Talk to Me of Mendocino

Most people my age or younger have likely heard of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright some time in the last fifteen years, perhaps even heard his music. Fewer probably know he is the child of critically acclaimed singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle (of the sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, who wrote the Linda Ronstadt hit “Heart Like a Wheel” among other lovely songs).

Out of that group, likely fewer still have actually heard his parents’ work. I personally tend to stay away from Loudon’s music, mainly because I don’t connect with his subject matter in any substantial way, and to a small but significant extent because by all accounts he was terrible to Kate (they were divorced long before Kate died), to Rufus in large part due to Rufus being gay, and to Rufus’s sister Martha—all of which makes it hard to really care when Loudon sings about his personal manpain. Of course there are times when one can separate an artist’s work from their personal life, but probably not when that artist’s personal life is the content of their art. Even now that Loudon is quite old and Kate dead for a few years, it’s clear he’s not fully comfortable with his gay son, which is extremely disappointing.

Kate and Anna on the other hand produced deeply emotional, beautiful music, and when Kate died relatively young a few years ago, it was a huge loss to Anna, Rufus, and Martha.

“Talk to Me of Mendocino” was a song written by Kate about yearning for a place, a home, an escape. The specific place here happens to be the gorgeous vistas of the Northern California coast, which appeals to me greatly for many personal reasons, but “Mendocino” could be about any place, or any person you are longing for.

The two videos below complement each other: The first is a performance of “Mendocino” from the 1980s or 1990s, with Kate on the piano and Anna providing harmony with Karen Matheson. The second video, recorded about a year or two after Kate’s death, features Anna on the piano. She doesn’t sing one note: Rufus and Martha provide the vocals.

I’ve watched these videos separately before, but recently I watched them back to back and had tears in my eyes for pretty much the entire duration of the second video. Everything is gut-wrenching, from how much more fragile Anna looks at the piano, her slower and mournful piano playing, the shocking white of her hair; the obvious sadness in Rufus and Martha’s voices, the way they rock their heads between phrases similar to how Anna does when she sings, the way they both look so much like both their parents when they were young (I used to think Martha looked more like Loudon, but now I’m not so sure); and the way their voices have the signatures of their parents, both the nasal, grainy warmth of Kate’s voice and Loudon’s piercing, sharp tones.

The first video gives the song a more hopeful feel, with the sunnier, sparkling tones provided by the guitar and bass and Kate’s faster piano playing; the slower speed and starker/cleaner tones of the second gives you more space for introspection and catharsis. Both are lovely.

Enjoy. 🙂


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