Theater archives

A Torch Song Named Desire


The Chelsea Hotel is the perfect setting for a Tennessee Williams play, with its almost accidental decor of art and ruin. Sitting in the musty lobby, you can easily imagine the Princess Kosmonopolis meeting her latest beau for hire. This museum of the famous and the fallen is the
ideal habitat for Rufus Wainwright, Tennessee’s closest kin in the ruffneck world of rock.

He comes to the door with sleep-tossed hair, his room a whirlwind of guitar cases, cigarette packs, and gauze butterflies. Batik scarves cover the windows and high-heeled slippers are tucked under a wildly unmade bed. It’s definitely the chamber of a 26-year-old whose songs quiver with lines like “I fear it’s a long way down.” The Chinese lantern he has placed over a bare light bulb shows a Blanche DuBois­like impulse to mitigate the harshness of morning-after reality with what she called “magic.”

“I adore Tennessee Williams,” Rufus drawls, when I suggest a connection between their work. It’s that gift for the grand gesture— an opera in every aperçu. “Yeah, I do stem from opera, in that it deals with grand emotions. Well, life is short. You might as well be grand while you can.”

But Rufus is also heir to another musical tradition, all but banished from the slam-jam orthodoxies of rock. His melodies unfurl almost like lieder, and his lyrics deal unashamedly with subjects that haven’t been kosher since the days of torch songs: sick longing, futile desire, slavish devotion— all the stuff that used to signify the sanctioned masochism of women, but now is tolerable only in a gay man.

Of course, since most torch songs were projected
onto women by the men who wrote them, it’s not surprising that some of the best practitioners of this form were light in the legato. “There’s always been a gay element in old-fashioned songwriting,” Rufus explains, citing coded Cole Porter classics like “Love for Sale.” “But it was taboo to make it clear that the song was about two men. I’m trying to write with that same spirit, but I want to be open about it.”

Still, the edge in his songs is more than a matter of pronoun candor. It comes from a determination to deal with what used to be a major theme in gay art: unrequited love. Take “Danny Boy,” the most famous Wainwright turn on the torch-song tradition. This is no out account of a homo romance, but a wrenching evocation of what it’s like to be a gay boy in love with a straight boy. You won’t find this scenario in a how-to manual about meeting and keeping a same-sex spouse. Yet in the rush to health and happiness, a whole side of the gay experience has been suppressed. It’s easier to be a Log Cabin Republican than to acknowledge the foolish love that Rufus sings about.

You broke my heart, Danny Boy.

Not your fault, Danny Boy.

By now, his fans know that the object of Rufus’s affection was a real Danny Boy— a drop-dead handsome junkie with a slew of girlfriends, just the kind of guy a gay boy might choose as his first love object. After all, even in this liberated era, nobody skips past the enduring guilt and shame of
homophobia without making some bad mistakes— which is why “Danny Boy” is such a signature gay song. Yet,
according to Rufus, the gay world is largely indifferent to his music, if only because it’s not “pumped up and proud.” His core audience, he claims, is straight men and girls.

Everywhere he performs, Rufus is swamped by the affections of 14-year-old girls. “In Japan, they go crazy for me,” he notes. “One time I reached down to pick up a little present and about 10 of them grabbed me and wanted to eat me.” He understands the bond— he shares their point of view in a way few rock performers do. “Listening to hiphop, they feel like a target,” Rufus maintains— and as for “boy bands where they’re all 35: I intend to save girls from the peril of those big, slimy thugs.”

But why would these ballads of unmet desire appeal to straight men? Possibly because it gives them something women rarely do (at least in music): the tribute of being worshiped as a heartbreaker. In a traditional torch song, the hero is not the suffering woman but “the man that got away.” You won’t find this sentiment expressed at Lilith Fair. Only in a Rufus Wainwright song are the old rules of romance— with their radical inequity between a devoted woman and a man who’s on his game— still in force. “Men love to be fawned
upon,” says this seasoned practitioner. “That explains why a straight guy would hang out with a gay guy in the first place. He gets all the attachment, but he’s not trapped sexually— the gay man doesn’t have that power over him.”

Of course, the real story of gay-straight bonding is a lot more complicated, just as the real contours of heterosexual romance include a heavy component of male insularity and female longing. Still, it’s hard to imagine a right-on woman crooning a couplet like this: “I don’t want to hold you and feel so helpless/I don’t want to smell you and lose my senses.” These are shameful emotions in liberated times. Rufus reminds us that they still exist by investing the torch song with a febrile yearning, stopping just short of the Fanny Brice immolation line: “He beats me too/What can I do?”

In life, however, Rufus has not been so discriminating.

At 14, he was picked up by an older man who took him to a park and began ripping off his clothes. “I wouldn’t put it on the same plane as rape,” he says, “because I sort of went willingly. I had just come out and I wanted to have sex with everyone. Besides, I got out of it quite well. I pretended to be an epileptic and started shaking violently, so the guy let me go.”

The incident scared him into abstinence for five years, but he insists on seeing it as a positive experience. “It was a godsend, really, because of the AIDS epidemic. It probably kept me alive.” Still, it stamped him with an abiding sense of precariousness, a feeling liberation is supposed to have rendered obsolete. “This might seem tawdry,” Rufus says, “but I still believe being gay is not easy. Men are tougher than women to deal with. They have real walls around them— especially straight men.”

That’s an insight gleaned from his four-year crush on Danny (which ended when the guy got married and moved to Nova Scotia). Though their affair involved nothing more than “lying around and kissing,” that was enough to mark Rufus to this day. He’s had a few flings since then, “but everything relates back to Danny, and I know in foresight that it won’t work out because it has that same tinge.” There’s enough rage in him to write a line about awakening with “a hard heartache,” but, as with his rough-trade initiation, Rufus gives his amour fou a positive twist: “I got an album out of it— a whole album of songs.”

Of course, you hope he will find an “appropriate love object” (or at least someone who makes him clean his room). In the meantime, there is art, the ultimate arena for the lover who loses, where one gives form and meaning to the unachievable. “In any great love affair, you can always see the end at the beginning,” Rufus reflects. It’s a line the Princess Kosmonopolis could have delivered, wafting hashish through the potted fronds. So perhaps this is the connection between Rufus and Tennessee. They both know the implacable tragedy of love and loss in a distinctly gay way. And they both understand the importance of hanging a Chinese lantern on a bare light bulb.

Rufus Wainwright will perform a set of new songs at the Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, August 27-29.