I Came So Far For Beauty

In case you are wondering precisely how far, I have traveled to Las Vegas twice to see Rufus perform at the Joint at the Hard Rock Cafe, a distance of some 1750-odd miles from the near Chicago suburb I call home.  I will jump at any excuse to go to Las Vegas, but a Las Vegas show is a special treat, especially in such a spiffy venue.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but given sufficient resources I would follow Rufus anywhere. Possible exceptions are Ravinia and festivals, the former of which I despise and the latter of which are too much of an endurance test for an old broad like me.  The morning after I saw Nick Cave last week, I spoke to a guy who told me he used to work for Cave and had seen him over 150 times.  A normal person hears the absurdity in that, but I just feel jealous because I can’t do the same for Rufus and have “only” seen him ten times.

Having established that I may perhaps be a little touched in the head, the more interesting question is What drives a person to the kind of fanaticism that compels them to drop everything and spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars following a near-stranger around the country, even the world?  When the Release the Stars tour finally closed at Radio City Music Hall on Valentines Day 2008, I met a large contingent of folks who traveled all the way from the U.K.  One of them had also been at the Milwaukee show in August 2007, but we didn’t manage to hook up that time so I was glad to finally meet her.  Fans don’t need to ask fans why we do these things, because it’s understood that we all would see every show if these things didn’t cost a bundle and if we didn’t have lives and kids and jobs to contend with.  Space Station Gamma?  I’m there, just let me stock up on Tang and space food sticks.

The one thing die-hard fans have in common is the impulse to follow the objects of our affections to the ends of the world, but the particulars that draw us to a given band or performer are utterly personal and idiosyncratic and as inexplicable to “normal” people as they are obvious to us.  It might feel to me as if I’ve been adoring Rufus all my life, but my spouse reminded me last night that I tend to move from one musical obsession to another.  Beginning with Harry Nilsson in 1970, followed by Elton John, The Kinks (Ray Davies), Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and then finally Rufus, I have found a chemistry with each person that drove me to explore and cherish their essences and creative productions to the fullest.

The only ones of these artists I’ve been lucky enough to see multiple times were the Kinks and Rufus Wainwright.  Hank Williams died six years before I was born, Harry Nilsson didn’t do live shows and it’s unlikely he would ever have played near Peoria, and my parents vetoed my one chance to see Elton John in his early 70s-heyday.  I caught Leonard Cohen at the Park West in 1994 and Jeff Buckley two nights running at the Green Mill in 1996, the latter of which looked like an outlandish extravagance at the time but which has since been more than validated as a precious, even historic opportunity.

The Kinks I saw more times than I could count, but I roughly estimate I saw about twenty shows.  I chased them to Louisville, Philadelphia, Madison, Milwaukee, and some college town in Indiana that I can’t remember, not to mention many shows in and around Chicago.  So besotted was I with the the band that I waited by the stage door after shows and during sound checks for those tidbits of personal interaction with Ray Davies, often in the company of this woman.  The first time I saw him up close in the lobby of the O’Hare Hilton, I was struck completely dumb with awe, which inspired him to bend down (and down and down) to kiss my cheek.  I lived on that high for days, just as I did the time he scuttled past a group of us starstruck girls into the backstage door of the Uptown, only to return with five glasses and a bottle of champagne.

As much giddy fun as it could be sometimes, a few tours and several uncomfortable experiences down the line it dawned on me the schlepping and waiting around had become a chore.  After all, once you’ve given Ray Davies 40 presents for his 40th birthday, there is really nowhere left to go but down.  Not only had the band’s music become increasingly-heavy handed, but I felt increasingly alienated and self-conscious about the whole process of hustling for acknowledgement from people who clearly didn’t care remotely as much about me as I did about them.  My dear friend was rather upset with me when I opted out, but my heart just wasn’t in it anymore.

Given my position on these matters, I decided early on not to make any effort to meet Rufus.  I never again wanted to see a fantastic concert and feel dejected because I “only” saw the show, so I made sure the show itself was the main event that it deserved to be.  I have never once regretted this, even when Rufus walked right past me on Belmont Avenue after a 2004 show at the Vic when my ride was late.  Had I not been chemo-sick I might at least have mustered a smile, but that’s another story.

Looking over the list of performers I’ve become attached to, I stop to ponder what on earth they all have in common.  Some are outsize personalities like Elton John and Ray Davies, others more subdued like Harry Nilsson, but they all have written memorable songs (Jeff Buckley the least so, but I believe the potential was there).  What Jeff Buckley did have–in spades–was that ability to throw himself into a song and feel the music so intensely that you felt it along with him, just like Rufus.  Watching this kind of performance is the closest thing I know to a religious experience and an orgasm put together, and in all honesty Rufus can be quite the master of the o-face:

He is also smart and funny and does exquisite things with a piano, which is why I can’t help feeling deprived when I’m too far away to catch every detail.  when he announced a February show at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas in 2004, I told myself I would search Ticketmaster just to see what was available, but I wouldn’t buy a ticket because I had no way to go.  When a ticket in the fourth row came up, self-control went out the window and I bought it thinking “I will have to sell this, but you never know.”  When a dear friend offered to pay for my hotel and airfare because I was seriously ill and he was far too kind for his own good, I went.  When you are inbetween your lumpectomy and beginning eight cycles of chemo, to be followed by 30 radiation treatments, you would be a fool not to jump at a chance like that while you knew you still had it.

My mother surely didn’t raise no fool, so there I went.  If you watch the San Francisco Fillmore show DVD packaged with the Want Two CD, you will see a show very much like the one I saw at the Hard Rock just a couple of days before, from my fourth-row seat (stage right, no less).  Rufus opened those shows alone at the piano, singing “L’Absence,” by Berlioz.  I am a jaded old hardass and don’t tear up that easily, but I was just so overwhelmed by the beauty of the song and so grateful to be there after all I had already gone through that I cried and forgot to dread chemo for awhile.

Unfortunately I was unable to find a video clip of the Fillmore performance online, but you can listen to the audio here.  For those of you who simply must have the o-face, here is a August 1 2008 performance from Verbier, Switzerland with Gabriel Kahane at the piano.  When I finally exit this wicked world I would appreciate it if you could make sure this song and “Lost Highway” by Hank Williams are on the playlist, just my way of saying it was worth the trip and then some, partly because these songs exist:

And if by chance you found a pretty blue rhinestone frog by 1928 on the floor after that Las Vegas show (purchased in San Francisco, oddly enough), I wouldn’t mind having it back unless your initials are R.W.

2 Comments so far
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Sweet Dena, thanks for the lovely post – I was (again) very moved! The video from Verbier is dated August 1st and not January 8th (Europeans tend to write dates differently…) and I can proudly say that I was there. You might want to check out the video I made from the other Berlioz song, just look for Hyperufusensitive.

It was truly a religious experience that I know I don’t have to explain to you. Wrote about it on the RWMB, all I could think about while listening to this song was: God, he’s so beautiful. And it felt like a prayer giving thanks from deep inside for a God allowing this divine person to be in the world, in my world on that remarkable evening.

I don’t have the money nor time to follow Rufus around the world. I’ve only seen him 3 times (all this year) and on two of those occasions I’ve spoken to him. Quite a long conversation backstage after a gig in Stockholm (it still gives me goosebumps to think back) and a very brief encounter after Verbier where I’m sure he recognised me. I gave him a handmade silk scarf in Stockholm that he’s been wearing 5 times in public since, on stage and on tv. Did I mention that I love him?

Comment by Sybilla

Sorry, double comment… accidentally put my RWMB-name in there, on YouTube I’m just Hyperufus… I can’t see the video you embedded but if it’s L’Absence, then Gabriel Kahane is on the piano, not Kate!

But then again, it might be ‘Over the Rainbow’ which does have Kate on the piano (and lots of o-faces too :))

Comment by Sybilla

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