The worlds of Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell

There’s a newly-unearthed collection of songs/beat experiments by polyglot musician Arthur Russell out this month via Audika Records. It’s called Corn, and NPR Music is streaming it for a while here.

More evidence of Russell’s continued relevance and influence, it follows a great tribute record Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell and a pair of concerts this past weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Here’s a bit about him from Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, followed by a video clip of Hot Chip talking about his legacy:

Russell was born in 1952 in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he began playing cello, moved to San Franscisco to study European and North Indian classical music, then moved to New York in the fall of ’73 after being accepted to the Manhattan School of Music. He made connections quickly. He met Allen Ginsberg, who developed an instant crush on him, and soon Russell was living with the poet, more or less platonically, in the latter’s apartment on 10th Street. They became collaborators; Russell taught Ginsberg about music, he taught Russell about poetry, and eventually they would perform together, mixing poetry and music.

Russell built other friendships and musical relationships. He collaborated with Philip Glass, who thought he “could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this earth has ever done before.” And he worked with Brooks to try and blend his composer’s sense with “what he saw as the transcendent and egalitarian possibilities of pop.” On a ’74 demo with Brooks called “Time Away,” Russell declares “I’m taking time away to dream” in a voice that gently mirrors Lou Reed. On another, “This Time Dad You’re Wrong,” over gentle electric guitar chords that shift like beach sand in strong winds, he sweetly insists to his father that his dreaming is worthwhile. “I’m not just a fool, no,” he croons, “I’ll prove it to you.”

That fall, Russell landed a job as the musical director of The Kitchen, a video/art space born in one room of the late Mercer Arts Center. With the Mercer condemned, its new home was a loft at the corner of Wooster and Broome. Russell booked the Modern Lovers in early 1975 (after which Brooks often slept there, on the foam pillows that otherwise functioned as seating). It was a curator’s perfect gig music: from John Cage to rock and free jazz, Russell indulged the full breadth of his musical appetites there, as both presenter and performer.

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That fall, Jerry Harrison caught a ride from Harvard down to New York with Ernie Brooks, his old bandmate from The Modern Lovers. Brooks was finally moving to NYC, partly to start up a new band with Arthur Russell. Russell had kept in touch with Brooks over the phone, calling to sing him new songs. Harrison, who was finishing a degree in architecture, was coming down to rehearse with Talking Heads. They were thinking about bringing on a fourth musician to fill out their sound, which they felt was too thin. On the recommendation of an acquaintance (Boston musician Andy Paley), Tina Weymouth had cold-called Harrison, invited him to a Heads gig in Boston. He came. Then they asked him down to come to New York to their place on Chrystie Street to play. The four went out for Chinese food, then jammed in the loft until dawn. Harrison played a Telecaster the whole time, since there’d been no room for his keyboards in Brooks’ moving van.

But everyone thought he sounded great. A keyboardist who also played sharp guitar was more than they’d hoped for. Harrison sat in for a couple of live gigs, and was formally invited to join. Harrison was uncertain: he was still feeling the burn of the Modern Lovers’ demise, plus, he wanted to complete his degree. Finally he agreed to join, provided he could finish the semester up in Cambridge.

In November, the Heads signed a contract with Seymour Stein’s Sire records, making them labelmates with their touring pals The Ramones. They got a small advance, around $25,000; Harrison got $5000. David Byrne bought a small Sony Trinitron TV, so he could be a “participant in the dominant culture.” He also moved out of the Chrystie Street loft and rented his own apartment, a ground floor railroad flat on East Fifth Street. And he capped a chipped tooth.

Had things played out differently, the fourth position in Talking Heads might have gone to Arthur Russell. He was a fan of the band; he had helped them get their first art-scene gig in March at the Kitchen. (The group also met Philip Glass there, who told them about Einstein On The Beach.) “We were friends,” Byrne said of Russell. “Arthur played cello and he was part of a kind of downtown avant-garde fringe scene. But he had the distinction of also being a great appreciator of pop music. He was a big fan of Abba and of real slick Italian pop stuff, telling me how perfect they were, in terms of song craftsmanship and recording arrangement.”

Russell had lots of friends and collaborators. He’d followed Allen Ginsberg to a new apartment in 437 East 12th Street, where the poet moved not long after his mugging on 10th Street. (The address, which became home to Peter Orlovsky and Richard Hell, was soon dubbed “The Poet’s Building.”) This time Russell had his own place, although Ginsberg let him run an extension cord down the fire escape into his apartment so Russell would have free electricity. Ginsberg was entertaining the dubious notion of becoming a singer, and the two played together regularly. Russell played the music Philip Glass had written for him (though he revised it heavily, to Glass’ bemusement) in the Mabou Mines production of Beckett’s Cascando, which booked a European tour after its East Village run. He also worked with Laurie Anderson in her short-lived Fast Food Band, and did some free solo gigs, singing and playing cello at Sobossek’s Bar on the Bowery off 5th.

But Russell’s most significant musical experience of the year, and arguably of his life, occurred in the fall, when his boyfriend Louis Acquilone began taking him out to discos. When Russell entered The Gallery, his mind was blown. Nicky Siano recalled seeing him there pretty much every week thereafter.