Village Voice 04.19.2017 : Page 18

18 April 19 April 25, 2017 VILLAGE VOICE.com THE INFINITE WORLDS OF ARTHUR RUSSELL BY SASHA FRERE JONES Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, the avant-garde icon blazed a trail on the downtown music scene. Now, a quarter-century after his death, his legacy gets the attention it deserves. A t irst, Charles Arthur Russell was just Charley. Growing up in Iowa during the Fifties and Sixties, Charley vacationed in the Midwest and Mexico with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Charley decided he wanted to be called Arthur. When he moved to Northern California in 1968 and found his way into a Buddhist commune, he was renamed Jigmé. It didn’t last. But he settled on Arthur when he moved to New York in 1973 at twenty-two, bringing all his places and names with him. Before dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at forty, Russell checked off many boxes, usually at the same time. But his vision of small and large ensem-ble work with the unspeci ied duration of a Buddhist mantra and the hubcap glow of a Beach Boys single was no easy sell — at least, not until his records were reis-sued in the early 21st century. Now people move to New York because of Arthur. Russell played in rock bands, wrote folk songs, produced rubbery disco epics, and inverted most of the forms he partici-pated in. First, though, he was a cellist studying both Indian and Western classi-cal music. Once in New York, Russell worked on a hybrid of notation and im-provisation he had begun developing in San Francisco. In 1973, he inished an open-ended piece called “City Park,” which used bits of poems by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Russell’s professor at the Manhattan School of Music, serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, reacted by saying, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.” (There is no re-cording of “City Park,” so we cannot replay this match.) By April of 1979, Russell was concen-trating on dance tracks. Though he had put out a single on Sire Records, he was no more at home inside the pop industry than he had been at an uptown college. After hearing Russell’s submission to Warner Brothers, a&r man Michael Ostin submitted a handwritten note. He de-scribed Russell’s “instrumental perfor-mance” as “uneventful”; the “vocal performance” prompted Ostin to write, “This guys [ sic ] in trouble.” His sum-mary: “Who knows what this guy is up to — you igure it out — give me a break.” Russell was up to many things. An-other of his inventions was a form of pop using the tools of modern classical, sort of. With little more than a cello, a fuzz pedal, and very quiet vocals, Russell cre-ated a body of songs that were economi-cal, sweet, and pop-smart, with a slippery tonality that suggested neither Top 40 nor lieder . The irst album in this style, World of Echo , came out in 1986 on a label called Upside that was also releasing records by Jonathan Richman and the Woodentops. The reaction from critics was almost uniformly positive, but the irst pressing of World of Echo sold fewer than a thousand copies. This time, Rus-sell didn’t wait for someone else to char-acterize the project. He asked the label to attach a sticker to the remaining three hundred copies of World of Echo , one black word on a white oval: “UNINTEL-LIGIBLE.” “It was Arthur’s way of saying to people, ‘Don’t expect to get it the irst time, or the second time. Don’t listen to it that way,’ ” Upside boss Larry Feldman says in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biogra-phy, Hold On to Your Dreams . “I had never seen the rejection notes from the record companies until the ex-hibit,” says bassist Ernie Brooks, Rus-sell’s collaborator on many projects, including the Necessaries and the Flying Hearts. “Over the last several years, peo-ple have started understanding what was great about how Arthur sang and wrote songs. His singing seemed so effortless — he was never striving for drama. But that’s not what was going on at the time. It was the punk moment at CBGB, and here was Arthur doing these quiet pop songs. He conveyed so much affect in an affectless way.” The strongest album of the voice-and-cello songs didn’t come out during his

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