Prince Arthur
Two new releases shine a light on an obscure innovator.

By Johnny Ray Huston

LET'S BEGIN WITH a photograph. It dates from the '80s or, at the very latest, the early '90s. Ahead of his time, as usual, Arthur Russell is wearing a tissue-thin T-shirt and a trucker's cap that rests, slightly tilted, over loose brown curls. His face possesses an attractive mix of corn-fed masculinity and pretty-boy touches – full lips, clear green eyes. One of his hands clasps a bow, and the other holds the neck of his signature instrument. Russell's cello is as unique in appearance as he made it sound: the tip of the left ear of a painted bunny adds an extra edge to the front of its hollow body, and the rabbit's right eye peeks out over the strings.

"I remember [Arthur] coming up our hallway with his cello dragging behind him, a cardboard bunny rabbit emblazoned on the front. He was just smiling ...," studio engineer Bob Blank is quoted as saying in the sleeve essay that accompanies Soul Jazz Records' new collection The World of Arthur Russell. Thanks to the photograph on the front of another recently issued Russell release, Calling out of Context (Audika), Blank's memory is easy to re-conjure.

Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1952, Russell journeyed through different art worlds. Upon hitting 18, he moved to San Francisco, where he studied cello at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music and, in 1971, made a number of recordings with Allen Ginsberg. But New York City was where he spent most of his adult life, and his musical ties there were as disparate as the city itself. He wrote horn arrangements for early Talking Heads songs, played drums for Laurie Anderson, and found a champion in Philip Glass. Chris Menist quotes Glass in The World of Arthur Russell's sleeve notes: "This was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this Earth has ever done before, or will do so again."

Yet this was also a guy connected to the origins of modern dance music. Russell's commercial recording debut was the first 12-inch single issued by Sire Records, home of Madonna's first major-label club hits. (Similarly, though Morrissey may not have liked it, a "This Charming Man" remix by Russell's frequent collaborator François Kevorkian was fundamental in forming the Smiths' U.S. audience.) More directly, songs by Russell sparked dance floors at the Loft and at the birthplace of house, Larry Levan's Paradise Garage. Levan's remix of "Is It All over My Face," a track Russell and Steve D'Aquisto recorded under the moniker Loose Joints, counts as one landmark of the Paradise era.

Though Russell scarcely found an audience outside of clubs while alive, he's acquired a cult reputation over the past decade. Passages in books such as David Toop's Ocean of Sound ("Russell played the studio as an instrument.... [He] contrast[ed] dry forward sounds with the distancing effects of a huge range of echoes") and Simon Reynolds's Generation Ecstasy (which describes Russell's "Let's Go Swimming" as a "masterpiece of oceanic mysticism") herald him as a trailblazer, and the Brit-based magazine Wire has dutifully followed suit. Toop's efforts, in particular, are vital to the current Russell revival. But the heterocentric angles and scholar-serious tones of many recent writings about him downplay his pop aspects and ignore the ties between his sexuality and his music.

"Traveling through New York with his Walkman, [Arthur] would spend hours strolling through the Lower East Side and over to the Hudson River, listening for new ideas, absorbing the ambience of the city streets," Steve Knutson writes in the liner notes to Calling out of Context. Untold stories lurk beneath that description. The path Knutson charts, for one thing, is exactly the type of peers-on-the-piers cruising stroll that author-artist David Wojnarowicz spins stories from throughout The Waterfront Journals. "Young Runner Hanging Out by the River" and "The Man on Christmas Eve along the Rainy Hudson River 3 a.m." are two of the chapter titles in Wojnarowicz's book, which was published after he, like Russell, died from AIDS-related causes in 1992.

"The piers" might be more common shorthand for the title of Calling out of Context's first track with lyrics, "The Platform on the Ocean." Whereas Wojnarowicz highlights the sex and grime of this setting, Russell is a romantic – water and kisses are the two chief recurrent motifs in Calling out of Context's flow of words. "Walking into the endless warm night / Looking for the fantasy," Russell sings during "Hop on Down." His words are simple, but a Buddhist-poetic background gives him a gift for line breaks, such as "Arm Around You" 's final endearment: "I'd touch the other side / The side of your face." His voice, a sweet, high tenor sound often on the verge of a yodel, suits the unadorned sensitivity and kindness of such sentiments.

While Russell's better-known dance-floor experiments with 24- and 32-bar structures – showcased in The World of Arthur Russell – are innovative, Calling out of Context finds him working closer to pop mode, and the results call up comparisons to artists the Wire wouldn't consider screed-worthy. "Arm around You" utilizes a kerchunkin' New Order backbeat. The "I get excited / You get excited" couplet of "Get around to It" probably influenced a Pet Shop Boys song. "The Deer in the Forest, Part One" 's percolating keyboards and forlorn, off-key trombone would fit comfortably in a Magnetic Fields album, as would the slumping cello sound and sad-sack dedication of "You Can Make Me Feel Bad."

"I find Russell's music to be intensely personal; unlike many musicians, he seems so honest," an review of Russell's out-of-print Another Thought observes. This personal intimacy and honesty seems born from circumstance as much as from Russell's personality. Knutson's essay for Calling out of Context states that – faced with illness and an "unsympathetic market" – Russell "simply would not let go of his material" during the last years of his life. When he died, he left behind an archive that included more than 1,000 tapes and 1,000 pages of lyrics.

A few of Russell's songs aren't just polyrhythmic but also polycompositional. His production often creates an effect similar to (but more carefully layered than) a DJ's cross-fade. The World of Arthur Russell's loveliest moment is "In the Light of the Miracle," an intricate 12-minute epic marked by increasingly complicated beats that shimmer up to a melodic surface. ("In the Light" might be the "flamenco from Mars" Ben Ratliff refers to when describing Russell's music in a recent New York Times piece.) The same is true for Calling out of Context's "That's Us/Wild Combination"; ghostly dawn-hour ambience (thanks to harmonies by Russell and '80s duet queen Jennifer Warnes) gradually invades and overtakes the track's sprightly sound. It's fitting that Russell's most sought-after release, World of Echo, will be reissued later this year. Like a near infinite echo, the best of his work has the potential to return, again and again.

March 3, 2004