A Resurrected Body of Work

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By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 16, 2008

NEW YORK -- "Wild Combination," a new documentary about Arthur Russell, faces the impossible task of trying to sum up a musical career that billowed like steam -- both boundless and fleeting.

Russell was an Iowa-raised cellist who befriended Allen Ginsberg while living in a Buddhist commune in San Francisco. He was a composer who moved to New York to craft orchestral music and left-field disco anthems. He was a shy, visionary workaholic who strived to infuse pop with the avant-garde but died before finding any semblance of a fan base.

Trying to cram a life that contradictory into 70 minutes of film? Not easy. But director Matt Wolf's documentary, set for DVD release Tuesday, is wise to throw British music journalist David Toop on-screen first, allowing him to distill Russell's essence in 11 words: "Not many people allow themselves the full extent of their complexity."

Even more complex than Russell (and the vast swath of music he left us before dying of complications of AIDS in 1992 at age 40) is a listener's quest to understand him. New York's Audika Records began eking out discs of Russell's music in 2004: unreleased mutant dance jams, serene instrumental compositions, a reissue of his breathtaking 1986 chamber-pop album, "World of Echo."

No release sounded like the previous one, and each received resounding accolades from information-age fans -- an audience perhaps less encumbered by the notion of genre and more able to explore Russell's zigzagging biography with a few mouse clicks. Today, Russell resembles a contemporary Nick Drake -- a timid pop genius who quietly slipped away.

But unlike Drake, Russell was a indefatigable polyglot. The newest collection of his music, "Love Is Overtaking Me," was released three weeks ago, revealing -- surprise! -- country-tinged pop songs. (Perhaps the cover photo of Russell sporting a Stetson was a hint?) At first pass, the only thing recognizably Russell about "Love Is Overtaking Me" is his fragile and indelible voice -- singing as if trying to summon some elusive truth from the depths of his throat. It's the one unchanging hallmark in Russell's sprawling discography -- a body of work that, with each new release, continues to make us wonder: Who was this guy?

Much of that depends on who's telling the story, as Wolf's "Wild Combination" is quick to illustrate. Over a noisy choir of espresso machines at a cafe near his apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the 26-year-old filmmaker says his documentary was never intended as the last word on Russell. "I called it 'A Portrait of Arthur Russell' to defy expectations of definitiveness," Wolf says. "Some of the criticism I've gotten is resistance to the subjectivity of the film. But I wasn't interested in making a definitive anything." (That responsibility has fallen to author Tim Lawrence, whose Russell biography, "Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92," is due out from Duke University Press next autumn.)

"Wild Combination" depicts Russell as a tireless composer and a timid eccentric, and interviews with his parents, friends and collaborators speak to a life filled with complicated relationships. The one exception is Tom Lee, Russell's partner and patron, who had a front-row seat to Russell's creative process.

"People are still thirsty for some really solid description of him," Lee says at a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a few blocks from the elementary school where he now teaches first grade. His other job? Custodian of Arthur Russell's legacy.

After Russell's death, Lee immersed himself in the myriad cassettes his partner left behind. "For me, part of the grieving process was literally listening to no other music," Lee says. And while Russell never explicitly expressed his wishes about the fate of his recordings, Lee says, "I knew he was leaving things for me to take care of."

An English label, Rough Trade, expressed interest in the music, and composer Philip Glass's Point Music label issued a collection in 1993, but no one jumped into the deep end of Russell's catalogue until Audika's Steve Knutson approached Lee in 2003. Impressed by Knutson's interest in the composer's more adventurous recordings, Lee decided to form a partnership, allowing Audika to release "Calling Out of Context" in early 2004. The critical embrace was sweeping, with the New York Times, the New Yorker and others penning enthusiastic hosannas.

"It was fantastic," says Knutson, recalling that initial burst of interest from behind his desk in Audika's one-room office near Central Park. "And I wasn't surprised. This is great music."

So Audika invited fans to navigate Russell's sonic labyrinth, reissuing "World of Echo" and unveiling a collection of instrumentals called "First Thought Best Thought," the club opus "Springfield" and, most recently, "Love Is Overtaking Me." The most popular Russell titles sold more than 10,000 copies and have been cited by artists including M.I.A., Hercules and Love Affair, Jens Lekman and others.

Now with interest in Arthur Russell's music at an all-time high, what will we get to hear next?

Nothing.

Probably.

"There's more stuff, so never say never, but I want this to be it," Knutson says, wary of diluting Russell's discography. "I'm a real hypocrite, because I've been able to hear all this stuff, but I still think less is more."

"I do feel that there's a little bit more that could be put out of this kind of music," says Lee, referring to the guitar-strewn pop of "Love Is Overtaking Me." "But how Steve and I do it, it might be an EP, it might be a promotional song. There's no definitive answer to that."

"I think I've told the story well," Knutson says. "It's over for now . . . for today."

With that, Knutson asks the reporter to turn off his recording device and plunks a cassette into the office stereo. It's an unreleased Russell oddity called "Anti-Gravity Soap": harsh drum machines, playful war whoops and bizarre scrums of cello all locking into place like funky puzzle pieces.

Unsurprisingly, it's like no other Arthur Russell song you've ever heard.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell screens at New York's Museum of Modern Art on Dec. 5 and 19.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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