Remembering Kate McGarrigle

Published May 11, 2011

Most people of a certain age learned about Rufus and Martha Wainwright through their famous musical parents. But I, like a lot of younger listeners, discovered the parents through the children. In fact, that’s how I met them.

In early 2001, when I became friends with Rufus, who had just returned to New York City after a stay in Los Angeles and was just wrapping up his second album, I confess I didn’t really know who the McGarrigle Sisters were. Somehow the Canadian duo of Kate and older sister Anna had bypassed my parent’s only semi-obsessive 1960s and ’70s folk-music album collection.

Hanging out with Rufus and Martha, it was clear they came from musical stock; each had the habit, which struck me as deeply perverse, of picking up an instrument that happened to be around, tuning it, and playing it masterfully. Other than that, they were two musicians who didn’t really come from anywhere but downtown Manhattan.

As I got closer to Rufus, spent nights going out with him and days hanging around his hotel rooms, I met his mother. Kate routinely visited from Canada, and there she was appearing in a hotel lobby, or backstage at one of their shows, or at a dinner table in an East Village restaurant that no longer exists. She was just their mom (albeit dressed more exquisitely than most and far more at ease among a group of slightly freakish, sexually ambiguous twenty-somethings). Even at first sight, I remember how much pride and love Kate took in her children. She didn’t baby them; she treated them as adults. But she also hugged them and watched them walk through rooms in a way that revealed how much they mattered to her. The rest of us—Rufus and Martha’s friends—were lucky for her, and in some way, in those years when I saw Rufus and Martha pretty often, Kate generously took her children’s friends as members of her family and made us all feel that we were part of some magnificent, talented, well-liked brood. Even though I’m not certain that Kate ever knew my full name, I did feel for about a year in my mid-twenties that I was an adopted McGarrigle. Her lovely sister Anna often appeared by her side, no less kind or quick witted.

Naturally, I learned about the McGarrigle Sisters. I listened to their music, lectured my parents on how they provincial they were for managing to miss the great act in their day, and noticed the inter-generational similarity in writing styles. The whole family shares the tick of making big, gorgeous pronouncements on love and then filling the lines with personal details. And, Christ, can they all harmonize. No, I was never really a member of the McGarrigle family. I never had those keys.

When Kate passed away in January 2010 from a rare form of cancer, I was heartsick for Rufus and Martha. But they were two kids wonderfully blessed to have had a mother that active and open and essential to their lives. Tonight and tomorrow evening, Rufus and Martha will take the stage, along with a number of other old friends and performers—Teddy Thompson, Justin Bond, Emmylou Harris, Antony Hegarty, and Kate’s sister Anna McGarrigle, among them—at New York’s Townhall for a special tribute to Kate, with proceeds going to the creation of the Kate McGarrigle Sarcoma Research Fund.

What better gift is there to leave the world than music and children? Perhaps musical children, which Kate gave us for sure.