The Invisible Man
By Michael Martin
Arthur Russell recorded most of his compositions in a sixth-floor walk-up apartment on 12th Street in New York City's East Village. His former partner, Tom Lee, has lived there since 1980. The look is ramshackle bohemia preserved in amber: caramel stucco walls, beige tweed couch, thin printed rugs hiding uneven floors, kitchen cabinets covered with scrim. There's a bathtub in the kitchen and a loft bed. Richard Hell, the poet and founding member of Television, lives one floor below; Ginsberg's old apartment, which is still held by his estate, is a floor below that.
'Arthur was a hard guy to explain to parents,' says Lee, chuckling. 'I would bring him home, and he would just sort of sit there with his headphones on.'
Back then, Lee was a beautiful boy with bright teeth and a swoop of dark hair. He has matured into a handsome gent who teaches first grade in the New York City public school system and has the soft voice and encouraging manner befitting his vocation. He was and is Arthur's biggest fan. They met in 1978; Russell was Lee's first boyfriend, when Lee was 29, and the love of his life. One of their first dates was to see Talking Heads and the B-52s in Central Park.
In most photos in which they appear together, Lee is beaming radiantly at Russell. It's happening again tonight, as Lee plays a 1994 videotape in which three men are talking about Russell: David Byrne, Philip Glass, and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, his face palsied by stroke, talks about how he admired Russell's dexterity with words. Says Byrne: 'He would encourage me to appreciate stuff that I would just write off as being commercial. He was very enamored of Italian pop music, these very beautiful sounds but very commercial. He heard something in there.'
If not for Lee, much of Russell's work would have gone unheard. Over the years record producers would meet with him, interested in securing the rights to his dance songs to 'Go Bang' and 'Is It All Over My Face?' then lose interest when they learned Lee didn't own them. Regardless, Lee had the other tapes catalogued and moved them to storage. One day Steve Knutson of Audika Records called him up. 'He took a chance on releasing music no one was interested in,' says Lee.
A remarkable element of Russell's catalog is that, in snippets and full songs, it documents a relationship between two men, real partners, in an era that lacked that template. 'Gay relationships that mimicked heterosexual relationships -- I may be doing gay people a disservice by saying this -- but back then they didn't seem to exist,' says Lee. 'It wasn't like there were other gay couples we were hanging out with. We were different. A lot of it had to do with the fact that Arthur was so singularly devoted to his music.'
Lee, a real 9-to-5er, would go to work each morning in a printing shop, leaving Russell to write. They would meet for lunch so Lee could give him money and let him use the phone, and Russell would walk him home. They would eat dinner in front of The Muppet Show on TV. Lee printed the flyers for his shows and covers for his albums. 'He'd always have his notebooks with him, and he'd be jotting things down. It might be a conversation or something at another table,' says Lee. 'One of the classic things he'd say would be about a waiter or waitress. He would say, 'Oh, he just hates me.' Or 'I was at the studio today and some guy erased my tape on purpose!' My role was to be a cheerleader of sorts.'
It wasn't perfect: Russell dallied with other men and women and ultimately contracted HIV through what Lee calls 'an indiscretion.' Lee leafs through a photo album and comes across a picture of a woman Russell had an affair with in the early '80s. 'That was hard,' he says. 'If someone has a fling with another guy, you sort of, I don't know, understand. This felt more emotional to me.'
As the disease progressed, Russell's output became increasingly intense and lyrical, leading to the tracks that would fuel his later revival (many appear on the albums Calling Out of Context and Another Thought). He performed in public regularly until the last year of his life and kept seeking funds for recording. Lee and Russell kept his illness largely secret; when he died, many people on the downtown arts scene were shocked. 'It was all pretty exhausting,' says Lee. 'And yet to family and friends we tried to present that things were more or less OK.'
Lee pulls out a wooden box full of photos and notebooks of Russell's compositions. 'He would write lists of things, and sometimes they would become songs and sometimes not. Like this one: 'I've got a new job, I've got a new job, with strings over the world.' I get lost in these sometimes.' He comes across the notes for another unrecorded song: 'I Have a Boner.' He laughs. 'What's important for people to know was how playful he was,' says Lee. He plays a song called 'Love Comes Back' from Russell's new album, a song culled from demo tapes Russell recorded where we're sitting, as he was dying in 1992. 'Listen to his voice!' says Lee. 'Isn't it beautiful? How come this wasn't released at the time? That's the conundrum. At his memorial service, people were talking, and it was driving me crazy. I remember stopping people and saying, 'This is a song Arthur loved -- please listen to this.' My poor friends and family, I don't know what they thought after Arthur died. I was
relentless. I never listened to any other music. I couldn't get away from it.'
'I think he was accepting toward his death, which came from the Buddhism,' says Lee, recalling how Russell refused to use traps in the mouse- and roach-infested apartment. 'We didn't talk about him actually dying. Once when he saw me crying he said, 'Don't worry, I'll be OK.' ' I think of that as his gentle way of accepting his
dying. I just thought our life would continue with me taking care of him. I wasn't really acknowledging that he would someday not be here.'
Lee fiddles with his iPod. 'Let me play you another song. This is not going to be on the record, and I'm upset about this.'
An hour later, as Lee is walking me to the door, he's still leafing through the notebooks. 'Just give me another second. Take a look at this.'