When Arthur Russell died from an AIDS-related illness in 1992 at the age of 40, he was a notable presence in New York’s downtown scene, but barely any of his music was commercially available. His output touched on rock, disco and minimal compositions, and collaborators included the likes of the Talking Heads, Allen Ginsberg and Larry Levan. But he remained a name known primarily to those whose knowledge of the city’s music was steeped in various undergrounds.
A paradigm shift occurred soon after, and interest in Russell’s work has continued to surge decades later. With the recent release of “Corn,” an album that reached the test-pressing stage in 1983 but never saw commercial release, there are now nearly three times as many archival releases of Russell’s music available as he had released in his lifetime. There is also “Hold On to Your Dreams,” a biography from scholar Tim Lawrence; “Wild Combination,” a documentary film made by Matt Wolf; and remix records from underground dance producers and homages paid by indie singers alike.
Last month, energy drink maker Red Bull paid tribute to Russell’s legacy over two nights of concerts as part of its annual Red Bull Music Academy series in New York. Concurrently, fellow composer and frequent collaborator Peter Gordon recently toured Europe performing from Russell’s 1974 composition “Instrumentals.” Thanks to such a renaissance, a new listener can check out any one of Russell’s polygonal personas, be it modern classical composer, left-field disco producer, playful bedroom popster or even country-tinged singer-songwriter. But what makes Russell more popular some 20 years after his death and keeps his music vital and relevant for artists in the 21st century?
“This material is over 30 years old, yet for me it sounds completely contemporary,” said Steve Knutson about “Corn,” an album of catchy yet quirky electro-pop songs, full of stuttering drum machines and amplified cello riffs. Knutson is a music industry veteran who in working with Russell’s longtime partner, Tom Lee, and the Russell family is responsible for keeping his legacy alive with a series of archival reissues.
“At that time, I think Arthur was looked upon as an eccentric that had a couple of club hits but had fallen off and was making uncommercial music,” Knutson recalled. He was familiar with Russell’s left-field disco hits such as “Go Bang #5,” but things changed when disco great Walter Gibbons gave him a copy of Russell’s immersive single “School Bell/Treehouse.” “To say that the record changed my life is an understatement. It was the start of my obsession to hear every note Arthur made.”
“Somebody described Arthur to me as a ‘gay disco auteur who used to listen to cassette mixes of his own music on the Staten Island Ferry,’ and that description alone really piqued my interest,” said Wolf, the filmmaker, who sought out Russell’s music in 2004 soon after moving to New York. “I saw a lot of myself in Arthur’s story because I was living in New York trying to figure out how to be an artist. Arthur was many different people in terms of the breadth of his work, and it’s hard for people to identify all these different sounds with one musician.”
Russell had success in the world of dance music — his songs became a staple at Larry Levan’s iconic Paradise Garage and the Loft — but when the disco backlash took hold and the ’70s turned into the ’80s, the music of New York acquired a harder edge thanks to no wave and bands such as Swans and Sonic Youth. “The downtown music scene was loud, in your face and confrontational,” Knutson said. “Arthur did not make aggressive music. His melodic gifts did not suit the times.”
One development that may have subliminally helped the Russell renaissance came in 2001, when Apple introduced the iPod. The functionality of the device, both in terms of being able to consume more music and to easily shuffle between selections, helped drive genre divides to the wayside. “Arthur’s ability to gracefully move between dance music and ‘serious’ music while dismantling the political hierarchies that create these false distinctions was what drew me into his work,” said Gavin Russom, former LCD Soundsystem member who releases music for DFA Records and is performing “Instrumentals” with Gordon in Europe.
During Russell’s time, pop stars — be they Bruce Springsteen or Madonna — were firmly fixed in their genres. But in the 21st century, it is advantageous for musical acts of all stripes to diversify their portfolios. Rappers must navigate both R&B tracks as well as David Guetta productions. Brooding indie rock band the National also does modern composition while a rock band such as Tame Impala delves in remix culture. It is not artists indulging so much as realizing the necessity of reaching wider audiences.
“The last 15 years have seen monumental changes in how music is discovered and consumed,” Knutson said. “So Arthur’s example and music is a perfect fit for today because of its broad and genreless reach. His legacy continues to grow, unencumbered by the market restrictions that kept him and his music from reaching an audience during his lifetime.”
So to think of Russell now, headphones affixed on the Staten Island Ferry and lost in his own personal mix, he seems less like a loner figure than a prescient one, able to glide across genres as he wished, perhaps envisioning a future where listeners might one day hear his every note.
Beta is a freelance writer.