I finally had a chance to see Matt Wolf’s much-acclaimed documentary on the avant-pop cult hero Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992 at age 40. He had been a key force downtown since the early 70s, when he was the musical director of The Kitchen, one of old SoHo’s key venues for experimental performance/art. For years he lived on E 12th St in a building inhabited by other artists, including Ginsberg and Richard Hell.
The film is beautiful. See it. Give it as a gift. Let it lead you to a lot of amazing music (with more to come, as Audika Records and others sort through the thousands of tapes he left behind). This year’s release, Love Is Overtaking Me, should be a good starting point for newcomers or a fantastic complement to those who already thought they had this multi-facted composer and performer pegged.
A quick snippet from the official site’s synopsis and a trailer to lead you in:
Arthur began working with Philip Glass and other composers in the
avant-garde music world, specifically at The Kitchen, where he became
musical director in 1974. He composed melodic orchestral music and
absorbed the vanguard ideas of the new music scene. Simultaneously
Arthur discovered the liberating social and aesthetic possibilities of
underground discos. Under the guise of various monikers–Dinosaur L,
Loose Joints, Indian Ocean–Arthur produced playful and eccentric disco
records that became hits of the pre-Studio 54 era.
The rules and codes of established genre didn’t apply to Arthur. The
serialized patterns of minimalist symphonies resonated with the
repetitive rhythms in dance music. Likewise, the utopian social settings
of the early discos were like the Buddhist commune Arthur had once
known. With childlike innocence and fun, Arthur ambitiously explored
all of these possibilities.
He fell in love with his boyfriend Tom Lee, and the two moved in
together in the East Village, next door to Allen in a building populated
by poets, musicians, and artists.
But despite Arthur’s musical talent and ambition, he was often tempered
by self-defeating career choices and alienating perfectionism. It
seemed that Arthur was creating a kind of utopia, where the absorbing
process of making music was his life. Finishing his work was a
secondary concern. Collaborators moved on to new projects, career
opportunities passed, and Arthur began working alone in his apartment.
What resulted was perhaps his most fully realized body of work, “World
of Echo.” These transcendent solo cello-and-voice songs were like
intimate diaries that fit somewhere between lullabies and art songs.
I only wish there had been a little more in Wild Combination on the wider scenes he helped to shape, but it’s a small complaint about what’s ultimately one of the best films of the year.
For more on Russell:
A New Yorker profile by Sacha Frere-Jones from a few years back.
A Slate profile by Andy Battaglia from around the same time.
A Gothamist interview from just last week with Tom Lee, Arthur’s boyfriend.