To Wainwright, she’s the seductive demoness that resides inside him, beckoning him to ruin. “That dark, nihilistic, fabulously destructive creature is a beautiful thing,” he says. “To try to eliminate or minimize it is so futile and dangerous you have to appease her through sacrifice.”
More specifically, to Wainwright, Lulu is also crystal meth, a drug that has felled many with its enticements of hours-long sexual abandon. “Lulu thinks everything’s fine,” he says, “but everything’s coming crashing down around her and lives are being spun out of control. It’s a good analogy of what crystal is like.”
After his debut album in 1998, his fall into drug use began with a somewhat unexceptional gay party life, hanging out with friends like Cassidy and Cavadias at places like the Cock, a divey gay bar in the East Village. “His whole crystal thing was after we’d been doing coke and drinking, the normal 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” says Cassidy. “He’d go off and have his own scene with the drugs and the whole sex thing.”
A couple of years later, Wainwright seemed “like a fast train heading toward a crash,” says Joan Wasser, a musician friend. One night at the now-defunct bar the Hole, “I told him, ‘I’m not going to drink,’ ” says Cassidy, “and I remember how he looked at me like it was a foreign language.”
Wainwright sent himself to rehab in 2002. “He had his own wake-up,” says former Hole bassist Melissa auf der Maur, who grew up with Wainwright in Montreal. “I’ve never seen someone so deep into the dark side self-initiate [recovery], and that is the true strength of Rufus … There’s some sort of gold umbilical cord that keeps him tapped into something.”
In 2003, on the release of his third album, Want One, he went public with the whole sordid meth ordeal in the New York Times. “He was the first one to seriously get clean out of the batch of us,” says Cassidy. “I remember he had a sober birthday party, a tea party. The rest of us were still drinking and using drugs, and there were these weird, corny people there who I know now as sober people.”
Wainwright admits that he was on the edge of self-destruction. “I should be HIV-positive. I certainly have had sex with many people who are, and very unsafe sex at that, so it’s a miracle.” He says he hasn’t relapsed on crystal meth, though he did for a time drink alcohol again. “There hasn’t been a trap yet that’s opened up where I don’t know what happens but the next thing you know I’m on drugs,” he says. He says he’s been teetotaling since his mother’s death.
Cassidy, who’s had a falling out with Wainwright (perhaps in part because, as he admits, he started calling him “the gay Billy Joel”), thinks Wainwright doesn’t want to let that evil woman go. “He could never fully get into the process of recovery because he fears that if he opens Pandora’s box”—like the movie!—“and looks at his stuff, he’s going to lose his inspiration for his music, his pain and baggage. That if he’s happy and free, he won’t be inspired.”
As Wainwright sang, with some understatement, on “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which came out when he was still using drugs, “Everything it seems I like a little bit sweeter / A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me.” And even today, “I won’t lie and tell you that being in a long-term relationship and having this wholesome lifestyle isn’t very against my nature.”
Wainwright’s boyfriend of the past five years is a strapping German named Jörn Weisbrodt, 36. He’s the managing and creative director of Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center in the Hamptons. They met in Berlin, over dinner, when Wainwright was performing there in 2005. Weisbrodt had become intrigued with him after hearing the album Poses, partly because, he says, “his songwriting is Schubertian, where the music interprets the text.” Weisbrodt wanted to talk to Wainwright about musicalizing Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a project that never panned out. “Rufus looked like a medieval-woodcut angel by Tilman Riemenschneider, a master woodworker from Nuremberg,” Weisbrodt says. “I was quite, how do you say, stricken? But I was very intimidated and nothing really happened.”
“He wanted to take me out to Wiener Schnitzel with a couple of other people, and I said okay,” Wainwright remembers. “I thought he was out of my league physically, because I’m from New York, where there’s such delineation between Chelsea queens and downtown banjee boys.” Besides, at first, “I wasn’t devastated by his appearance necessarily—I was still more interested in straight heroin addicts.” A year later, a mutual friend invited Weisbrodt to Wainwright’s birthday party in the Hamptons. They kissed for the first time the next night.