“Icons: Arthur Russell”. Attitude, October 2009.

Reprinted in Loops, Switzerland, 2011.

Arthur Russell on the rooftop of 437 East Twelfth Street in mid-1980's. Photograph by Tom Lea

A composer and multi-instrumentalist who lived and worked in New York during the creative peak of the downtown era, Russell was a quirky character who appeared to live at a tangent to his times. While his peers prepared for Armageddon by dressing in ripped black leather as they explored the outer limits of noise, Russell wore check shirts and made music that was esoteric yet anthemic in order to pursue Buddhist enlightenment. Scarred by acne, caught up in multitrack tape and perpetually poor, he struggled to make his presence felt until he died of complications arising from AIDS in 1992.

But Russell was more than a charmingly peripheral misfit whose recordings resonate with beauty, innocence and mystery. Working at the heart of downtown’s epoch-shaping compositional, rock, dance and hip hop scenes of the 1970s and 1980s, he performed and recorded new music, new wave, disco and hip hop, as well as straight-up pop, twisted folk and voice-cello dub. And because Russell moved within and between these sounds and scenes in a simultaneous blur that wasn’t matched by any of his contemporaries he also embodied the potential of a democratic-sonic utopia. As he told Donald Murk when his one-time companion and personal manager made the commercial case for a more streamlined profile, “I will not be defined.”

Russell learnt about the importance of freedom while growing up in Oskaloosa, Iowa. An irregular kid who preferred the cello to sports, he was an outsider at school, and when his drug experiments led to a bust-up with his parents – they found out about the marijuana but not the LSD — he ran away from home aged sixteen. Russell ended up in San Francisco and after a period of directionless mooching moved into a highly disciplined Buddhist commune. From there he attended classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Ali Akbar College of Music while developing an ethereal strain of twisted folk. Meanwhile a budding friendship with Allen Ginsberg resulted in him travelling to Manhattan for a recording session with the Beatnik poet and Bob Dylan. So began Russell’s New York odyssey.

Russell returned to Manhattan in the autumn of 1973 to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music but, objecting to the institution’s severity, he eked out a space on the floor of Ginsberg’s East Village apartment and began to forge friendships in downtown’s compositional scene. Within 18 months Russell became Music Director of the Kitchen, a pre-eminent centre for experimental music and video, and an early performance of a piece titled Instrumentals revealed the way he hoped to introduce pop and Buddhist sensibilities into the orchestral tradition. “He was way ahead of other people in understanding that the walls between concert music and popular music and avant-garde music were illusory, that they need not exist,” comments the composer Philip Glass, who attended the concert. “He lived in a world in which those walls weren’t there.”

Russell continued to explore improbable connections when he programmed the Modern Lovers, a pre-punk band whose bare-bones aesthetic resonated with developments in orchestral minimalism, to perform at the Kitchen. By then Russell might have turned down the chance to become the fourth Talking Head in order to pursue a more explicitly sincere form of uplifting pop with the Flying Hearts. A couple of years later he joined a new wave outfit called the Necessaries, but jumped out of the band’s tour van en route to a gig in Washington when the thought of dedicating himself to one group and one sound became unbearable.

Drawn to the ecstatic potential of repetitive music, Russell was ready for disco, and his shifting sexual preferences drew him into the dynamic milieu of downtown dance. Having enjoyed apparently fulfilling relationships with women, Russell became more interested in men, and after the briefest of flings with Ginsberg began to date a man who was tight with Nicky Siano, the DJ at the Gallery, a predominantly black gay private party. Inspired by the venue’s blend of aesthetic adventure and social progressiveness, Russell went on to pioneer the sound of mutant disco with releases such as “Kiss Me Again”, “Is It All Over My Face?” and “Go Bang! #5″. On these and other tracks such as “Pop Your Funk” and “Clean On Your Bean”, Russell suffused dance floor play with illicit innuendo, while his willingness to team up with cutting-edge remixers such as Walter Gibbons, François Kevorkian and Larry Levan confirmed his interest in the infinite mutability of sound.

Russell enjoyed a degree of commercial success in disco/dance and was also invited to compose music for Robert Wilson’s avant-garde operaMedea. But he blew money as soon as it came his way – his close friend and collaborator Steven Hall says he was a “studio junkie” – and as a result became emotionally and financially dependent on his partner Tom Lee, who provided him with the emotional and economic stability he needed to pursue his unpredictable projects. Russell’s parents also helped out, especially when their son needed to purchase a new piece of must-have technology. But this support couldn’t match the early advances Russell had received from labels such as Sire and West End, and as the lucrative commissions dried up, Russell’s acoustic songs, unorthodox dance and funky electronic pop became more elemental and intimate. The acclaimed album World of Echo remains the standout release from this later period.

Straight friends and musicians only realised Russell was gay when they were told. “I was clueless,” says the African American percussionist Mustafa Ahmed. “Coming from where I was coming from, a gay person was a flaming fag. Arthur didn’t behave that way.” Meanwhile the trombonist and composer Peter Zummo, another close collaborator, recalls Russell confiding in him he was a “closet heterosexual”. Russell insisted he was happy with his life as a gay man, yet as with his music, he might have wanted to protect the freedom to be more than one thing. When an inconsequential fling resulted in him contracting HIV, the debate was curtailed. Russell wrote “A Sudden Chill” soon after and continued to make music until a year before he died, aged 41, in 1992. Lee couldn’t have been more devoted to his lover during this period, while Ginsberg was the last person (other than Lee) to sit by his bedside.

Russell’s passing was met with respectful but limited recognition, and the release of the posthumous album Another Thought on Glass’s Point Music in 1994 seemed to mark the final twist in an ultimately thwarted career. But ten years later Audika and Soul Jazz released two more posthumous collections, which triggered a wave of media coverage that has contributed to an unprecedented level of interest in Russell’s music. Since then Audika has released several more albums, including a new collection of songs titled Love Is Overtaking Me, while Matt Wolf’s documentary filmWild Combination provides an exquisite visual account of Russell’s life.

More of a breakthrough than a comeback, the interest in Russell is good news for his friends and family, whose only regret is that the acclaim arrived so late. Perhaps that was always going to be the case. An unassuming trendsetter who frequently puzzled his downtown peers, Russell was an anathema within the context of the commercial music market. Russell would have almost certainly opposed the slightly cultish element that has accompanied his elevated profile, because he was the first person to point out that almost all of his music was grounded in collaboration. But perhaps it’s because of these tensions – tensions between the individual and the global, the light and the serious – that Russell is attracting such an unlikely passion.