Dec/Jan 2010

East Village People

A musician's biography charts a diverse and sprawling scene

John Rockwell


Every art has its day, and so maybe does every city and every neighborhood. Lower Manhattan—Greenwich Village, SoHo, the East Village, and the Lower East Side—saw an explosion of poetry and painting, music and dance, over much of the past century. But from the early '60s to the '90s, the performing arts flourished. They flourished in myriad genres, music especially, and devotees of one aspect of the scene—whether conceptual performance art, minimalist composition, experimental dance and theater, punk rock, or disco—were sometimes only dimly aware of the others. Yet everyone who was there knew well, and historians since have acknowledged, that something striking was happening.

So much so that downtown came to define a shared aesthetic, as well as a shared network of social relations. Uptown represented the establishment: middlebrow at the midtown theaters and concert halls, academic at the universities and conservatories. Downtown was open, loose, experimental, where cheap rents and an atmosphere of permissiveness encouraged experimentation, where painstakingly accrued technique was less important than originality and adventure. Tim Lawrence's new book mentions downtown in its subtitle without bothering to identify what city it's referring to, and it doesn't need to.

The entirety of the lower-Manhattan arts scene awaits its definitive chronicler, or even an honorable first effort at such a chronicle. A comprehensive study would entail an enormous amount of work, as well as an author with an enormous breadth and depth of knowledge of and critical acumen about all the various, sometimes linked, sometimes isolated, genres and subgenres. Lawrence's Hold On to Your Dreams is not that book. But it represents the broadest and most insightful study of the whole musical scene so far, for a peculiar reason. That reason is its subject. This is not a cultural history; it's a biography of a man who wasn't there, even though he was almost everywhere.

In his restless, quirkily brilliant, painfully self-defeating way, Arthur Russell explored an amazing range of music during his years in Manhattan, from his arrival in 1973 (well after the scene had taken shape) to his death from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Born in 1951 and raised in Oskaloosa, Iowa, he ran away at sixteen and arrived in San Francisco the following year before landing in the East Village, where he lived the rest of his life.

Russell arrived as a Buddhist cellist, emerging from a guru-dominated commune in San Francisco and drawn to New York by careerist ambition and a friendship, struck up in California, with Allen Ginsberg, who lived in the same East Twelfth Street tenement that housed Russell for most of his nineteen years in the city. He composed classical minimalist compositions of nearly every kind and scale, notated and quasi-improvisatory, with and without electronics. He served for a year as music director of the Kitchen, lower Manhattan's premier performance space. He wrote folkish songs and country and rock songs, participating in several bands that never made a commercial dent.

Even after he came out, he had heartfelt affairs with women. He grew fascinated with the multicultural gay scene and enjoyed his biggest commercial and critical successes with avant-garde disco singles. He was a pioneer in introducing popular music to the monkish cloister of downtown classical composers, as well as black and Latin styles and musicians to this predominantly white world. Russell's later work degenerated into weird mumbling or, depending on your perspective, ascended into an ever more refined ethereality, approaching his stated goal of using sound to evoke Buddhist spirituality. He won a loyal coterie of collaborating musicians, club DJs, and record executives, many of whom were as frustrated by his neurotic procrastinations—he could never finish anything, it often seemed, endlessly mixing and remixing and combining tracks laid down over years—as enthralled by what they heard as his genius.

As a critic for the New York Times and a champion of downtown music in the '70s, I never understood that genius. To me, Russell's music sounded mostly clumsy and inert. I was not alone; critical commentators and anthologies of the period barely mention him. Yet disco perked up his music a bit, and his champions were thrilled when a new set of admirers arrived with the new millennium. A remarkable number of Russell CDs have appeared, either repackagings of old material or, more and more, exhumations from the archive lovingly maintained by his devoted partner, Tom Lee, inspiring critical commentary in the United States and Britain that ranges from the respectful to the adulatory. The filmmaker Matt Wolf made a feature-length documentary about Russell in 2008 called Wild Combination that won favorable reviews and toured the festival circuit. And now, the product of years of labor, comes this deeply researched biography, copiously and touchingly illustrated with photographs of Russell and his family, friends, and fellow musicians over the years.

"He was like Picasso . . . one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century," exclaimed one particularly excitable collaborator and admirer, Steve D'Acquisto. But if so, why was (and is) he so little known? Many of his peers became successful, but despite collaborations with Philip Glass (an especially generous supporter), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, and many more, not to speak of a host of disco luminaries, Russell never managed to clamber up with them onto the podium of fame. To say he wasn't good enough is way too simple. His personal charisma, sufficiently tangible to win him so many loyal followers, did not translate into public performance. He was handsome, though his face was severely scarred by acne. He sought fame, sometimes desperately, but recoiled from it when it beckoned.

Lawrence convincingly argues that Russell's diversity of interests, the purity of his passion for genres of every sort, subverted his chance for recognition, let alone commercial success. Sometimes Lawrence too easily slips into an Adorno-esque disdain for commodification, as if Russell's failure to come up with hits attests to his talent. But a concentration, calculated or instinctual, on one musical style does indeed help a composer succeed, commercially and critically. Russell never settled into any one genre long enough to establish a reputation and win sufficient champions to propel his career. Sticking to a single style may be limiting, but it can also be defining. Not everyone, including Russell, can be Picasso.

Russell allowed himself, helplessly, to be consumed with the process of music making, indifferent to the product. He recoiled from any final version of a composition for fear it would preclude all its other potential manifestations. As Lawrence puts it, a final version of a song "would become static and therefore experience a form of death." According to the composer and writer Ned Sublette, Russell "couldn't turn his back on the beauty of unexplored possibilities." There's a nobility to that, but it also helps explain the lack of recognition beyond his cult.

Lawrence explores all this with enormous care, not to say dogged detail. He's interviewed everyone he could find (not including his subject, who was reclusive and elusive with the press, anyhow, quite apart from his having died before Lawrence undertook his labors). His attention to who played what on which track in which recording session is sometimes numbing; it puts the most obsessive jazz buff to shame.

Yet what makes this book valuable is that Russell's shadowy ubiquity turns an ostensible biography into a first draft of that elusive comprehensive history of the downtown performing arts. Hold On to Your Dreams has to go everywhere, because that's where Russell went. In 2004, Lawrence, who teaches at the University of East London, published a well-received book on disco in the '70s, Love Saves the Day. He's strongest on Russell's involvement with disco yet makes an admirable effort to embrace his other genres as well. Sometimes there are odd errors and misemphases born of Lawrence's distance from New York or a particular musical style, classical composition in particular. The writing ranges from the eloquent to the overwrought to the awkward and eccentric—Lawrence is mesmerized by rhizomes—but it serves its purpose.

In short, even if you didn't know about Russell and are not yet persuaded to pursue him further, this is still a book worth reading. Psychologically, Russell emerges as indeed fascinating, more fascinating than his music, as a maverick without, Lawrence notes, the feisty self-righteousness such figures often embody. He was, in the words of his friend and collaborator Gary Lucas, a "free-spirited, secretive, awkward and stubborn trickster figure, a willful creative force of nature, who fought the system yet also tried to embrace it." Maybe he was a prophet, writing music "out of its time," as another of his collaborators, Ernie Brooks, put it in Wolf's film. But maybe he just never found that elusive combination of talent, careerism, and luck to really make it.

Lawrence shines a bright light onto a subject who fails to reflect much back. But the light picks out telling background details. By exploring downtown-Manhattan culture so restlessly and thoroughly, even if he didn't impress himself forcefully on it, Russell has inspired a book that helps us understand a thrilling twenty-five years of American cultural history.

John Rockwell is a freelance author and critic.

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March 25, 2013
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