Our resident culture boffin Kirk Lake has his new biography of Rufus Wainwright published this week. Here is a short, exclusive interview in which our man tells us how it happened.
Lamont: How did this book come about? It always seemed a strange thing for you to want to write.
Lake: I had originally proposed a much more oblique book than the book I actually ended up writing. The plan was that I would deal with certain aspects of Rufus' work and then, in alternate sections go into more depth about the cultural antecedents for that or to try and place him within a wider view... So for instance I had it that I would write about his Judy show and link that with contemporary art practices of recreating works and the history of the cover version or I would write about his emergence as an "out" gay performer and put that into context with other gay artists, not solely musicians... It would have been a shorter book and closer to music or art criticism than biography. What eventually happened was that almost all of that stuff got put into the footnotes and the book changed from being a linked series of essays to a more conventional rock biography.
Lamont: Why was that? A change of heart, a nudge from the publisher...
Lake: Well I was researching the book and then I got to speaking to people and conducting a few interviews and a wider picture revealed itself. Rufus as part of a musical family. All of sudden I felt a kind of duty to document this story. The story had changed from being about Rufus to being just as much about his father Loudon and his mother Kate McGarrigle. I knew of Loudon Wainwright but only as a kind of jokey guy on TV and I really didn't know anything about Kate and Anna. It was a revelation when I suddenly heard them as the great and neglected artists that they are and I began to feel an obligation to tell the story of the whole family because it had never been done and who's to say anybody else would ever do it.
Lamont: So you found yourself working on a conventional biography.
Lake: Right. And the thing was, for the first six months or so I was writing it I was kind of secretly hoping that somebody else would announce that they were working on a Rufus Wainwright biography and that would free me to get back to my original, rather more freewheeling plan... But that didn't happen.
Lamont: Now you didn't get to speak to Rufus, why was that? I'd have thought a guy like him would have been keen to tell his story.
Lake: Well, here's the thing... Like I said my original intention was not to speak to him at all. It's like the Jean Cocteau quote about not being able to learn about horticulture from talking to plants. But I thought it would be good for the texture and dynamics of the book if I got to observe Rufus at work. I contacted his manager and asked if I could watch a rehearsal for the Judy show in Hollywood, I was already going to be in LA anyway, but he said no and made it clear that there would be absolutely no co-operation on their part. I think once I had really started work on the book I suggested that perhaps we could conduct a single interview at some point. Not so that I could grill him on his childhood or anything like that. I was more interested in hearing him talk about what he wanted to do next and I wanted to hear his views on some of the people that I had been linking him to in the book - the poets and composers and artists. I wanted it to run right at the very end of the book, just a question and answer thing. Anyway. It was a resounding NO.
Lamont: But you spoke to people he knows and worked with?
Lake: Sure. I spoke to musicians and producers and family friends. A few times I would do an interview and then get called back and asked to not use it. I suppose that the interviewee had checked with the management or Rufus and been told that they shouldn't have spoken to me. Then there were the handful of people who asked to remain anonymous.
Lamont: What did they have to say that was so damaging?
Lake: That's the thing. Most people only had good things to say. But if you are a person who is on friendly terms with somebody, friendly enough to ask them if its okay to speak to a biographer then the likelihood is you're going to only have positive things to say anyway. And it wasn't like I was trying to dig dirt. There were a few people that had negative things to say and would talk to me, perhaps they had fallen out with him or something at some point. Most of these were from Los Angeles back in the late 1990s in his DreamWorks heyday, but I don't think I really used any of that material. It just wasn't interesting or it didn't add anything or it seemed unnecessarily bitter. But a lot of the people that had worked with Loudon over the years were more than happy to enthuse about him at great length and I couldn't really use that material either as it would have unbalanced the book.
Lamont: Do you know if Rufus has read it?
Lake: Out of politeness I did send him one. So he has a copy. I don't know. I'd guess he'll read it at some point. I don't know if he'll like it particularly. I am critical of a lot of his work but then I also praise a lot of it. I'm not sure if he's used to that. It seems to be lavish praise or total dismissal when it comes to critical assessment of his work. But, for instance I think Want is a masterpiece, seriously right up there with the very very best albums ever made but then I also think that the Judy project was a complete failure, a dead-end. But these are serious considered criticisms and I hope that even the most die-hard Rutopian can appreciate that. There's a point in my discussion of the Judy Garland shows where I admit I might be being harsh but that it is a tribute to Rufus as an artist that his work and his artistry is serious enough to warrant this kind of attention. I certainly didn't want to bury him in criticism. He's an important artist. One of the few genuinely innovative and challenging musicians that are currently working. You know I'm referencing his work alongside some serious cultural heavyweights - Janacek, C Day Lewis, Millais, Wilde - I hope that the book shows that he is more than just a pop singer.
Lamont: Are you going to his opera?
Lake: Well I don't suppose I'll get an invite. I hope its successful. I'd like it to be. At the end of the book I do point out that opera careers run at glacial pace. You don't really become a real opera composer with your first work, it takes time. If its not a runaway success I hope he continues and writes another and, of course, that will be even better. To even be in the position of writing an opera and getting it staged is an achievement.
Lamont: And your next rock biography?
Lake: Hmmm. I have a couple of ideas for new non-fiction books that are kind of biography related but I don't think I would necessarily want to do something that was similar to this one. I really think there are different ways to write music books, and books on popular culture in general, and if I was to write another I'd like to experiment a little more.