The Invisible Man
By Michael Martin
Arthur Russell is the best musician you've probably never heard of, and unlike others about whom you could say that, he courted anonymity, recording tapes at home and under silly aliases like Dinosaur L and Loose Joints. In most of his photographs he's wearing headphones as if they were a magic invisibility helmet, turning his painfully pockmarked face from the camera, hiding behind a perpetual blink, or staring, sad-eyed, at some point beyond the lens, as if willing himself to fade from the frame.
He didn't get his wish. Although Russell's life ended early -- he died of AIDS complications in 1992 at age 40 -- today, he looms large over modern music. By his passing, Russell left behind 900 tapes containing approximately 400 songs, ranging from irresistible disco to heartfelt folk to the sparest of instrumental abstractions. This material, which has been released in a steady trickle since the mid '90s, makes a compelling case for Russell as one of the most important artists of the last half century -- and a primary influence on a generation of indie musicians devoted to cut-and-paste and composing home-studio intimacy, the Apple GarageBand generation. He is owed a heavy debt by very now dance bands like Hercules and Love Affair and the electronic production factory of the moment, DFA, whose Tim Goldsworthy oversaw a 2006 remix album of Russell's work, Springfield. There is a direct line from Russell to indie-chamber acts like Final Fantasy and Grizzly Bear -- gay and straight and in between.
If the Arthur Russell renaissance has been growing for years, it's now coming into full bloom. A new album of Russell's pop songs, Love Is Overtaking Me, will be released by Audika Records, on October 28. Folky and song-driven, it is one of the strongest releases in his catalog. Also this fall, the documentary Wild Combination lifts the veil from his life and work, featuring interviews with his partner, parents, collaborators, and hipsters' favorite Swede, musician Jens Lekman.
'Arthur is one of those figures I grew up hearing about but never knowing much about -- a ghost, a casualty,' says Nico Muhly, the 27-year-old nu-classical composer who has worked with Bj'rk and Philip Glass. 'He represented the unattainable community that was New York in the 1970s and 1980s. In his instrumental music you can hear the ecstasies of Terry Riley, the insouciance of Zappa. What I've always liked most about his music is the way in which it casually insists on the breadth of its influences: Disco happily coexists with abstract instrumental music without making an effort. His songs represent his community: concrete, abstract, gay, hedonistic,
forward-looking, and dancing.'
Russell was a classically trained cellist, but he made music for dance floors and darkened living rooms, not elevators. His dance tracks are the most accessible and playful. 'Is It All Over My Face?' from 1980 pits a laconic -- and possibly stoned -- soul diva against a double-edged lyric that references either a love-struck smile or the aftermath of a blow job. Remixed by Larry Levan of Paradise Garage fame, it presaged the entire garage house subgenre. 'Get Around to It' is a cello-and-synth'driven rhythmic swirl that was recently covered by Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl. 'Wild Combination' is a burbling Talking Heads'like dance jam about a couple in the flush of love: 'I just want to be wherever you are / Hard as I can be, it's never too hard.' All of them rank among the best dance singles of the era. None of them hit the charts.
'It was in disco that Arthur developed a queer musical form that was groundbreaking,' says Tim Lawrence, a straight British academic and the author of a forthcoming Russell biography. 'Other artists, like Carl Bean and Sylvester, had explored the crossover potential of gay identity and disco, but Arthur went quite a bit further in 'Is It All Over My Face?', 'Pop Your Funk,' and 'Go Bang.' They alluded to more identity and desire and became important markers for downtown New York's gay population.'
'His pureness of heart is a rare thing in music,' says Grizzly Bear bassist Chris Taylor. 'It's so relevant. So much of his stuff sounds like it would be the hottest thing ever if it were coming out today.'
'I liked how ahead of its time he was and how many types of music he made,' says the Hidden Cameras' Joel Gibb, who covered 'Wild Combination.' 'He was doing stuff that wasn't necessarily expected from gay music. He broadened the definition and the expectations.'
Arthur Russell was born in the corn belt town of Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1952, and was an iconoclast from the beginning. He spent his teenage years with his cello and a severe acne problem, then discovered Buddhism and marijuana, fell out with his conservative parents, and ran away to San Francisco after high school to live on a Buddhist commune and study Indian music. The sexual freedom and mind-expanding possibilities of the nation's gay capital in the psychedelic era laid the foundation for the rest of his life and work. 'I think you can hear the Buddhism in his music,' says Taylor, 'the openness and linear quality of it.' Along the way Russell met the poet Allen Ginsberg. They were neighbors in New York City, where Russell moved in 1973, and Russell gigged around with him, playing the cello while Ginsberg read his poetry.
Russell's musical r'sum' grew over the next several years. He played in a couple of pop-oriented bands, the Necessaries and the Sailboats, which added guitars and drums to Russell's voice and cello; they toured but never really got off the ground. He spent a year as music director of the Kitchen, the downtown performance space. He performed as part of the collective Flying Hearts with Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks and others, including occasional guest David Byrne; he also played cello on an alternate version of the Talking Heads' 'Psycho Killer' and collaborated with Philip Glass.
Through it all, Russell continued making recordings in his apartment and releasing them piece by piece; his 1979 dance single 'Kiss Me Again' was the first dance single released by Sire Records (later home to Madonna); subsequent tracks 'Go Bang,' 'Wax the Van,' and 'Tell You Today' appeared in the early- to mid-'80s on tiny indie labels like Russell's own Sleeping Bag Records. Although he swooned to ABBA as readily as Mozart, he was resolutely independent; equal parts purist and perpetually insecure adolescent, he was allergic to self-promotion, and he refused to cede creative control to the degree necessary to land a major record deal. So he released his records himself.
'He probably released more records than any of his downtown peers, at least running up to the mid 1980s, at which point he seemed to struggle to get his
music released,' says Lawrence. 'For a while people would look at Arthur and think, Shit, this guy isn't just making great music; he's also getting it released. Arthur also came very close to getting a major-label deal for an album, and one of the reasons he failed was that he was so committed to making music across a broad range of sounds. John Hammond of CBS approached him. He wanted Arthur to be the next Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, but Arthur never just wanted to be a singer-songwriter or the leader of a rock band, and that frustrated Hammond, just as it frustrated a series of other record company executives.'
'People talk about his connection to the avant-garde or whatever,' says Gibb, 'but he was a really good songwriter -- he had the folksinger-songwriter sensibility.'
If Russell's disco recordings were complicated alchemy, his bedroom tapes are magic in their raw emotion. 'You can make me feel bad if you want to,' goes the refrain to 'You Can Make Me Feel Bad,' Russell's cello groaning under a fuzzy Nirvana'Guided by Voices guitar line. 'I'm so busy, so busy / Thinking about kissing you / Now I want to do that without entertaining another thought,' goes 'A Little Lost,' a shimmering teardrop of a dance ballad.
In 'I'm Losing My Taste for the Night Life' you can hear the tripartite tensions of being gay in the '70s -- the temptation to sleep around, the desire to settle down, and the guilt that affected both of these options; it is almost unspeakably profound. Or maybe it's about a truck driver and concerns none of those things. 'I'm looking for something I don't want to do / Because my coming to town took me from you.'