Some of you may not be familiar with the name Arthur Russell. For a long time, he was relegated to the pile of forgotten artists who failed to break out of the 1960s New York art scene and into the mainstream. Russell’s blend of avant-garde cello-pop is at once tender, subversive and delightfully idiosyncratic. He was also incredibly prolific. At least, he would have been if he hadn’t found it so hard to finish material.
Despite amounting to literally hundreds of recordings throughout his career – including several early dance anthems under the aliases Dinosaur L and Indian Ocean – he only released two full solo albums. When he died from an AIDS-related illness in 1992, he was still relatively unknown outside New York, but thanks to a series of reissues released in the 2000s he soon became something of a cult figure, leading to the release of several posthumous compilation albums, including The World of Arthur Russell and Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.
Russell’s story is one we all recognise: the struggling artist misunderstood by his contemporaries who only finds success when it’s too late. This process of rediscovery got underway just a year or so after the musician’s passing. In 1994, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne sat down with minimalist composer Phillip Glass and beat writer Allen Ginsberg to discuss the musician’s life and legacy. The general consensus was that Russell’s music came from somewhere totally unfamiliar to many of his contemporaries. Byrne actually worked with the cellist when he was putting together an early Talking Heads record. “Talking Heads was just getting started,” he began. “I’d just moved here [New York], and at one point, he did some horn arrangements for a couple of our songs, and they were peculiar horn arrangements; I had to completely reorient my thinking. I found that was often with the case with Arthur.”
After leaving his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, Russell moved to a Buddhist commune in San Francisco, where he studied North Indian Classical Music at the Ali Akbar College of Music alongside Western composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was here that he met Allen Ginsberg, with whom he began to work, accompanying him on the cello as he performed his poetry. “The amazing thing was he could reproduce my monochordal variations of different [William] Blake tunes that I’d invented note for note,” Ginsberg recalled, “Playing in unison with my voice.”
After securing a position as the music director of The Kitchen, an avant-garde music performance space, and transforming it into a bastion of classical minimalism, Russell befriended Phillip Glass, with whom he would go on to collaborate in 1983. “This was a guy who could sit down with a cello and play and sing in a way that no one else on this earth has ever done, or will ever do it again,” Glass began, going on to note Russell’s penchant for pop music: “I think Arthur was really interested in the song. See, the thing is, we were always interested in the experiential side of it. I think Arthur was interested in how he could take the experimental side of it and redirect it into an idiom he really would have thought was a pop idiom.”
When it comes to Arthur Russell, there’s so much to discover. Make sure you check out the full conversation between Byrne, Glass and Ginsberg below.