A Disco Less Traveled

Arthur Russell was straight outta Oskaloosa, an Iowa native, born and bred. He died of AIDS in 1992, leaving behind a sprawling and obscure body of music that hops through genres—sometimes imploding them, and other times inventing new styles along the way. After escaping the Hawkeye state to join a San Francisco Buddhist commune in the early 1970s, he met and became friends with poet Allen Ginsberg, for whom Russell would provide musical accompaniment during readings. It was the first of many collaborations he did with a wide range of notable artists, including minimalist pioneers Philip Glass and Rhys Chatham, professional eccentric David Byrne, disco legend Nicky Siano, and others.

After studying North Indian music during his tenure on the West Coast, he moved to New York to attend the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. While there, Russell became the musical director of the legendary venue The Kitchen, which provided him and several other “serious music” types with a home for their aural experiments. Russell also co-founded the seminal 1980s hip-hop/dance label Sleeping Bag Records, which was home to old school rappers T La Rock, Nice & Smooth, EPMD and Mantronix. In short, it was an unlikely career. If you were to draw a Venn diagram that mapped the intersections of 1970s disco, the Manhattan art music scene and pop music, Russell would be standing right there in the center, alone.

The instrumentals Russell crafted during this period are works of pure beauty, consisting of semi-improvised melodic figures that loop and repeat, slowly developing and building on the previous theme. The songs employed brass, wind and string instruments layered atop a bass, drum, guitar and keyboard setup. Pretty, melancholy and as light as tissue, those songs were performed by a motley crew of musicians from very different backgrounds. Russell’s players included Rhys Chatham, whose 1970s guitar drones directly influenced Sonic Youth, as well as Ernie Brooks and Jerry Harrison of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. (Harrison later played with David Byrne in the Talking Heads, whose “Psycho Killer” featured Russell’s cello playing in an early incarnation.)

Arthur Russell not only soaked up the disco scene that thrived in Manhattan throughout the 1970s, he participated in it, likely raising the eyebrows of his experimental music peers. In 1979, he took his first dip in dance music waters by writing and producing the 12-inch single “Kiss Me Again,” under the name Dinosaur, which was followed in 1980 by Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face.” The latter song is a great example of the kind of mutant disco Russell specialized in, and its influence can be heard in the New York and Chicago house music of the 1980s. Weird sound effects, frenetic percussion breaks, rollicking piano fills, and dub-influenced vocals that go in and out of the mix in an almost random fashion—this is not your middle-of-the-road disco.

If he had continued on the straight and narrow path of conventionally unconventional avant-garde-ism—instead of engaging with disco, electronica, noise and odd little pop songs—Russell surely would have become a towering modern music composer like Glass, Steve Reich or Terry Riley. He instead took the road less traveled, and Russell died a largely unknown, enigmatic figure. The Village Voice’s obituary read, in part, “His recent performances had been so infrequent due to illness, his songs were so personal, that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.” It wasn’t until relatively recently that this Iowan’s work has been reissued on CD, including the posthumous collection First Thought Best Thought, which collects those aforementioned instrumentals.

Adding to this slow boiling revival, filmmaker Matt Wolf recently directed a documentary about Russell, Wild Combination, which debuted last year at the Berlin Film Festival. Matt Wolf tells me, “I took cues from the icons in Arthur’s music (water, corn, childhood experience and play) and the visual looks of some archival material of Arthur performing (abstracted close-ups in silhouettes, shot in grainy VHS footage)” to create a film that is as much “a visual experience as a sound experience.”

And it is. Not only does the documentary serve as an empathetic and impressionistic introduction to Russell’s music, Wild Combination also delivers a compelling human story. In fact, some of the film’s nicest moments feature his parents interviewed in their Oskaloosa home. While they are still bewildered by their son’s odd musical and lifestyle choices, they come off as very loving, supportive and open-minded about that which they don’t fully understand. It’s very sweet.

Despite being a part of so many über-hip music scenes, Russell didn’t hide his corny Iowa roots. Wolf says, “He also wanted to fashion himself as a ‘farm boy’ and would frequently wear farming hats while performing.”

For instance, on the cover of the album Calling Out of Context, Russell is wearing a hat that says “Master Mix,” which Wolf notes is a reference not only to the brand of feed mix for animals but also to deejaying. You could say that Russell pioneered trucker hat fashion years before Ashton Kutcher was even born, though this was not the only Iowan influence that worked its way into his music.

I think the expansive, wide open planes of Iowa really informed Arthur’s music,” Wolf says. That expansive feeling is at play in World of Echo, his album-length masterpiece. It was released in 1986, though this sui generis record sounds light years apart from the contemporary avant-garde, dance and pop scenes he inhabited. It defies categorization, not only because there are very few albums entirely composed with multi-layered cello and vocals but also because it’s unlike anything else recorded beforeor since, something that could also be said more generally of Arthur Russell, the man, and his music.