16 – Rufus Wainwright: The Art Teacher

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When I first had the idea for this blog, I thought about calling it ‘Dancing About Architecture’, inspired by that oft-repeated phrase: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. It seems that nobody is certain who coined this aphorism, but it’s often infuriatingly true. I clearly have a bloody-minded streak, because I knew it might be an uphill struggle trying to find words for the one art form that frequently leaves me speechless. Music’s canny ability to stop my gob is one of the many things I love about it. I want to be silenced, to reach the tail end of my articulacy. I want to be reminded that music is the most elusive, the most evanescent of all modes of expression; the one that restores us to a kind of pre-linguistic innocence. I’m with Walter Pater: all art should aspire to the condition of music.

I’ve honed and indulged my preference over the years, embracing the fact that my imagination is more auditory than visual. I do enjoy cinema, but from a dabbler’s perspective. One of my favourite ever sequences of film is the opening of Donnie Darko, and I’m convinced that this has more to do with Echo and the Bunnymen than the wide shots of Jake Gyllenhaal pedalling down into suburbia. In the art gallery, however, I have no such aids to understanding. For the first ten minutes through the doors, I’m eager enough. I linger over the explanatory text, and try to think of adjectives. Sometimes a painting even hits me where the words don’t reach. But after half an hour it always becomes a drag. I can’t make any sense of the paintings in their context; my heart wearies at the thought of another room of disembodied artworks, still and silent like dead things in a mausoleum. I’d rather have one landscape on my wall and look at it for two hours every day than push myself through an endless line of pollarded trees and frowsty cloudscapes, none especially connected to the last. I’d rather keep one beautiful portrait over my bed than force myself along an identity parade of dyspeptic aristocrats and picturesque peasants. My issue is with galleries, not painters or paintings; the problem is that I can only really encounter great art in arid rooms festooned with signs and cluttered with other confused people. If only I’d had a formative experience at an impressionable age…

That’s where Rufus Wainwright comes in (he has a habit of interrupting you like that – always wanting to be the centre of attention). I’ve always loved his work, ever since a performance of ‘Foolish Love’ on Later made me sick with jealousy. It’s not a blind faith with me. I find his egocentricity maddening at times. Most of his albums have their fare share of misfires. And then there’s the pizzazz of it all, the Judy Garland stunts and lederhosen and Chelsea Hotel namedropping. All this flamboyance can be fun, but it risks obscuring one inescapable fact: that Wainwright is responsible for some of the most genuinely beautiful songs of the last ten years. Such is the contradictory nature of his art. He often seems happier flashing his rhinestones, as if to keep the diamonds ever purer and harder. ‘The Art Teacher’ is one such diamond; in fact, I’m quite convinced that it’s his most perfect musical statement.  It’s perfect in the way that other sad, wise vignettes are, a cousin to ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’ or ‘She’s leaving home’. It’s perfect because Rufus lets go of his ego and assumes the identity of a disappointed middle-aged woman. It’s perfect because the music and the words are so superbly matched: they exist for each other, giving the song an extraordinary inevitability. No dancing about architecture for Rufus; he makes the marriage of text and sound seem effortless. As with all his best songs (‘Poses’, ‘Dinner at eight’, ‘Nobody’s off the hook’), this is down to his preferred listening matter; it’s unabashedly classical, and looks less to his father or contemporary singer-songwriters than to the Romantic art-song tradition. Wainwright and his producer Marius de Vries claim that the song was inspired by Philip Glass. The rippling piano part does carry a tint of SoHo minimalism, but it’s so much richer. It’s Schubert at MOMA: the closest Rufus has come to his dreamed ambition of writing a modern lied.

The premise is simple. We encounter our antiheroine reminiscing about a schoolgirl crush on her art instructor. She recounts how he took her class to New York’s premier art collection, encouraging his charges to respond to the ‘Rubens and Rembrandts’.  She likes the John Singer Sergeants, and he professes admiration for Turner. Being impressionable and besotted, she claims that in subsequent years she ‘never turned to any other man’.  In the middle eight, we discover that this is quite untrue. ‘All this being said, I married an executive company head’, she confesses; ‘all this having been done…a Turner? I own one!’ But despite marrying into money, she finds herself in a ‘uniformish, pantsuit sort of thing / Thinking of the art teacher’. She has never been fulfilled, and just as Rufus’s idol Judy might have lamented, it’s all because of the man that got away.

Lost love is the meat and marrow of great songwriting, and it’s often at its most powerful at the more hysterical end of the spectrum, but here Wainwright’s lyrics are mostly suggestion and connotation: the music is all. I’m a sucker for downward movement in a song, and here it is the vital motor. ‘There I was in uniform’ starts things off hopefully, on a first inversion of the root chord, a big bright seventh in the vocal; you can imagine that young woman on the verge of adulthood, wide-eyed, stepping intrepidly into the light. But it’s followed by an inexorable swirl of backward steps; the chords find themselves powerless in the face of the past. It’s a sweet sequence, because the memory is still so vivid and familiar, but it’s also a swoon into melancholia. The saddest bit of all is the instrumental passage around two minutes in, when the lonely piano is joined by an even lonelier French horn. It’s the only bit of the mix to have been added on top of the original live performance, but it’s Marius de Vries’ masterstroke, his Englishness in harmony with Rufus’ Tin Pan Alley Dichterliebe. In the British imagination, brass is as longingly nostalgic as any Rachmaninov adagio; it’s drizzle-damp mill-towns and pit villages and Nimrod on Remembrance Day. Good Northerners that they were, The Beatles knew this well, and ‘The Art Teacher’ here claims kinship with one of McCartney’s little miracles, ‘For No One’, with its exquisite Alan Civil solo. When I’m indulging my most saccharine tendencies, that song makes me think of corner shops and the liquorice fields of Pontefract (thanks, John Betjeman) but it’s also a superbly compressed life-story in which the gaps are more important than the presences, another latter-day lied whose wistful, bittersweet tone comes from chords moving irretrievably downwards.

The gaps in ‘The Art Teacher’ are where much of its genius lies. Listen to that first verse, and the way the chord suspends on ‘looking at the art teacher’. It’s knotted with tension, a stumbling block. We sense the subject just can’t ever reach the other side of her obsession, after all these years; she has to brush it aside by reminding us she was ‘just a girl then’, resolving the chord while hinting strongly that it takes great will to do so. It’s even more powerful in the final verse, where the final ‘thinking of the art teacher’ rises dramatically, as if to fully unleash her frustration at last. But there are extra bars, and that final ‘teacher’ is left lingering on the suspension. She’s gritting her teeth, getting her breath back, taking some time out to regain control; it’s an almost unbearable pause, and I fancy I can hear her muttering under her breath, ‘I will not…I will not…I will not’. She recovers herself, but the whole song has led to this point, to these negligible, few seconds. It’s a brief moment containing a whole life, just as the first view of the art teacher, under the low museum lights, has underscored everything she has subsequently felt and done.

‘The Art Teacher’ isn’t completely devoid of Wainwright’s characteristic flourishes. The triumphant ‘A Turner…I own one!’ is emphasised by a glitzy arpeggio run in the piano, the only time the lolling broken chords abate. Here it emphasises only irony, though; it’s a little laugh, wrenched out of the pathos. The showy major chord that ends the song is equally bitter: it’s as if the woman has decided her fidelity to the memory of a crush is something to be proud of, while knowing that it has ruined her. To be grown-up is to cover up; to make the best of a bad lot, to neutralise your delusions as best you can. Rufus’s four-minute yearn is a truly adult song about an apparently juvenile episode. It cuts through the make-up, the clothes, the status and the accrued responsibilities, and finds that in all of us there’s a teenager still trying to make sense of this topsy-turvy world of passions and disappointments.  It’s a musical microscope: a song about ways of seeing that actually has its own clear, penetrating ‘sight’.

My art teachers were uninspiring. I had no mentor to guide me through the canvases. Instead, I have Rufus Wainwright, reminding me that in its own way a great song can be every bit the equal of a Rubens or Rembrandt. As far as contemporary singer-songwriters go, I don’t think I would turn to any other man.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “16 – Rufus Wainwright: The Art Teacher

  1. Still loving this blog, wish i had the time to write such lovely long posts myself… Anyway, thought you might like to know that although he’s never claimed it for himself (not his style) the term ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ was coined by Brian Eno around the time of his Music For Airports phase. Although not to contradict the great man, i have to say the Stockport Viaduct does make me wiggle….

    • Cheers Dean – I’m enjoying your blog too, introducing me to the quirkier recesses of pop history! Well, Brian Eno – as if he weren’t already my hero in about a thousand ways, he’s just gone up yet another notch! By the way, you’re not related to R Dean Taylor, Northern soul favourite, are you?

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