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The Small World of Canadian Music: Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Ripple Creative Strategy No Comments

By James Sandham

The music world – let alone that sub-sphere known as the Canadian music world – can be an extremely small place. Six degrees of separation can easily become four, even three or two. Take the example of Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley. While both men came from renowned musical lineages (Wainwright being the son of folk singers Kate McGarrigle, a two-time JUNO Award winner, and Grammy Award-winning Loudon Wainwright III; and Buckley being the son of his famous father Tim), they were born in separate decades (Wainwright in ’73 and Buckley in ’66) and on opposite sides of the continent (Rhinebeck, New York, and Anaheim, California, respectively).

Wainwright’s parents would divorce when he was three, and he would then move to Montreal with his mother, where he spent most of his youth. Wainwright was touring by the age of 13 with The McGarrigle Sisters and Family, a folk group featuring him, his mother, his aunt, Anna, and his sister, Martha. Buckley, on the other hand, was moving around Orange County at that time, an upbringing he referred to as “rootless trailer trash.” He graduated high school and moved to Hollywood at the age of 19, and spent the next six years working in hotels while playing guitar in various struggling bands.

Nonetheless, the two men’s lives were fated to cross, and that happened in 1996, when both found themselves living in New York City. By this time, Buckley was already an established musician, having released his Live at Sin-é EP in 1993 and his Grace LP in 1994, and had toured internationally to promote them. Wainwright, on the other hand, was just an up-and-comer.

What developed was a feud that now features in most commentaries on the two men. Ostensibly, it came about through Wainwright’s jealousy – he was thrice denied the opportunity to play at Sin-é, the East Village music venue where Buckley regularly performed among the likes of Sinéad O’Connor, Marianne Faithfull and Allen Ginsberg. Wainwright, known for his emotional virtuosity, took this putative slight to heart.

From this initially cool rapport, however, grew a brief but now almost legendary relationship, due to Wainwright later immortalizing it in song. The two men met again in 1997 at a show where Wainwright was performing, and Buckley reportedly helped him overcome some technical issues. They had beers afterward, over the course of which Wainwright is said to have revised his initial enmity. As Patrick Zimmerman has written, he recognized in Buckley “another beautiful boy blessed with more than mere attitude and exhibitionism.”

Tragically, that beautiful boy would die a few months later, his life ending in May 1997, of accidental drowning in Memphis, Tennessee’s Wolf River Harbour. Wainwright would go on to memorialize their short relationship in his 2004 song “Memphis Skyline,” lamenting that he “always hated him for the way he looked/In the gaslight of the morning” but “then came Hallelujah sounding like Ophelia” – a reference to Buckley’s heartfelt cover of “Hallelujah,” considered by Rolling Stone to be one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Wainwright would later cover the song himself, providing a stirring interpretation of what has become, since its 1984 inception, a contemporary classic, and drawing yet another Canadian musician into this story: “Hallelujah” writer, Leonard Cohen. Wainwright’s interpretation, described as “liturgical” and bespeaking purity, would eventually be featured on the soundtrack to the film Shrek, thus weaving yet another Canadian voice into the saga, Scarborough-born actor Mike Myers, who voiced the movie’s eponymous lead character.

Yes, it’s a small world indeed. And that’s where today’s dose of serendipitous Canadian trivia ends. It goes to show that often, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Especially in this tiny world. And especially in Canada.

Video: “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright

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