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Arthur Russell’s Vanished New York

A new oral history captures the relentless creativity of Arthur Russell and the world of composers and artists he belonged to — many of whom, like him, fell victim to the AIDS epidemic.

Credit: Getty images

Richard King’s Travels Over Feeling is a lovingly researched and painstakingly detailed oral history of American composer and musician Arthur Russell, who made a prodigious amount of music under several names and across various genres — cello-led minimalism, dance music, pastoral folk, and countless home tape recordings that anticipate today’s bedroom pop. This was before Russell died in 1992, aged just 40, of an AIDS-related illness.

This beautifully presented hardback book, full of photographers, letters, posters and other ephemera published alongside recollections from his partner Tom Lee, sister Kate, and numerous other friends and collaborators, does not just offer a deep insight into Russell’s diffident yet gregarious character, nor its relationship with his work. In its focus on Russell, it sketches out an astonishing New York scene in which pop music and postmodern composition met with poetry, theatre, and dance, and tells us much about what it means to be an artist. How the pursuit of creative drive shapes families, friendships and relationships; how the needs for money and comfort must be balanced with the need for self-expression, especially when doing non-commercial work; and how these contradictions constantly have to be managed, as one’s personal fortunes and desires shift and external circumstances change.

King’s introduction makes it clear that Russell died neither in obscurity nor as a failure, even though his reputation rests on his recovery a decade after his death. Russell was a perfectionist who started so many works that he left incomplete, often for them to be mixed by someone else. This, and his moving from experimental composition to disco, only releasing two albums as Arthur Russell before he died and using aliases such as Dinosaur L and Loose Joints for his club hits, in an industry that asks artists to do one thing under one name ‘until the market responds’ perhaps accounts for Russell taking some time to be properly understood. My entry point, Soul Jazz Records’ influential 2004 compilation The World of Arthur Russell contained his dancefloor classic ‘Go Bang!’, in its popular François Kevorkian mix, and his magnificent, epic ‘In the Light of the Miracle’, a 13-minute ‘hypnotic’ riot of ‘circular rhythms and overlapping vocals’ that King calls ‘a crack of light’ in his ‘musical consciousness’.

This is a perfect summary — one example of Russell mastering the comeback track as much as the floor-filler — but after this, King’s voice largely gives way to his interviewees, and his role is more to edit their statements, and to produce generous pictorial records of what he found in Russell’s diligently kept personal archives. This approach shows us the consistency of Russell’s intellectual influences, nearly all American, going from a youthful interest in Walt Whitman and John Cage during his middle-class upbringing in Iowa, to a friendship with Allen Ginsberg after escaping to a Buddhist commune in San Francisco, to working with people from Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson to David Byrne in New York, where he spent the rest of his life, doing most of his sporadic gigs within walking distance of where he lived, first with post-punk composer Rhys Chatham and then his partner, Tom Lee, who provides such moving testimony. His summary of his fourteen years with Russell closes the book: his focus on how Russell became ‘thinner and weaker’ after his diagnosis is incredibly moving, but mostly, Russell remains an enigma, not even telling his boyfriend of his formative years in Iowa or, later, California, and keeping a laser-like focus on his music.

Like many creative subjects of a biography, the Russell that emerges is contradictory. Many say he was shy, and without an ego, yet incredibly ambitious, and single-minded in what he wanted to achieve to the point of collapsing what should have been his biggest break, working on the score for Robert Wilson’s follow-up to Einstein on the Beach, the opera he made with Russell’s dedicated supporter, Philip Glass. Russell often felt people ripped him off, creatively or financially — accusing Talking Heads of the former despite considerable distance between their music and his, as well as starting his own label after finding black market reprints of his songs being sold directly to DJs — yet never seemed too worried about monetary reward. Russell never had to work a side job, with his relationship with his parents apparently revolving around them giving him money for a practice they never understood, and yet there is constant precarity, living in shabby conditions in an ungentrified New York, with several funding applications being reproduced in the book.

King’s interviews capture the great sadness that came with the HIV/AIDS epidemic — not just how it cut down Russell in his prime, but how it destroyed a whole world of creativity that was not rebuilt. Russell lived for more than five years after his diagnosis, with people around him constantly dying (notably the African-American minimalist composer Julius Eastman, more recently also rediscovered), which understandably exacerbated his impatience to start new projects rather than refine existing ones.

The process of reassessing Russell’s work took some time — not least because his opinion of it often differed from that of his listeners, notably in his hatred of Kevorkian’s ‘Go Bang’ remix even after it packed New York dancefloors. With that now largely done, and Russell’s reputation as an eclectic genius deservedly secured, Travels Over Feeling allows his new generation of listeners to get to know who he was — as much as such a complicated person in such a complex milieu can ever be fully understood. His sister’s words ring true not just for her relationship with him, but for his life and legacy as a whole: ‘he was gone before I knew him … but the world is always giving him back.’

Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, a Life by Richard King is published by Faber.

About the Author

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker, whose most recent book was Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). She is the host of Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm.