Arthur Russell Lives in New Bio "Hold on to Your Dreams"

Arthur Russell was one of the first artists I worked with that I really got to know as a friend, and he was a great guy. A character unlike any other, smart, so sensitive and most of the time pretty funny in spite of sour/insecure feelings he often harbored. His music was everywhere and nowhere at the same time! If you are into duality, Arthur’s music had it – he made ambient, dense, electronic, undefinable music but walked the streets of Manhattan, Walkman glued on and listening obsessively to his own music an anything else.

With the recent release of a documentary, the reissue of his Upside album World of Echo and Tim Lawrence’s forthcoming book, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992,Arthur’s life and music have been gaining in recognition lately.

The digital era we are now in would have served Arthur well. He was constantly recording, but also agonized over what to release. His music would be relevant in so many contexts now, I can see “the A” (his response to my appreciation of Rakim) as a film music guy, a songwriter, and would also have been recognized for his wit and ability to comment on music too.  Arthur was constrained in many ways, due to budget limitations and his bizarre “standards,” such as recording on a full moon (it didn’t sound that weird when I heard Neil Young did the same thing years later) and doing take after take, version after version of the same fragments of songs.

But through all the iterations, there was something at work at the core, because Arthur could pull it together and play it straight when felt like it.  I hope Ali Akbar Khan has resumed his lessons to Arthur now that he has passed on to another plane.  And if there was another plane, such as Waylon Jennings talked about, Arthur’s there.  Waylon said that the after life is “how people feel when they think about you.”  When I think of Arthur Russell, I feel lucky to have known him.  He taught me a lot.

Arthur Russell at WUSB Stony Brook, April 1987 (Photo by John Rosenfelder)

Tim Lawrence has taken on a challenging project in writing “Hold on to Your Dreams – Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene 1973-1992,” attempting to define the undefinable. He will be ably assisted on Saturday, February 20th at the ICA in London by Arthur’s Landing, an assemblage of Arthur’s closest friends and frequent collaborators.

Arthur’s Landing includes Mustafa Ahmed (percussion); Joyce Bowden: Vocals/guitar; Ernie Brooks: bass; Steven Hall: guitar; Bill Ruyle: drums; Peter Zummo: trombone.

I saw these folks perform with Arthur on numerous occasions, and in particular remember meeting Peter Zummo at his loft in Westbeth. 

Zummo, along with Ernie Brooks, were names Arthur really relished dropping and was proud of his association with them.  Joyce Bowden appeared on stage with him often in the late 80s, and made the big leap to recording with Arthur while I was working with him. I’m glad she is part of the launch event for the book! Arthur seemed to lean on her a bit, but that was typical of all his friends.

While he battled with this horrible neighbor Cornelius over noise, through a pipe to the heater, he also had electricity piped in from another more benign neighbor, Allen Ginsburg.

During the surreal experience of walking through the Gavin Seminar for Media Professionals (a major radio conference that even his nemesis Juggy Gayles was working), we found ourselves in a Gold Castle Records hospitality suite.  We were looking for his friend Jennifer Warnes, who after dueting with Joe Cocker and Bill Medley on a few of the biggest hits of the era, was launching her celebrated album of Leonard Cohen covers, Famous Blue Raincoat.  But she just stopped schmoozing when she saw him.  It wasn’t an anti-business vibe, he was just too anxious about everything to be in the gin of the industry.

Thanks to Tim Lawrence for bringing so much attention to Arthur Russell!  If you are in London, please hit the show and book reading on February 20.

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