KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Music

Calling out of context: The perennial appeal of Arthur Russell

by Chad Parkhill , September 3, 20142 Comments

When Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the age of forty, he did so in relative obscurity, having released four commercially unsuccessful albums and granted a single print interview: not exactly a promising oeuvre on which to build a legacy. Yet just over twenty years after Russell’s death, his legacy is in full bloom: a series of posthumous reissues and compilations has amply illustrated his musical virtues; a feature documentary, Wild Combination: a Portrait of Arthur Russell appeared in 2008; a scholarly monograph, Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973–1992, came out in 2009; and a number of artists have contributed to a series of tribute albums and EPs, the latest of which, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, is scheduled to appear in October of this year. There’s an ongoing shock of delayed recognition at work here: it feels as though Arthur Russell’s time has, finally, arrived. But while his popularity may wax and wane in future, it seems Russell’s time may both never truly arrive nor ever really end.

Russell’s remarkable biography gives us a starting point from which to understand his continued appeal. The son of a former Navy officer, he was born in 1951 in Oskaloosa, Iowa – a small town smack bang in the middle of the North American continent. He moved to San Francisco at the age of eighteen, and lived in a Buddhist commune which forced him to renounce the worldly cello (he continued to practice in a closet). He studied North Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and met Allen Ginsberg, whom he briefly dated and, more importantly, collaborated with on two pieces of avant-garde music, ‘Ballad of the Lights’ and ‘Pacific High Studios Mantras’. Russell soon moved to New York City, nominally to study composition and linguistics, but Ginsberg’s presence may have been a factor. When he arrived in Manhattan in 1973, at the age of twenty-two, he had to borrow electricity from Ginsberg’s nearby apartment via extension cord.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, it was in New York that Russell came into his own as a songwriter and artist. In the great melting-pot of the seventies downtown music scene, he found a wealth of ready collaborators: minimalist composer Philip Glass; David Byrne of Talking Heads; disco pioneer DJs Nicky Siano, Steve D’Acquisto, and Walter Gibbons; and fellow experimentalists Peter Zummo and Peter Gordon. All of these musical scenes were pushed into close contact by physical proximity – avant-garde classical music rubbing shoulders with hedonistic disco DJs, future punk rock stars, and the earliest stirrings of what would come to be called hip hop – and perfectly aligned with Russell’s own creative restlessness. The outcome was a vast library of work, both solo and with an unlikely roster of collaborators (including, believe it or not, a young Vin Diesel, who asked Russell to produce the beats for his abortive attempt at making it as a rapper).

Unfortunately, the same characteristics that made Russell so eminently suited to creating music in this environment meant that very little of his work would ever see release in his lifetime. Russell was both more interested in artistic process than in the product, and a perfectionist: the collision of these two conflicting personality traits means that there are often many versions of any given Arthur Russell track, none of them necessarily the final or definitive cut. His disco projects – dance music tracks made in collaboration with a large number of friends – were often released in small numbers on white label vinyl, then revised and rereleased, then revised again. Even the album that came closest to achieving his unique vision, 1986’s World of Echo, was fundamentally incomplete: Russell planned a companion album which would see the songs performed by brass bands and orchestras in outdoor bandstands to generate natural echo. As his health declined towards the end of the eighties – like so many of his disco collaborators, Russell was both gay and an eventual victim of AIDS – the tussle between his perfectionism and his lack of interest in releasing finalised products resulted in a huge archive of unfinished work, which continues to yield new discoveries to this day.

The creative restlessness that marked Russell’s career stood him in good stead for the internet age. Online, music consumers gleefully hop between genres without a care, and artists mash influences together with little concern for genre purity or authenticity. While it would have been difficult to keep a bead on Russell’s career on the ground in the seventies and eighties – wait, you’re telling me that the guy from Dinosaur who wrote the disco banger ‘Kiss Me Again’ also made two albums of classical music and has been writing country songs on the side in a band called Bright and Early? – the internet’s vast archive allows us to refresh our knowledge of these musical connections with a simple Google search. More to the point, while Russell’s music was informed by certain scenes, it was never entirely of those scenes. His best-known disco song, Loose Joints’ ‘Is It All Over My Face?’, has none of the hallmarks of classic disco – no unctuous bassline, soaring strings, or honeyed vocals – and is instead an exercise in a bracing dancefloor minimalism. Similarly, Russell’s version of country (as showcased on Love Is Overtaking Me) contains flourishes of tabla and hurdy-gurdy, while his interpretation of pop music (as showcased on Calling Out of Context) is rich with dissonant feedback and manipulated cello tones.

More than anything else, though, Russell’s music exemplifies a certain playfulness and curiosity about the sheer sensual joy of being in the world. There’s something very innocent and pure about his work, even when he sings about supposedly adult topics like sex (as he does on, say, ‘Get Around to It’). The cover of Another Thought, the first of his many posthumous compilations, shows Russell wearing a hat fashioned from a newspaper boat, which strikes me as a perfect visual analogy for the childlike sense of exploration that took him from the safe confines of landlocked Oskaloosa, out to the wilder shores of San Francisco and New York City. Although that same sense of exploration would eventually claim Russell’s life, we’re privileged that he left so many of the results of his experiments behind.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

ACO logo




9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »