Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, a Life review – down the rabbit hole with a musical maverick

Estimated read time 6 min read

A secret hero of the dancefloor, the avant garde producer and musician Arthur Russell occupies a strange and silvery slot in the annals of music. He was a low-key cult figure in his lifetime, but one who has been increasingly celebrated. His prodigious output and his refusal to have that work pinned down has, in the decades since his death from Aids-related illness in 1992, birthed a small cottage industry of admiration and exegesis: compilations, reissues, covers albums, biographies and even a film. The Barbican in London has given over a night in May to celebrate Russell’s often confounding, genre-spanning work – and the publication of this latest account.

Russell first became a minor legend among clubland cognoscenti thanks to a handful of woozy bangers he put out under names such as Dinosaur L (Go Bang!) and Loose Joints (Pop Your Funk) in the early 1980s – discs spun compulsively at hallowed New York clubs such as the Paradise Garage, before percolating out to Chicago, Ibiza and beyond. Unexpectedly, Kanye West sampled Russell’s tune Answers Me on his 2016 track, 30 Hours – but it wasn’t one of his dancefloor hits. Answers Me is almost gestural, a dub composition for cello, percussion and voice taken from World of Echo, Russell’s 1986 album, a record widely met with bafflement upon release that now occasionally crops up on best-albums-of-all-time lists.

Born Charles Arthur Russell, he made for an unlikely disco pioneer. He grew up a square peg in small-town Iowa. He moved to San Francisco in the late 60s to study classical Indian music and composition and lived in a Buddhist commune. Those foundational ideals would inform his work over the long term.

Russell first found renown accompanying fellow Buddhist Allen Ginsberg’s poetry readings on the cello; that friendship (possibly with benefits, early on) would also last for the rest of Russell’s life. He was spectacularly well connected throughout his career – he was a friend of A&R man John Hammond, discoverer of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen; he played for Alice Coltrane and with Laurie Anderson. But he remained commercially unsung thanks to a dogged loyalty to his art that brooked no compromise with genre expectations, or the grunt work of getting famous. He was prickly, once leaving a band on their way to a gig. “I’m on another thought now,” run the words to Another Thought, one of his loveliest cello-and-vocals songs, tilting at the restlessness of his output.

Uprooting himself to New York in 1973, Russell moved in the city’s icy avant garde and minimalist circles, programming events in a space called the Kitchen where leftfield music and multimedia art rubbed together. If San Francisco was the place to be in the late 60s, New York was the centre of progressive creativity in the 70s, when the city’s unkempt corners nurtured countless talents. Russell nearly joined Talking Heads; at The Kitchen, he put on bands such as the Modern Lovers, annoying the avant purists.

But the wider punk scene was not much to Russell’s taste; its nihilism clashed with his more expansive consciousness. Instead, he became enamoured of the nonlinear, ever-evolving possibilities of repetitive music outside the lofty realm of theory. New York clubland became his laboratory.

One of Russell’s early recordings, 1980’s Pop Your FunkView image in fullscreen

Alongside experiments destined for the dancefloor, Russell continued to record sparer electro-acoustic compositions, all the while soundtracking austere dance or theatre pieces, earning the respect of composer Philip Glass and playing in various ensembles. He could also turn his hand to relatively conventional singer-songwriter material – witness the posthumously released Love Is Overtaking Me album – but Instrumentals, a 1984 rendering of a Russell composition from a decade prior, with modular parts that musicians could theoretically begin at random points in the score, is perhaps more typical.

Making umpteen mixes of every song, Russell kept everything: great news for those interested in going down the rabbit hole. Richard King, whose works span numerous music titles (How Soon Is Now, about UK independent labels; The Lark Ascending, about the British landscape in music) is a superfan who came of age working in record shops, where obscure artists constituted a special kind of common currency. King has been given access to Russell’s considerable archive, housed in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, to compile this intimate coffee-table tome: an array of his letters, written in careful pencil, plus event flyers, scores and charts, sleeve artwork and cool ephemera (numerological workings-out, invoices for studio time). The visuals are linked to oral-history style accounts from intimates and contemporaries, including Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, whose funding helped keep Russell afloat, and printer Tom Lee, his life partner.

It helps to be an admirer of this singular talent. But even if Russell’s work is unfamiliar to the reader, there is a fascination, between these covers, with the flotsam of a very 20th-century life at the cutting edge of culture in a New York that no longer exists. The last quarter of the book takes an inevitable dark turn, as downtown’s creative circles become affected by HIV – Russell is diagnosed in 1986 – and artists of all kinds begin dying. The fear, silence and shame of those early days of the virus is once again alive in these pages.

King’s moving account keeps you guessing as to how the cornfields of Iowa birthed such a curious (in both senses) musician; one tangential clue might be that the house Russell grew up in was designed by his uncle, a modernist architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. There are hand-wringing interjections by Russell’s sisters, who confess to not having understood him, but still loved him, and sewed special pockets on his shirts for his notebooks. The loftiness and singular nature of his work mean that its heterogeneity and distrait tenderness still remain hard to parse. But Travels Over Feeling provides a valuable set of insights into one man’s monomaniacal dedication to music.

  • Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, a Life by Richard King is published by Faber (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

  • Travels Over Feeling: The Music of Arthur Russell is at the Barbican, London, on 25 May


You May Also Like

More From Author