Clash talks to his collaborators, collectors, friends and fans

Clash talks to Arthur Russell's collaborators, collectors, friends and fans about their own Arthurian legends.

New York, 1983. On the Staten Island ferry, a man, alone but not lonely, is gazing into the distance over the water, his head full of music blaring from his Walkman headphones. It’s probably his own – he likes to listen to the songs he made while looking over the Hudson into the Jersey lights. This is Arthur Russell, the undisputed king of the downtown disco scene, a man who quietly made some of the most extraordinary music of all time until his AIDS-related death in 1992.

As well as being a supremely gifted dance producer, he was also a renowned composer, folk singer, classical cellist and experimental musician who counted people like Philip Glass, Richard Hell and David Byrne as mates. When he moved to New York in 1973 from a San Francisco Buddhist commune, Allen Ginsburg let him siphon his electricity. He produced six albums, over a dozen 12” projects and several hundred unreleased cassettes, hundreds of reels, dozens of DATs, and countless thousands sheets of music and lyrics. Yet, despite his talent and beyond-prodigious creative output, he died in almost total obscurity.

Gradually though, something extraordinary happened: as word slowly spread of the eccentric mastermind standing at the heart of late-20th century music, Arthur’s work is taken up, rereleased, played out. Biographies were written, minds blown, and everyone from filmmakers to forward thinking party organizers took up his cause. Now, in 2008, with a new LP, ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’ and film, Wild Combination, Arthur Russell is finally finding the mass audience he craved – and deserved. Over the next couple of pages, we’ve compiled our own Arthurian legend: five DJs, producers, singers, fans and fanatics on the most important musician you’ve never heard.

JD Twitch (Optimo)
As part of the DJ team Optimo, Twitch has been playing Arthur Russell to crowds around the world for more than a decade.

“I was vaguely aware of Arthur Russell’s existence for as long as I can remember – a song like ‘Go Bang’ never leaves you when you hear it, but it wasn’t until I read a review for ‘Another Thought’ in 1994 that I started to connect the dots between his disco stuff and his other work. And it just wiped the floor with me! I was having a particularly bad year emotionally, and though it sounds cheesy to speak of music “saving lives”, in this case, it’s true: Arthur Russell’s music really did save my life. And after that, I just became completely obsessed with the man and his work.

Every time I play ‘Is It All Over My Face’ out, it always sends ripple of pure joy through the crowd. There’s just something about it – whether people have heard it a hundred times before or just that evening, they love it! There’s something so beautifully playful about it, so totally unlike any other dance music. Maybe it’s the words… “Is it all over my face… You got me love dancing”. Sometimes we play ‘Kiss Me Again’, this Dinosaur track [Russell’s alias], as a reward at the end of a really, really good night, and it’s been so wonderful to hear the crowd upstairs singing it on the way home – this song is still framing these great times.

He just covers so many different schools, and covers them so well. From his well-known disco stuff to that ambient work to that ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’, which is essentially a country record! I mean, it’s just so out there – it could have been made twenty thousand years ago, it could be made tomorrow. But the most wonderful thing, I think, is that so many of these amazing songs were written just waiting for his boyfriend to come home from work.”

Tim Lawrence
Journalist, author and academic Tim has written the first full length biography of Arthur, 'Hold On To Your Dreams'.

“I was really drawn to the figure of Arthur Russell after hearing about him while researching Love Saves The Day, my history of dance music in the 1970s. I was drawn into this strange, evocative dance music – and the way that he was this central figure in all these different scenes in the late Seventies/early Eighties. He was really there at the formation of these incredible experiments in rock, disco, hip-hop and “compositional” music: his story is really the story of creative New York during that time.

Any kind of eclecticism was genuinely, genuinely shocking until very recently, and I think that Arthur in some way heralded in this post-tribal musical age – which is why he strikes a chord with us in the Age Of The iPod. Everyone now has Girls Aloud next to Mongolian folk music next to hip-hop next to Steve Reich on their iPods – something Arthur would have no doubt been happy about. However, it’s essential we don’t think just because we can download a song in seconds on our laptops, we are somehow more enlightened, that we have somehow progressed, that we’re kind of close to Arthur’s incredibly genre-less taste.

For him, it was never about easy access and standing on the sidelines: it was about active engagement and being in the thick of a real, physical, social commitment to music.”

Andy Butler
Andy Butler plays in a dance band called Hercules And Love Affair.

“You know what I just found out? That Arthur Russell was a really, really big fan of The Muppet Show, like me. It’s funny because I’ve always thought that his music had a real Muppet-like sensibility – it’s really almost child-like, the quality it has, and like most children’s music it has this colourful, vivid imagination and simplicity. It’s magical.

It’s just the sound of this lunatic musical freedom – and the way that those records worked collectively: it wasn’t the sound of just one person, but the noise of a whole bunch of people expressing themselves! It was super, super inspirational to hear that kind of collective, family atmosphere – where the attention is spread out over the whole band – itself a very punk idea. Derrick Carter actually first bought me a copy of Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang’ – before I had heard that line sampled in so many house songs [Todd Terry’s ‘Bango (To The Batmobile)’, to name but one – Ed], dancing at Body and SOUL, places like that, and he was such a huge part of that community.

Dancing there, arms in the air, to these amazing songs that first played in the Paradise Garage: I was participating in the traditions. Arthur Russell, for me, was all about finding my roots.”

Lola Love
Singer and dancer Lola Love collaborated with Arthur on ‘Go Bang’ (under the name Dinosaur) and Wax The Van (under the name Lola)

“I got to working with Arthur through my then-partner [disco producer] Rob Blank in the early ’80s. I had just come off tour with Mr. James Brown and heard this wacky, funky, popping sound playing in our apartment – I loved it! It was just so avant garde, so experimental – and that’s what were my roots were. So we got to working together. We hit it off so quickly. He was such a perfectionist, like me, but his a perfection was a room of people losing their minds – that was what interested him – how wild people got. He’d always say “Wilder!” And you go crazy. Then he’d say “Go wilder! Wilder still! Wilder!”

That was his collaborative style, you see: he didn’t order you around, he’d just make you be who you are. It was an interesting time, and downtown [New York] was an interesting place – and Arthur Russell was the most interesting person there. Whenever I’d invite him round for a party, he wouldn’t really socialise, he’d just stand in the corner, taking it all in, watching. He was like a ghost, you know! He’d just appear in a flash of smoke, and there he’d be – the most sweet, kind guy in the world, and then he’d disappear again, right away. And all that would be left was the smoke. The smoke would still be there.”

Steve Knutson
Steve Knutson, as head of Audika Records, is devoted to rereleasing Arthur’s work.

“My introduction to Arthur’s music came from the legendary DJ, Walter Gibbons in 1986. Walter was a buyer at Rock & Soul, one of the infamous DJ shops in New York, and I sold him records while doing sales at Tommy Boy. We became quite friendly and invariably spent a lot of time discussing music. He told me about this odd genius he was working with. A few months later he gave me a copy of the Sleeping Bag 12”, ‘Schoolbell/Treehouse’ that he remixed. Hearing it changed my life.

The intimacy of his voice and instrument first grabbed me. What I heard was pure consciousness. No separation between the voice and instruments. Holistic and deeply spiritual. Allen Ginsburg said it best, “Buddhist Bubble-Gum Music”. After my introduction from Walter, I searched around for everything that I could find of Arthur’s music. It was tough as there was little to no information out there (this is still the mid-’80s), and I relied on simply searching through used bins in record stores, or asking my fanatical dance music friends for insight into his various pseudonyms.

Being the selfish sort, I had to hear this music, and the only way it was going to happen is if I compiled and released it myself. I’d known Will Socolov from Sleeping Bag for years and one day I asked him for Tom Lee’s [Arthur’s life partner] phone number. I called Tom and we got on like a house on fire. The first time at his apartment Tom immediately began bring out cassettes of unreleased music. It was heaven! All in all around a thousand plus tapes of music exist.

And then there are dozens of manuscript books, hundreds of pages of lyrics and song sheets. It’s almost never ending – it’s been all consuming at times, and I must has spent hundreds of hours compling these CDs! In the process, I’ve met with and corresponded with dozens of Arthur’s friends and musicians. No one has ever uttered anything but love and respect for the man. Frustration, yes, but also deep respect, and love.”

Matt Wolf
Filmmaker Matt Wolf’s Arthur Russell documentary Wild Combination has played around the world, including a very successful run at London’s ICA, the Berlin Film Festival and New York’s IFC, where it was the highest grossing film in its class.

“Arthur's story is about more than just his experience as an individual - it’s about a particularly fertile period in Downtown New York’s cultural history, it’s about the experience of being gay and living with AIDS, and also it’s about the cathartic process of making art and pursuing popular success at a time when those two things seemed possible and within reach. I think disco presented a really liberating social context to create music. The early underground discos were very different than what people commonly associate with the genre: Studio 54, John Travolta, etc.

The Loft was a kind of social experiment where David Mancuso brought together an incredibly diverse group of people: black, white, gay, straight, hippies, artists, and they danced together. There was a kind of essentially positive attitude in this context—you might compare it to a child’s birthday party. But the repetitive serialism of minimalist composers and the structure of Buddhist mantras could certainly be correlated to the patterns of disco dance records. As a counter-cultural space, disco seemed like an obvious extension of Arthur’s experience in a Buddhist commune in San Francisco.

My favorite moment in the film is the scene where Arthur and his boyfriend Tom meet in the East Village. It’s a very romantic, tender story and we use really beautiful Super 8 imagery of an old school, rundown ice cream shop in the East Village to bring that story to life. But I was also really drawn to the ordinary moments in his life: watching The Muppet Show with his boyfriend on the couch, brainstorming the name of a record company while listening to James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’.

There was a time that Arthur told a collaborator and business partner Will Socolov that “Music can heal. That music isn’t something that you just go dancing to, but that it can really heal you.” That really stuck with me. I love Arthur’s persistent connection to childhood and childlike experience. He struggled; he created obstacles for himself and frustrated his collaborators and his loved ones. But I think, unlike many other people, Arthur was able to connect to this primal place of childlike innocence and fun. And I love going there with him.”

Words by Charlie Robin Jones

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