Martha Wainwright’s brutal showbiz childhood
It happens in spurts, first as a backing vocalist to her adored brother Rufus, then playing his early “plaintive and lonely country” songs in Montreal clubs before a reckless love affair with the folksinger Traveling Dan Bern tears up the road.
She’s gleefully candid about having a 6 a.m. ‘hit’ at Stephen Stills’ house as she mingles with Rufus’ Los Angeles ‘sons of’ social group: Adam Cohen, Sean Lennon, Harper Simon, Teddy Thompson … but she soon opposes their male privilege as her own career stagnates in New York.
Again, it’s telling that his breakthrough song is an outburst of rage at feeling ignored and marginalized by dudes. Bloody Motherf—ing Asshole has always been read as a letter to his father, but it is “really about having the end of the stick” in general.
Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House triumphs would come, though Martha’s career arc was more loose cannon than guided missile. An overly playful appetite for recreational substances derails a concert at Glastonbury. On another important day, she wakes up in a mat of dried blood in an apartment the next morning. A physical fight with his mother after a show in London is again the result of alcohol and the accusation of ‘mediocrity’.
If the author regrets having told us these stories, it is perhaps because the family portrait that she paints is characterized above all by a kind of unfailing truth which resembles, from here in cheap armchairs , to cruelty. In an abstract way, it’s admirable. Great art requires brutal honesty and no concessions. But in this remarkable family at least, the toll of broken homes is tragic.
Martha foreshadows her own “bad divorce” on page two. The bitter estrangement of disgruntled bassist and musical director Brad Albetta is described 200 pages later in unsettling detail, the smoke still clearing. “I spent a few years in total darkness,” she wrote. “Turn my face away from the kids so they don’t see me cry after they’ve been mean to me, following their dad’s script.”
It’s hard reading, especially after Kate’s final battle with cancer takes place at exactly the same time as the dangerously premature birth of Martha’s first son. Cue a nightmarish blur of mercy dashes between Montreal and London.
But the surreal way the show plays out – in this case, a magical family Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall a few weeks before Kate’s passing – provides the glow of redemption that somehow manages to overshadow even the cold glow. of the hospital.
It’s the wonder of showbiz. As she regroups for her next act, Martha Wainwright has earned every crumb of her small share of praise. But better read this before wishing it on your own children.