Arthur Russell, the disco cellist in a world of echo

In the first of a new monthly Guardian series introducing songs by great artists alongside the stories of their creation, we explore the work of the whimsical kid from Iowa whose spectral songcraft straddled underground nightclubs and avant-garde lofts

Arthur Russell – Instrumentals: Volume 1, Part 6

An acne-ridden kid from the corn belt of Iowa, Arthur Russell would go on to become one of the 20th century’s true musical visionaries, with a canon that straddles country, disco and experimental composition. He languished in obscurity after his death from an Aids-related illness in 1992, before a reissue campaign by his estate made him a cult figure – and yet he is still unknown to most listeners, despite creating some of America’s most beautiful songs.

Russell moved from Iowa to San Francisco in 1968, where he befriended (and apparently had his first gay sexual experience with) the poet Allen Ginsberg. He immersed himself in the underground art scene both there and in New York (where he moved in 1973) and was a booker at the experimental venue the Kitchen. It was a hand-to-mouth existence. “He would get grant money, maybe 500 bucks, and he would hand it over and say: ‘Tell me when we run out,’” says producer Bob Blank.

“We weren’t extremely practical about earning a living,” says Peter Zummo, an experimental composer who frequently worked with Russell. “He once showed my wife and me a royalty statement from a record label. He pointed to a line and asked: ‘Does this mean they owe me 20 grand or I owe them 20 grand?’ He also once said: ‘All I’m trying to do is make money for my friends.’” Blank remembers he once paid for studio time with his parents’ car. “He drives up, wearing a straw hat, in this perfectly preserved early-50s sedan that had been sitting in a barn. Whatever he did had this stamp of whimsy.”

After an unhappy stint of classical training, Russell could make notated compositions, though typically in his own manner. “He would generate grids,” says Zummo. “Equal-length bars with a note and a number referring to the note duration. Or he would use very large pieces of orchestral score paper, with notes, along with beautiful long parabolic curves in coloured pencil.

On other occasions, there would be page after page of highly syncopated, very detailed, notation. I’d ask: ‘Where do I start?’ And he’d say: ‘Anywhere.’ To me, that meant anywhere on the page, anywhere on the beat. It was chaotic. I remember many times being on stage, even with a set list, and having no idea what was going on. He definitely enjoyed diving into an uncontrolled situation.” This selection from his Instrumentals series gives a sense of his gift for poignant melody.

Loose Joints – Tell You Today

Russell loved disco, frequently going to clubs such as the Loft and Paradise Garage, and dance music inevitably fed into his music-making – he formed the disco groups Loose Joints, Dinosaur L and Lola. These records were made with session musicians, “great readers of music known as ‘fly specs’ – where a fly could land on a piece of paper and – bang – they’d play that”, Blank says. “As things got more finished, Arthur would try to unfinish them – in a good way. Someone would play a really sophisticated solo and he’d ask them to do it again; they’d play it and screw up. Arthur would say: ‘That’s great!’ Those fumbles are what are so charming. Arthur always looked for moments where it was about to fall apart.”

Tell You Today is the most charming of all, bumbling around absentmindedly for three and a half minutes before remembering its errand, and cohering into a naive disco-pop triumph. “‘The groove is God’ – that was our mantra,” remembers the percussionist Mustafa Khaliq Ahmed.

Arthur Russell – I Couldn’t Say It to Your Face

An essential Russell release is Love Is Overtaking Me, a compilation of his singer-songwriter material: spartan songs in which you can almost feel the bruises as he tussles with human relations. What was Russell’s emotional tenor outside the songs? “He was even-tempered for the most part,” remembers Ahmed. “He was often sullen. He had a sense of seriousness about him most of the time; perhaps a sense of foreboding. I never saw him get angry. He was a humble cat – a genuinely nice guy.” Blank concurs: “He was very sweet, very soft-voiced. He would never get into a conflict with someone.”

The Necessaries – Driving and Talking at the Same Time

The reissues continue this month, with an album from his 1981 band, the Necessaries, another stylistic shift into new-wave guitars. Despite his non-confrontational nature, Russell’s impetuous approach caused friction in the band. “There was a lot of fighting and arguing,” says Blank, who produced the album. “Some of it [was] good spirited, but it was maddening – he would do takes that had nothing to do with what he did before. But artists can decide to throw their marble-works down and smash them. You had to respect he was an artist, but it was crazy.”

The Necessaries broke up after Russell made another snap decision, hopping out of their van on the edge of Manhattan and never making it to a New Jersey gig. “Going through the Holland tunnel to New Jersey was like entering another world,” Blank remembers. “New York in the 70s was quite crazy and dangerous – the Lower East Side was basically a war zone – but New Jersey was the suburbs. And Arthur was more comfortable in the downtown scene of the Paradise Garage.”

Dinosaur L – Go Bang

Go Bang is a tight, heady disco-cut powered by crazed swells of organ – but the way his collaborators tell it, it was just another day in the office. “That dance material was what the record companies wanted him to do, not what he really wanted to do,” says Ahmed. “He was always frustrated.” Blank says that the Necessaries were “an economic decision as much as anything else”, and it was the same with the disco outfits: “Money was flowing and he realised having a hit record would put him in a place where he would be left alone to do his thing.”

This isn’t Zummo’s recollection, though: “That diminishes what he was really doing, which was feeling free to experiment and enjoying the idea of having a wider audience.” Other collaborations include playing cello for Talking Heads and a never-completed 1986 project making beats for New York breakdancer and rapper Mark Sinclair – who would go on to become the Hollywood action hero Vin Diesel.

Arthur Russell – Springfield

The opening 27 seconds of Springfield is perhaps the most beautiful passage in all of Russell’s work, and one that perfectly perches between dancefloor and gallery: epic house chords are met by an impetuous cello line. Its drum pattern crops up on another song, Calling All Kids; reworkings are a constant feature in his catalogue. “He would have many versions of the same pieces, even in the disco and house music stuff,” remembers Phill Niblock, an experimental composer Russell befriended in the 70s. “He was never satisfied. But it wasn’t so much that he was hard on himself, as simply interested in continuing to explore, looking for new ways to look at music.”

Arthur Russell – That’s Us/Wild Combination

Russell’s ballads from the mature phase of his career, where his cello and rhythmic sensibility are fully folded into his songwriting, are his absolute peak. As well as This Is How We Walk on the Moon and A Little Lost, from his posthumous compilation Another Thought (which is not available to stream), his masterpiece is That’s Us/Wild Combination, a guileless song that struts as gently as a baby flamingo, before breaking free of the beat. Prosaic lines such as “We’re leaving at five in the morning / We could get better mileage” become rich with romantic resonance. Zummo says “he sang like a bird – in that he couldn’t repress it”. He highlights Russell’s “gift for how the words fit into the melody, or [how] the melody is adjusted to move with the flow of the words. He makes it soulful without milking it.”

“He was telling me this concept – I guess it goes along with his Buddhist philosophy – about just singing syllables and how those syllables would resonate or echo,” Ahmed says. “He would just come up with words that really meant nothing – whatever word came to his mind, he would free-associate. It seemed kind of wacky to a guy like me from the Bronx, but it made sense because he lived it. Some guys you work with, they have a concept, a brand, but it’s phoney. Arthur was genuine. Man, I loved that dude.”

His mystical beliefs fed into how he recorded his work, too. “He had the idea that if you laid a tape transfer at the moment of a full moon, the oxide molecules would align,” remembers Zummo. “So we would work all night during a full moon. Our personal inner selves would become unmasked – things would happen.”

Arthur Russell – Lucky Cloud

Russell’s adventures in New York’s debauched gay club scene caught up with him (“these clubs were dens of iniquity, the Grindrs of their day,” remembers Blank) and he contracted HIV, eventually dying of an Aids-related illness in 1992. In his latter years, he retreated to a home studio, but would still perform live even as his illness worsened. “I did a concert with him, at around the time he went into hospital,” remembers Zummo. “He lay on pillows on the floor; we really couldn’t get the music together. I was criticised for doing that, but I had thought, well, he’s alive and he wants to play.”

“I saw him in hospital the night before he died,” Niblock says, “and it was probably the most gruesome experience of my entire life. He was extremely bloated and he couldn’t speak; I wasn’t aware if he knew who I even was.”

His last solo recorded statement before his illness was World of Echo, which seems to eerily preempt his diminishment. It was recorded in part from the soundtrack of an experimental video piece Niblock made of Russell performing, and features new, spectral versions of previously robust songs such as Wax the Van and Let’s Go Swimming. Devoid of percussion, his vocals and cello bounce around the listener as if in an empty cave.

For all his musical brilliance, Ahmed ultimately credits Russell for enlightening him socially. “To black guys growing up in the projects in the Bronx, being gay means being effeminate. Arthur was soft and sensitive, but not effeminate – it was a part of a learning process for me. Charles Arthur Russell was a car,” he says, spelling out his initials, “who took all of us from one place to another.”

* * *

For each entry in this series, we’ll also feature these tracks in a longer primer playlist on Spotify, that introduces some of the artist’s greatest songs – here are 20 of Russell’s best.

Event Horizon by the Necessaries is out now on Be With Records

  • This article was updated on 28 September, to correct Russell’s home state from Oklahoma to Iowa.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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