Song of the Day #299: ‘California’ – Rufus Wainwright

posesThree years later, in 2001, Wainwright released his second album, Poses. I remember buying the CD during a trip to San Francisco and listening to it for the first time on headphones in our hotel room. An unaccompanied man buying a Rufus Wainwright album in San Francisco — that’s probably the most conspicuously gay thing I’ve done apart from watching Brokeback Mountain alone in Coconut Grove. And sleeping with that guy that time…

Poses shed a lot of the baroque instrumentation of Wainwright’s debut album in favor of a more polished pop sound. Not that it is mainstream by any stretch… his trademark strings and cabaret backing vocals are present on most tracks.

My favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite Wainwright songs period, is the soaring title track, a mournful look at the comedown from a life of superficiality and excess.

All these poses of classical torture
Ruined my mind like a snake in the orchard
I did go from wanting to be someone
Now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue

I passed over ‘Poses’ as my Song of the Day because the studio version isn’t available on the Web and none of the live versions measure up to the majesty of that one. It’s an absolute triumph of production and performance that I consider downright perfect.

But today’s song, ‘California,’ is no slouch. It’s a fun and feisty bit of guitar pop about The Golden State inspired by a party Wainwright attended in Hollywood. He was amused that the high-rollers served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and he crushed on a boy who wound up streaking the party, two details that find a place in these lyrics.

I love the reference to Wainwright’s youth: “Up north freezing, little me drooling, ‘That’s Entertainment’s on at eight, ‘Come on, Ginger, slam!'” I can just picture that little kid enjoying those dance moves, dreaming of a life under the lights.

We also have a reference to the late Bea Arthur, who (the story goes) was a hero for young Rufus, a woman he liked to think of as his TV grandma. When he met her in Los Angeles and told her that, she reportedly replied “I’m not your fucking grandmother!” Gotta love Bea Arthur.

California, California
You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed
Big time rollers, part time models
So much to plunder
That I think I’ll sleep instead

I don’t know this sea of neon
Thousands suffer, whiffs of freon
And big nights back east with Rhoda
California please

There’s a moment
I’ve been saving
A kind of crucifix around this munchkin land
Up north freezing, little me drooling
‘That’s Entertainment’s on at eight
Come on, Ginger, slam

I don’t know this sea of neon
Thousand surfers, whiffs of freon
And my new grandma Bea Arthur
Come on over

Ain’t it a shame that at the top
Peanut butter and jam they served you?
Ain’t it a shame that at the top
Still those soft skin boys can bruise you?
Yes, I fell for a streaker

I don’t know this sea of neon
Thousand surfers, whiffs of freon

Ain’t it a shame
That all the world can’t enjoy your mad traditions?
Ain’t it a shame that all the world
Don’t got keys to their own ignitions?
Life is the longest death in California

You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed
So much to plunder that I think I’ll sleep instead
You’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed
So much to plunder that I think I’ll sleep instead

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #299: ‘California’ – Rufus Wainwright

  1. Amy says:

    Why would Bea Arthur have to be so mean? Wow. That makes me sad.

    I like this song, though you’ve got me very much wanting to hear the “perfect” Poses. Not that it will live up to the hype πŸ˜‰ Meanwhile, the video fascinates me. He reminds me a bit of David Sedaris, in that he could easily have been just that guy you know, and, instead, he’s “made it” and unleashed all that quirkiness in front of the world.

  2. Clay says:

    I think Bea was kidding, but maybe not.

  3. Dana says:

    This, along with Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, are amongst my favorites of Rufus.

  4. pegclifton says:

    I really like this song a lot!

  5. Amy says:

    Wow; this is some freaky sort of love fest. I’m sure tomorrow will bring the adjustment that just has to be coming πŸ™‚

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