Wainwright was in Montreal with his mother in her final weeks. He remembers her “big pilly pajama pants with rainbows and unicorns on them, or this L.L. Bean ripped-up T-shirt or something,” and he tears up. He adds, “There’s something in the utter lack of vanity that’s very touching when the end is nigh, how carrying her in her Snuggie was a more emotional experience than when we dressed her up as Clytemnestra.”
Then he laughs. Wainwright has a honky, nasal, somewhat peremptory laugh—the laugh of an old drunken broad who guffaws mirthlessly at her own jokes to spare others the bother. Like most of the unusual aspects of Wainwright’s personality, it comes across as a bit of a defensive tactic.
Wainwright thinks that his mother “was the most talented of all of us. Anyone will tell you this, even my father.” More talented than himself? “Oh, yes, far more talented—just in terms of her musicality, it was so natural and embedded in her every move. Her songs will last for a long time. ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’ or ‘Go Leave,’ these are perfect songs for anyone to sing.”
They had a complicated relationship. When the teen Wainwright told his mother he was gay, she was dismayed. “She was like, ‘I don’t want you to be gay, you can’t do this to me,’” Wainwright says, laughing. Partly this was because of AIDS, but also, he theorizes, because she had gone to Catholic schools. “She was never happy about it, really, though she took full advantage of all the trappings,” he says, sounding half-bitter and half-amused.
But then again, Wainwright was always a handful. He’s talked about searching for gay sex in Montreal as young as 14 and being raped in London’s Hyde Park at that age by a guy he picked up while visiting with his father.
If Wainwright gets much of what he calls his “bright side”—his warmth, his humor, his tendency to gather people around himself into an extended musical family—from his mother, it’s possible to credit some of his darkness to his father, whose quiet career got a boost of late when he won a Grammy for a tribute album to the folksinger Charlie Poole.
When Wainwright was an infant, Loudon wrote a song, “Rufus Is a Tit Man,” about his son’s love of breast-feeding (“So put Rufus on the left one / And put me right on the right / And like Romulus and Remus / We’ll suck all night”). Online, there’s a clip from a documentary about Loudon, who stands with his awkward, somewhat feminine teenage son. Loudon plays a ditty on the piano, and an interviewer asks Rufus his opinion.
“I love that song, I really do,” Rufus says, shyly. “It’s very simple, which is nice.” And Dad’s piano playing? “Well, I mean, I don’t know that I would, um, change it at all,” he says. Then, slyly: “If I were playing the piano, you don’t have parallel fifths and stuff.”
Loudon cracks: “What’s a parallel fifth?” (It’s a clunky progression eschewed by classical musicians.) “You can tell that he hasn’t studied,” Rufus continues. “Never took a lesson in my life!” his father snorts, then starts banging on the piano.
On Poses, Wainwright’s 2001 album, he covered his father’s vaguely self-recriminatory ballad of self-sufficiency, “One-Man Guy.” Without changing a lyric, he turned it into a plaintive search for gay true love. On his next album, Wainwright confronted his father in the song “Dinner at Eight” (“Daddy, don’t be surprised / If I wanna see the tears in your eyes”). But the two reconciled a bit over Kate’s sickness, and Loudon was there when she died. Loudon thanked her in his Grammy speech for teaching him to play the banjo better.
As for Kate, she adapted to having a gay son. She invited his drag-performer friends, like Justin Bond and Michael Cavadias (Lily of the Valley), to her family’s old country home in St. Sauveur des Monts, Quebec, singing and drinking with and confiding in them. Wainwright was always there for her. “He opened a lot of doors for her and took her around the world,” says Anna. “He was a protector of his mother, and she of him. I think he’s going to have a hard time.” Ultimately, though, “Kate was more cynical than Rufus.”
Wainwright identifies intensely with a certain type of tragic woman, from La Traviata’s Violetta to Edie Sedgwick (he even has a song on his first album called “Damned Ladies,” about the various doomed opera heroines he’d like to save). In 2006, Wainwright re-created at Carnegie Hall Judy Garland’s 1961 concert there. And then there’s Lulu, the titular muse of his latest album. She’s the bewitchingly disastrous flapper played by Louise Brooks in the 1929 G. W. Pabst silent film Pandora’s Box. Lulu drives to madness and death the upright Germans who are besotted with her, then ends up being killed by a Jack-the-Ripper type.