Vicious World
October 1, 2008, 3:43 am
Filed under: Rufus Wainwright, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Songs are interesting things in that they may have one set of meanings for the songwriter and quite another for the listener, based on experiences, language comprehension, preconceptions, and any number of other variables.  Of course this may be said for virtually any type of creative entity, but I would assert that this property holds true more for music because it is by nature emotionally evocative.  Like a scent, a given composition or performance may be in essence written on the body, creating an impression based on associations both contextual and personal.  Furthermore, these meanings may unfold in layers over time, revealing new and unexpected qualities much as human beings do.  Strangest of all, the journeys of the songwriter and listener may take dramatically different routes and yet somehow manage to end up at the same destination.

Rufus Wainwright has repeatedly discussed Want One as his attempt to look beyond the boundaries of his individual life and concerns and comment on the state of the world at large.  Although certainly there is no shortage of personal material on the album, the reference to “something burning in Manhattan” in the song “11:11” clearly refers to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers that left over 2700 people dead and many more injured or traumatized.  This is no small matter and by no means do I intend to trivialize it, but for me it will always be first and foremost the song Rufus was performing when I passed out at the Vic Theater in Chicago.

October 13, 2003 was one of those days that starts going downhill fairly early and just keeps getting worse.  Having moved from the city to a near Southwestern suburb just a few months previously, I now had a two-hour trip on public transportation if I wanted to see a show.  It seemed like I had waited forever to see Rufus, but my energy and enthusiasm just kept draining as the bus that was supposed to run every thirty minutes finally zoomed past me in the other direction after about an hour and a half.  I knew that meant I was better off walking a couple blocks and getting a different bus that would take me to the Red Line, so that’s what I did.  By then I was exhausted and starving, but all I wanted was to get to the Vic and get in line so I could get a decent spot for the show.

I was alone this time, with no one to hold my place in line while I got a bite to eat.  I could see there were lots of people there and I couldn’t bear to do so much as go across the street and get a bag of peanuts, possibly one of the worst decisions I ever made.  I got in line, feeling a bit alienated as everyone seemed to talk around me like I wasn’t there.  In retrospect, I think I’m just so short I wasn’t in their sight lines.

The doors opened, we all filed in, and I wound up somewhere near the front but not right in front.  Here again, my height (or lack thereof) worked against me, as I wasn’t getting enough air and I didn’t even realize it.  No one was being very friendly and I still felt tense from all the rushing and anxiety, so I managed to squeeze through and get a glass of wine before the crowd got too thick.  I had waited all those many months to see Rufus again, the night had finally arrived, and I WAS GOING TO HAVE A GOOD TIME IF IT F*CKING KILLED ME, %$#*&@#$ it!!

I barely remember Martha’s opening set, but I do remember that I smoked a funny cigarette and then accepted  a generous offer from some neighbors to share theirs.  I think I was just relieved that somebody was finally being friendly, but my judgement had flown out the window and was thumbing its nose at me.  By the time Rufus finally showed up, I was already pretty wobbly.  I nonetheless stood up on my little tootsie toes and strained to take it all in, but it was too much for me.  Somewhere in the middle of “11:11,” I realized people had their hands on me.  This was not because they were pervs, but because I was passing out and they were trying to hold me up so I wouldn’t fall on them or hit the floor and crack my damn fool head open.

I tried to tell them I would be fine and they shouldn’t worry.  I had waited so long and gone through so much to get there, giving up my precious spot was simply not an option. The folks gamely tried to put up with me, but the next thing I knew I had one strong arm hooked under each of mine and was being dragged out to the lobby.  Confused, guilty, and paranoid, I mumbled that I thought I had been dosed with something bad.

They sat me down on the stairs in the lobby, where I started feeling better as soon as I breathed in several lungfuls of fresh air.  One of the security guys sat with me, possibly the nicest person ever.  I described my day and he berated me for not eating before the show, insisting there was not a bad seat in the house.  We talked for awhile and he finally pointed me up the stairs, telling me to find a seat from which to watch what was left of the show.  This proved easier said than done, but I finally squeezed myself into a space that was not a seat and tried to squeeze the last drop of enjoyment out of what had turned into quite a dismal day while people glared at me for invading their space.  Fun!

The next day I flew to Minneapolis where I had tickets for the show at First Avenue, which turned out to be a vastly better experience.  Mind you it wouldn’t have been hard, but that’s not what this post is about.  The Vic show had permanently transformed “11:11” into the song where I passed out, regardless of whatever meanings Rufus had intended when he wrote it.  The new meaning was and still remains indelibly imprinted on my mind, but in retrospect it now seems like a mere foreshadowing of what was to come in 2004.

I’ve always wondered if the tumor growing in my right breast somehow contributed to my conking out that night, not that I didn’t make enough stupid, reckless choices to account for it.  Nonetheless, I have stood up in crowds at plenty of shows without losing consciousness, drinking far more than I did at the Vic.  Perhaps it was just a wake-up call to be more responsible in light of my advancing age, but at any rate, in January I was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer.  Invasive ductal carcinoma, words that a person never wants to hear.  I had a lumpectomy at Illinois Masonic on February 10, and spent most of the rest of 2004 in chemotherapy and radiation.  I could lie and say it wasn’t hell, but you know better.

So far I’m still here and doing fine, with no recurrences.  I can’t claim to be physically the same as I always was, because cancer definitely took a bite out of me and I still have to take meds to suppress my estrogen production because my tumor was estrogen positive.  I bit back though, and I held on for the dear life I wasn’t nearly ready to give up yet.  Funny thing, “11:11” may be one of Rufus’s weakest lyrics.  I can’t even bring myself to quote a verse, but it doesn’t matter because for me the message of hope and transcendence lives in the melody:

All of this goes to say that a song that for me became first the song during which I passed out and then the song during which I passed out shortly before I found out I had cancer ultimately somehow became a song about survival.  Rufus’s intentions, temporarily subverted by fate and then subverted again, finally were reaffirmed and validated by my continuing existence, despite the best efforts of both myself and my illness to take me out of the ballgame prematurely.  But still, I will never again hear that song without remembering how I crumbled into the arms of strangers, never imagining I was just practicing for the real abyss that awaited me in the year to follow.

In case anyone was wondering where I was last night, I was struggling to write and then lost my internet connection, which I took as an encouragement to rest.  I still want to respond to some of your comments and emails, which I’ll do in the next day or two.  Suffice it to say, I appreciate all the positive response to this project and am pushing myself to keep up with it as best I can with a rather harried schedule.  As I write this on September 30, the Hammond show is just over two weeks away and I am terribly excited.  I’m not sure yet if I’ll bring my monkey, but just as sure as I’m grateful to be alive, I’ll be there with bells on and a big smile on my face.  Say hello if you like, as I never bite unless I’m bitten first.

2 Comments so far
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Just wanted to say: take care, love 🙂

Comment by Sybilla

I would like to mention that this was especially well-written. Oh and fuck cancer.

Comment by Marianne

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