gay messiah.

MW: Is that how you see yourself in the gay community?

RUFUS: Yeah, I’m your ticket, babe. [Laughs.] No. I see myself on the one hand as kind of an admired person but also sometimes as sort of a voice of dissent. Which I think is important in our commuity right now. But I also think now is the best time to get involved in terms of gay issues with the upcoming election. And plus I love anything that angers Republicans.

Rufus Wainwright’s Want One is now available.


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Want One

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Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.