BY Steven Stern in Frieze | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

Last Days of Disco

Arthur Russell

BY Steven Stern in Frieze | 05 MAY 04

Although it's easy now to forget the essential spookiness of records, the first listeners to Thomas Edison's phonograph immediately knew what the invention promised: the ability to hear beyond the grave. An 1877 article in Scientific American spelt it out: 'Nothing that can be conceived would be more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead.' 

That death-defying power has always been part of what recorded sound means - not a ghost in the machine, but the machine itself as ghost. Isn't this the not so secret narrative behind that famous logo, the dog with its ear cocked to the gramophone? 'His Master's Voice': absence overcome through technology. (Rumours persist that the original painting had the dog posed on top of a coffin, which makes the story even more obvious.)

Arthur Russell, c.1980. Courtesy: Estate of Arthur Russell/Audika Records LLC, New York

With the voices of the dead filling airwaves and record shops, it takes a special jolt to remind us of the constitutive necromancy at the heart of recording and playback. Recently one absent voice - not entirely familiar - has got a little louder. Arthur Russell - cellist, avant-garde composer, disco producer, would-be singer-songwriter, gay Buddhist from Iowa - has returned: unreleased and long out-of-print recordings are suddenly available. It's a strange sort of revival. Russell died of complications from AIDS in 1992, leaving behind hundreds of unfinished tapes. He was 40 years old and famous enough to get an obituary in the New York Times - though not a very big one. In the decade since, his memory has been kept alive by club DJs and collectors of hipster esoterica. So far this year there has been more adulatory press coverage than he ever got while alive. This posthumous fame is an odd, but oddly fitting, new chapter in his not quite career.

Suspicious of approval, Russell was a classic mad-genius loner, recording during full moons, sabotaging and ducking out of planned projects. His musical life was a series of almosts - he almost wrote an opera with Robert Wilson, almost toured with an art-rock band, almost joined Talking Heads, almost produced a rap album for a downtown bouncer who would eventually become Vin Diesel. He almost released an album of pop songs, then almost released another. Up until his death he constantly worked and reworked his unfinished tapes, riding around on the Staten Island ferry, listening to himself on a Walkman, never entirely satisfied. 

Yet despite all this, he seemed to know everyone worth knowing. In outline, Russell's biography can seem like a skeleton key to the interrelated cultural and artistic currents of the late 20th century. After an unruly childhood in the Midwest, dropping out of school and dabbling in psychedelics, he moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1960s, played his cello in the closet of a Buddhist commune and studied north Indian scales at the Ali Akbar College of Music. The early 1970s brought relocation to the other coast, an apartment in the East Village with electricity supplied by neighbour and collaborator Allen Ginsberg. He wrote extended orchestral works, played with John Cage and Philip Glass and curated concerts at the Kitchen. Then, the story goes, one night in 1977 he went to a disco and everything fell into place.

The permission and pleasure that Russell heard in dance music quickly got translated into his own joyfully goofy kitchen-sink productions. Recruiting a mixed bag of new music fellow travellers, club DJs and R&B professionals, he recorded a series of 12-inch singles and eventually started his own record label, Sleeping Bag. Chopped up and remixed into countless alternate versions, these singles - released under the names Loose Joints and Dinosaur L - became unlikely underground hits. Many of the best of these have been collected on The World of Arthur Russell (2004). The album's first song, 'Go Bang', gives a sense of the disparate sonic worlds Russell was exploring: after an echoing trombone fanfare and a skittering disco high hat, things get weird right away. Keyboards play Minimalist drones and jazz ripples, the plucked cello rubber-bands up and down the scale. There's a half-strangulated, ascending wordless cry, and the lyric begins: 'I wanna see all my friends at once.' There's a retroactive poignancy to that impossible demand, a simple yet excessive wish for companionship and simultaneity.

Russell's own vocals play a small role in these songs, pushed to the background, chanting quietly amid the lovely chaos. Ultimately, though it is that voice that reveals the strange tenderness at the heart of the work. Thin but resonant, like an echo without an original source, it seems related only to other sui generis vocalists (there's something of Nick Drake's inward murmur, something of the falsetto yawp David Thomas supplied to Pere Ubu). That unique voice is at the centre of Calling out of Context, a compilation released early this year. This is Russell's pop move, filled with the drum machines and cheesy keyboard riffs of 1980s radio hits. Yet only in some alternate universe could these skewed erotic pastorals have been granted airplay. Here are unassuming love songs, gentle as notes left on the bed, filled with qualifications and conditionals: 'You can make me feel bad if you want to'; 'Show me what the girl does to the boy, if you can get around to it.' More exhaled than sung, 'Hop On Down' is Russell's ode to early-morning sex - an activity he views as something half-way between hide-and-seek and prayer (which seems just about right). Above all, these songs seem to be about locating oneself in an undifferentiated, overwhelming expanse - a cornfield, the ocean, a crowded dance floor, the body of a lover. Catchy hooks function as both signposts and erogenous zones - the places you go back to again and again, to find your way. And maybe also, Minimalism's unresolvedness can function as a way of life. The refrain of 'A Little Lost' goes, 'It's so unfinished, our love affair.' Perhaps Russell's unexpectedly reincarnated music career is something like that. There's always another version, another remix.

Steven Stern is a writer living in New York.