Scroll To Top

Rufus to the

Rufus to the


Our favorite troubadour is staging a green initiative that's mysteriously cool -- just like him.

On the rainy eve of the spring equinox on the Lower East Side in a decrepit former synagogue, it was very dark and tea candles were lit everywhere and it smelled like a dusty beehive. Wainwright had just changed out of one of those comfy Christmasy sweaters he favors and into an extremely loud plaid jacket and an ascot. In that outfit he led a crew of singers and trombonists and harmonium pumpers onto the stage before the adoring audience.

"Stop clapping, I can't hear myself!" he said by way of introduction to the capacity crowd. "We have no idea if any of you will hear this."

The show used no electricity at all. Sans lights and amplification, it was like a blackout house party, an eco-friendly, acoustic jam session -- and a teaser for Wainwright's new green initiative, Blackout Sabbath. For this new -- Holiday? Observance? Ritual? -- he has proposed the following, as he explains at the website "On a Saturday around the summer solstice (June 21) for a 12-hour period (noon to midnight), wherever you are, let's all turn off the power at the same time." Then at the end, the plan goes, we will make a list of things we may or may not do in the coming year for the planet.

It's grid failure as civil disobedience. It's a serious idea -- he means it -- but it's also a playful endeavor on his part. He's giving us all a chance to do nothing for a good cause. And he totally gets that you were probably doing nothing anyway.

At the show that night, the legendary documentary-maker Albert Maysles was filming (he's working on a documentary about Rufus). Sister Martha Wainwright sang Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song." (Why is she not the most famous person in the world?) The lovely Beth Orton could not always make herself heard, nor could Harper (son of Paul) Simon. Rufus himself was like a walking foghorn. He is accustomed to singing unamplified. He has some of the performance mannerisms of Celine Dion.

Midway through, two young people got up and talked about doing little things for the environment, such as taking reusable bags to the grocery store. The girl gestured with a plastic bottle of water as she talked, and closed with "Namaste to you all."

She got nods on the greeting. This was a crowd of the yoga-doing converted, after all. But nobody name-checked the bottle. (Toxic! Everlasting!) That's how it is. Saving the planet is something you think about ruefully and often too late -- maybe while filling the gas tank or double-bagging your groceries. After you've drunk the water.

After, outside, someone wondered what to do with the show's cute canvas goody bag and its contents. "Give it to a needy child in Africa?" suggested another. A group wondered: Should everyone go to Schiller's Liquor Bar or to the Stanton Social club?

No one rushed off to save any whales -- but they weren't really supposed to, were they?

The idea of doing nothing for a day stems from a day a few years back when there was nothing to do.

"I loved the blackout, personally," Wainwright says the day after the concert. The blackout to which he refers is not the most recent Britney Spears album but the crazy-ass power outage that blackened Michigan to New York up to Canada in high summer of 2003.

"I'm sure if it'd gone on for a couple more days things could have shifted sinisterly," he says. "But for the two days that it was happening, it was, you know, Alice in Wonderland meets The Dark Crystal.

"I felt far more seduced by the kind of virile mystery of humanity when it's all happening in shades of gray," he continues. "And there was this sort of pungency of life which reemerged -- and a hint of danger that was just so exhilarating and thrilling, especially for New York, which has been so homogenized and exorcised. It was nice! I felt like I was in the '70s for a minute."

Though he doesn't want to get too nostalgic for that decade. "I know for me, if it was the '70s, I'd definitely be dead -- dead as a doornail today."

"Before he was a good boy he was a very bad boy," says his friend Christopher Bollen, the magazine editor who just took over Interview this spring, alluding to, at least, the singer's famous excursion into the land of crystal meth. "There were a lot of crazy days and nights with Rufus."

Rufus Wainwright is 34 years old now. He works too hard. He was always highly productive artistically, and the demands of business seem to have grown exponentially as he became better known. He has six albums under his belt: The first p came out 10 years ago; the most recent is his live album re-creating--sort of--Judy Garland's famous 1961 Carnegie Hall performance. His songs are increasingly lush and over-the-top. He has a (tall, German) boyfriend of a couple years now. When he talks to the press, he says more than he thinks he would like to. This spring and summer he will tour far and wide, from Ystad, Sweden, to New Jersey to London.

Which is to say, his life is a carbon disaster. "Certainly in my own professional career, getting more carbon-neutral and making less of a footprint with my touring is a goal. I won't be able to do that this year," he says, "but I'll take care of some other stuff in the meantime and work up to it."

For Wainwright, there's been a period of introspection and a bit of time on the wagon. More recently there's been a serious illness in the family. "I wish it had never happened," Wainwright says, meaning the family crisis, which he won't discuss further. "That being said, it has given me a tremendous kind of consciousness of how brief and important life is and how there's no time like the present. When you have your health and your wits and your wealth, do something with it. Do what you need to do, because it can all just disappear in a second." (Yes, he snaps his fingers here.) "So that's been an incredible, horrifying motivator. But a motivator nonetheless. And I have to say, I think all of humanity is going through a similar situation. The earth is very sick, and the diagnosis doesn't look too hot."

He is less camera-friendly than he was in his 20s. "You need better and better photographers to capture the spirit of life," he says. He seems in touch with his vanity and pride. "I think I'm pretty good at expressing some kind of character, you know, with my pictures," he says. "So I'm happy about that. It's not all just brazen youth." There are thrills to being in one's mid 30s, and confidence and self-knowledge are but two of them. (Also, the sex gets better.)

The blackout was the sexiest night in New York City's recent history. "That's when Rufus lived up in Gramercy," says Bollen. "He lived in this house, a zillion people lived there. Rufus lived in the basement, and in the middle floor was--oh, God, I can't remember--she was in Smashing Pumpkins." (That would be Melissa Auf der Maur, also of Hole fame.) "At one point Rufus and I climbed up on the rooftop, which is weird because I'm afraid of heights. But I was emboldened because it was a blackout. And we climbed back down and it was getting dark and I think we sat in the apartment and I drank wine. Rufus wasn't drinking then. I got really drunk.

"Oh, that's right! Then we walked down to the East Village and it was crazy." This was August 14th. "And all the flashlights and people taking to the streets but it was very orderly. It wasn't like a marathon looting session. It was very structured. Everyone was just kind of moving around, but it wasn't dangerous. We did get food! I think we were on St. Mark's and we went and got something to eat.

"Paris is the City of Lights," Bollen concludes, "but really New York is a city of lights. You'd think it would never turn off--but that if it did, it would go to hell. But it was the opposite--it was heaven."

"It's funny, when I originally thought of this Blackout Sabbath project I conceived of it as a weekend," says Wainwright, "where you would do a whole weekend, and you would make it, let's say if you were in New York, you'd get in contact with everyone in your building and see who wanted to do it and try to sort of be a self-supportive unit, with your Korean deli and your bank machine or whatever." (Hey, don't Korean delis and ATMs use electricity? But we digress.)

"You'd all eat together, more communal. If everything broke down and there was a disaster with the grid, you wouldn't go out and kill your neighbors because you'd know them! Ha! And you could fortify yourself against the building next door in case of an emergency. That was sort of the original idea for the Blackout Sabbath. Now I realize it's more of a personal thing."

Even the irony-minded can get sincere, as Wainwright has, briefly. Not that you should expect downtown New York-based revolutionary cells led by, say, Justin Bond and Marc Jacobs. (Although! Remember this winter's rockin' antiwar party thrown at Judson Memorial Church, led by downtown singer Julian Fleisher and friends?)

Instead, Wainwright's scheme is anti-activism. Do not worry about Indonesia and Brazil and the death of rain forests! "It does seem like a joke these days when you go to a rally or a lecture or a political thing or you watch Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman," he says. "You see these liberals kind of firebranding, these really wonderfully pathetic older leftists -- who are going to be the first to go when the weapons come out." (Maybe. Though, should the next American civil war start, wouldn't you put money on the antiwar grandmas of Code Pink?) Wainwright cites Gandhi and nonviolent resistance. But Gandhi was hardly a do-nothing.

"I do not want to intellectualize this at all," he says. "I want this to be a completely tactical maneuver. The more you think about it" -- the disaster of the planet -- "the more discouraging it can be. That's why it's about stopping for that day, the 21st, for 12 hours. And just feeling the world around you. Turning off your air-conditioner. It could be bloody hot that day, but that's a good thing because it'll put some fire under your ass." And that's what's really behind Wainwright's self-imposed blackout: He feels a sense of urgency, personally, professionally, globally. After taking your own time-out, maybe you will too.

Make no mistake, he isn't a do-gooder now -- even if all this solstice and equinox and "do-nothing" stuff is oh so interesting. He's just shifted out of his Judy phase and into something of a witchy Stevie Nicks phase, albeit with a thoroughly contemporary "save the planet" mind-set.

And yet, "I don't consider myself necessarily an environmentalist or an advocate for saving the planet," he says. "It's not a huge shift in my career. You're not going to see me hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio -- other than for sexual purposes."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Choire Sicha