Deputy Culture Editor – Art
Who was Arthur Russell? This question has animated a proliferation of books, documentaries and articles in recent years. The resurrection of Arthur Russell is well and truly underway; collection of posthumous releases of his music and a significant number of eulogies have now been dedicated to his life. One of these works is Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, a suitably sensitive and touching exploration of sensitive and touching artist.
With a back catalogue of music that spans mutant disco, country and pop to Avant Garde, Russell’s creative output is difficult to pin down. As musician David Toop puts it during the opening scenes of Wild Combination: “How could one person work in all these different ways?” Although Russell eschewed the sole pursuance of one genre to dip his toe in many, Jack of all trades, master of none he was not. His disco creations are the best of the best and his softer, experimental stuff is likewise just as visionary.
The man himself was as enigmatic as the music he produced. Soft spoken and quiet during his lifetime, mystery and myth has surrounded him since his passing. The documentary does a good job of profiling the diverse details of his short life: it covers his move from Iowa to San Francisco, his stint as music director at The Kitchen, his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, his foray into disco right up to his untimely Aids-related death. But the documentary is at its most touching during the interviews of Russell’s nearest and dearest. His family, friends, former collaborators and long-term partner Tom Lee all give memorable testimonies to the artist.
Lee is also the owner of Russell’s musical estate and the one tasked with the momentous job of organising his unreleased recordings. Russell was notorious for leaving work unfinished – a symptom of his obsessive perfectionism – and apparently left behind thousands of tapes of unreleased work. He enjoyed moderate success with the work that he did release during his active years but it is clear that the world wasn’t quite ready for him. Even now, much of his work is challenging to listen to and appreciate. Yet there’s no doubt that much of his music touches something strangely simple and true in people. Russell’s genius is deservedly beginning to be explored and enjoyed in real depth. This documentary is a good place to start.
Wild Combination fills in many details of Russell’s life. If this isn’t enough (and it won’t be!) Subcity have a week-long programme of events covering the elusive artist. Find out what else is going on as part of the “Habit of You- A Celebration of Arthur Russell” series over on Subcity Radio’s Facebook.