From 2003-2008, FACT operated as a bi-monthly print magazine. As part of a new From The Archives feature, we’ll be regularly uploading vintage articles from FACT’s ink-and-paper days. Following Philip Sherburne’s crash course in classic US Hardcore, we’ve dusted off Peter Shapiro’s excellent guide to the remarkable Arthur Russell, originally published in 2008.
With a new documentary film and compilation out, and everyone from Foals to Friendly Fires citing him as an inspiration, 25 years after his death Arthur Russell’s music – at once both experimental and pop – is finally being embraced by the kind of broad audience he craved for but never found while alive…
“Arthur has to be the funkiest white boy I ever met,” Lola Love, a former performer with the James Brown Revue, declares in Wild Combination, a new documentary film devoted to the life and work of musician Arthur Russell. “Funky” is not a word you generally associate with an avant-garde cello player who was the musical director of the fabled New York experimental art space The Kitchen during the 1970s, but conventional frameworks have never been very effective at describing the sui generis Russell. Before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1992, Russell composed orchestral works, produced some of the wildest leftfield disco records, collaborated with beat poet Allen Ginsberg and recorded an extraordinary body of cello-and-voice records that exist in some sadly beautiful netherworld in the far-flung orbits of John Martyn and Nick Drake.
While the music world has had more than its fair share of Renaissance men working across multiple genres, Russell was unique in the sense that each of his activities informed the others and he had an immediately distinct aural signature. The sustained, subtly shifting harmonic clusters of his art music would migrate to his disco records, while disco’s rhythmic loops and percussion patterns would ground his ethereal solo cello-and-voice records. Russell treated all music as pure sound – he was as fascinated by Abba’s bubblegum melodies as he was by Philip Glass’ highbrow minimalism – and this approach gave all of his records a deeply sensual quality whether they were aimed at the academy or the dance floor.
Born in 1952, Russell was raised among the cornfields of Oskaloosa, Iowa where, as the son of a former Naval officer, he became obsessed with the ocean. In 1968 Russell moved to San Francisco to join a Buddhist commune where he was forbidden to play his cello, so he played in his closet. Russell then studied Indian music with sarod player and vocalist Ali Akbar Khan. The wide-open spaces of the prairie, depth charge bass and the drone of Indian classical music would become Russell’s obsessions, which he pursued single-mindedly, no matter what genre he was working in, for 20 years.
Moving to New York in 1973, Russell played cello on several Allen Ginsberg recordings, drummed for Laurie Anderson, and worked with Talking Heads (Russell played rather dramatic cello on an acoustic version of ‘Psycho Killer’ that appeared as the b-side of the original single), Modern Lovers’ Ernie Brooks, and downtown stalwarts Peter Gordon and David Van Tiegham. Most importantly, though, Russell discovered disco while in New York. After his disco baptism one night at Nicky Siano’s legendary nightclub The Gallery, Russell immediately connected the dots between Hamilton Bohannon’s lock-groove percussion style and the minimalism of Steve Reich, between the shifts in timbre, tone and rhythm of a marathon DJ set and the compositions of someone like Phil Niblock.
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