Cities of the mind: a rather poetic evocation of something many of us have experienced. It’s a peculiarly suburban, peculiarly faux-bohemian teenage phenomenon. Can there be a word more distasteful to the disaffected teenager than suburb? Even the blunt, rounded corners of its stunted syllables seem to invoke a cultural dead-zone preserved in pack-ice, a deracinated mass of consumer stuff, the uniform gray of extruded siding. Of course teenage ennui is deliciously enjoyable — but only in retrospect. In the throes of biological warfare your body has declared on your mind, it’s deadly serious stuff.
Like most teenagers, I spent more time thinking than doing. And mostly what I thought about was getting out of the one-horse town that was obviously Sucking All Potential From My Life By The Minute. But where would I go? To The City of course, a simultaneously sepia-tinged and technicolor wonderland, cobbled together from a lifetime of movie images and snatches of TV, from song lyrics and sound bites: cultural haven, patron of the arts, sinister and glamorous, sprawling and amorous. It was there that my fortune would be made, my genius recognized in its own time, instead of languishing “out here,” one county removed from share croppers.
On some level, it’s not an unreasonable dream. Certain things can only bloom in the hot house of a city’s limits. Van Gogh’s greatest paintings are inseparable from the Arles countryside he briefly called home before his suicide. But the work of Edouard Manet could not have existed without the bar-girls and street lamps of his beloved Paris. Sometimes it just takes that New York-London-Paris-Munich-Tokyo-State-Of-Mind. (Besides, who can begrudge a shy, introverted adolescent — even an insufferably pretentious one — his meager dream of a book lined apartment downtown, where he would sit writing novels about Big Important Themes, for an audience which hadn’t realized that reading was dead or at least coughing up blood?)
Despite myself, I did escape, first to Philadelphia and then eventually to New York. (Less a total leap into the unknown than a puddle jump.) And at first it was just as glamorous and alien and full of living electricity as I imagined. The city is an organism itself, not a host; in many ways, it feeds off of you. And since it, in and of itself, won’t sustain you, you have to create a space for yourself separated from the hustle and bustle. Or it can eat your dreams alive.
I say that to say this: I never knew Arthur Russell personally, only through a handful of biographical articles and his music. I have no idea what drove him to begin playing music, what siren song it used to make him devote his life to it. Perhaps he would have led just as happy a life if he had never left the Iowa of his youth. But I doubt it. His achievements — although they could have never occurred to him as a boy — could not have been realized there. For that, Russell had to get out, first to San Francisco and then to the pan-cultural ferment of late 70s/early 80s New York City.
But even amidst like-minded outcasts and free thinkers in the city, Russell’s vision proved to be too idiosyncratic. Commercial concerns, indifferent audiences, and confused DJs all threatened to dilute him, to render him less than he was. I suspect that, like many creative people, Russell’s essential “otherness” (how else to describe someone who was a true American musical maverick — on par with Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch, and Charles Mingus — who achieved no commercial success in his lifetime) forced him to create the environment he needed out of his work. It was a refuge, to quote his obituary from The Village Voice in 1992, “so personal that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”
If he vanished without a trace as it were, who was Arthur Russell? In 1994, Point released Another Thought as a posthumous collection of Russell work. It presented the man as a wracked avant troubadour, alone with his cello. One by one his old associates with name brand value (Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, David Byrne) were trotted out to explain why Russell was a True American Visionary. (Which he was, no doubt. But like many other American Visionaries [Richard Maxfield springs immediately to mind] whose own name brand value equals the number items available for purchase [zero], the prospective record company needs every bit of proselytizing they can muster.)
But how much of this view is manufactured? The recordings collected in Another Thought were the last made by a man who had spent his last few years wrestling with the Sisyphean boulder of AIDS; it’s reductive and far too easy to paint him as a merely a tortured genius, a suffering artist (although that was certainly part of his makeup.) In this light, it could have been titled Only Thought; as the only Russell work still widely available and in print, it does its best to airbrush out a side of Russell the academy might not approve, like photos of Trotsky in a Soviet history book.
The “who” is actually a question with multiple answers, reflecting the often confounding ease with which he moved between genres and scenes. First and foremost, although possibly to his chagrin, he was a classically trained cellist, born in Iowa in 1951. He studied with Indian master musician Ali Akbar Khan in San Francisco, as well as falling into the orbit of Allen Ginsberg. His main endeavor at the time (circa 1973) was a piece entitled “Instrumentals,” which lasted for 48 hours (!), obviously never played in its full form.
Once ensconced in NYC, he would enter the downtown orbit of composer/performers like Rhys Chatham, playing on several important minimalist recordings. In an alternate universe one could have imagined him being drawn to the emergent no wave scene, playing avant-rock cello alongside bands like Chatham’s Meltdown and Glen Branca’s Theoretical Girls. (He briefly played in a group featuring Chatham and David Byrne called the Flying Hearts, and he almost became a member of the Talking Heads.) But twas not to be.
In 1979 discophobia was at its peak; legendary xenophobe and DJ Steve Dahl led his anti-disco hordes in the infamous “Disco Demolition Derby.” The image of rock fans so rabid to destroy a form of music that was “artificial” and “alien” to them would smack of the worst kinds of racism, homophobia, and provincialism today. (And if it wasn’t exactly the “dance der Mussolini” then, it was close enough.) But so it was, throughout the vast sweep between the Appalachians and the Rockies. (And not a few people on the coasts either; Lester Bangs, godfather of all things punk rock, memorably described the music as “dead enough to suggest the end of popular music as anything other than bugspray.”)