To Pitch A Tent And Go Inside
One of the most poignant stories I heard while researching HSIN? was not about a person but a record. Such was the lack of interest in Arthur Russell’s World Of Echo on release in 1987 that within a week or two, as the boxes of vinyl resolutely refused to move from the warehouse, the Rough Trade Distribution staff started to use copies as a frisbee. In a crowded field of unwanted vinyl, and RTD had untold amounts of unloved records taking up floor space, World of Echo’s fate seems exceptionally cruel. Last week was the twentieth anniversary of Russell’s death and I found myself wondering why his work has such resonance today. It’s quite a journey for a record to take: from an improvised toy used to kill some dead time to a hallowed masterpiece.
Artists who find their audience posthumously tend to produce deep emotional connections with their listeners. In the same manner that Tim Buckley, Albert Ayler or Nick Drake are the subject of great reverence, Russell’s music elicits an intense relationship from his audience, one that evaded him during his lifetime but one that is a fitting tribute to his memory and his talent. Russell’s more meditative songs, particularly the acoustic based ones, are occasionally compared to Nick Drake. Both artists have a lower register voice that can weave around a single note, a vocal style that creates a powerful and intimate cadence. I suppose Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ is also one of the handful of songs that bears comparison to the material Russell put together for Another Thought (another companion piece to Another Thought is Henri Texier’s incredible Varech – although Texier’s instrument is the double bass not the ‘cello).
It’s hard not to conclude that the main driving force behind Drake’s posthumous discovery in the 1990s was the endless repackaging of his catalogue. A more nuanced explanation is that a generation that had grown up listening to their parents’ Neil Young and Joni Mitchell records had found a lost voice from the same era that they could now claim as their own.
Something similar happened when Russell’s recordings were rediscovered this millennium, although it was revered by many of his friends and contemporaries Russell’s work was little known. The timing of the revelatory series of Audika / Rough Trade / Soul Jazz reissues was prescient - they were released at around the time MP3s and iPods started to become ubiquitous and our listening habits were changing and opening a space in which Russell’s shape-shifting methods made perfect sense. When not composing, rehearsing or recording, Russell spent many of his daylight hours walking in Manhattan listening to his music on headphones. As he navigated the flow of the grid, Russell would be submerged in his tapes, wondering around with a professional Walkman that allowed him to hear his material at first remove from the studio and setting his ideas in counterpoint to the rhythms of the city, its traffic, its sidewalks and its stop start logic. The urban headphone drift is a much more widespread experience today, it’s also the way in which many of us listen to Russell’s music. We scroll through our iPods just as Russell filtered and changed his ideas about sounds. Our listening habits have finally caught up with Russell’s approach to making music; place and sensory experience are more important than genre, we shuffle through tracks and styles in the way Russell’s muse could lead him to explore the ecstasy of The Loft and its Klipschorn speakers, or just as likely, set him off into the fragmentary introspection that produced pieces like 'Tone Bone Kone'.
Throughout his life Russell’s changes in style meant he struggled to find an audience or settle on a fixed position from which he could build a career, although the idea of a ‘career’ would surely seem like an empty gesture to him. Russell lived and worked at a time when his multidisciplinary instincts and experiments left people confused, today they make perfect sense
I once heard the author Simon Reynolds suggest another reason why Russell’s music works so well in a contemporary context - he suggested* that Russell had a permanently temporary grasp on his situation and lived his life in perpetual flux. Perhaps this reflects Russell’s Buddhist sensibilities or perhaps that’s the just the kind of person he was. Either way that sense of flux is something most of us are all now familiar with, it reflects the situation in which many of us find ourselves living and working. Russell’s ever-shifting sensibilities, reliant on fluid and occasionally indeterminate resources, suit these precarious times. Listening to his music, on headphones, at home or in the middle of the dance floor turns that sense of flux into a state of grace as we get caught in the moment with him: the cello break in 'Kiss Me Again', the few minutes it takes for 'In The Light Of The Miracle' to reach transcendence, the chorus of 'That’s Us' / 'Wild Combination' or the almost unbearably poignant high note in the chorus of 'Losing My Taste For The Nightlife'. In everything he did Russell found a sound for every feeling and a space for every thought.
*you can hear the discussion Simon & I had which included this observation here