Rufus Wainwright watched, uncomprehending, as the family's dining-room table disappeared into the back of a U-Haul. It was the fall of 1976 and he was three years old. He didn't fully understand that his parents, singer-songwriters Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, were splitting up, for good, after having endured five stormy years together. The image of that table being loaded into the truck would burn itself into his brain as his first memory.
At the time, Kate was getting a lot of acclaim for the first album she had made as part of the sister duo Kate and Anna McGarrigle, while Loudon was learning it wasn't going to be all that easy for a sardonic folk rocker to conquer a pop marketplace dominated by Abba, Bruce Springsteen, and disco. His one hit single, a morbidly humorous 1972 novelty song called "Dead Skunk," had proven a fluke, and he just hated it when fans shouted out requests for it at his shows.
Kate took Rufus and his little sister, Martha, who was still a baby, back to Montreal, the city where she had grown up. The family moved into an apartment across the hall from Anna, who soon got to work on a song about Kate's change in fortune. "Pack up all your children," went the lyric. "Come home to our love and concern." Kate and Anna would soon be recording this one, called "Kitty Come Home," as part of their second album. The song's intimacy is enhanced by Anna's referring to Kate with her childhood nickname, "Kitty."
Loudon, the son of big-time Life-magazine columnist and editor Loudon Wainwright Jr., had already been mining the marriage's downfall for material. His song titles said it all: "On the Rocks," "Whatever Happened to Us," "Mr. Guilty." He was finding that the most intense family experiences yielded the most resonant songs, whether comic or heartbreaking. Soon after the birth of Rufus, for instance, he had sung of envying his breast-feeding baby son in "Rufus Is a Tit Man," in which he makes the outlandish suggestion that Rufus suckle on the left while he takes the right. Kate had gotten in on the game, too, although she underplayed the autobiographical details. She had addressed "Go Leave" to a straying Loudon and welcomed his return with "Blues in D."
Rufus and Martha, now both acclaimed recording artists in their own right, have continued the peculiar family tradition since they came of songwriting age. In his 2003 song "Dinner at Eight," Rufus vowed to take his father down "with one little stone." Not to be outdone, Martha aimed a powerful anthem-like song of daughterly frustration at Loudon called "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole." The refrain goes: "Oh, you bloody motherfucking asshole / You bloody motherfucking asshole."
But Loudon can take it. Lord knows he has dished it out. In "White Winos" he more than hints at feeling sexually tempted by his own mother. In "Just a John" he slams his father, as well as himself, for having been an unfaithful husband. (Both songs were written after the deaths of his parents.) In "Make Your Mother Mad" he sings of using his unusually close relationship with Martha to anger Kate.
"Family life is tough, I'll say that for it," concedes Loudon. "But in my case I've mined the family. In a sense, I've used it. I've used what happened—the different events, the births of children, birthdays. Connecting, not connecting. Regret, shame, guilt. I mean, they're all in the songs. And love, too, I hasten to add."
If there's a rule in the Wainwright-McGarrigle family, it's that the skillful musical expression of a heartfelt emotion outweighs any hurt or discomfort it may cause. What would be offensive, in their view, would be to write a crummy song.
Kate was pregnant on her wedding day. She soon suffered a miscarriage.
Loudon strayed and had a habit of coming home drunk.
Rufus, from an early age, had an affection for Judy Garland that other boys did not share, and when he came out to his parents as gay, they didn't know how to deal with it, he says.
Martha ran wild through Montreal in the 80s while her mother was making records. "It all sort of went to shit," she says. "There was no one there to discipline me."
Through the ongoing family soap opera, music has been the tie that binds. The four of them came together at Carnegie Hall last June. Rufus was putting on the biggest, gayest concert of 2006, recreating a famous Judy Garland performance that had taken place on the same stage in 1961—a show he has since reprised, to great acclaim, in London and Paris. He sang a lovely "Do It Again" and belted his way through a wildly anachronistic "Swanee." Kate accompanied him on piano for "Over the Rainbow," a song she had taught Rufus when he was a boy, and Martha brought down the house when she took the spotlight to lend her powerfully expressive voice to "Stormy Weather." Loudon was in the audience. His father had attended the 1961 Judy Garland concert, and he wasn't about to miss his son's version, despite the feeling of rivalry that has charged their relationship over the years.
After the standing ovation had died down, Rufus was hugging well-wishers in one of the theater's upstairs rooms. Kate was fluttering about, and Martha was talking with a couple of musicians. Loudon stepped into the scene, wearing a hat. He had just been on a brief tour himself, playing venues much humbler than Carnegie Hall, and he approached Rufus with a certain stiffness or formality. He didn't hug his son but did hand him a small gift, a DVD of La Ciénaga, an Argentinian film about a bourgeois family sliding into a hell of booze and adultery. He complimented Rufus on a job well done and told him he would give him his further thoughts about the show some other time. They chatted a minute longer, and that was it. Loudon ignored his ex-wife.
"He didn't say hello to me," Kate says. "I thought it was strange."
But he came through for the family later in the year: Kate fell ill, resulting in the cancellation of many Christmastime shows booked for major cities, family concert shows that would have included her sister Anna, Rufus, Martha, as well as another performing family member, Loudon's much younger sister, big-voiced singer-songwriter Sloan Wainwright. Loudon stepped up in the crisis, taking on the dates planned for Los Angeles, where he put on a Christmas family show of his own with Suzzy Roche, whom he had lived with following his years with Kate, and her folkie sister band, the Roches, among others.
Back in the 70s and early 80s, the kids lived with Kate in a townhouse in Montreal's Westmount neighborhood, and Loudon was with Suzzy in New York City. He came up to visit rarely, according to his children.
"He was a real workaholic," Rufus says. "I grew up in a matriarchal society."
Holding much of the power was Kate's mother, Gabrielle Latremouille McGarrigle, who very much liked to have music in the house. When her husband, a World War I veteran of Irish stock named Frank McGarrigle, was alive, he would play the family's 1883 Steinway upright to accompany her. Gaby, as she was called, made her way through parlor songs, vaudeville numbers, and standards. Frank and Gaby taught the repertoire to their daughters—Jane, Anna, and Kate—and made certain the girls could acquit themselves on piano and three-part harmony. When Rufus and Martha fell into Gaby's orbit, it was their turn. They were expected to perform at her rustic home in the Laurentians—or else.
"Every weekend," Rufus says, "we'd go out to visit my grandmother at the house in [the] Laurentians. We'd have to put on this variety show for, you know, the dowager. In retrospect, it was very brutal. We were very aware that this was a training camp for future stars."
For typical children of the 70s and 80s, home entertainment meant sitting in front of the TV. For Rufus and Martha, it meant indulging in the all-but-dead pastime of making music in the home. The feeling of those Laurentian evenings lives on in the family shows they put on. In the summer of '04, with his own career buzzing, Rufus set aside solo stardom to accompany his mother, his aunt Anna, his sister Martha, and his cousin Lily Lanken (Anna's daughter) on a tour of the U.K. In keeping with the loose, family atmosphere of the at-home musicales they had grown up with, Rufus and Martha bickered onstage, and Anna kept her purse at her feet, and Kate sat at the piano while her son sang "Over the Rainbow."
"I used to dress up to sing this one in my mother's high heels," Rufus said from the stage in Dublin.
"I don't remember having any high heels," Kate said.
"You did! I remember every pair!"
"I don't think I did."
"Mother, it was the 70s!"
After the song was done, Rufus, now alone on the stage, played the charged ballad aimed at his father, "Dinner at Eight." As the applause faded, his aunt Anna entered stage left, like a character in an English drawing-room comedy, and set her purse at her feet.
"That's the saddest song," she said into her microphone. "I would hate it if someone wrote a song like that about me."
Rufus seemed taken aback. His aunt's remark had gone beyond the usual stage banter.
Back home, a few months later, Martha was playing Joe's Pub in New York with a band that included, on bass, Brad Albetta, a handsome lug with big hands. He's her fiance—a September wedding is planned—as well as the man who produced her 2005 debut album, Martha Wainwright. College girls at the front of the crowd of roughly 250 looked up at Martha with glowing eyes.
Halfway through the set, Kate tiptoed onto the stage holding a goblet of red wine. She sat at the piano for "Year of the Dragon," a Martha song included on Kate and Anna's 1998 album, The McGarrigle Hour. After it was done, Kate got up to leave, but her daughter asked her to stay. Kate sat back down on the piano bench as Martha strummed the opening chords to "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole." A cheer of recognition went up from her most ardent admirers. This has become her signature song. Martha mentioned that it was about people who get in your way.
Kate chimed in, saying into her microphone, "It's about me."
"No," Martha replied. "It's about the man you were married to. Briefly."
"I always thought it was about me," Kate said.
"You think everything's about you."
Kate first saw Loudon in 1969, when he was playing at the Gaslight, a Greenwich Village club. He was different from the other singer-songwriters of the day, who tended to present themselves as ragged outlaws or hirsute nature boys. Although he had recently gone through his own hippie phase, which included a bad acid trip in San Francisco and a pot bust in Oklahoma City, Loudon was purely himself on the stage, a clean-cut scion of Westchester County, New York, in Brooks Brothers attire. His lyrics were straightforward, his melodies uncluttered, and his guitar playing got the job done.
"I went backstage afterward," Kate says, "and I said, 'I really like what you do.' And he said, 'Oh, do you wanna have a beer?'"
"She was very attractive," Loudon says in a separate interview. "I think every guy in the Village, they were all interested in Kate. When you heard her sing and play, you were knocked out. She was a wild and crazy swingin' folk chick."
Kate had served her musical apprenticeship as a teenager, alongside Anna, in the Mountain City Four, a folk group that played Montreal's coffeehouses. Soon after graduating from McGill University with an engineering degree, she played the northeast folk circuit with her musician friend Roma Baran, who would go on to be Laurie Anderson's producer. They drove down back roads, made friends, had affairs. After Kate had stopped in at a few Greenwich Village clubs, it struck her that she could compete with what she saw onstage.
She phoned Anna, who was working in social services in Montreal: "I said, 'God, people are doing stuff, and a lot of them aren't very good.' Anna said, 'Isn't that funny? I just wrote a song.' I said, 'Make a tape and send it to us!' It was 'Heart Like a Wheel.' It was Anna's first song."
When Loudon wrote his first song about Kate, it was not some sappy declaration of love everlasting, but something murkier, perhaps tinged with envy, called "Saw Your Name in the Paper." Inspired by an ecstatic New York Times review Kate and Roma had gotten for their performance at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival, Loudon used the song to warn her against the perils of fame, even as he admitted to seeking it himself.
The couple moved in together, in Saratoga Springs, New York. Kate found she was pregnant. "We decided, 'O.K., we'll have the baby," Kate says. "Then we decided, because I was Canadian, we'd get married." After a small ceremony, held at the Bedford, New York, house where Loudon had grown up, the newlyweds went overseas. First stop: Göteborg, Sweden, to purchase a Volvo straight out of the factory.
"We had a fight, an argument," Loudon says. "She took the Volvo."
He caught up with her in London. They reconciled and had a good time busking along the Portabello Road.
"And then I lost the baby at six months," Kate says, tearing up. "I got very sick, and they said I couldn't have any more kids, and I was just very angry. We were just always fighting."
The not-so-happy couple returned home. After Loudon headlined the Gaslight, the Times compared him favorably to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but that didn't really solve anything. He sat in the living room, strumming his red Gibson Hummingbird guitar. "And then he got mad at the guitar," Kate says. "He took it—I guess Loudon has some kind of anger or something—he took the guitar and he started smashing it right by the fireplace, more and more angry, and he threw it in the fireplace and burned it."
Loudon captured the tantrum, complete with a character named Kate who scolds the song's narrator for the "foolish thing" he has done, in a terse, elegant ballad simply titled "Red Guitar."
"I don't know why it was the red one," Kate says. "He had other guitars."
Loudon was on a songwriting roll. The most banal event could activate his muse. Late one summer day in 1972, driving down a country road, he ran over an already dead skunk, and his unconscious served up to him a catchy song that he got down in 12 minutes flat. Just a few days later, in London to promote his second release, Album II, Loudon held court before a pack of music journalists at a place called the Speakeasy. He debuted the yet-to-be-recorded "Dead Skunk," and even led the hacks in a singalong. A full two minutes of applause followed his efforts, reported Melody Maker. A month later he was brought back to earth while opening for the Everly Brothers at London's Royal Albert Hall. "I was booed off the stage," he says. "Somebody threw a beer mug."
Having quit performing as a duo with Roma, now that she was a married lady, Kate went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and played one of her very occasional solo sets. "I said to a friend of mine who ran a club there, 'I think I'm pregnant.' She said, 'Well, let's go to the family-planning clinic and get tested.' So we went there, and there were all these pregnant teenagers, like 14 years old, and they said, 'Ms. McGarrigle? We're sorry to tell you you're pregnant.' I went, 'Aaaaaaa!' They said, 'Are you … happy?' I said, 'I'm de-lighted!' They said, 'You're the first happy patient we've seen!' And they brought the whole staff to come look at me."
Kate and Loudon moved into a house in Mount Tremper, New York, near Woodstock. Album III, Loudon's third release, was actually selling. Its single, "Dead Skunk," reached No. 16 on the Billboard singles chart. A brief skunk mania ensued, especially in the South, where the song was a huge radio hit.
"We all know Loudon's music," Kate says. "It's not nice music. And when he had that hit, he would be called down to Nashville to do things like a skunk festival, and there'd be a shopping center with hundreds and hundreds of 10-year-old kids with drawings of skunks."
Into this atmosphere, on July 22, 1973, Rufus was born. Three weeks later, the baby lay inside a guitar case in a Nashville recording studio. Among the songs Loudon recorded at the session was the just-written "Dilated to Meet You," which welcomes Rufus into the world (and is quite tender despite its jokey title). Everything seemed to be going his way, when the capricious pop gods decided to smile on his wife awhile.
Kate and Anna had made home recordings of their songs and sent them around. Maria Muldaur selected Kate's "The Work Song" for her Maria Muldaur album, and Linda Ronstadt made "Heart Like a Wheel" the title track of her multi-platinum breakthrough album. This was the time of Carole King's Tapestry, a highly personal work still on the charts three years after its release, so it made sense for Lenny Waronker, then the head of Warner Bros. Records, to sign the sister duo who wrote these otherworldy, introspective songs.
Kate and Anna slept at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles between recording sessions with ace players as the label shelled out an astronomical-at-the-time $120,000 to launch them. Late in the summer of '75, Kate was pregnant again. In the fall, Warner Bros. dispatched the McGarrigle sisters, along with a top-flight backing band, to Boston for a three-week engagement. This was pop-star boot camp. The idea was to turn these rough-hewn Quebec girls into a bona fide act in time for a proper tour scheduled to follow the release of their debut album, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The hotshots in the band were apathetic, however. "They would go on strike, saying, 'We want to go to the aquarium today, we've had a vote,'" Kate says. "We didn't know them. They were hired. This was horrible. At that point, we just pulled the plug on the whole tour, Anna and I. We said, 'This is ridiculous.'"
With that, the sisters were effectively breaking the bond of ambition that exists between label executives and the performers they would mold into stars. "They wanted to kill us," Kate says. "But they put the record out. In America they did nothing. But there was this buzz in England. So we come to England. We bring our own band, Anna and I. We picked three people in Montreal who weren't necessarily great musicians, but we said, 'It doesn't matter, let's go with our own people.' So we hit the stage and we felt so comfortable. The London Times said it was the best show of the year."
Following the London show, Kate, Loudon, and Rufus were living in Waccabuc, New York, a quiet lakeside village north of Loudon's hometown. On May 8, 1976, Kate gave birth to Martha in a hospital in nearby Mount Kisco. Loudon's chilling "That Hospital," from his 1995 album, Grown Man, reports that this was not a simple, joyful time in their lives. The song's third verse tells of "the wife" going to "that hospital" "in '76" for an abortion, only to back out. It concludes with the lines: "The little girl who was born there, who escaped that scrape with fate / A few months ago in Montreal, I watched her graduate." Asked if she was the girl in the song, Martha says, "Yeah. He doesn't make up a lot." But Kate says that, while she may have gone to the hospital for an abortion, it had been Loudon's idea, not hers.
Loudon used a talk he gave at a literary conference in the mid-90s as an opportunity to air what he was going through in those days: "Married and the father of two small children, I was never home, drunk a good deal of the time, and apparently felt it necessary to sleep with every waitress in North America and the British Isles. But guess what. All these beans have been spilt in song.… Now we've stumbled onto the big, important question: Is it necessary to feel like shit in order to be creative? I'd say the answer is yes—unless you're J. S. Bach."
The fall of 1976 was when Kate and Loudon broke up. At the time, the Roches, a sister duo of Irish ancestry, not so dissimilar to the McGarrigles, was moving upward through what was left of the Greenwich Village folk scene. The youngest Roche girl, Suzzy, who would later join the group, was just 20 at the time. Loudon was 30. Just like the couple in the lust song he would soon write called "Ingenue."
"I went to pick up my furniture at the place," Kate recalls, "and Suzzy was there, having a gin and tonic."
The album Loudon put out that year was T Shirt, a murky musical affair that didn't set the world on fire. "I'm not wild about T Shirt," he says. With his albums not selling in great numbers, Loudon started making his living on the road.
In 1981, when he couldn't make it to Martha's fifth-birthday party, he sent along the gift of a newly written song, "Five Years Old," in his stead. A few months later, he was a dad once again, when Suzzy gave birth to Lucy Wainwright Roche.
With Suzzy's sister, Terre Roche, Loudon commemorated his second daughter's cranky infancy by writing yet another family song, "Screaming Issue." But before Lucy turned five, he found himself in London, making a record with the help of his friend Richard Thompson, and soon he was a bona fide expatriate. In a particularly intense song he wrote at that time, "Your Mother and I," the narrator is a father (Loudon) who explains to his daughter (Lucy) that he's leaving her mother (Suzzy). "You'll stay with her," Loudon sings, accurately but none too comfortingly. "I'll visit you."
He was a serial monogamist, only he wasn't so hot on the monogamy part. He wrote a self-lacerating ballad, "One Man Guy," a hymn to his own selfish nature that sought to lay out why he was an inconstant family man. The words, alternately self-loathing and self-exculpating, were incongruously set to one of his loveliest melodies.
Across 30 years split between motherhood and music, Kate and her sister Anna have made 10 pristine, intelligent, and heartfelt albums. They took on the status of cultural stateswomen when they were inducted as Members of the Order of Canada in 1993. They have collaborated with Nick Cave, the Chieftains, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Loudon too. Critics love them ("They are prim, wry, and sexy all at once," wrote rock critic Robert Christgau), and so does Bob Dylan: after he played a show in New York in 2003, he met Kate backstage and spoke with her for a half hour, saying he had all the McGarrigle sisters' albums and even the companion DVD to their beautiful 1998 recording, The McGarrigle Hour.
Kate and Anna took their children onstage with them at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1986. They sang a medley of songs written by 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster ("Oh! Susanna," "Old Black Joe"). At around that time, Rufus began undergoing a change. "I was a normal, record-buying kid up until 13, when I discovered, and was conquered by, opera," says Rufus, who in everyday conversation speaks a bit like a Byronic hero. "I had strong homosexual yearnings, and I was not in denial of that. In fact, I was a bit of a Lolita character. At the same time, aids was very much appearing on the scene. I was very much horrified of what my fate would be, and I could really relate to opera in terms of its dealings with death and the drama of love."
One day Kate found gay pornographic magazines beneath his mattress.
"I assured her I wasn't gay," Rufus says.
His mother believed him, or pretended to.
In 1987, when Rufus was 14, he visited his father, who was still living in London. "I was picked up by this guy, willingly, and made out with him at this club," Rufus says. "And then he said, 'Do you want to go to Hyde Park and see where the Nelson Mandela concert was?' And I honestly believed, 'That'll be nice. What a nice, pleasant thing to do.' And he brought me there and proceeded to rape me."
Asked if he told his father about what had happened, he says, "You know? It's hard to say. My parents didn't deal very well with my being gay. I think it was frightening to them, due to aids. Also, the divorce my parents had been through, which was extremely, extremely vicious—this was a subject they just didn't have the emotional ability or tenacity to really deal with. My mother went into denial for a good five or six years. My father was a little more practical."
Home in Montreal, Rufus took consolation in opera. "I was listening to Verdi's Requiem alone in the dark. They said, 'Better send him away to boarding school.' I was very much wounded by it but, in the end, it made me a tough son of a bitch."
At the Millbrook School, in bucolic Millbrook, New York, he made his name on campus when he played Jesus in the school production of Godspell and the Emcee in Cabaret. Kate and Loudon saw both shows.
For about six years Kate lived with her bass player, Pat Donaldson, who assumed many of the parenting duties. "Lovely guy," Kate says. "He's now a clown in France." Once Rufus was off at school, Kate and Pat split up. She moved with Martha from the town house to a small apartment. It had been seven years between McGarrigle sisters' albums—they were no longer with Warner Bros.—and, like characters in a Victorian novel, the mother and daughter were facing a life of reduced circumstances. Kate added to the family's repertoire of songs they have written about one another with a stark ballad, "I Eat Dinner," which chronicled the silent meals she was enduring at the time "with my daughter, who is thirteen."
Sometimes, the Loudon records would emerge from the vinyl stacks. "Kate would pull them out very late at night," Martha says, "and she'd listen to two or three of the songs and cry." Did it seem, to young Martha, that her mother was still in love with him? "Yes," Martha says. "Very much. Not in love with him. In anger with him. In a good way. In something with him. In wanting to have had more with him, with the father of her children."
In 1991, Martha, then 15, lived with Loudon for a year in New York City. He gave her a Sigma guitar and little by little she taught herself to play. When he moved back to London, Martha returned to her mother and the Montreal apartment. "It was a mess," she says. "We wore the same clothes." She buried herself in John Prine and Warren Zevon.
During a visit to her dad overseas, he tried to explain himself to her. "I was 16 or 17," Martha says, "and I went to a rave. I was up until four o'clock in the morning, you know, on Ecstasy. And I came back to his flat. He was awake, because he suffers from insomnia, and he was drinking some herbal remedy, and he was sitting there in his boxers. He said, 'You know, Pounie,'"—Pounie is Martha's family nickname—"'I think I had to do it this way. I think I had to let you guys go in order to be Loudon Wainwright, and I'm sorry, but I think I had to do it that way.'"
At boarding school, Rufus, fooling around at the piano, discovered his métier. "I realized, 'Oh, my God! I'm an incredible songwriter!' And wrote, like, 30 songs, with 38,000 chords, hitting every note that I could possibly muster, with lyrics that meant absolutely nothing."
Home in Montreal, he put his compositions to the test. "I said to my mom, 'I want to play you these songs.' And I played her the songs, and she said, 'Those are awful. Those are terrible.' My mother is not an indulger at all. So, in response to that, I wrote 'Beauty Mark.'"
"Beauty Mark" was simpler, but its melody emerged from a junk shop of the influences—opera, Cole Porter, pop-rock—that Rufus had absorbed. Lyrically, given that its subject is Kate, it fits right in with the peculiar family tradition. The beauty mark itself is the mole that lies northeast of her upper lip. In the song, Rufus affectionately tells the story of his mother's life and, in an off-rhymed couplet, dares to address the unspoken issue that was separating them: "I may not be so manly, but still I know you love me." Kate approved of the song, and it's still a staple of his live shows.
By the time he was 18, in 1991, after some meticulous planning, Rufus was ready to tell his mother the big, gay truth in a more direct manner: "We were both in Paris together and we were sleeping in the same bed, because we were sharing this hotel room, and we'd had this wonderful gay-son-and-mother day. We went shopping and went to the Eiffel Tower. And I remember we were lying in bed, laughing about something, and then I just said, 'But, Mother, you don't love me.' And she was, like, 'What are you talking about?' And I was like, 'You told me years ago that if I was gay you wouldn't love me anymore.' I just sort of got her—I knew when to get her and I got her. And she said, 'You're right. I don't love you anymore.' And then I burst into tears, and she burst into tears. And she was like, 'Of course I love you. I'm scared. I'm worried about you, and it scares the hell out of me, and I don't want you to die, I don't want you to get beat up, I don't want you to be oppressed.' And that was the moment. I wanted to get her when she was happy and realizing we'd had this great time together and that I was a fun person."
"I remember thinking, 'How am I going to treat this?'" Kate says in a separate interview. "Very dramatic—I went up to Sacré Coeur. I thought, 'God? What should I do?' You know, when you ask advice. Just make sure his shoes are tied, make sure he has a ticket to get on the bus. In other words, don't treat it any differently. So I don't know if that's good or bad."
In with the new, out with the old: in 1992, Loudon's new girlfriend, Ritamarie Kelly, gave birth to a girl, Alexandra Kelly. He duly wrote a song about staying away from the baby for the first 12 months of her life, lest he grow too attached, called "A Year." (Loudon now lives with Ritamarie and Alexandra in Los Angeles.) His father passed away in 1992, and the spunky McGarrigle widow, Gaby, died in 1994.
The generations were shifting. Rufus, after having dropped out of the conservatory at McGill University, was developing a following in the Montreal clubs, and Martha was showing signs of going into the family business herself. The first thing she wrote, "The Lexie Song," was a message to Alexandra, her new baby half-sister. She kept it secret for a while. Finally, she was ready to come out of the songwriting closet.
"One night," Rufus recalls, "I said, 'Martha, would you like to come up and sing with me?' And she said, 'I've also written this little song myself.' She sang her little song, and it was amazing, and, like, two weeks later she had her own set and she had her own sound and her own little crowd."
Loudon, impressed with what Rufus was up to, had the bright idea of taking his son on the road as his opening act. "The first night, I didn't go over too well," Rufus says. "His audience was a little rowdy, and the angry middle-aged men were there. But by the third night, I developed a thick skin and really did a great show. After that, my father came to me and said, 'We're never doing a show together again.' He felt threatened."
Loudon turned 50 on Sept. 5, 1996. The next day, his friends and far-flung family members joined him onstage for a celebratory show at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, New York. Kate was there. So were Suzzy, Rufus, and Martha; their half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche showed up, too.
Early on, Loudon dove right into the soup, playing that good-time ballad about nearly losing fetal Martha, "That Hospital." If Lucy felt left out, she no longer did when he sang the heart-wrenching "Your Mother and I." Rufus got zinged with "A Father and a Son."
Kate took the stage and scored one for the women's side with "Go Leave." Loudon counterpunched with "Unhappy Anniversary."
At encore time, the audience, having been armed with cutout pictures of Loudon's face pasted onto Popsicle sticks, waved them at the birthday boy.
But Loudon wasn't all about Loudon. Behind the scenes he was pulling strings on Rufus's behalf, passing along his son's demo. Soon Lenny Waronker, earlier the champion of the McGarrigles, who was then co-running the just-started DreamWorks music division, decided to make Rufus the label's first signing. As he had done with Kate and Anna 20 years earlier, Waronker put Rufus up at the Chateau Marmont and spent a wad to launch him—$900,000 for the first album alone, in Rufus's estimate. During the long process of recording it, Rufus skipped his merry way down the yellow brick road of alcohol, pot, and cocaine, all the way to the crystal palace of methamphetamine.
The 1998 album Rufus Wainwright presented its maker as a lovelorn, opera-crazed fop on the lookout for the next good time. On the strength of it, Rufus was named Rolling Stone's best new artist of the year, but sales weren't huge. He did have "It Boy" status, however, which he took full advantage of in the wilds of L.A. and New York.
Rolling Stone assigned a feature story on Rufus and Loudon in 1999. After the photo shoot, they went out to dinner, and Rufus needled his dad, saying he was the reason Loudon was back in the pages of Rolling Stone after so many years out of the media spotlight. Rufus was in the sweetest part of a career—before his prime—and Loudon was not about to go gentle into the night of obscurity. Thus began the Oedipal fight that Rufus set to music that very same night in "Dinner at Eight." A seductive melody belies the angry first verse, prefiguring the compassionate final couplet, which has Rufus recalling a moment from his boyhood when he wept as Loudon was leaving Montreal after one of his infrequent visits: "Long ago actually, in the drifting white snow / You loved me."
When the Rolling Stone issue came out, Loudon was with Martha on a 15-date tour of the U.K. After warming up the audiences for her father, she would sit in the wings as Loudon wended his way through his catalogue, not avoiding the songs about her or the divorce. He even sang "Hitting You," in which he confesses, guiltily, but in cringe-inducing detail, to having spanked five-year-old Martha so hard that he hurt his own hand and left a "crimson" mark on her thigh.
"I'm backstage, smoking," Martha says. "Everyone's laughing, and I just feel like crying at every song."
She returned to the stage for duets, such as "Father/Daughter Dialogue," that burlesqued the divorced-dad and wounded-daughter dynamic.
When Rufus began recording his second album, Poses, a 2001 release, he was serious about his music, but equally serious about having a good time, which more and more required the dopamine brain bath of crystal meth.
"It just feels really great physically," he says. "All your darkest taboos become very plausible and you have no moral qualms about anything at all. And in terms of a gay man's psyche, it strikes with laser precision all of that pent-up frustration about safe sex, anxiety about aids, society, trying to be perfect all the time. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be pretty. You just wanna fuck and you wanna fuck again."
The drug fueled his promiscuity.
"I went through years of one-night stands. It did lead to a 12-night stand—12 people at the same time."
Rising out of the boy-gone-wild muck, Poses turned out to be beautiful, chronicling the misadventures of an urban innocent who may well be losing his charm. It includes his own version of Loudon's lovely but self-loathing "One Man Guy," complete with harmonies sung by Martha and Rufus's pal Teddy Thompson, the honey-voiced son of another acclaimed singer-songwriter couple, Richard and Linda Thompson. Soon after the album's release, Rufus sang "One Man Guy" at an AIDS benefit in Los Angeles with his father and one of his heroes, Elton John, who has called Rufus "the greatest songwriter on the planet."
"He had been a fan of my dad's and had actually kind of pursued my father vaguely," Rufus says. "He thought he was cute and would land helicopters at his shows."
At the time of the benefit show, Sir Elton had never met Rufus and hadn't seen Loudon in years. Looking over the father-son pair backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre, he said, as Rufus remembers it, "This is so fucking weird."
One night in 2002, in a lull between stretches on the road, Rufus smoked some pot, snorted a line of cocaine, took a hit of acid, and made his way to a downtown bar, where he helped himself to margaritas and mushrooms. Alone in his latest home, a room at the Roger Smith Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, he had a freakout. He sat on the toilet for four hours before crouching in the corner, wearing a red Miu Miu peacoat. After a second binge, he made a weeping phone call to Elton John, who recommended rehab at the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota. Rufus emerged from Hazelden sober in early 2003. To commemorate his graduation from rehab, Sir Elton gave Rufus a custom-made silver ring that he still wears, on the middle finger of his right hand.
Kate believes her son won't slip up and lose himself to drugs. "Rufus is not self-destructive," she says. "He's sad a lot of the time. He's angry and all that stuff. But ultimately he's blessed and he knows he's blessed. He likes to take long walks and to be out and breathing air and he likes to meet people and have experiences and you can't have experiences when you're fucked up."
Rufus's first album took three years to make, his second, a year and a half. Both times he butted heads with the producers, Jon Brion and Pierre Marchand, respectively. As a sober man in 2003, he laid down 30 tracks in just six months, with Madonna and Björk producer Marius De Vries (formerly of British pop band the Blow Monkeys) at the helm. He spread the songs across his next two glorious, ambitious, totally over-the-top albums, Want One and Want Two.
He undertook the summertime U.K. tour with his mother, sister, aunt, and cousin between the releases of the two Want albums—perhaps because, in his new sobriety, he felt fully able to pull off the juggling of family and the road. He was much easier to be around than he had been in his drugging days, his family members and bandmates said, but that didn't mean he didn't like to play the star once in a while. His mother kept a sharp lookout for any signs of diva behavior.
At 9:30 in the morning, before a flight from Stansted to Dublin, Rufus and the women in his family were stuck in an airport security line, surrounded by the gear. No one had had a real breakfast. Blood-sugar levels were dangerously low. Rufus, with a pair of big round sunglasses perched on his head, was studying the stickers affixed to the instrument cases, which read: Rufus Wainwright/M.C.T. Management/520 8th Ave./New York, N.Y./10018/U.S.A.
"Lala?" he said, calling out to the group's lone roadie, Andrew J. Lala.
Lala, a pierced young man, popped into view like a magic being.
"Lala?" continued Rufus, pointing to a sticker. "Why is my name on this?"
"In case they get lost. So they know where to send them."
"I know that, but why do they need my name? Some fan could see that and steal the instruments."
Kate and Martha were watching, half-amused. But only half.
"Rufus," Kate said in a stern, bell-toned voice.
"Rufus," she said, putting her face close to his. "The word of the day is humility."
"I don't see why it's so—"
"Humility, Rufus. Humility."
Lala had somehow conjured up a black marker with permanent ink. He was furiously blotting out Rufus's name on sticker after sticker. Crisis averted.
These days, when not appearing in character roles in movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Big Fish, Loudon will often drive himself to a gig, guitar in the back. On a typical summer night he parked just outside a fish restaurant in Westport, Connecticut. He is a sixth-degree aikido black belt, and he looked solid and strong as he carried his guitar across the parking lot. Inside, he came upon a college-aged receptionist and said, "Hey, do you have a dressing room?"
The kid gestured toward a nice-looking couple and said, "You mind holding on a minute while I assist these people?"
The receptionist led the couple to a table by the little black riser where Loudon would soon be performing his stock-in-trade. There he stood, the talent, alone, waiting. More than three decades into it, and he had to wait for yet another dumbass to show him where he could hang his jean jacket.
"I'll be doing lots of autobiographical material tonight," he said into the microphone once he took the stage, "so you can learn about my cool and yet cheesy life. My family, like yours, is and was dysfunctional."
For much of the next 90 minutes, he put into song the secret thoughts that a lot of the 90 people in attendance must have had about their parents, kids, spouses, and ex-spouses. When he played "President's Day," a broadside lambasting George W. Bush, a white-haired fan threw down his cloth napkin and stormed out. Loudon let it pass without comment and told his fans he would meet with them after the show.
"You can talk to me," he said, "but not for too long."
After the encores, near the bar, a man presented him with a vinyl copy of T Shirt, his not-so-great album from 1976, the year of his split with Kate.
"T Shirt!" Loudon said, laughing, as he put his pen to the strange artifact.
A few days after Rufus put on his big Judy Garland extravaganza at Carnegie Hall in 2006, he sat in a diner in Amagansett, New York, talking of his plan to make his next album in Berlin and also of another project perhaps closer to his heart: an opera of his own. Peter Gelb, the new general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera, has commissioned him, and Rufus is already at work on a piece about a day in the life of a Maria Callas–like diva. On the subject of the Judy show, he sounded a bit let down: "I was expecting to get up there and have people weeping when I sang certain slow songs, but I think I can only really do that with my own songwriting and my own material, which is as it should be."
Rufus's own concerts, indeed, have more bite and emotion. A particularly great one took place at Central Park's SummerStage. He opened arrogantly, singing his own setting of the Agnus Dei portion of the classical mass—in Latin, no less. A hard rain started falling and jagged lines of lightning lit the darkening sky. There was a clap of thunder. "If shocking God with my brilliance doesn't shut him up," he said into the microphone, "I will try to lull him with my sweetness." He played the opening notes of his pretty French ballad "Complainte de la Butte." The stage, covered with black wires, glistened in the lights. Monitors crackled. "This would be an O.K. place to die, actually," Rufus said. "If I have to go, I have to go!"
Martha joined him onstage for "One Man Guy." There they were, harmonizing on the song their father had written to explain why he hadn't been around for them: "Sure, it's kind of lonely / Yeah, it's sort of sick / Being your own one and only / Is a dirty, selfish trick."
Kate was standing in the mud, holding an orange umbrella and smiling up at her children with a mother's doting interest.
Rufus's new one, the Berlin-recorded Release the Stars, is just out. He had intended to make it spare, but his taste for far-reaching melodies and lush instrumentation won out once again—although it's not quite so rich and chocolatey as the Want albums. He's a little more settled now, with his first serious boyfriend, Jörn Weisbrodt, the former artistic production director of the Berlin Opera House, who now works as the manager of composer/artist Robert Wilson and as the creative director of Wilson's Southampton, New York, arts academy, the Watermill Center. Maybe as a result he's a little less given to stirring up beehives of harmony, and Release the Stars is a welcoming effort as a result.
Martha got a lot of exposure last year as a featured vocalist on "Set the Fire to the Third Bar," from the gold-certified album Eyes Open, by Scottish guitar band Snow Patrol. She moves back and forth between performing as a chanteuse and as a rocker: this past spring she lent her voice to the Royal Ballet performances of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins at the Royal Opera House in London, and she's at work on a new album of her own songs for a likely fall release.
That would seem to be enough to round out the family newsletter, but then Lucy Wainwright Roche, the 25-year-old daughter of Loudon and Suzzy, quit her job as a teacher and decided to join the family business. She entered the fray on May 20, 2006, when she added her own page to the MySpace Web site. It includes four of her songs—the melancholy and dreamy "Rather Go" is particularly great.
On a recent night, she took the stage of the subway-car-sized performance room at Pete's Candy Store, a hipster bar in Brooklyn. More than 40 people were squeezed into the place, including various Wainwright cousins, a drunken heckler who insisted on joining Lucy for a duet, music-industry people, and her half-brother himself, who sat in the front row in the company of sleek Berlin friends.
"Yikes!" Lucy said from the stage, looking into the packed house. "How many of you are German?"
It was the fourth and final night in a series of Thursday-night shows, and that evening's crowd was the largest. Lucy, a 2003 graduate of Oberlin College, began with the ancient folk ballad "Barbara Allen," singing it a cappella and immediately botching the lyric. From the back, you could hear Rufus laughing at her mistake. After finding her groove with the next song, she said, "Last year I decided not to go back to my job full-time, so I could be here with all you Germans." She had forgotten her guitar strap, and so had to play seated, with her Taylor on her knee. When she began "Rather Go," she had her capo placed too low on the fretboard, which led to a false start. But she got through it, and the audience seemed to love it.
She yielded the stage to Rufus, who was wearing a scarf. "I came to the first show, and it's getting better and better and better," he said. "I'm going to have to think about another career! It's good that I'm going into opera." He fumbled with the capo, then launched himself into a song from the new album, "Sanssouci"—then stopped. "Wait—I have to get comfortable." He pushed the stool back a little and adjusted the microphone, saying, "I guess I'm just used to playing larger rooms." Everybody laughed, including Rufus. He got through the song, and then Lucy joined him for another family song, "Katonah," written by Rufus in honor of a deceased Wainwright uncle.
With the end of the Brooklyn engagement, Lucy had served a major part of her apprenticeship. A few days later, following the road taken by Rufus and Martha, she joined her father as the opening act on his latest tour.