Arthur was born Charles Arthur Russell in Oskaloosa, Iowa in 1952, deep in America's cornbelt. From a young age, he displayed uncanny musical ability and it was in his teenage years that he began to play his mother's instrument, the cello. He headed west at the age of 18 and studied in San Francisco with Ali Akbar Khan, lived in a buddhist commune until they tried to pool their possessions (no bonus points for guessing which possession Arthur wouldn't part with) and met Allan Ginsberg with whom he would collaborate. The rest as they say is history and I will not write it here. Follow some of the links below to read some of the more arresting articles about Arthur's life and music. During his life in New York he worked with people as diverse as Larry Levan, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. He was a disco kid, avant-garde composer and poet, a man that head of Rough Trade Records Geoff Travis would describe as a small town country kid who turned the big city on its head.
When I look at any of the few photos of Arthur Russell that I have seen, I'm always struck by a certain earnestness in his face. But hiding somewhere just beneath the surface I imagine there was a great openness. An openness to people, to music, to love, to life. I never met him or saw him perform so of course I can never know this, but I have listened endlessly to his music and read a lot about him. Just last week I heard his (speaking) voice for the first time on a poor quality college radio interview from 1986. This interview came to me from Woody McDonald, one of my fellow announcers at 3RRRFM, who had received it from Steve Knutson, head of Audika records, a label that have been diligently re-issuing Arthur's work over the last three years.
The recording was rough as guts, the interviewer obviously knew nothing about Arthur and for me there was a real sadness in this. Much has been written of Arthur's shyness, his humble nature. A perfectionist to the end, some say he left behind 700 unreleased tapes and reels, while others say there are closer to 1000. Within this some of his better known compositions are immortalised up to 40 times and long time partner Tom Lee is also said to have hundreds of pages of lyrics. There is a quote that often turns up from one of Arthur's obituaries. It says 'It's as if he almost vanished into his music' and listening to this shy, funny, odd, humble man talk to an unimaginative radio presenter 20 years ago, I started to understand what that might have meant.
Below are parts one and two of a special I presented on Arthur Russell for 3RRR here in Melbourne. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed presenting them. I cleaned up the interview as best as possible and edited together some sections of live performance and talking. The quality is rough but i thought it was worth a bit of crunchiness to hear what Arthur had to say.
Quite a bit about Tschaikovsky as it turns out.
enjoy and look out for Matt Wolf's movie about Arthur coming in 2007.