Arthur Russell may not be a household name in the world of popular music, but thanks to a cultural shift towards mash-ups and genre hybridization (and some well-timed reissues of his records), he is having a bit of a resurgence almost 20 years after his death from AIDS-related illnesses. Fortunately for those just discovering the late composer/cellist/producer/musician/label founder, Tim Lawrence, the head of the Music Culture: Theory and Production department at the University of East London and the author of the seminal account of American disco culture, Love Saves the Day, recently published the first biography of Russell, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene 1973-92 (Duke University Press).
Last week, the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center brought Lawrence to campus for a talk, “Closet Heterosexuality: The Queer and the Deleuzian in the Works of Arthur Russell,” that followed nicely on the heels of the recent Matmos residency. In fact, in his introduction of Lawrence, Associate Professor of English Gus Stadler called the two events “an unintentional symposium on pop music.”
In the book, Lawrence uses biographical details not to spin salacious stories of Russell’s personal life nor as an excuse to prop up Russell’s legacy by namechecking his famous friends (Alan Ginsburg, David Byrne, Phillip Glass, Rhys Chatham), but to root his diverse experimental musical output in a specific time and place. Russell, a trained classical musician from Iowa, first moved to San Francisco, where he got involved with the scene’s counter cultural poets, Buddhists and the droning Indian music that was in fashion there. Then, in 1973, he moved to New York’s East Village and quickly immersed himself in the disparate scenes in his neighborhood: modern minimalist classical, punk, disco, hip-hop and new wave. He then internalized and joined elements of those different genres in his own original work (which, given his single-minded focus and prolific output, there was a lot of, much unfinished at the time of his death). And so instead of being easily pigeonholed or marketed, he lived outside of and unconstrained by genre conventions.
Though the crux of Lawrence’s talk focused on whether or not it makes sense to view Russell as a queer musician, its overall effect was a celebration of Russell’s creative freedom and voracious appetite for musical consumption. In Lawrence’s words, Russell “embedded fully and simultaneously in all these scenes and tried to bring these sounds together.” So it makes sense that, though he was a virtual unknown outside of the downtown New York music scene in his lifetime, he has finally garnered attention in the internet age, where everyone is expected to be an eclectic pop consumer. “We are still living with these sounds in popular, or unpopular, music,” said Lawrence of Russell’s influence.
As Lawrence played snippets from different Russell compositions, highlighting the visceral clatter of dance music tracks created in long, all-night sessions, you could see audience members who had never heard of the composer before drawing the line from Talking Heads to Larry Levan to LCD Soundsystem. “He made connections between sounds and scenes that were fragmented,” said Lawrence.
Throughout his talk Lawrence continued to emphasize that Russell avoided labels in his personal life as well. Though he lived most of his adult life as a homosexual man, he avoided the constraints of “gay” or “straight” tags and had several meaningful relationships with women. He had a “hippie ideal of a polysexual, polyracial, inclusive embrace of sexuality,” said Lawrence.
It is precisely this discomfort with boundaries—both musical and personal—that makes Russell feel so modern two decades after his death. He was a forward-thinker who couldn’t be constrained by the labels—gay, straight, disco, rock, classical—that so mattered in the era in which he lived. It’s as if, Lawrence said, in regards to his sexuality as well as his approach to music, he was constantly saying, “I will not be defined.”