The Art Teacher
In The Disappointment Artist, Jonathan Lethem says that he learned to think by watching his father paint.
I learned about love by listening to my mother sing along with “The Art Teacher” by Rufus Wainwright.
My mother used to play the song at full volume at our little house in the woods and yell along to the lyric:
“Never have I loved since then. Never have I loved ANY OTHER MAN!”
I think it was then. I think it was then that I got the idea into my head that I wanted a lover to shake me so much up that I could never love any other man. (It’s a big fucking shame that it might have happened though—be very careful what you wish for, folks.) I don’t think my mom was actually singing about any particular man. In my mind as a kid though, she was. I liked the passion which my mother yelled with.
In 1973, eleven years before I was born, my mother saw Rufus Wainwright’s mother, the musician Kate Mcgarrigle, at the Buffalo Folkfest. Kate was pregnant with Rufus in her stomach and she was wearing overalls. My mom says that is when her infatuation began.
I remember singing along to “The Art Teacher” with my mom—my mom doing dishes at the kitchen sink, my mom shifting gears while I rode passenger, eating Popsicles side by side on the couch, putting make up on in the bathroom. Singing. Throwing our heads back. “Any other man!” Yelling. Who was this mystery man?
I remember when my mother actually was in love with her art teacher. It was summer and I was fourteen. No, I’m exaggerating. She couldn’t have been in love, no way, just attracted to him. I don’t know, I’ll ask her.
But one afternoon, before she was off to her pastel class, I walked into the bathroom and my mom was pulling her hair back. She looked in the mirror and put one hand up flat, pretending it was a piece of paper and used her right hand to pretend to sketch. Her eyes glanced down and then back up to the mirror a few times. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I want to see what I look like when I draw,” she joked to my friend and I who promptly burst out laughing so hard we had tears in the corners of our eyes.
Another time I was snooping around her email I read some emails that seemed quite risqué but they weren’t from her art teacher. They were from her yoga teacher. I can’t make this stuff up.
“The Art Teacher,” in my opinion, is one of the greatest, yet eeriest, love songs. I’ve played it for a few guys I was dating and they weren’t nearly as impressed as me. Maybe it’s too feminine, too cerebral, too intense. It’s not exactly background music. But It really does it for me. Partly, because it reminds me of my mother. Partly because I love Rufus’s voice, and piano. And then there are the words.
There I was in uniform
Looking at the art teacher
I was just a girl then;
Never have I loved since then
Okay so imagine: Rufus as a young lad, in his school uniform, ogling his sexy art teacher. If that’s not enough to get your blood pumping, I don’t know what is.
I was just a girl then. It’s gorgeous. A grown man calling himself a girl, then. Between his sentences Rufus sucks in these deep and desperate breaths through his teeth. It really adds to the intensity.
He was not that much older than I was
He had taken our class to the Metropolitan Museum
He asked us what our favorite work of art was,
But never could I tell it was him
Oh, I wish I could tell him –
Oh, I wish I could have told him
Rufus. As a boy. Wearing his school uniform. Lusting after his art teacher, at The Met. Regrets. Words unsaid.
I looked at the Rubens and Rembrandts
I liked the John Singer Sargents
He told me he liked Turner
Never have I turned since then
No, never have I turned to any other man
Rufus likes John Singer Sargents. And beautiful play on words: Turner, turned to.
(Piano break here.)
All this having been said,
I married an executive company head
All this having been done, a Turner – I own one
Here I am in this uniformish, pant-suit sort of thing,
Thinking of the art teacher
I was just a girl then;
Never have I loved since then
No, never have I loved any other man
Ouch. I just think it’s so concise. We can never have that one lover we want. We end up with someone totally different from them. But they haunt us. It’s a ton of ground to cover in three minutes and fifty-one seconds.
As a sixteen or seventeen year old, I picked up on the Turner thing. Rufus bought a painting by an artist he didn’t love because the man he loved that he couldn’t have loved it. It broke my heart.
Listening to it in the car once, I said to my mom, “Do you get that?” She said, “no what,” and I explained to her the lyric and she praised my observance.
A few years ago I was sitting with a man I loved in my mother’s living room. It was the first time he came to my childhood house. We made coffee in a little pot though it was almost evening. It was fall. We were alone. My mother has a good music collection and we decided to each choose a love song to play for one another. He chose “Man In The Shed” by Nick Drake. You know what I choose. He was quiet while listening to it, sipping his coffee. This whole scene somehow now makes me want to cry.
“Do you get it?” I pressed. “Do you like it? Are you listening?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Pantsuit sorta thing! Never loved any other man! Jesus Christ.”
After doing some research, it turns out that I’ve been taking the song too literally. According to most people, Rufus thought it would be fun to write a song from the perspective of a schoolgirl. I still like to think he is talking about himself. That’s the beauty of songs, though, the beauty of books, the beauty of interpretation. We can choose to interpret things in the way that make us feel the least alone, or the way that entertains us most. I like songs like “The Art Teacher” which, I feel like I’ve read a story. I’ve been sucked into this child’s life—this child that turns into an adult with a broken heart. I feel like I’ve listened to a well-written essay wherein I was given the creative freedom to fill in my own gaps.
I drove around yesterday singing along fervently with Rufus. I was in a weird mood. I was overwhelmed. I was panicked. I was manic. I went to the dump to drop stuff off and then I drove around belting the song over and over and then I laid down in a graveyard and sort of prayed even though I don’t know how to pray. I left the door open to my car and let Rufus’s voice stream at full volume from the speakers. I didn’t know what I wanted. But I knew I was thirsty. I knew I was sad. I knew I wanted to fall in love with an art teacher. I knew I wanted my mother.
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