Growing Echo: The story of a lost genius named Arthur Russell

As Yep Roc and AIDS charity Red Hot release a new tribute record to cellist, composer and disco pioneer Russell, the two men closest to him remember the man who so desperately wished to bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the populist

Entrenched in contemporary music history, we are consistently (and banally) reminded of the punk/disco standoff that once supposedly polarised the growth spurts of alternative music in the 1970s. It was shredded clothes, studded jackets and “disco sucks”, or it was sharp suits, cocaine and Studio 54. Under reflective retrospection the lines are a little more blurred; numerous groups (chiefly Talking Heads and Blondie) are attributed as being visionary crossovers, fusing the ‘spirit’ or ‘essence’ of punk with the sass, sex and groove of disco and flavours of art-house funk.

While the Velvet Underground blended the most potent and perfect mix of pop and avant-garde a decade earlier, it is perhaps Arthur Russell to whom the ’70s are owed when it comes to amalgamating seemingly contradictory musical forces in such revolutionary ways. However, while the old story goes that only a handful of people bought Velvet Underground records but those that did started bands, Russell never reached that status or influence in his lifetime.

Russell cast his net far and wide, spending much of his early musical days not simply experimenting but radiantly flourishing in various genres: pop, classical, folk, repetitious dance grooves, stark minimalism, avant-garde and charged disco. If the glistening purity of the musical movements taking place in the 1970s was based on fresh sounds, anti-conventionality and progressive ideas, then Russell was unquestionably its acne-scarred angel.

Russell sadly died in 1992 from AIDS, survived by his partner Tom Lee who now runs his musical estate. Whilst only releasing one full solo LP during his lifetime (1986’s ‘World of Echo’ – Rough Trade) Russell has, in the last decade, become an almost constant presence in underground music circles, and increasingly over-ground ones, too.

Through a series of reissues, collections of unreleased work, a film documentary, a book and the omnipresence of the Internet, he has become more widely recognised in recent years than many thought would ever be possible. Testament to this is the latest Russell-related project ‘Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell’, a compilation album of covers of Russell’s work by a slew of contemporary artists, including some fairly mainstream figures, with Jose Gonzalez taking on ‘This is How We Walk on the Moon’.

Red Hot is a charity organisation that fights AIDS through popular culture, also responsible for the hugely successful ‘Dark Was the Night’ compilation in 2009. This new compilation (released this month by Yep Roc) is a culmination of Russell’s increasing popularity in recent years. It features the likes of Hot Chip, Devendra Banhart, Scissor Sisters, Robyn, Sufjan Stevens, Blood Orange, Cults and Phosphorescent, and is a solid album: a varied, largely interesting, tribute to an artist who seems impossible to truly grapple to the floor. Its real success, however, is in hitting home the true idiosyncratic beauty of Russell’s own work. Reaching the end of the album’s twenty-six tracks, one is not just overcome with these new interpretations, but inspired to pick up an Arthur Russell record and revel in every second of it. This is not a criticism of the artists’ work on the compilation – there are some truly lovely and unique takes on his work, here – but instead a reminder of Russell’s ingenuity.

No album can give us further insight into the man himself, though. His music is becoming more ubiquitous yet any sense of identity belonging to him almost becomes lost or muddled along the way. And so, in this position of increasing exposure to his music, I set out to speak with people close to him, in an attempt to get a deeper insight into the workings of an artist who, strangely, with every fresh sonic revelation gains a new layer of personal mystique.

Born and raised in Iowa, Russell started playing the cello and piano at an early age. He left for San Francisco at 18, moving into a Buddhist commune. Here he would study Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music and would soon meet beat poet Allen Ginsberg, with whom Russell would collaborate with and accompany, musically, at live poetry readings. Russell moved to New York and continued to study at the Manhattan School of Music but was soured by the experience, with his tutor calling one of his avant-garde compositions “one of the most unattractive things I have ever heard.” He soon ended up as Music Director of The Kitchen, an avant-garde performance space.

During his time as director (1974-75) he began to show his fondness for pop music, using his position as a platform to show that avant-garde and populism were not necessarily enemies, although his bookings of groups such as Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers supposedly triggered a series of grumblings amongst many within the avant-garde community. He would go on to work with members of both groups in the outfit The Flying Hearts, an ensemble that would exist throughout much of the rest of the decade. He also nearly became a member of Talking Heads and an early cut of the group’s classic ‘Psycho Killer’ features Russell on cello – Google it.

Russell would soon delve head first into disco, initially as an attendee at Studio 54 and soon as an innovative creator, under monikers such as Dinosaur, Dinosaur L and Loose Joints – the Larry Levan mix of ‘Is It All Over My Face’ would slay dance-floors during its tenure and would later go on to be one of disco’s most sampled records of all time. At this time, Russell was simultaneously working on various other solo and collaborative projects, marking the beginning of a rich musical period. Peter Zummo was one of these collaborators and would prove to be Russell’s longest-serving musical colleague and producer, with the two working together on almost all of Russell’s releases. He recalls the fertile – now legendary – time that was 1970s New York.

“I was one of many young adults who came to New York then, and maybe it was a Zeitgeist, but we felt free to find ourselves through creative and boundary-crossing activity, often with a foolish disregard for the necessity of earning a living,” Zummo tells me. “Of course, we were encouraged by the inspired generation – or half-generation, really – that preceded us: John Cage and his contemporaries among the musicians and composers, experimental dance, performance art, Fluxus, rock and roll, free jazz, Latin jazz, and the best and worst of mass media. At that time, though, the city itself was more the enemy than a civilised infrastructure for culture. Manhole-cover explosions in the street could spoil your lunch. Electrical blackouts and subway fires could spoil your whole day. However, the number of young artists was probably at least an order of magnitude lower than it is today, so we had a chance.”

Similarly, Tom Lee, Russell’s partner, recalls a magic in the air around that period. Reflecting on a Talking Heads concert that was the pair’s first ever date, he says: “As with many things, Arthur made casual mention that Ernie (bass player with The Flying Hearts) could get us into the Central Park show, probably part of the ‘Summerstage’ series of concerts, of The Talking Heads and B52s, who were both so hot then, the summer of ’78. We went and I remember being fairly close and star struck, thinking my friends were not going to believe this, but at the same time, I wasn’t exactly ‘out’ with all my friends, and so I thought about that side of things, too. It turned out that Arthur wasn’t ‘out’ to his musician friends as well. Nonetheless, word was that there was an after party at the Mudd Club and we could get in. Again, Arthur was not so good with leaning on others or taking advantage of social situations so we were relying on Ernie, or maybe someone from Sire Records, to get us in. So, we got in and it was so crowded that it was kind of a bust. That said, I was floating on air walking home along Lafayette Street to either mine or Arthur’s apartment afterwards.”

Whilst dabbling with a variety of collaborative musical experiments, “we shared an interest and background in Indian, Western classical, electronic, pop, rock, conceptual, jazz and other music, as well as in other media,” says Zummo. “We spent many afternoons sight-reading Christian Wolff’s Exercises in a basement rehearsal studio. We made crazy recordings and discussed aesthetics.”

Some of Russell’s most distinguished and haunting music came from moments spent alone experimenting with his voice and cello, which occasionally he would carry down to the Hudson River, simply sitting facing the water as he played. Russell’s cello work is almost frighteningly recognisable; the scratchy warmth that vibrates forth is instantly his, an almost submerging of the strings – streaks of watery echo-soaked pulses. His voice can shimmer from a strained whisper to a deep-set hum, it can send ground shaking rumbles through speakers as seamlessly and beautifully as ones that will shatter your windows – richness and warmth, sharpness and softness expertly blended.

Russell managed to create a bizarre concoction in almost mirroring his chosen instrument with his vocal ability, the two becoming a melded compliment, spinning around one another like dancing partners locked in a tight embrace, two individualistic units moving seamlessly as one. Friend and collaborator Phillip Glass perhaps said it most accurately: “This was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this earth has ever done before, or will do again.”

Russell too was a fervent worker, obsessed with working on song after song (many of which remained unfinished) and being the impoverished musician he was Lee would loan him money to buy cassettes to record. “I have told the story of giving him money for cassettes as a way of demonstrating how sharing the intimate experiences of having a life together just gradually began to occur over time,” he says. “That said, his obsessive copying of quarter inch tape onto cassettes in order to listen to various takes of one song was the method in which Arthur worked. It was a routine for him in order to consider the different takes of a song, or the addition of a particular instrument or vocal on a track – this was just a way in which I helped to serve as a conduit to that end. When I listen to some of those cassettes now I am transported back in time because they represent the working versions of songs.”

“He was funny, serious, driven, meticulous and never tame,” Zummo tells me when discussing Russell’s working methods and the personality traits accompanying them. “He was reserved and had a sense of propriety that was sometimes almost Victorian. Arthur’s capacity for taking in and processing information was formidable. His sense of social and interpersonal interaction was lively. He could be difficult, as were we all. If Arthur had a criticism of a colleague’s work or project, he felt the person would want to hear it, however uncomfortable or unsolicited the advice was. [However] first and foremost, he was a great musician and composer. And we should never forget that Arthur wrote his music. A written musical piece is distinct from a performance or a recording of it. I often wonder whether people currently putting out their versions of his work have access to his original manuscripts. Or are they transcribing from various recorded versions? If the latter, they’ll end up with an interpretation of an interpretation. Vital information can be lost in the process. I’m a fan of going to the source, which includes the written music, as well as the recordings.

“Arthur’s writing is elegant but also full of asymmetry and unexpected rhythmic, melodic and harmonic moves. Some may view these as anomalies and eccentricities, but in Arthur’s case, it’s more correct to embrace and enjoy them. Then the material allows people to perform in their own unique or peculiar manner.”

Lee offers a little more on Russell’s personality with a wonderful, somewhat stylistically emblematic, anecdote. “While Arthur could become enraged over a mishap in the recording studio, and hold tight to his opinions on a political position, I have to say that in our life together he was a kind and gentle person. He wouldn’t kill an ant. At one point our apartment was overrun by roaches and he was the most benign caretaker of them. I think he thought he could just ease them out with an encouraging word and a gentle sweep of his hand. The worst time was when he was letting a friend’s former girlfriend stay with us along with her two huge parrots! The birds would be flying around the apartment, bird poop and seed everywhere, which encouraged more cockroaches and mice. I couldn’t have been more flustered nor he more unflappable!”

The quiet storm that is Arthur Russell’s voice, the closest thing we have to a personal interaction, seems even more fitting in light of memories of a tenderness to creatures and a deep affinity for nature and water. In a very rare 1987 interview (after the release of ‘World of Echo’) he elaborated on his ideas for his own music around this period and the elementary inspirations that encompassed them. “‘World Of Echo’ isn’t a complete version of echo,” he said, “it’s a sketch version of echo. I want to do the full version, which will have brass bands and orchestras playing outdoors in parks with those bandstands that project echoes. I also want to have Casio keyboards on sailboats. Have you ever been on a sailboat? It’s so quiet, all you hear is wind and sea.”

These insights into Russell’s personality and working methods are somewhat rare and this leads me to ask Zummo if, as a result, we are left with any grave misconceptions about Arthur Russell as an artist today?

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘grave,’” he says, “but some aspects of the story become emphasised in a way that distorts the blend. Today, the attitude toward the dance club part of his work seems to assume that it was Dionysian, whereas, given Arthur’s stated intention of finding rapprochement between popular and serious music, he saw the disco as a temple for higher thought and contemplation. Another distortion arises in reference to Arthur’s sexuality. Today, many aspects of sexuality are misunderstood or overemphasized, and that has happened to some recollections of him. Arthur saw homosexuality as a progressive, forward-looking state of being, but there are also heterosexual chapters in his story.”

While Russell’s work, and various interpretations of it, are now readily and easily available, this is largely due to the hard work and passion of a lot of people, most centrally Tom Lee who has dedicated his life in the wake of Russell’s death to getting the world to hear his music.

Lee’s love and dedication is wonderfully captured in the excellent Matt Wolf documentary Wild Combination, a process that Lee reflects on. “From the moment Arthur died until now, I am always proud and pleased that people are drawn to his music,” he says. “I thought the Phillip Glass release of ‘Another Thought’ might be the one and only representation of him posthumously. After that I lived in great hope that Geoff Travis from Rough Trade would step up and release what he had paid and guided Arthur to create but the timing was just not there for him. I preface my answer here with that background information because countless people traipsed up those six flights of stairs to our apartment, for me to make them tea, coffee and cassettes in high hopes of more releases. They all saw the re-release of ‘Go Bang!’ or ‘Is It All Over My Face?’ as the only avenue to working together. Steve Knutson [Audika Records – home to Arthur Russell’s archive] turned that all around! He lovingly embraced those rough mixes and buried treasures of dusty tape piles that I believed in so dearly. Matt [Wolf] followed the mission Steve and I were on. I never felt I could interfere with Matt and tell him how to tell this story. After countless conversations I grew to have too much respect for the artistry that Matt brings to filmmaking. This was a journey for him, too. I still have the introductory letter he wrote to me in hope of working together. I had grown so weary of such entreaties that when I got his letter in June of that year, I barely took it seriously and thought that I wouldn’t interrupt my summer in Maine and didn’t respond to him until I returned in September! All a long-winded way to say that the process was extremely cathartic,” says Lee.

“The most profound moment for me was when Matt interviewed me and gave me a chance to re-live my coming to love Arthur. I was in a bubble long after the camera stopped.”

I ask Lee if the ongoing, renewed interest in Russell’s work has a personal impact on him. With a new, celebratory project coming out pretty much once a year, is there an inability to let the memories settle?

“I will admit that usually after I’ve responded to questions such as these, or hosted a new acolyte in the study of Arthur Russell I am exhausted. It brings me back to those days and I wish I could stay there. Soon after Arthur died, and he battled and suffered for a number of years, I would walk around the city, back and forth to work in SOHO, listening only to his music. I still hoped I would turn a corner and see his impish smile. When Dustin and Devandra visited last spring I was transported back again to the days of first sharing Arthur’s music and when they left that evening I was indeed, a little lost.”