Arthur Russell



Recently I’ve been doing a few things rather obsessively, including listening to the recordings of Daniel Johnston and reading about the poet e.e. cummings. Which led me to thinking about genius and geniuses. And it occurred to me that we don’t treat our geniuses very well. In fact, we treat them very badly. I’m sure there are many reasons why we do this, but it seems to come down to one thing: Geniuses are so not like us that they scare us. The paradox is that we actually think geniuses are really cool, especially when they create music and poetry that’s totally new and that touches us. But it’s almost like the more they touch our lives, and being who they are (different), the more we wish they weren’t so……strange. We want them to be a little more normal, then we could like them even more.

Daniel Johnston, the multitalented songwriter, musician, visual artist, and performer is an extreme manic depressive with a history of psychotic episodes (so says an article on his website). His touching, thoughtful, and even angry lyrics reveal an artist who is both so tender and hurt that we can’t see him for who he really is, and let him be who he wants to be.

e.e. cummings (1894-1962), the equally multitalented poet, painter, and playwright set himself the massive task to create a true avant-garde American style of writing, experimenting with everything from how poems sit on the page to crazy spellings and eroticism, which some critics at the time found both offensive as well as incomprehensible, ultimately judging his attempt a failure. An interesting side note to cummings today is that his work continues to influence several Indie bands such as This Busy Monster, Ra Ra Riot, and Tin Hat (their album, “The Rain is a Handsome Animal,” contains 17 songs from the poetry of cummings).

Now, I’ve added another artist to listen to obsessively, Arthur Russell (1951-1992). If you’re like me, his name might not be a familiar one, even though Russell has influenced many artists you probably know about, like 808 State, William Orbit, and Philip Glass. It’s been easy to overlook his work because so little of it has been released widely. Even though Russell died at the young age of 40 of throat cancer related to HIV, he made hundreds of recordings, probably thousands. The songs that were released weren’t easy to track down, being on small labels at a time when we didn’t have the Internet. Even today, very few records of his work are available on vinyl. The older, original vinyl pressings are collectors’ items (Russell even silkscreened some of his LP sleeves). A search of digital releases reveals a little more choice, but still not much. This review concerns the latest release, “Keep the Lights On,” which is a soundtrack for the film of the same name. As a soundtrack, this collection is interesting and serves as a fine starting point for learning about Russell’s career. My personal favorite of his digital recordings, widely available right now, is “Love Is Overtaking Me,” released in 2008. There are half a dozen digital collections available, any of which does a good job of introducing this complex and mysterious artist.

When contemplating writing about “Keep the Lights On,” I decided to watch the film “Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell”, too. The film was more than I expected and perhaps it was a mistake to watch now, because I had to watch it three times before I didn’t feel such anger at seeing another genius in our midst being misunderstood and mistreated as he struggled to find a place where he could create and be accepted. It’s intense, the level of abuse he faced at the hands of people who supposedly “loved” him.

But he found sanctuary, finally, with his partner, Tom Lee, who we should thank as the man who kept the flame burning, giving us Russell’s amazing musical legacy. Best known for his avant-garde “echo” vocals, Russell was no elitist minimalist. He was equally at home with musical styles like hip-hop, electropop, and disco, which he frequently took back into his avant-garde circles to present his treatments of these popular music forms as serious art, thus challenging and upsetting both those inside his inner circle as as well as those who had no interest in the avant-garde. His 1986 record, “World Echo” (available on CD), is frequently cited as his most important recording available today. The film provides a glimpse into the storage room where Lee has stored hundreds of boxes of reel-to-reel masters of never-released material. I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched the documentary, that we’ve not been given the chance to meet the real Arthur Russell in his music. Not yet. Which is entirely in keeping with the problem we have with geniuses. Their work is often judged to not be commercially viable, even as their influence on other more commercial artists is undeniable.

“Keep the Lights On” has some amazing songs on it. I don’t mean to dismiss it as a serious collection. Listen to “Come to Life” or “Being It” and what you’ll hear are songs that sound remarkably modern and current, even though they were recorded years ago. In fact, that’s the spooky thing about Russell’s work. The current climate for Indie music makes this truly the time of the artist/musician as focal point (rather than focusing on the band or the band’s sound).

If Russell were alive today, he’d be huge and probably would be collaborating with many musicians, just as Daniel Johnston does, creating new records and touching a wide range of fans who would never go to the avant-garde.

So this is a cautionary tale. The next time you meet a genius in your midst, resist the urge to label them. In fact, don’t say anything. Just listen. It’s not scary. It’s just music, which can mean the world to some people. And that’s what it should be all about anyway, the music. Arthur Russell understood.