Arthur Russell Revived: Hold On To Your Dreams

Thom Donovan


In recent years a lot of attention has been paid to downtown musician and ‘avant’ disco pioneer Arthur Russell.  Russell’s life and work is becoming accessible to a new generation as much of his previously unpublished and unavailable music is released by Audika (a recording label founded by Steve Knutson solely for the purpose of archiving and distributing Russell’s work), and contemporary musicians such as Nick Hallett and the group Arthur’s Landing have performed their own renditions of Russell’s songs to great acclaim. This past year saw the release of a biopic about Russell’s life and music, Wild Combination directed by Matt Wolf. And November sees the release of Russell’s biography by music scholar and critic Tim Lawrence, whose previous book, Loves Saves the Day, chronicles New York "Garage" culture in the late 1970s, a culture of which Russell was not only a product, but a crucial player, participant, and progenitor.

As someone unapologetically devoted to Russell’s music and ethos, the release of the aforementioned materials is music to my ears. Arthur Russell is for me on par with the best poets and artists of the 20th century, transcending such a distinguished company through his work that spans disciplines, genres, styles, and, perhaps most importantly, cultural locations.

Russell is a master of synthesis, one who, like Walt Whitman, actively sought to "contain multitudes" through his work. As a poet, I find a deep lyrical power in Russell’s music, a music which derives much of its influence and shape from 20th century poetic forms. William Carlos Williams, one of America’s first poets to successfully foreground American idioms in poetic expression, and to compose "by breath" (a composition practice Russell came to identify with through his friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg), sets the stage for Russell’s own poetic genius.

I am also attracted to Russell as an artist of versions. Like both Whitman and his many-versioned Leaves of Grass and Emily Dickinson, who wrote the major portion of her work through letters, and on loose scraps of paper, Russell resisted settling on a particular version of his recorded compositions, and often remixed his songs hundreds of times until settling on a version for commercial release. When he finally did decide on a version it was with much self-criticism and doubt.

To not settle on a particular version of a poem or music composition is––to quote the title of Susan Cameron’s book on Emily Dickinson––to "choos[e] not choosing." To choose not choosing is to defer the determination of a final product and to prioritize instead processes. In Russell’s work, the work of art would often seem a pure means––a principle in keeping with Russell’s Buddhist background, and perhaps also with his having been raised in the rural landscape of the American Mid-west (a landscape of long distances and durations). In Russell’s commitment to a poetics of process/pure means, he is not unlike a long line of artists and poets in the 20th century who emphasized process and procedure over end products and may thus be seen as precedents for Russell’s work: Gertrude Stein, Maya Deren, Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, Philip Whalen, Larry Eigner and many other names come to mind.

One can hear the influence of Modernism and the "New American" poetry in Russell’s lyrical phrasing. In such phrasing––largely intuitive according to Nick Hallett––one hears an emphasis on composition by breath, where words find measure through breathing patterns and a singing commensurate with ‘everyday’ speaking. Russell’s use of breath as a measure of composition derives from the time he spent in a Buddhist monastery in the lower Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in the late 1960s, but it also probably derives from his reading of William Carlos Williams via Ginsberg.

Often, circling around a simple phrase, and turning it over and over, changes the meaning of words to profound effect. Through his compositions and songs, Russell both frames and pierces a world of appearances. "And I’m hi-ding / Your present from you. // Where you see where it is, but don’t know where it is." The effect of Russell’s lyrics is disclosure and chiasmus. In Russell’s song "Hiding Your Present From You," "present" refers both to a gift one hides from someone they share a domestic space with (a lover, family member, or roommate) before their birthday, and to one’s sense of the now–occurrence, happening, simultaneity, event. Russell’s lyrics, often dialogic (symbiotic? bionic?) with his cello playing, drum machines, and effects pedals, are always slightly outside (or beside?) the present. They mess with presence, thus heightening one’s sense of it. A sense of disclosure pervades all of Russell’s music, and is completely accomplished in what many consider Russell’s masterpiece, his 1986 album/composition World of Echo.

Having fully disclosed my devotion to Russell’s work and my identifications with him as a poet, I don’t have enough good things to say about Tim Lawrence’s biography, which is thoroughly researched, well told, and which successfully pushes the envelope of what biographies can accomplish. One of the most impressive things that Lawrence does throughout Hold On To Your Dreams, is not only provide a sensitive and detailed rendering of Russell’s life, but also the story of large and complex cultural confluences channeled by a single person. Russell’s lifework is also a Whitmanesque project of containing multitudes inasmuch as it successfully negotiates groups of people, musical styles, and cultures that, to many at the time, seemed at best mutually exclusive, and at worst downright antagonistic. As Lawrence insists repeatedly throughout his book, during a time when ‘avant garde,’ pop, classical, (post-) punk, and emergent dance musics such as disco and house could not seem to speak to each other, let alone find common cause, Russell was equally pioneering in each musical culture/genre.

The 2006 posthumous Russell collection First Thought Best Thought expands orchestral music blending it with pop, serialist, ambient, free jazz, and Aaron Copland-inspired musical themes, while Russell’s disco music blends funk, avant-garde, and folk elements, as well as instrumentation native to non-Western cultures. In Russell’s late career, Russell was allegedly hoping to create a dance music without percussive instruments. In Audika’s 2008 collection, Love is Overtaking Me, Russell does all of the pop styles of the 70s more successfully than many of their originators. As in Stephen Merritt’s 69 Love Songs (a project no doubt indebted to Russell) one hears post-punk, Fleetwood Mac, Dylan-inspired folk, country, electro, and Minimalism (a la La Monte Young/Tony Conrad). And all these musical styles are transmuted by Russell’s unusual arrangements, his singular phrasing and playful lyrics, and the unmatched coeval nature of his voice and cello playing.

Through Russell’s insistence and unmistakeable talent, he was always close to commercial success. As Lawrence explains, he was probably thwarted by an unwillingness to compromise in any way for the purposes of selling records, but also by the untimeliness of his vision. Listening to Russell in 2009, as many devotees will attest, Russell sounds "fresh," like his records could have been made yesterday.

Speaking as someone who has all of Russell’s music on steady rotation, nothing  compares to his album, World of Echo. The music exudes subtleness,  fortuitous accident, and extreme craft. Even though we know from the album’s liner notes that Russell used a convoluted series of contact mics, effects pedals, and electronic drum machines (operated by foot pedal) to compose the album, what we cannot know from the liner notes is just how important the studio process was to the making of the work. It is fascinating to read in Lawrence’s biography how World of Echo was made, because it reveals an artist acting just as improvisational in the editing studio as in the recording booth. That so much of the editing process was fortuitous (to the studio tech working with Russell through the editing it seemed to him as if Russell was often recklessly recording over and ‘bleeding’ tapes from his sessions) makes me appreciate World of Echo all the more. It also makes me hear the recording better through a sporadic series of accidents, collisions, near misses, erasures, silences, truncations, and palimpsests).

Another crucial story told by Lawrence’s Hold On To Your Dreams is the erosion and eventual diaspora of the 70s downtown art scene as gentrification took hold in SOHO, TriBeCa, and eventually the Lower East Side. The destruction of the downtown arts community was also of course compounded and accelerated by the spread of AIDS, which Russell also fell prey to in 1992. Reading Lawrence’s biography reminds me how necessary figures like Russell are, not only for their unflagging commitment to their art (and no one could be more committed to their art than Russell clearly was), but also for their successful boundary crossing, synthesis, and cross-pollination of cultural locations deemed separate and incommensurable with one another. I admire very much Lawrence’s focus on this aspect of Russell’s career, which I have no doubt contributed a lot to the playfulness, warmth, and subtlety of his music. I very much hope Russell’s life and work  continues to gain attention and shed light on the radically productive moment of downtown New York artists in the 70s and 80s. Lawrence’s Hold On To Your Dreams has done much to advance such a cause.

*Drawings on pgs 1 and 2 by Danny Jock, odes to the portraits on the albums Love is Overtaking Me and Calling out of Context respectively