The Transmutational Music of Arthur Russell

Wild Combination film posterSometimes a figure in popular music will develop a small cult following but never crack the mainstream market because their music is unclassifiable…or as some critics like to say, “ahead of their time.” But what does that mean anyway? Is it too experimental in nature or lacking an easy access point for first time listeners? Or it is simply a matter of underexposure that keeps it from becoming recognized as something truly progressive and unique? A perfect example of this is Arthur Russell, the subject of Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008), an intimate and moving look at an influential figure in New York City’s music scene in the ’70s and ’80s who is finally acquiring the reputation of a musical visionary more than 30 years after his heyday.  musician/composer Arthur RussellI had never heard of Arthur Russell until 2006 when I was sampling some music and downloaded two songs (“A Little Lost” and “Treehouse”) based on a critic’s choice column in the New York Times. I was immediately struck by the music – an electric cello and a solo singer’s voice encased in an echo chamber and rendered with a crazy kind of urgency.  It was a light, ethereal and slightly plaintive voice that flowed like a direct communique from the singer’s soul coupled with his unpredictable phrasing and shifts in rhythm. Assuming Russell was some new discovery on the New York City music scene, I did an internet search and was stunned to discover that Russell had died of AIDS in 1992. “A Little Lost,” in fact, was released posthumously in 1993 on the album Another Thought (issued on Philip Glass’s Point Blank label) yet it sounded fresh and contemporary in the way any extraordinary music does the first time you hear it.   Another Thought, album by Arthur RussellI became fascinated by his music and, in the process of discovering it, was introduced to Russell’s take on various musical genres from avant-garde experimentation to country-folk to disco to electronica; he touched on all of it, creating something new during his brief but amazingly versatile career. “Get Around to It,” “This is How We Walk on the Moon,” “You Can Make Me Feel Bad,” “Is It All Over My Face?,” “That’s Us/Wild Combination” and more are still in heavy rotation in my music library.  musician/composer Arthur RussellSo who was Arthur Russell? Just your average farm boy/teenage runaway from the Midwest (He fled Oskaloosa, Iowa at the age of 18 after a repressive and unhappy high school experience). He headed for San Francisco and landed in a Buddist commune where he became an accomplished cello player after studying at both the Ali Akbar College of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Chuck and Emily Russell, the parents of musician Arthur Russell, in the 2008 documentary, Wild Combination

Chuck and Emily Russell, the parents of musician Arthur Russell, in the 2008 documentary, Wild Combination

Of course, there was nothing really average about Russell and Wild Combination is refreshing in that it doesn’t deify the man but presents him as he was – complex, talented, possibly brilliant, a workaholic, and sometimes frustrating and difficult to deal with on a professional level. Most viewers of the film will already be rooting for Russell as the underdog most likely to succeed after witnessing high school-era photographs of him with his face erupting in a worst-case acne scenario. High school was bad enough for most of us but going through the indignity of having your face and body deeply scarred by an adolescent skin condition would put a dent in anyone’s self esteem, not to mention struggling with issues of self-identity and feeling out of sync with most of your peer group. It’s no wonder that Arthur retreated into himself, preferring to spend most of his time alone. It’s that inward reflection that would later be projected back through his music in an almost transcendental way.  musician Arthur RussellThrough found footage, performance clips and interviews with his family and friends, Arthur’s story becomes increasingly fascinating after he arrives in San Francisco and ends up working with Allen Ginsberg, accompanying him on cello while Ginsberg reads or sings his poems. Matt Wolf’s documentary zips through the San Francisco years quickly and a sense of mystery clings to this period in Russell’s life due to a lack of details. There are hints here and there of his developing experimentation with music such as live performances with the Angels of Light, an off shoot of the Cockettes, at the Psychedelic Venus Church in Berkeley. You can barely see Arthur in the below photo but that’s him with his cello on the far left.

Arthur Russell and his cello can barely be seen at the far left in this image of a performance by The Cockettes

Arthur Russell and his cello can barely be seen at the far left in this image of a performance by Angels of Light.

Wild Combination really begins to hum when Arthur arrives in New York City in 1973 and within a year has landed the position of director at The Kitchen, an arts collective founded in 1971 that was dedicated to presenting new video, music, dance, performance, film and literature. Over the next two decades, Arthur crosses paths and collaborates with almost every major figure in the NYC arts scene. Here are just a few: David Byrne (they were in a band together called The Flying Hearts and made an album recorded by John Hammond), Ernie Brooks of The Modern Lovers, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Philip Grass, DJ Larry Levan of the legendary Paradise Garage, French DJ Francois Kevorkian (considered one of the forefathers of “house music”), Jah Wobble (bass player for Public Limited Ltd), Bootsy Collins and avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson, their one-time collaboration on a version of Medea ended disastrously with Russell being barred from the theatre and sneaking in to try and view it from the stage rafters. It’s as if Arthur is the real role model for Woody Allen’s Zelig. He’s always at the right place at the right time in New York’s underground culture.

Ernie Brooks, former member of The Modern Lovers, is one of the interviewees in the 2008 documentary, Wild Combination.

Ernie Brooks, former member of The Modern Lovers, is one of the interviewees in the 2008 documentary, Wild Combination.

All of this must have been more than baffling for his conservative Iowa parents who never understood their son but are obviously proud and protective of his legacy; their memories of Arthur offer some of the more poignant moments in the doc. The one person, though, who probably perceived Arthur’s unique gifts from the beginning was his longtime companion Tom Lee, who offers a candid, clear-eyed account of their life together (Lee would go to a daily job to pay the bills while Arthur would work on his music all day). It’s like a male variation on that legendary couple, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Lee has proven to be a much valued torchbearer of the Russell legend, saving and preserving all of Arthur’s recordings which includes hundred of hours of tape and cassettes, many of which have been recently released due to the growing Russell cult.

Musician Arthur Russell (left) and his companion Tom Lee (center) from the 2008 documentary Wild Combination.

Musician Arthur Russell (left) and his companion Tom Lee (center) from the 2008 documentary Wild Combination.

In the liner notes to the compilation Love is Overtaking Me, Lee writes “The lyrics of Arthur’s songs often express his memories and observations combined with thoughts of love and hope. He accomplishes that with both tenderness and humor. His notebooks are filled with such phrases and ideas gleaned from his walks around NYC, bits of conversations overheard at a restaurant, kids playing on the street, catchphrases from advertisements, and dialogue from news and television programs. As they developed into songs I was always listening for those heartfelt thoughts of his. Ultimately he was trying to express just that in one of his last songs, “Love Comes Back.” He could sit for hours at the keyboard trying out different vocal combinations, gently singing…”  Arthur Russell: Love is Overtaking MeIn David Toop’s landmark survey of ambient music, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sounds and Imaginary Worlds, the author (who appears in Wild Combination) wrote that Arthur “used sound relationships rather than electronic effects to create wonderfully strange music” and his quote from the musician reveals why the disco music Russell created was so unlike anything else heard on club dance floors. “If you try to do something different in dance music,” Russell states, “you just get branded as an eccentric. Maybe I am an eccentric, I don’t know, but it’s basically a very simple idea. I like music with no drums, too. Partly, I guess, from listening to drums so much. When you hear something with no drums it seems very exciting. I always thought that music with no drums is successive to music with drums. New music with no drums is like this future where they don’t have drums any more. In outer space, you can’t take your drums – you take your mind.”

Arthur Russell playing his cello by the lake in Iowa.

Arthur Russell playing his cello by the lake in Iowa.

Since Arthur Russell’s death in 1992 (which the media and music industry barely noticed at the time), his legend has grown in leaps and bounds due to the wealth of great writings about his work. In Sasha Frere-Jones’ memorable 2004 essay “Let’s Go Swimming” [the title of a Russell song] for The New Yorker, he wrote, “Russell’s work is stranded between lands real and imagined: the street and the cornfield; the soft bohemian New York and the hard Studio 54 New York; the cheery bold strokes of pop and the liberating possibilities of abstract art. Arthur Russell didn’t dissolve these borders so much as wander past them, humming his own song.”  Go Bang single by Arthur RussellAndy Battaglia’s essay for Slate in March of 2004 was titled “Disco Fever: Arthur Russell was famous in his day; what happened?” One of the more telling paragraphs read, “Russell made disco strange but also profoundly moving. The different elements of his tracks always sound like they’re meeting for the first time, maybe without makeup and sometimes in a mood. They interact, circle around, size each other up. That habit is uncommon to the well-connected funk and soul components of aboveground disco, but it’s just as unusual in the gawky underground stuff. What makes it all go down swimmingly is the easy agitation of Russell’s musical mind. He was unusual for making dance music sound remarkably casual and organic, but he was more unusual for the way he made its working parts – bass lines and drum beats – sound so intensely personal.”   musician Arthur RussellAnd although this PR-flavored plug from Rolling Stone might be somewhat misleading, it is a just an analogy: “If Nick Drake had lived long enough to make records with New Order, they might have sounded something like this.”  World of Echo albumThere have been regular revivals of Russell’s music since his passing in 1992. Here are just a few: The 2000 Soul Jazz compilation Disco Not Disco, a 2001 re-issue of Russell’s World of Echo and the 2004 releases, The World of Arthur Russell and Calling Out of Context. There is an excellent and thoroughly researched biography from University of East London professor Tim Lawrence entitled Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1972-92 (Duke University Press) that was published in 2009. The box set 24->24 was released in 2011 and his music figures prominently in the 2012 gay-themed indie Keep the Lights On which includes Russell’s “Your Motion Says,” “Close My Eyes” and “Goodbye Old Paint.” The Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary How to Survive a Plague spotlights “Soon to Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See,” “Keeping Up” (with Jennifer Warnes as co-vocalist), “That’s Us/Wild Combination” and the poignant “Come to Life.” And in 2014, Yep Roc released a cover compilation entitled Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. And the revival continues so is this the third, fourth or fifth coming of Arthur Russell?

Arthur Russell in his New York studio apartment making music

Arthur Russell in his New York studio apartment making music

If any of this article has peaked your interest in the musician/composer, then Wild Combination is the best way to experience this once unsung original from the 20th century who is still with us in sound and soul.

*This is a revised and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog.

musician Arthur RussellOther website of interest: Official movie web site





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