“I feel that physical beauty connects to the depths of our animalistic selves, and I don’t know whether that’s good or bad or what. But it’s very confusing.”
To Rufus Wainwright , love is hypothetical. He can talk about it only as a fuzzy concept and as a misnomer for what’s commonly thought to be the planet’s most desirable feeling. For as the years have supplanted each other, love has been the preternatural occurrence, not the norm, for the 30-year-old New York City troubadour.
His three records, including the latest, Want One, are desperate yearnings for a chance to give the word a definition of his own, to give love a face and a heartbeat. The songs are filled with painfully sought, elaborately imagined mannequin men that never quite get to his hands or feel, with warm bare feet, the wobbly wooden floors of his apartment in the morning. But Wainwright has none of the powers of Andrew McCarthy (better known as Jonathan Switcher in 1987’s Mannequin and Larry Wilson in 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s) in bringing those mannequins to life. They stay the imagined men of seeming intangibility.
All hope isn’t wasted for the newly clean and sober Wainwright, however, no matter how much lonelier some of his new songs sound. Despite the helplessness emitting from Want One, Wainwright has been busy looking on the brighter side of the hunt, regarding it as having an inevitable happy ending with a most uncertain timetable. He thinks of love hitting him in a way similar to how a Cubs fan, during the first few days of spring training, won’t bounce the needle of a lie-detector test preaching that his team will get to the series that season. It’s the same blind faith that Wainwright has made a virtue of since his last record. Sure, meanness and hate exist, but love’s the nectar that everyone gets a taste of sooner or later. He’s got his eyes shut and his tongue expectantly outstretched.
“I think that there is a lot of cruelty, certainly, but that love will conquer all in the end. I think that there’s perhaps more cruelty than love, but perhaps more hope than cruelty at this point,” Wainwright said. “One of the most important things I’ve learned in the last couple years is about faith. I don’t mean religious faith, but it’s like religious faith. What I never realized before is that faith is not having proof that something exists. If there was proof that God existed, then there would be no such thing as faith because it requires an element of the unknown and the unattained. So I think that though there’s not a lot of concrete evidence of love, it sort of heightens my faith in love because I just have to believe that it’s there, even though it’s not apparent. Which can be difficult but also, I think, necessary for survival.”
For Sartre, hell was other people, and for Wainwright, love is other people. But whatever, says the son of Loudon Wainwright III. He’ll rely on the deities of amor to discuss his file and determine its grand arrival. He’s relinquished all ownership of the thought that he’s in control of it.
“I think in the end, it has nothing to do with me or the other person. I do think that human beings are kind of like chess pieces that are sacrificed or glorified,” he said. “Anytime that I’ve tried to push an issue or figure out someone’s heart, it’s usually blown up in my face, so I think the best thing to do is to just shut up, realize that you have no power over the situation, and hope that the wind blows your way.”
Wainwright is made more fascinating by being one of those people that should never have a problem with love. He’s one of those beautiful creatures—with perfect hair, Oscar-winner’s teeth, and a voice that could make a songbird blush—that you can only imagine feels the pinpricks of thousands of Cupid’s biting arrows every passing day. His singleness is as hard to believe as Jennifer Love Hewitt or any other angelic female is when pouting about her love life in national magazines, saying, “Really, I never get asked out. Ever.”
I’m sure every one of us has a friend exactly like Wainwright, in character. The he or she who’s continually asking when’s it his or her turn. They want love so badly that, to hear them talk about it, makes what they’re looking for seem as imperative as their next breath—as if not getting it will cause them to perish like a beached carp, gasping violently for the stream. And we always think that maybe these friends of ours are too busy bellyaching that they don’t have anyone to squeeze to actually have time to find that person that will finally shut them—and their theory of being doomed to die alone—up.
In the second song off his new record, Wainwright talks about all of the questionables that I’ve heard my friends philosophically ponder after striking out for what they had no choice but to consider would be the last time. But they aren’t just blatherings that the forever lovelorn could think. They work just the same for the temporarily lovelorn, still looking, but as pessimistic as always. “I don’t know what it is/But you got to do it/I don’t know where to go/But you got to be there/I don’t know where to fall/But I know that it’s comfortable where I don’t know where it is,” he sings in “I Don’t Know Where It Is.”
It’s the not knowing where love is that makes the situation better for Wainwright. It makes it easy to be patient because there’s no other choice. And if it never comes, fuck it. “I can definitely say that if I do die without ever having a great romance or without having some long-term boyfriend for years and years and years, I’ll die a happy man because I’ve had such incredible friends around me,” he said.
“Want One” plays like a small Broadway musical fixated on the concept of beauty. Wainwright questions the world in which we live, where men are reading fashion magazines, and for the most part, he disdains the globally held infatuation with beauty.
“I really don’t know if beauty is a curse or a blessing,” he said. “I feel that physical beauty connects to the depths of our animalistic selves, and I don’t know whether that’s good or bad or what. But it’s very confusing.” Collected and clean-living again after a one-month stint, in 2002, at Hazelden, the addiction treatment center in Center City, Minnesota, Wainwright has moved into what he describes as a “shabby-chic” apartment in the Gramercy Park area of New York City and is looking forward to hustling himself to the world and touring for two years due to a companion disc to Want One—Want Two—scheduled to be released within the next year. And if it’s anything like its older brother, Want Two will be just the right record to listen to at three in the afternoon, sitting at a piano and eating a tub of ice cream.
“I think it’s a good, alone-in-the-middle-of-the-day type of a record. Or very late at night, with a whole bunch of friends after you’ve sort of had your fill of today’s hollow culture, which can be fun,” Wainwright said. “But if you get back home and you’re with some friends and you just want to realize that there’s more to life than Justin Timberlake, it’s a good record for that, too. The one time I don’t think would be very good is over dinner. I think it would make everybody regurgitate blood and then turn into werewolves.”
Wainwright feels that he wouldn’t have been able to make any dinner-trashing records had it not been for his rehabbing in Minnesota.
“I was very privileged to be able to go to rehab, considering the state of America’s health care system. I mean, I could afford, it and I could also put my entire life on hold due to the type of work I’m in. And I really do feel that that is a privilege,” he said. “I was very lucky to have that type of experience. It was great, but it was very difficult. I don’t want to do it again for kicks, but I’m really happy that it happened. It was one of the defining moments of my life. I just hit a wall in terms of being able to handle my life emotionally and had, after seven years of living in hotels and touring and mainly being concerned with what the applause-meter was saying, run into a real dead-end in that department and didn’t really know how to love myself or who I was.
“I think it all happened at the right time. In terms of problems with drugs and alcohol, I think there are so many factors involved. For instance, I do think that when 9/11 happened, we were very quickly in another world and that the carefree, fly-by-night kind of attitude didn’t really cut it anymore. There was just a certain darkness that set, and for me, along with personal issues and hitting 30, the drugs and alcohol really became this intoxicating soup. And so all those elements happened, and I think it was a great experience because I survived it, and I learned from it. So I think it all happened perfectly. I have to be optimistic. I tend to be optimistic because I know I lot of people who haven’t survived, and I just feel lucky.”
He feels lucky, whether his records sound like it or not.