Arthur Russell: Eccentric, avant-garde musical combos

By Peter Valelly

As someone who nurtured adolescent dreams of writing about rock stars moreso than about becoming one, I’ve often pondered the distinction between “critic” and “fan.” It’s an unfair and fuzzy distinction, to be sure, but valuable for parsing certain listening tendencies. For the critic, music is a subject for contemplation and cogitation, for pondering the interrelation between big ideas, historical movements, social energy, lyricism, and the sumptuous plastic qualities of pure sound. For the fan, it’s about awe and adoration, the surrender of self, mind, and body to pure sonic bliss. If anything, in fact, the rituals of the fan were probably those through which most of us “critic” types first experienced music and which are now forbidden to us thanks to our overwrought approach.At its best, though, a musical obsession brings both tendencies to their complete fever pitch, as fascination and personal infatuation with a musician combines with a rabid compulsion to memorize not only their biography, the names and release dates of all of their records, but every imaginable detail about the musical and historical confluence which brought their music into being.

A musical crush can be a dizzying experience, and especially for someone who aspires to write about music for a living, it feels vaguely irresponsible to let a single artist dominate 80 percent of my music listening time for a year or more. Yet when one of these periods ends, I tend to believe it’s the last obsession of it’s kind for me, that my interests are drifting, that I’m outgrowing my fervor and passion for music. This is how I felt last fall and winter, when little that I was listening to really seemed to excite me.

Then, however, I found myself sucked into the most intense fixation of my life. The subject-Arthur Russell-seemed improbable not because of my own musical interests, but simply in terms of his own existence. The most concise way to explain him, I’ve found, is through the knotty, cumbersome, and mostly preposterous phrase “gay avant-garde disco cellist.”

It’s an accurate description, and biographically, Arthur Russell is certainly a fascinating figure. A small-town boy turned openly gay aesthete-savant, he went from a rural Iowa childhood to a spiritually revelatory stint in commune-addled California and finally to the decaying but culturally explosive cityscape of punk and disco New York. He enjoyed a fling with Allen Ginsburg, lived in the same E 12th St. apartment complex as Richard Hell, cavorted with downtown art scenesters, and played with members of the Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads between his own inspired, idiosyncratic outpourings of musical genius.

The records themselves, however, infinitely outstrip the awe-inspiring history that brought them into being. Classically trained on cello, Russell moved to New York to become involved with modern musical avant-gardists. But after his arrival in the city, Russell found himself exposed to the early-mid-70s rumblings of the gay, Black, and Latino disco subculture. Enthralled by disco’s joy-in-repetition physicality, Russell threw himself full force into the scene. He churned out classic dance tracks under alter egos like Dinosaur L, Indian Ocean, and, most famously, Loose Joints, whose “Is It All Over My Face?”-its titular inquiry prompting the raucous crowd response “Hell yeah!”-remains a house and garage classic to this day.

Disco is body music, and abides by the distinction critics like Simon Reynolds have drawn between “song” and “track.” A rock song is a story that you read and cherish, while a dance track is a computer program to which you surrender all control. A song wants to get to know you, while a track already knows how you work. Russell’s dance music work, while delightfully idiosyncratic, fully obeys the functionalism of the track. As Russell’s disco and new wave cohorts moved out or on to different projects, however, he began to record more personal, pop-influenced home recordings at the apartment he shared with boyfriend Tom Lee. The results-collected on the incomparably perfect LP “World of Echo,” 1992’s “Another Thought,” and posthumous compilations like “Calling Out of Context” and last year’s “Love Is Overtaking Me”-gleefully confound the distinctions between song and track, and between disco, avant-garde classical, pop, and folk.

1986’s “World of Echo”-easily my favorite and most intimately cherished full-length of all time-is not so much the linear journey through time served up by most pop and rock records, but instead is closer to Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”: an incomplete exploration of a freshly imagined musical space, an introduction to possibilities and potentialities which may never fully take shape but which nonetheless convulse and tremble with the shock of the new. In the strange one-minute opener “Tone Bone Kone,” plaintive, haunting vocals smear and struggle their way through cavernous washes of cello feedback that ultimately give way to convulsive thumps and squeaks ricocheting and multiplying. “She’s the Star/I Take This Time” and the nine-minute “Soon-to-Be-Innocent Fun/Let’s See” take these convulsive beats and oceanic vocals and carve from them a sort of urgent pop pathos, while “Being It,” with its proto-shoegaze cavern of cello feedback, is triumphant and serene, a gorgeous blissout. “Hiding Your Present from You” and “All Boy All Girl” radiate an almost childlike innocence from their throbbing and whirring lower registers and wide-eyed falsetto vocals.

Yet “World of Echo” is also a remarkably dark record. The potent physicality of its rhythms and and the fragility and loneliness of Russell’s genderless, indistinct upper-register vocals suggest, if anything, an inversion of disco. If Russell’s disco tracks seek to disperse a single musically imagined body across a dance floor of real living, breathing, and sweating ones, then the deterioration, decay and isolation of “World of Echo” seem to foretell the real physical fate of the entire generation of gay, black, and Latino communities whose disco sanctuary collapsed with the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

Russell himself was diagnosed as HIV positive shortly after the release of “World of Echo,” and his later bedroom recordings echo that album’s sense of despair, but also evince a shimmering positivity and tranquility. “Keeping Up” must be one of the greatest songs about falling in love ever written, a serene paean to the process of “getting to know what you like/ and what you love.” “A Little Lost” is another heart-in-throat gush of emotion, with Russell warbling, “I’m so busy, so busy thinkin’ bout/ kissing you/ and now I wanna do that/ without entertaining another thought.”

Russell’s later dance tracks are great as well. “In the Light of the Miracle” is thirteen minutes of tantric joy, its oceanic rhythms and shimmering guitars welded to disco-funk horns to form a narcotic bliss-rush which out-psychedelicizes almost anything made since. “Let’s Go Swimming (Arthur Gibbons Mix),” meanwhile, refixes one of the loneliest and eeriest tracks on “World of Echo” into a hyper-rhythmic electro-funk masterpiece overflowing with ecstatic dancefloor vibes.

Last year’s compilation “Love is Overtaking Me” shows off the largely unheard folk-pop side of Russell’s home demos, though glorious songs like “Don’t Forget About Me” and “The Letter” also sound like mutations of new wave. The title track, meanwhile, is among Russell’s greatest achievements, a sparkling pop gem which demands hundreds of listens yet never exhausts itself.

And this is the question that remains for me, as a full-blown Arthur Russell addict for 16 months and counting-will his music ever exhaust itself? Could it really be that I will ever be able to listen to one of these songs and not be immediately paralyzed by its beauty? Could there really be another musician waiting in the wings which will make Russell seem outmoded, unimportant? For the sake of my continued personal development, I almost hope so, but for now, I’m content to bask in t
he satisfactions of both the fan and the critic, to enjoy the tension between uncomfortably personal fixation and encyclopedic mania.