KYD Advent Calendar

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




9508984918_5d8a187fc1_z

Marika Sosnowski

Living Side by Side: Multiculturalism at Home and Abroad

It all seems quite idyllic – people of varying nationalities, religions and cultures coexisting peacefully. It could be a blueprint for the perfect multicultural society. However, there’s something beneath the surface that is troubling to the western notion of modern liberalism. Read more »

9864007066_4a196b364d_z

Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

308982705_be9f94455b_b

Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

057212e0462005b9_Thumb

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part One): TV, Books, Technology

In the first of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in television, books and technology. Read more »

isabelle_cover_grande

Dark Places and Safe Spaces: S.A. Jones’ Isabelle of the Moon and Stars

S.A. Jones’ Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a powerful and affecting depiction of a young woman struggling with mental illness and emotional turmoil. A book like Isabelle might well be described as the underdog of Australian publishing: a character-focused literary novel published by a small press … Read more »

w527705

Carody Culver

Taking Christmas off the shelf

Ah, Christmas – for some, a time of gift-giving, awkward family gatherings and over-zealous consumption of rum balls; for booksellers, a time to weep silent tears of stress and experience the irrational but persistent fear of being buried alive beneath boxes of the latest Stephen Fry memoir. Read more »

tumblr_naod7i6Sj61tk49ymo1_1280

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part Two): Film, Music, YA Literature, Pop Culture

In the second of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in film, music, young adult literature, and pop culture. Read more »

mariah-carey-all-i-want-for-christmas

Julia Tulloh

A SuperFestive Christmas playlist

I know what you’re thinking: lists like this became redundant in 1992, when Jon Bon Jovi rubbed shoulders with Cindy Crawford beneath a Christmas tree for the first and last time. Does the ideal of Christmas music get any better? Perhaps not, but many have tried. Here are a few other Christmassy pop goodies. Read more »

Kim_cover_web_

Julia Tulloh

Kim Kardashian, butts, and the internet

We’re used to seeing her butt, and we’re also used to Kim doing crazy publicity stunts. Her entire life is a publicity stunt in itself, both the means and end of a crazy, money-making, power-acquiring trajectory. Her very fame is built on the playful and shameless self-exposure captured in the Paper shoot. Read more »

tumblr_naod7i6Sj61tk49ymo1_1280

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part Two): Film, Music, YA Literature, Pop Culture

In the second of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in film, music, young adult literature, and pop culture. Read more »

Exodus-Gods-and-Kings-Poster-Bale-and-Edgerton-691x1024

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Problems with God: Exodus: Gods & Kings

This is the thing about retellings of old and beloved foundation stories: it’s impossible to come to them fresh, without trying to compare and contrast with previous versions for veracity and style. It’s usually the modern incarnation that comes up short. Read more »

Screen-Shot-2014-10-01-at-11.22.21-AM

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Can too many parts destroy an adaptation? The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

It’s a relief to feel the weight of fidelity lift off an adaptation film, as Mockingjay: Part 1 becomes a meta-exploration of fame, franchise and future. Read more »

057212e0462005b9_Thumb

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part One): TV, Books, Technology

In the first of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in television, books and technology. Read more »

3991099211_8397c745fe_b

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Taking up space: The legitimisation of creepshotting

There is a relationship between catcalling and creepshotting. Both are practices that involve the reduction of strangers to objects to be gawked at and commented on, which is what makes the ‘Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train’ Tumblr blog interesting and complex. Read more »

IMG_0086

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Pictures of pictures: Monument Valley and the rise of the in-game photographer

Presenting screencapturing a game as a form of camera-free ‘photography’ gives rise to a conceptual issue. If the ‘photographer’ is moving through, and capturing, a world created entirely by others, then who exactly should take the credit for any images created? Read more »

tumblr_naod7i6Sj61tk49ymo1_1280

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part Two): Film, Music, YA Literature, Pop Culture

In the second of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in film, music, young adult literature, and pop culture. Read more »

2447663467_2d543e6c87_o

Danielle Binks

Young Adult literature: genre is not readership

YA is not a genre – it is a readership. It may seem like pedantic nitpicking to focus on this distinction, but so pervasive is the mistake, amongst even established literary channels, that explaining the difference has become increasingly important and indeed necessary. Read more »

00page

Danielle Binks

Disability or superpower? Deaf identity in YA

‘We actually need more stories about deaf and hard of hearing characters and for their experiences to be shared in stories. Often, young readers believe they are ‘alone’ in their deafness and do not realise that there are many others like them.’ Read more »

tumblr_naod7i6Sj61tk49ymo1_1280

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part Two): Film, Music, YA Literature, Pop Culture

In the second of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in film, music, young adult literature, and pop culture. Read more »

mariah-carey-all-i-want-for-christmas

Julia Tulloh

A SuperFestive Christmas playlist

I know what you’re thinking: lists like this became redundant in 1992, when Jon Bon Jovi rubbed shoulders with Cindy Crawford beneath a Christmas tree for the first and last time. Does the ideal of Christmas music get any better? Perhaps not, but many have tried. Here are a few other Christmassy pop goodies. Read more »

drake-cover-650

Justin Wolfers

Drake’s climate change epiphany

Or: ‘Heat of the Moment’ as an epiphany in which Drake realises the urgency and importance of acting on climate change Read more »

057212e0462005b9_Thumb

Kill Your Darlings

Best of 2014 (Part One): TV, Books, Technology

In the first of a two-part series, our brilliant Killings contributors highlight their top cultural moments of 2014 – in television, books and technology. Read more »

??????????????????????

Stephanie Van Schilt

Lady Bosses on the Box

An increasing number of female-driven comedies, dramas or melodramas are popping up on our screens. Through the filters of fiction, the worlds these heroines inhabit directly reflect our own. This is the age of the lady boss. Read more »

105768385_5672eae965_z

Stephanie Van Schilt

Bananas without pyjamas? Budgets cuts and the next generation of ABC kids

From my humble beginnings watching kids’ programming, I learnt that ‘Your ABC’ was indeed, our ABC. The protests and public outcry which followed this week’s announcement of cuts to the ABC demonstrate its crucial role in fostering a sense of community for Australians. Read more »