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Keeping Up

Nearly 20 years after his death, Arthur Russell finally gets the biography he deserves

Jess Harvell

By Jess Harvell | Posted 12/2/2009

In 2001, info on Arthur Russell--the nearly forgotten disco/folk/minimalist auteur just then being reintroduced to the post-rave generation via retro-focused compilations such as Strut's 2000 Disco (Not Disco)--was hen's teeth scarce. Hunting across the 'net, you could find exactly one biographical article online, a posthumous appreciation by David Toop lurking in the archives of The Wire magazine. The details of Russell's life seemed lost to the world of microfiche. And yet now, at the tail end of 2009, we have disco historian Tim Lawrence's definitive-as-can-be Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (Duke University Press), following an extensive Russell reissue campaign from multiple record labels, a fat sheaf of journalistic reappraisals, and a 2008 documentary, Wild Combination. So what happened in the intervening eight years?

Russell is now routinely tagged as one of the premier musicians of the 1980s, at least in quasi-underground circles. His tardy ascension to the late-20th-century pop-musical canon may be a case of the right reissue campaign at the right time. As the first half of the aughts dragged on, a context finally developed for Russell's mix of DJ-led abandon and conservatory-reared minimalism. Decades after it "died," its unfairly bruised rep guarded by the house-music generation who inherited its sound and values, disco became, well, cool among the hipsterati. Russell's strange cello-defined timbres, vocal experiments, and riotous layers of rhythm offered the final proof for certain stuffed-shirts that disco could be personal and unpredictable, despite its unfortunate, undeserved, and lingering punchline status as assembly-line industry product.

But one doesn't, after all, write a 300-page biography of an obscure artist because something of as ephemeral and empty as "coolness." That kind of heavy-lifting requires the devotion of a convert. And for once, in a publishing industry glutted with near-illiterate bios of worthless hacks, we have a worthy study of an artist deserving of the full-book treatment. It's not just Russell's range that makes him "important." He worked with some of the most formally restrictive music on earth--disco, folk, minimalism--and exploded the template each time out, producing some of the most idiosyncratic records of the last 40 years. And if that still seems too dry and academic a reason for all this rapturous praise, there's always Russell's voice, one of the most beautiful and awkward instruments God ever blessed a biped with, capable of great humor, but more likely to rend your heart through a simple longing sigh.

Thanks to Lawrence's scrupulous efforts as interviewer and historian and critic, Dreams is the most fully realized portrait of Russell-the-man that fans have yet seen. Good thing, too, because Russell's 21st-century beatification has threatened to turn him into some kind of musical idiot-savant, holy fool, or empty vessel to be filled with post-facto critical interpretations. It's true, especially as fleshed out by Dreams, that Russell was obsessed with music to sometimes the point of forgoing the basic necessities of life. But as told through Russell's own words--and the words of his family, friends, and colleagues--Lawrence's book offers a Russell with multiple dimensions: dreamy and obsessed, yes, but also venal, petty, caring, wounded, self-doubting, generous, and funny. In other words, a human being, just one who happened to make some of strangest and most enduring music of a fallow era.

Lawrence's book is especially good at setting the scene for Russell's oddball version of success in the late '70s and early '80s; the word "disco" barely appears until about a third of the way through the text. Instead, Dreams provides a tender, rounded portrait of the confused, creative, and shiftless kid who grew up stifled in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he turned to drugs and music in order to escape. There's a great aside where Russell, whose parents had been music aficionados of the respectable post-jazz sort you'd expect in the late '50s and early '60s, attempts to "reprogram" his mom and dad by playing them the Rolling Stones at near-inaudible volume as they slept. That's the kind of witty, humanizing attention to detail that gives Lawrence's book its depth and charm. Likewise its look at one of the murkiest periods in Russell's history, when he ran away from home as a teenager, cello in hand, and made his way to a San Francisco commune specializing in Far Eastern religion. Rather than treat the commune period as another odd blip in the life of a mercurial man, Lawrence delves into the commune's stringent self-reliance doctrines, showing how they both "saved" the wannabe teen-delinquent Russell from himself and propelled him on the journey that would make him the left-field prince of New York clubland.

Things really take off, for both the book and for Russell, after our hero arrives in the Big Apple at the dawn of the grim, economically shitty '70s. As the book's subtitle suggests, Lawrence's putative Russell bio is also an excellent (if understandably condensed) mini-history of the post-Cageian New York avant-garde. Russell was the creative director at the Kitchen, a crucial venue in the period for bringing together composers and musicians with no conservatories or patrons to call their own, and it was at the Kitchen that Russell first began to tweak noses with his offhand mixing of high art and low pop. And despite his obvious pro-Russell bias, Lawrence gives equal voice to the mixed reactions and ruffled feathers after Russell invited Jonathan Richman to play a stand at the Kitchen, or when Russell debuted his composition "Instrumentals," which mixed forms such as bubblegum rock and symphonic soul into the slowly revolving movements of Phillip Glass-ian minimalism. If Lawrence occasionally stumbles, turning to dry list-making when attempting to convey the scope of Russell's cross-genre collaborations--he has a tendency to list every single collaborator on a given project, even when they number in the dozens, when end notes would have sufficed--he's especially good at describing Russell's in-studio working methods in vivid, non-technical language. He also proves himself to be an adroit interpreter of Russell's lyrics, probably the least discussed aspect of Russell's music, lyrics which fascinatingly mixed oblique formalist poetry with erotically charged disco double-entendres and plainspoken, almost Nashville-ian pop songwriting.

But great musical bios are more about tracing human relationships than history lessons or hard-core criticism, and perhaps that's why the book's portraits of Russell's romantic and familial struggles, and their intersection with his work, are its most moving portions, but also its most frustrating. Again and again, we encounter a Russell so maddeningly focused on music qua music that you almost want to shake him, as you imagine his friends and colleagues often wanted to shake him, as he continually comes this close to "fame" only to blow away his chances with both barrels of his own fear and indifference. He receives a commission to score a Robert Wilson opera, a coup for any young composer, and we watch the collaboration grind to a passive-aggressive halt, with Glass eventually saving the job. He joins a new wave band on the come-up, only to bail on the group's tour plans literally just before the van reaches the Lincoln Tunnel. He refuses to record some of his most crucial work; at other times, he rerecords and re-rerecords tracks so many times that DJs and record labels don't know what to do with the chaotic end results. He twice misses a chance to become famed producer John Hammond Sr.'s "next Bob Dylan" or "next Bruce Springsteen." At one point, Russell's parents estimate they sent him around $40,000 over the years to follow the muse.

But despite his sometimes career-torpedoing quirks, the Russell that emerges from his own and others' words is an essentially admirable man, a soul who never stopped questing after the kind of music that could truly move people, that could unite them emotionally and intellectually and spiritually. He sought a music that could do it all, and was beloved for it by colleagues, friends, family, and now a wider listenership than ever before. A good man's untimely death is always heartbreaking, but it's the quality of his music that made Russell's death at age of 40 from AIDS-related complications in 1992 so especially painful. If his was a quest without an end, well, at least it could have at least gone on for another 30 or 40 years.

Thankfully, we've still got an ever-widening body of Russell's work by which to celebrate him. If you've never heard Russell before, your two must-purchases are 2004's "greatest hits" compilation The World of Arthur Russell and World of Echo, his almost painfully fragile 1986 solo album for voice and cello. Like the best music-related biographies, Lawrence's book provides necessary critical interpretation for this music, which can be too easily dismissed as ineffable, beyond analysis. But more importantly, Lawrence illuminates the head and heart from which the music sprang. Finishing Hold On to Your Dreams, it's hard not to fall a little in love with the fallible human who produced this otherworldly sound, and to lament his early passing all the harder.

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