The other evening I went to the ICA to see Wild Combination Matt Wolf’s new film biography of the late American musician Arthur Russell. It’s an absorbing, amusing and ultimately very moving portrait, shot in a collage style that artfully blends archive material, judiciously selected talking heads, compelling stills and VHS reconstruction. The extensive, grainy footage of downtown Manhattan’s vibrant cultural scene in the ’70s and ’80s (in which Russell was a significant if often ethereal presence), is revealing. Today, downtown New York is one big bland renovation; sterile, squeaky clean and soulless, another ‘victory’ for corporate dollar banality. Back then it was a bohemian crucible of crumbling, low rent housing, ad hoc clubs and genre-hopping cross-fertilization, all of it infused with an unquenchable spirit of creative adventure. It could have been designed for a polymath like Arthur Russell.
Wild Combination is a study of man totally immersed in the possibilities of music, more in love with the process of constructing it than he was in the finished product. It proffers the musician as a true artist – in diametric opposition to the generic, careerist box-ticking that defines so much post-Millennial music making. Although Arthur loved pop music (especially Fleetwood Mac and Abba – even his most esoteric outings are couched in winning melody and part of him always craved Abba-like success, even if the briefest exposure to the limelight blinded him) he was essentially an adventurer in sound, not a bloke looking for a career in the music industry.
The film contains a number of funny, poignant scenes in which Arthur’s still incredulous Iowan parents wrestle with the enigmatic legacy of a gifted, gay son, whose renown only arrived posthumously (although proud, Russell père still seems miffed that Arthur chose the vagaries of music over the family’s Oskaloosa insurance business). Above all, the film offers fresh insights into the genesis of Russell’s often miraculous music – an astonishingly eclectic oeuvre that ranged from chamber composition to disco floor-filler, country-folk ballad to cello etude.
I’ve been revisiting Russell’s music a lot of late, and what strikes me about all of it, whatever genre he’s working in, is how contemporary it all feels. Although he scored some club hits under various monikers in the ’80s, World Of Echo,
his 1986 album of intimate, cello-caressed songs, bombed (although at the time the Melody Maker described it as being: “…an orbit of resonance, a giant, subterranean repository of Dub…” which seemed like a very good thing indeed when ‘Lady In Red’ was ubiquitous ). It was World Of Echo’s re-release a decade later which heralded the renaissance of interest in Arthur Russell. Here, for once, was an artist who was plainly, genuinely, ahead of his time. Acknowledgement arrived too late for Arthur – he died of AIDS-related illness in 1992, aged just 40. It was a remarkably discreet passing for one whose path had crossed those of American cultural luminaries like Talking Heads, Phillip Glass, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Wilson. As one of the few contemporary obituaries put it, Arthur had effectively “disappeared into his own music”.
Since then, interest in Arthur Russell has burgeoned, mainly thanks to a phalanx of compilations released on hip labels like Soul Jazz, Rough Trade and Audika, all of which bear testament to his prescience, versatility and, many would say, genius. For the Russell ingénue, World Of Echo is as good place as any to start, although those more interested in his dance music should kick off with Soul Jazz’s The World Of Arthur Russell (if you can still find it) while his sublime chamber compositions are best served by First Thought, Best Thought on Rough Trade.
All of which brings me to Love Is Overtaking Me, yet another essential Arthur Russell compilation, due for release later this month, again via the auspices of Rough Trade. Either solo or fronting Manhattan ensembles like Flying Hearts and Sailboat, it finds Russell in luminous, mellifluous pop/rock/folk form – quite another flavour from his more intimate cello songs, and a continent away from his disco persona. Many of the recordings are only of demo quality, but that only seems to add to their timelessness. Touchstones are Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Jonathan Richman, Southern soul stalwart Dan Penn and Bob Dylan – and the quality is right up there with the vanguard. That these songs, some of which sound like genuine could-have-been hits, were never released during Russell’s lifetime, seems almost inconceivable.
Buy this record and go see Wild Combination (it’s out on DVD in November). The least we can do is keep this Arthurian legend alive.