“I WANT TO BE RIGHT UP THERE WITH THE GREATEST LEGENDS OF SHOWBIZ: THE JUDYS, THE SINATRAS, THE OLIVIERS, THE CLARK GABLES…”
Growing up, your father was in M*A*S*H but your first name rhymed with dufus. Which had the more impact on the school yard?
Oh ‘dufus’ by far! I grew up in French Canada where they didn’t even know what M*A*S*H was – they probably thought it was a show about potatoes. But being Rufus and not having that name be the name of some saint – there was no Saint Rufus – that was far more affecting.
You were in a Catholic school?
Yeah it was a very Catholic school and a very Catholic province – you can probably sympathise – and… that’s where the drug use started! [laughs]
What made you finally go into into rehab?
Oh, I really crashed. I used to do crystal meth once in a while but every time I did it I’d do it for like four or five days. And the last time I did it I sort of coupled that with a lot of ecstasy and a lot of Special K and a lot of cocaine and by the end of it I went blind for about an hour and I just had this moment where my mind… I wasn’t sure if I was gonna come back. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna regain my sanity and that’s a really frightening place to be.
You’re very frank about your personal life. Is that easy for you?
Well I’m just a terrible liar and I feel that I deserve to bask in this – let’s hope not too brief – period of acceptance towards being gay in show business. I mean, 20 years ago I would have been sweating bullets most of the time [that he would be outed] and now I don’t have to be that way.
We’ll talk about the gay thing in a minute but, you know, you spoke just there about rehab. Does being so honest and open about stuff come naturally to you?
Am, I-I find it more interesting to talk about that kind of stuff than… I don’t know. What else would one talk about? [gestures, we’re sitting outdoors] Grass? As in green grass! I dunno, I just enjoy stimulating conversation.
Your family life is fairly public too.
Well as I said, being from French Canada I was never aware of the extent that my parents were famous. [His parents are the songwriter and actor Louden Wainwright and the folk-singer Katie McGarrigle]. Maybe that’s the reason why I sort of over-compensate at times talking about my family or my friends or fame because we were not very well known at all as kids. The truth of the matter is that as well as being a performer I kinda have the soul of an agent and I’m not too confident in the state of society these days. We need material in case, you know, the walls come crashing down and we gotta go sing on the beach. Hahahahahaha.
You mentioned opening for Sting within seconds of our meeting today. Are you a bit of a name-dropper?
Hahahaha. [blithely ignores the question] One story of mine is that literally every time I’ve met Britney Spears and we’ve been introduced to each other nothing comes out of our mouths. We’re like totally living in these separate universes. We have nothing to say to each other. I also had a funny experience with Celine Dion. I met her when we were doing a TV show and I was wearing this green shirt and the only thing she said to me was “That shirt looks yellow on TV” and then ran away. You know like that’s how her mind works, like, to immediately see how things will look on television.
Everyone immediately spots the bit you stole from Ravel on Oh What A World [from Want One]. Are there any other blatant nicks?
Well there’s certainly a lot of influence from French music in general and a lot of Ravel type chords, especially in Dinner At Eight there’s that [hums] sa na na-na chord change in there. But no blatant nicks. There was this song, Greek Song, on my last record where I sort of lifted a melody from an opera but no, I’m a great composer myself.
Tell us about the song Gay Messiah.
Well it was originally written as a joke because I was so sick of hearing about Muslim fundamentalists or the Christian right-wing. Some of their arguments might be interesting and profound even, but as a gay person I don’t really figure in their world at all. There’s no gay chapter to the Koran or the Bible or the Torah. So I figured I’d help them out, write a little addendum or appendage or whatever and call it The Gay Messiah. Because we’ve been around for just as long – it’s about time that we were at least dealt with, whether its throwing us into hell or bringing us into heaven.
When did you come out, who did you come out to and what did you say?
I came out to myself when I was 14 and subsequently had to crawl back into the closet for a bit with my family and friends cos it was a little odd. I was a very young 14 year old, I looked very young.
Did you talk to anyone about it then?
No, there was no one I really talked to but I would go to bars and stuff. It was a weird summer. I waited until I was of age legally and sort of announced it to my family.
All at once?
[sadly] No, no I just… Each member… Let’s just say it wasn’t easy for anyone. I feel very much that I had to figure out that whole section of my life on my own. And I think that it’s very common. I don’t think that it’s very easy for any parent to realise that their kid is gay, no matter how liberal or cool or educated they are. It was a frightening prospect in the Eighties, cos AIDS was so prevalent. and it still is of course. Nowadays though you have stuff like Queer Eye For The Straight Guy.
Actually I saw an article in an American magazine that said “Sorry ladies but Rufus’ sexuality is strictly of the Queer Eye For The Straight Guy variety.” It’s almost like ‘Homosexuality – as seen on TV!’
[laughs] Yeah it’s probably a good thing that mainstream America is becoming more acquainted with homosexuality as a non-threatening force. In terms of the gay community itself though, I have a lot of issues with it because historically the gay world was a bastion of… Well on one hand, yes, there were no rights, and for the common gay person it was a nightmare, I don’t want to romanticise that. But on the other hand it was a bastion of creativity and of intellectual prowess. There’s no denying the fact that Western culture owes a large part of its existence to gay people. And it was that non-acceptance in mainstream society that gave them that sharp edge. I want to inherit that myself and not two kids in the suburbs.
Does that contradict what you’re saying about making homosexuality visible and accepted in The Gay Messiah?
Perhaps. But there’s no alternative in America right now, there’s no other conversations going on. I mean we gotta start talking about the fucking environment, about the war, we gotta talk about the rising gap between rich and poor.
Well, no. Not necessarily right this second! [laughs]
In photographs and in your songs you seem like a fairly serious guy. Whereas onstage, especially with your family, you come across as an impudent upstart almost. Do you find yourself reverting to prescribed roles in family situations?
No I’m usually that way. Because the songs are very long and tragic, I feel it necessary to pepper my performances with a kind of uplifting non-serious atmosphere. It’s a device. And if I’m going to have people sit there for two and a half hours I want them to get their money’s worth and people like to laugh.
What’s Leonard Cohen like?
He’s… [pause] He’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz in a lot of ways. On the one hand, he kind of presents himself as this mystical, larger-than-life character – which he certainly is in his material. But once you sort of sweep away the surface he’s actually a very kind of sensitive frightened little boy. He’s very shy and he has to kind of do a lot of work spiritually to keep it together.
He has his lighter moments though surely.
Oh yeah. He can be funny. But I don’t know him that well. I’ve met him many times and I’ve hung out with him but he’s a hard guy to… I think he likes women a lot.
[impolite guffaw] You think?
No I mean a lot of women know him a lot better than I do. He opens up to them more.
Were you worried about how the line “I realized that everything really does happen in Manhattan” would be received given that the song 11.11 is about September 11th?
It was just really necessary for me to just kind of acknowledge that event without taking advantage of it. No one could pull that off unless you’re going to write a mass or an opera or you’re Woody Guthrie or something.
Last night in Vicar Street you dedicated Pretty Things to Michael Jackson.
That was another moment of levity. The chorus ‘So what if I like pretty things?’ could be taken in so many different ways; whether you’re Jackie Kennedy, whether you’re Michael Jackson or whether you’re me talking about handsome university students… [The singer, it transpires, is batting his eyelids at me here – a cloying tactic that might have been more successful if he’d taken his sunglasses off first.]
I’m sorry my brain is starting to fry in this sun.
Do you want to be famous?
Yeah of course. I want to be as big as they get, right up there with the greatest legends of showbiz. The Judys, the Sinatras, the Oliviers, the Burtons, the Clark Gables. I wanna be a bona fide classic celebrity.
What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told in an interview?
I think I told one article that before I went to rehab I’d lost forty pounds. I think I’d lost about six! Hahahahaha.
And what’s the stupidest question you’ve ever been asked in an interview?
Stupidest question I’ve ever been asked? I’ve definitely erased it out of my mind.
‘Do you want to be famous?’ maybe?
[One of the more impressive people I've ever met. We met on a very sunny day in a garden somewhere on the southside of Dublin. I've forgotten where now. He professed to be clean at the time, but I doubt he was. Nonetheless, he gave thoughtful answers to even of my most idiotic questions. For the record, this is my favourite thing he ever did. Also, he laughs exactly like Fran Drescher in the The Nanny.]