In October, Yep Roc released a compilation of covers of songs by the deceased avant-garde musician Arthur Russell called Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. This mix honors Russell’s wildly diverse handiwork with an innovative rework of Russell’s honeymoon anthem A Little Lost by Sufjan Stevens, and a cover of the quirky underground disco hit Go Bang by the apostles of quirk themselves, Hot Chip. Russell, who died in 1992, has only begun to receive nationwide attention for his work in the last decade or so. For those unfamiliar with him, here’s a quick review.
In Wild Combination by filmmaker Matt Wolf, Russell’s long-suffering parents in Iowa are only able to recall childhood memories of their son, Russell having run away at age 16. After changing his name from his father’s and getting caught with weed, he left for San Francisco and joined an urban commune. This is where beat poet Allen Ginsberg found Russell, practicing cello and a dubious version of Buddhism. (Dubious even to Ginsberg, who followed his own unorthodox path according to The Dharma Bums, but we won’t get into that now.) Ginsberg took a liking to Russell and before long the two began collaborating, the poet reading his works over the echoey drone of Russell’s cello. Soon after, Russell found bassist Ernie Brooks of The Modern Lovers at one of the band’s last shows in ’74, and asked Brooks to listen to his music.
“He came up to Cambridge, where I was still living I think, with his guitar and started just playing these songs he had,” said Brooks. “He was funny because he was very awkward in a certain way and very shy, but at the same time he was very insistent. He thought that I had some rock secrets or something that he didn’t have. I mean Arthur was like that. He really would go find what he thought he needed to complete his music.”
This articulation of Russell’s way is repeated by so many others in the film. Russell was shy, but driven by a relentless desire to improve. He left the commune to find a home in his work at The Kitchen, a collaboration space for dance, video and music. At this creative breeding ground, Russell recruited members for a collective according to their personality as well as their ability. In this violent sea of talent, where experimental composers like Phillip Glass and John Cage found kinship and beat artists abused the lines between music, poetry and noise, Russell’s was musical director. He became a goofy Moses — longhaired, leading his squawking and gyrating people into new lands of strange but genuine quality.
The documentarian portrays this period as a high point in the musician’s life. Around this time, Russell moves to New York, where he meets his only stable partner, Tom Lee. In a recent interview with The Fader, Lee said Russell would attend shows only to take notes.
“Whenever Arthur went out, he wasn’t up front watching the band, he was kind of off to the side jotting things down on a piece of paper that had to do with music,” said Lee. “He wasn’t mesmerized by too much music that was out there.”
This habit of perfection soon began to burden Russell. He became unable to release singles without growing suspicious of his producer for tampering with the song’s perfection, working on songs for years at a time, recording and reworking endlessly. Brooks estimates Russell spent 5 years writing That’s Us/Wild Combination (above). Russell struggled to work with other artists when he wasn’t at the helm. When Brooks invited the cellist to join The Necessaries, a short-lived power pop group, Russell was ecstatic, but began to manipulate the band upon joining. Brooks remembers a time when Russell refused to attend shows while on tour, citing a dissatisfaction with the band’s “direction.”
He was diagnosed HIV-positive shortly after the release of his first and only full-length album, World of Echo. Even after the diagnosis, Russell remained productive, writing music constantly and performing, even while undergoing chemotherapy for the throat cancer the disease caused.
More than a decade after his death in 1992, Russell’s vault of nearly complete songs was cracked open for 2004’s Calling Out of Context and the Soul Jazz compilation The World of Arthur Russell, to spill onto an audience puzzled and intrigued by Russell’s wandering cello and vocals. Russell’s music is diverse and doesn’t sound unfinished, but unadorned and personal, full of clever wordplay and shy admissions.
Russell’s dogged pursuit of perfection will sound familiar to many creatives. In my own writing, I struggle terrifically with feeling dissatisfied with my work. I revise so thoroughly and often, I have blurred the drafting process into one lengthy session of self-doubt. I feel almost dirty when I write without erasing. To write a paragraph without stopping is almost unbearable. The healthy, well-adjusted writer nails down a draft with minimal corrections, then holds a pen to his mouth, says “hmm” and changes things as he sees fit, but I am not that writer, and I may never be.
If those of us who struggle with finishing creative works have something to learn from Russell, I think it is to not fall in love with the editing process. It is self-deception to believe that our work will ever appear perfect in our eyes. If after much editing we remain unsatisfied, we should hand it over to the scrutiny of a friend whose opinion we trust.