Tim Lawrence's new book, Hold Onto Your Dreams is a highly readable account of deceased composer Arthur Russell's personal and professional journey through life. From his original search for enlightenment which took him from his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa to San Francisco at the height of the 60s counterculture movement to his eventual and final landing in the East Village of New York City this thoughtful read recreates the life of a sometimes recalcitrant and endearing genius. A life like Russell's is compelling not only for the sounds he created and the lives his own intersected but for the singularity of focus. Music was at the center of his person and his engagement with its structures was as limitless as he perceived the universe to be. Unlike many artists today who attempt to rush from medium to medium Russell's focus was that of a musician and eventually as a composer. In this it seems he had a strong basis for developing his spirituality, his talent and his community of collaborators. He loved, he laughed, he lived straight and he lived gay. He lived on both coasts. Arthur lived free.
I came to pursue Russell's ghost when my friend and I needed a letter proposing an interview for DJs we were booking. Visas and travel restrictions being what they are these days a simple interview, along with my credentials as a published freelance writer were adequate for our DJ guests to gain entrance at the gates of JFK airport. The interview consisted of the duo of Lee Jones and Nick Höppner, known together as My My and the local Nightlife Editor for TimeOut Magazine, Bruce Tantum. Having recently seen a screening of Matt Wolf's Wild Combination, a visually compelling documentary portrait of Arthur Russell, I felt assured that I could at least ask a few questions that would generate discussion. Discuss we did, however, with surprising results. Russell was largely unknown as a personage. A small smattering of his disco work was known because it was undeniable in the dance music cannon, however, Russell seemed to be less known than he could be. Outside of New York no one seemed to have a sense of his legend, his life or the breadth and depth of his work. This, I realized, was the time before the internet.
Russell loomed in my thoughts partially as inspiration and partially as cautionary tale. As a man who had missed moments of superstardom despite interest from legendary A&R figures such as John Hammond and associations with the poet Allen Ginsberg, to name only a few, Arthur's practice and his vision sometimes seemed to be the province of those privileged enough to have provided for them the means to survive. I wondered how he could have justified this. Having grown up in an era where the artistic life was more often style than substance. I held my doubts about the integrity of Arthur Russell. The primary element to the contrary, aside from the strange and brilliant surfaces found in his music, was the presence of his community which gathered to play and further his music.
Luckily I too, have a community and through a dedicated music-maker I made some contacts and was made aware of something called Arthur's Landing. At St. Mark's Church for an evening sponsored by the Poetry Project I came to hear the old friends and musicians, all who had known and played with Arthur. Sitting in the audience with a friend who is a noted music critic I set to recording the songs of the evening. This was the music I knew less well but where I would witness many of the same musicians who had played on tracks such as "Is It All Over My Face" "Go Bang" or "In The Light of a Miracle." In a modest area imagined as a stage a small audience watched and listened to an assembly of former downtowners, the wild children of years gone by, now hunkered down to complex arrangements that seemed hinged more to memories than to current practice. Together they offered glimpses of superb talent, of years of training and of awkward personal relationships. At times they could do nothing more than offer an apology and restart a particular song again. There was a roughness to the performance and some truly unfortunate moments of feedback that were disconcerting to all.
The building momentum of the evening didn't materialize and I went home with my recordings a bit unsure of how this would go. I was now charting the course of something that could soon capsize. Staying attentive was the only recourse. My friend and I listened to the recordings over and over. As I waited for time to tell I listened to a CD handed to me by Steven Hall. He attempted to keep Arthur's music alive by virtue of a duo with the vocalist Joyce Bowden. Hall's airs were difficult to decipher although he was outwardly the most hip of his contemporaries. Within the tracks of the CD I sensed sensitivity and more focus than I had seen onstage. I listened to my recordings of Arthur's Landing as well as those of Recent Memory to better understand the music and its legacy. I awaited the next performance.
Some months later in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Arthur's Landing were playing at Zebulon, an intimate venue but one with a stage. With dimmed lights and a bit of wine we prepared for something that would not be the performance at St. Mark's. With notable absences, such as that of percussionist Mustafa Ahmed the band played a set that was consistent for the unfortunate feedback that had followed them. There was discomfort in the audience and an unease between some of the moments meant to highlight new alliances with younger artists such as Nomi of Hercules and Love Affair. Friends of mine who had been excited for the show expressed hope but a discernible disappointment. I flaggingly pointed to the brilliance of individuals like trombonist, Peter Zummo and mumbled about the fact that he was a card-carrying ethnomusicologist.
Round three was on September 11th, at the New Museum. Following the widely-known composer Elodie Lauten, Arthur's Landing set itself to perform after another longtime friend and contemporary. Sharply featured and just as sharply focused her performance created an aura in the New Museum's underground auditorium. Afterwards, as Arthur's Landing took to the stage I considered recent articles proclaiming them a "cover band." That seemed odd, like saying the philharmonic or perhaps a jazz quartet was somehow a cover band. The lights dimmed. A friend of mine who had attended at Zebulon realized this was the same group we had witnessed together in August. He shot me an accusing glance and with proper Gallic manners prepared for the performance. Someone else whispered to me that a few members were wearing orange. I explained Russell was a Buddhist. Maybe it was the gravity of the day that took the focus off of themselves and deeper into their music, but this time there was a difference for the better. They were somehow uniform. There were no technical problems.
Finally, on October 10th I attended an all day symposium at NYU regarding the work of the late Arthur Russell. Author Tim Lawrence, filmmaker Matt Wolf, even Arthur's parents and two of his sisters crowded with artists and academics into a room on the sixth floor of 721 Broadway. Panel after panel there was a mix of musicians, friends, collaborators all discussing this man's genius and his personal journeys in detail. There were conversations regarding structure in his pieces, discussions of his cello playing and his years of training in microtonalities at the Ali Akbar School of Music. Throughout the day surprises arrived and a portrait of man and music was drawn. This day highlighted his professional-personal relationships, his process and his deep commitment to collaboration. Many of us in the audience were approaching this man from a temporal distance. There were quite a few young DJs, cultural critics and others too young to have known the man or his version of our shared city. There was coffee, there was lunch. There were late-arriving legends who still suffered at the fates of traffic. It was a day examining the grid, the dancefloor and the perfect pitch of Arthur when he played the cello. There was a discussion of his voice. I was burnt out and wondering again, what exactly was I doing in this room. I don't even read music. Of course, I knew, this was about the journey, and in every journey we can get tired. As I left NYU I carried a large cup of semi-cold coffee. I drank it though my stomach hurt.
Afterwards, the group was to move on for a performance of Arthur's landing and a reading by Tim Lawrence. This was the official launch. I arrived late to the performance. I had grabbed some food and a drink. I steadied myself against possible disappointment. The New Museum had gone well, but I still wasn't sure. What I witnessed on October 10th, at the bookstore, Housing Works, was just short of magic. Or maybe it was the quiet type of magic that we need these days. This magic felt more like a homecoming, and in a way, it made the city shrink to something comfortable and warm. I don't know exactly how to explain what came from the stage that night because it wasn't flashy and it wasn't blazing, but it was brilliant and steady. I think it's what they call loving intention manifest. Love of craft, love of other, love of sound; it was love that filled the room. Time and time again the panelists, tired from a day of concentrated effort seemed to radiate the sureness that had eluded them earlier. Time and time again that day they had spoken and then referred questions to Tim Lawrence, the author, or to Matt Wolf, the filmmaker. Perhaps finally they were comfortable, now, knowing that some people somewhere had noticed their friend and had chosen to save him from footnote obscurity. They were now validated as a community, as people in time and in place. As artists and as friends they had received the respect if not the money that one could say was due to them. There were younger artists there that night, not just performing as props but as real musicians and singers performing their own renditions from Arthur's catalogue. His niece and his nephew performed, too, a goofy little folk tune that made their grandfather happy. If there was a moment of feedback that night I can't seem to recall it.
One of Arthur's friends had remarked that Arthur had hoped and worked so a cloud of money would rain down on his friends. He worked hard for their success as well as his own. Of course, everyone knows that this is the hardest way to will money into one's life. Unfortunately for Arthur's finances, he was a pretty advanced Buddhist. He wished for money, but more than likely he wished for joy and acceptance, the truest riches . He wanted their broadening as individuals and the development of their capacities and talents more deeply than he wanted money. As I watched Ernie Brooks prepare for his solo, tuning and miming his words at the foot of some stairs and as I saw so many little intrigues from my nest in the balcony that night, I felt emboldened as an artist. I thought of my own community and how the financial crisis has ripped into our perceptions of who we thought we were. I imagined my friend's new baby and how this was also changing him and me and all of us. The creation of art like the begetting of children remind us of two major things, the need to dismiss our own ego and the need to live within an established community. As the cultural landscape of the 60s and 70s gave way to the money and the consumerism of the 80s I think Arthur Russell's community must have suffered. Like a type of dolphin or a tuna, artists were put in the service of radio edits and pandering to masses increasingly known and regarded firstly as markets. I myself have more than once cursed the Flower Children of the 60s for falling short and selling out. In their generation I perceived the truest examples of hypocrisy. By watching Arthur's Landing and by following these fits and starts I have now corrected my misconception. They didn't all give up and cash in. Some of them have worked hard to find ways to live humble yet significant lives. They haven't all left us sitting by the wayside. In fact, some of them have been burning a path deeper than any I had previously considered.
It's important that people pursue their films and continue to write their books about lesser known bits of history and there is nothing more important than the counter-culture rediscovering its predecessors. Artists do not rule the world, so any true artist must look deep into history to see who were the friends, the partners-in-crime, the lovers and the rivals of a particular time. For most people success is reduced to balance sheets and completed projects. This same reductive reasoning would mark Russell as less than the sum of his parts. I wish Arthur's Landing a lot of luck. I wish us all the opportunity to follow our unknown inspirations to pursue and study the story of others and groups of others who have come before. As artists, as for all people, watching and learning from the larger processes of history is part of how we grow and keep moving forward. It's a little like life, that way, and a lot like love.