During the 1970s and early 1980s, a diverse group of artists, musicians, sculptors, video filmmakers and writers congregated in downtown New York and forged a radical creative network. Distinguished by its level of interactivity, the network discarded established practices in order to generate new, often-interdisciplinary forms of art that melded aesthetics and community. “All these artists were living and working in an urban geographical space that was not more than twenty-by-twenty square blocks,” notes Marvin J. Taylor, editor of The Downtown Book. “Rarely has there been such a condensed and diverse group of artists in one place at one time, all sharing many of the same assumptions about how to make new art.” The musical component of this network was prolific. Minimalist and post-minimalist “new music,” disco, new wave and no wave emerged in downtown Manhattan during the late 1960s and 1970s; free jazz continued its radical flight during the same period; and hip hop mutated into electro in the early 1980s. During this period of frantic productivity, musicians attempted to work across the sonic and social boundaries of their respective genre-led scenes, while venue directors sought to introduce innovative musical programs that were performed against a shifting visual backdrop of installations, specially-commissioned artwork, lighting effects and experimental video films. It was, in short, a remarkable period in the history of orchestral and popular music in terms of aesthetic innovation and social relations as well as the way in which creativity and sociality are bound together. Arthur Russell, I argue in this essay, was not only a representative product of the downtown music scene, but also that his interactions with a range of musicians, scenes, spaces and technologies marked out the network’s radical potential.
Following his arrival in New York in the summer of 1973, Russell performed and recorded orchestral music, folk, new wave, pop, disco and post-disco dance, as well as a distinctive form of voice-cello dub. If such a broad-ranging engagement was implicitly rhizomatic ⎯ or structurally similar to a horizontal, non-hierarchical root network that has the potential to connect outwards at any point, and is accordingly heterogeneous, multiple, complex and resilient ⎯ Russell intensified the non-hierarchical, networked character of his practice by working within these genres simultaneously rather than moving from one to another according to a sequential, dialectical logic. In addition, he also attempted to establish meeting points between downtown’s diverse music scenes, not in order to collapse their differences and generate a single sound, but instead to explore the points of connection that could provide new sonic combinations and social relationships. Although Russell worked beyond sound when he linked up with choreographers, photographers and theatre directors, his main focus was on the music he produced with a mutating group of musicians, many of whom were sympathetic to his cross-generic project. Russell regularly emphasized the presence of this collective network above his own input when it came to choosing artist names for his records, and he also developed a range of sounds that articulated and reinforced the decentralized complexity of the downtown scene. For these and other reasons, I will argue that Russell’s work can be best understood through the development of a new concept: the concept of rhizomatic musicianship, or a musicianship that moves repeatedly towards making lateral, non-hierarchical sounds and connections.
In developing an analysis of a musician who worked across generic boundaries in relation to a specific space and time, I hope to theorize the way in which a progressive musicianship can be understood in the context of the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari ⎯ who developed the materialist metaphor of the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus ⎯ as well as Manuel DeLanda’s elaboration of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the assemblage. Studies of music that begin with this theoretical framework have focused on composers who have developed their oeuvre within a single genre, or on specific genres that encourage rhizomatic practices or rhizomatic sounds (such as jazz fusion, dance and dub). However, very little has been written that begins with the musician, which implies somewhat problematically that composition and genre are the primary structures through which musicianship always takes place. Given that the concepts, practices and effects of composition and genre have contributed significantly to the stratification and hierarchical division of music, an analysis that starts with the musician offers an alternative way of analyzing sound according to its immanent rhizomatic potential (because sound, as I will go on to argue, can only move according to rhizomatic movements). Of course this focus runs the risk of framing the artist in the same terms that eulogize the composer as an individualized genius. To focus on Russell, though, is to focus on a collaboratively minded, commercially unsuccessful practitioner who wanted to make music that could build communities and touch the cosmic.
In order to avoid privileging Russell as an isolated genius, or conversely as a mere product of a determining social system, I develop an analysis of the downtown assemblage ⎯ a body of interacting buildings, creative producers, technologies and other components ⎯ that draws attention to the territory’s decentered, rhizomatic character. Second, I set out the terms of what might be called a “rhizomatic politics” and point to some of the ways in which Russell’s music is rhizomatic, providing an overview of his work in three aesthetic blocks ⎯ orchestral/compositional music, pop/rock music and disco/dance music. Third, I discuss Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on music, as well as the way in which their thoughts have been applied to a range of musical genres. Fourth, I expand my concept of rhizomatic musicianship through a detailed analysis of Russell, drawing out his relationship to genre (the organized spectrum of sound), making music (practices through which sound is generated), audiences (the intended recipients of sound), becoming-woman/child/animal (the non-dominant groups with whom he identified) and the cosmos. Finally, I introduce some concluding thoughts about the strategic consequences of Arthur Russell’s rhizomatic politics. Of course Russell did not read Deleuze and Guattari, or sit down in order to map out a strategy that could be characterized as rhizomatic, yet it is through A Thousand Plateaus that the contours and relevance of Russell’s musicianship can begin to be theorized.
1. The Downtown Assemblage
In A New Philosophy of Society, Manuel DeLanda draws on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the assemblage to suggest that all social entities ⎯ from the subpersonal to the international ⎯ can be best understood through an analysis of their components. These components are not defined by their role in a larger assemblage, so “a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different.” And although components have a degree of autonomy, the properties of the component parts do not explain the assemblage as a whole because the whole is not an “aggregation of the components’ own properties but of the actual exercise of their capacities.” In other words, assemblages are not reducible to their parts but emerge out of the interactions between their parts, so the capacities of a component “do depend on a component’s properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities.” Assemblage theory offers an alternative method for analyzing the world because components are not merely products of a grander social macro-structure. At the same time, DeLanda’s conclusion that an assemblage amounts to “more than the sum of its parts” avoids the pitfalls of an individualist perspective that interprets society as a “mere aggregate.” The collaborations and the network are more important than any purportedly individual contribution, even if the creative producers in the network are active agents and not mere products.
Assemblage theory enables an analysis of downtown New York that refuses to fetishize the territory’s industrial buildings as autonomous monuments of a bygone era, and the theory also helps avoid a portrayal of downtown’s artistic population as constituting a series of discreet creators whose individual contributions resulted in the “aggregate” of downtown. At the same time, assemblage theory encourages a critique that interprets downtown New York as being more than the “mere product” of a shifting historical era that marked the demise of industrial capitalism and the onset of neoliberal capitalism in the West. Born in Mexico in 1952, DeLanda moved to New York City in 1975 and made a number of short films on Super 8 and 16 before he became a programmer and computer artist in the early 1980s. Maybe his experience convinced him he was neither nothing nor everything.
A swirl of labyrinthine streets that offset the geometric grid of midtown and uptown, the SoHo/NoHo/TriBeCa assemblage of downtown Manhattan functioned as the center for the city’s light industry until structural limitations persuaded manufacturers to relocate to cheaper and more accessible zones during the 1960s. In search of expansive living spaces that were sufficiently cheap to enable them to pursue an unprofitable line of work, a range of artists, musicians, photographers, sculptors, video filmmakers and writers moved into the deserted area of downtown and forged a radical artistic community. Meanwhile, as downtown broke with its manufacturing past, industrial technologies were replaced by a series of creative technologies that ranged from traditional art materials and musical instruments to cutting-edge video cameras and synthesizers. These three sets of components ⎯ the space of downtown, the cultural producers who moved into the area, and the technologies they deployed ⎯ combined to generate a diverse range of concerts, exhibitions, installations, video films, sculptures and dance parties, as well as multi-media works and events that combined more than one of these elements. At times it was difficult to see a pattern in these forms of expression, although a general link could be detected in their attempt to break with the perceived straightjacket of the past (uptown) and the commercial (midtown) in order to develop an experimental minimalist and post-minimalist alternative.
There was no privileged player in the reconstituted milieu of downtown New York. While it is tempting to attribute absolute agency to the artists who moved into the empty loft spaces and proceeded to produce a radical art, they were only able to move into the neighborhood because, light industry having moved out, the state decided to sanction their illegal occupation of the abandoned buildings as a cost-effective way to regenerate the area. In addition, downtown’s semi-derelict condition and geographical location encouraged artists to develop an alternative practice that distanced them from the more comfortable conditions and rituals of midtown and uptown art, while the expansive contours of the lofts inspired them to develop big, bold, energized works ⎯ works they might not have produced in another milieu. The materials and technologies they used to make their art also acquired a level of agency, with the found objects of the neighborhood suggesting new forms of collage or installation, or new technologies such as the computer, the synthesizer and the video camera offering novel ways to capture the world. Most importantly, the sheer openness of downtown en-couraged a wide-range of creative producers to move into the geographical zone, and the resulting concentration of artists helped generate meetings and collaborations that would not have happened if these sets of creative practitioners had remained geographically discreet. With no clear hierarchy in the relationship between people, buildings and machines, downtown amounted to a collective aggregation of components that could act both materially and expressively, as well as either increase (territorialize) or decrease (deterritorialize) its degree of homo-geneity. Like all assemblages, the network did not evolve outside of the interactions of its components, and to varying degrees these interactions had material effects on the development of the network.
Although downtown did not follow a linear path of either deterritorialization or territorialization during the 1970s and 1980s, an overarching trajectory can be traced. The downtown assemblage deterritorialized from the manufacturing assemblage when light industry and its attendant workforce moved out. Cheap rents enabled the artistic population to survive by combining their work with part-time jobs ⎯ even Philip Glass had to return to taxi driving following the premiere of his acclaimed score for Robert Wilson’s opera, Einstein On the Beach ⎯ while nascent performance spaces received some support from public funding bodies. Downtown practitioners also produced a deterritorialized art by avoiding the methods that were being sponsored by established institutions (most notably in uptown Manhattan) or commercial entertainment institutions (which were located in midtown Manhattan), and the broad-ranging make-up of the downtown “artists’ colony” resulted in interdisciplinary meetings and collaborations that deterritorialized their former dis-ciplines. The hybrid, fragmented and fractured aesthetic that came to dominate many of these productions helped reinforce the downtown assemblage’s decentered character. “[T]he vernacular of Downtown was a disjunctive language of profound ambivalence, broken narratives, subversive signs, ironic inversions, proliferate amusements, criminal interventions, material surrogates, improvised impersonations, and immersive experientiality,” notes the art critic Carlo McCormick. “It was the argot of the streets, suffused with the strategies of late-modernist art, inflected by the vestigial ethnicities of two centuries of immigration, cross-referenced across the region-alisms of geographic and generational subculture, and built from the detritus of history on the skids as a kind of cut-up of endless quotation marks.”
Three types of musician converged in downtown Manhattan during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Compositional minimalists started to perform in a range of spaces, including the Kitchen, an experimental venue for video and music that was located in the Mercer Street Arts Center; rock minimalists began to play in adjacent spaces in the Mercer Arts Center, with the New York Dolls taking up a residency in the venue’s Oscar Wilde Room from June to October 1972; and David Mancuso (the Loft), Robin Lord/Nicky Siano (the Gallery) and Richard Long/Mike Stone (the SoHo Place) staged all-night parties in a cluster of loft spaces. Although the collapse of the building that housed the Mercer Street Arts Centre in the summer of 1973 upset the equilibrium of these music scenes, each reacted by establishing a firmer and more demarcated foundation in downtown, with the Kitchen, the Loft and the Gallery moving to larger, more centrally-located premises, while the displaced rock minimalists regrouped in an underused, unpopular venue called CBGB’s, which was situated on the Bowery. By the time the reconfiguration was complete, each music scene was committed to a form of experimentalism yet operated as one of a series of self-contained aesthetic and social entities.
If the music scene was in a state of limited flux, with musicians exploring boundaries within but not between generic parameters, many still perceived music to be a space of relative mobility, in part because the art scene had been commodified more rapidly. The first art gallery opened in SoHo in 1968 ⎯ perhaps because art objects such as paintings were cheaper to create than musical recordings, and art was more attractive than music to individual investors ⎯ and journalistic accounts of “the rise of SoHo” focused on the area’s burgeoning art market. This process of commodification encour-aged individual artists to develop an identifiable and marketable style, and this relative sedimentation (or “molarization” in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms) of the art market prompted a number of artists to explore the freer (or more “molecular”) music scene. Laurie Anderson, a sculptor, followed this path by combining spoken word poetry with processed violin playing, and when the Rhode Island School of Design graduates David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz arrived in the city they quickly switched their attentions to the less institutionalized music scene. “When I came to New York I guess I was very na�ve,” Byrne told a reporter from Art News. “I expected the art world to be very pure and noble. I was repulsed by what I saw people putting themselves through, the hustling to try and get anywhere. My natural reaction was to move into a world that had no pretense of nobility. Since I’d always fooled around with a guitar, I formed a rock band.” One can imagine Deleuze and Guattari approving of their decision. “In no way do we believe in a fine-arts system; we believe in very diverse problems whose solutions are found in heterogeneous arts,” they write. “To us, Art is a false concept, a solely nominal concept; this does not, however, preclude the possibility of a simultaneous usage of the various arts within a determinable multiplicity.”
Cultural practitioners started to work in earnest across generic and disciplinary boundaries from the mid-seventies onwards. If they had not done so already, galleries, concert spaces and dance venues refashioned themselves as multi-media environments that promoted a range of artistic practices, many of which were presented against the backdrop of a sound system and a DJ. Showcasing a wide range of downtown performers, these venues began to attract significant audiences, which in turn meant that the performers could expect to be paid for their efforts. More than ever before, downtown artists and musicians could look forward to earning a modest income from their art, and this encouraged a further surge in productivity that culminated in what McCormick describes as “a total blur.” Downtown’s rhizomatic assemblage became a multitude, which made it ⎯ drawing on Tiziana Terranova’s description of multitudes ⎯ difficult to control yet also enormously productive thanks to its “dynamic capacity to support ‘engaging events,’ while acting with a high degree of distributed ‘autonomy and creativity’.”
The artistic movement was territorialized in legal terms in June 1974 when the New York authorities passed the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, which validated the previously shady practice of loft living and specified that residents had to be artists (or manufacturers). However, the attempt to revitalize downtown as a dedicated artistic zone in which residents would maintain the local infrastructure and start to pay taxes proved to be unsustainable. Realizing that prices could not be held down indefinitely and that the state would not be able to restrict residential use, a number of artists bought up properties as a real state investment, and at the same time non-artists also started to move into the area ⎯ either because they liked it or because they recognized an excellent investment opportunity when they saw one ⎯ and took to arguing with the regulatory authorities that they were in fact artists. During the second half of the 1970s, the gentrification of SoHo accelerated, with the opening of the Dean and DeLuca supermarket in 1977 a potent symbol that the area was no longer run “by the artists, for the artists,” even if the artist presence was still central to the area’s “cool” cachet.
Even when it was cheap, SoHo was still too expensive for many creative practitioners, and so many ended up living in satellite neighborhoods such as the East Village and Alphabet City. This process accelerated after property prices skyrocketed at the end of the decade, and towards the beginning of the early 1980s the New York Rocker declared that because “‘old SoHo’” had become an “affluent Disneyland” of “chi-chi novelty shops… and chi-chi eateries,” downtown now extended from “from Alphabet City to the Fulton Fish Market, NoHo to Tribeca [sic.].” The expansion of downtown resulted in the closing down of the supposedly Utopian period when artists were able to live only with other artists, although it could be asked: what is so Utopian about artists being able to live with each other? In the expanded version of downtown ⎯ a downtown that no longer revolved around SoHo ⎯ artists stopped thinking of neighborhoods such as the East Village as secondary satellites, and they also began to value the way in which they shared their buildings and streets with a variety of non-artists.
This expanded version of creative downtown also came under attack during the first half of the 1980s. The Reagan administration’s decision to divert money from welfare and the arts to the military resulted in arts organizations having to become financially self-sufficient, which in turn encouraged them to take fewer risks when drawing up cultural programs, and downtown’s identity as an area for artistic experimentation was further undermined when the beneficiaries of the stock market boom started to move into its chi- chi lofts. Taylor dates the end of the downtown era at 1984, by which time “the larger art world had encroached on the scene.” Kyle Gann, who writes about downtown music for the Village Voice, agrees that some kind of decisive shift had taken place. “After 1985, commercial pressures were about as difficult to avoid in Downtown Manhattan as rhinoceroses,” he comments. The pressures on downtown’s alternative culture continued to intensify during the 1990s when the AIDS crisis hit its peak and Mayor Giuliani set about clamping down on New York’s nightclubs and “cleaning up” the city.
Then again, the obstacles and limits did not always come from outside. “To read the history of Downtown between the decades, or what really happened between 1974 and 1984, is not to follow the footsteps imprinted in history but the skid marks of spontaneous encounters and urgent negotiations,” writes McCormick in The Downtown Book, and this kind of depiction of downtown is becoming commonplace. Yet McCormick introduces a point of qualification when he adds that the “dichotomy between external disillusion and insider membership is a relationship Downtown struck not only against the mainstream but also consistently upon itself” and that almost every “congregation that mattered was invented on its own conditions and fabricated its own turf.” The music scenes that emerged around new music, new wave/no wave and disco/dance were as notable for their internal rules as their laid back openness, and it was left to figures such as Arthur Russell to demonstrate that these sonic blocks of experimentation ⎯ the blocks of compositional music, pop and new wave music, and dance music ⎯ were porous.
Having lived in Oskaloosa, Iowa, between 1951 and 1967, and then San Francisco between 1968 and 1973, Russell moved to New York in the autumn of 1973. He spent his first months living uptown, near to the Manhattan School of Music (MSM), where he was studying, but headed downtown when Allen Ginsberg (a friend from San Francisco) invited him to share his East Village apartment. A westernized Buddhist who pursued his spiritual practice most intensely between 1970 and 1973, Russell thought about returning to San Francisco, where he could spend time with Yuko Nonomura, his spiritual teacher, and go hiking in the mountains. Yet Russell moved from Oskaloosa to San Francisco to New York because he judged these assemblages to be progressively less hierarchical and more intertwined, and although downtown Manhattan consisted of series of scenes that “fabricated” their “own turf,” they also proved to be relatively permeable. It was in downtown New York that Russell’s interactions proved to be most productive ⎯ i.e. where he was most effected and effective ⎯ and his interactions with other musicians formed part of the material exchange that led to the downtown assemblage becoming more eclectic, democratic and hybrid. Russell appears to have understood that he worked not as an autonomous individual but instead in relation to other creative practitioners given that his work emphasized repeatedly the process of interaction rather than his own authorship, and it was in downtown that he was most able to work rhizomatically between genres or scenes.
2. Rhizomatic Politics and Arthur Russell’s Musical Work
What might it mean to work rhizomatically? The key principles can be drawn from A Thousand Plateaus, a decentered, non-sequential book in which Deleuze and Guattari foreground their sympathies in the introductory chapter, which is titled “Introduction: Rhizome.” “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines,” write the authors. “You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed.” Extending the category of the rhizome to include other natural and non-natural networks that are similarly organized, the authors add, “[T]he fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction ‘and… and… and…’” The rhizome is therefore indicative of Deleuze and Guattari’s realist ontology in that it is material (because strawberry plants, the internet, swarms of bees and other rhizomatic phenomena exist in the world) and metaphysical (in that it raises abstract questions about the nature of being), and it also contains an immanent spiritual goodness. “We’re tired of trees,” they write. “We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots, adventitious growths and rhizomes.” Avoiding dualistic distinctions, Deleuze and Guattari caution that elements of the rhizome and the arborescent can be found in each other, and comment that there are “despotic formations of immanence and channelization specific to rhizomes, just as there are anarchic deformations in the transcendent system of trees, aerial roots, and subterranean stems.” But these nuances are submerged when they conclude: “Make rhizomes, not roots, never plant! Don’t sow, grow offshoots! Don’t be one or multiple, be multiplicities!”
How can a “beautiful/loving” rhizome be distinguished from a “despotic” rhizome? Or, what differentiates a progressive rhizome from a regressive rhizome? In the absence of any clear lead from Deleuze and Guattari, I would like to suggest that non-despotic rhizomes display an ability to co-exist with other rhizomes, or be faithful to the principles of their own structure, whereas despotic rhizomes are characterized by an inability to co-exist with equivalent structures. Further, rhizomes become especially beautiful and loving when they embody and/or voice the pluralism, multiplicity and complexity that is immanent in their devolved, flat, networked, non-individualistic structure, so that open/heterogeneous communities are broadly speaking more rhizomatic than closed/homogeneous communities because they have developed the principle of non-hierarchical flatness to its logical conclusion. All viruses are rhizomatic, but those that kill their hosts, such as the AIDS virus, are not especially beautiful or loving, which suggests that a straightforward celebration of the “viral” is politically limiting. It follows that human rhizomes must be assessed according to the same criteria and that the question must be asked: to what extent does human activity exist at the expense of other rhizomatic and non-rhizomatic structures? Human rhizomes have more potential than plant and animal rhizomes to form lateral relations across difference, yet if human rhizomes are to be beautiful and loving they must also have a planetary consciousness.
I would add that rhizomatic assemblages that include humans (or cyborgs, which are assemblages that combine the human with the animal or the technological) have the potential to intersect with a wide range of progressive positions that articulate a dynamic, non-fixed egalitarianism. Opposed to patriarchal culture’s rootedness in masculinity, the phallus and the experience of singular, centered sensation, a rhizomatic politics of gender and the body would be coherent with a feminist/queer politics that decentralizes the experience of non-genital sensation, and acknowledges gender and sex to be socially produced (as argued by theorists such as Rosie Braidotti, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Grosz and Donna Haraway). An equivalent rhizomatic politics of race would highlight the transracial interconnectedness of bodies, the non-privileged position of melanin in the human body, and the way in which diasporic networks generate hybrid identities (which would cohere with the work of critics such as Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall). Because rhizomes are always in a process of becoming, a rhizomatic politics could align with queer and race projects that are anti-essentialist, i.e. articulate a non-fixed theory of identity, while the material character of the rhizome would militate against such a politics becoming overly reliant on the fanciful idea that being is merely a matter of postmodern discursive play. Of course human/cyborg rhizomes can possess a discursive dimension that has material effects, yet rhizomes are not exclusively determined by discourse because discourse does not frame the entire material world, so a rhizomatic politics should also be grounded in the material and the affective. In other words, sensation (music’s primary textural mode) must be considered alongside discourse (music’s secondary textual mode).
As I will go on to outline, Arthur Russell worked rhizomatically to the power of seven. First, he worked within a series of networks and prioritized the collaborative group over his own individual presence to the extent that he de-emphasized his own input. Second, his music-making methods were rhizomatic inasmuch as he democratized the decision-making process, encouraged co-musicians to improvise, immersed himself in editing, took to recording several versions of the same song, and valued the openness of live performance to the closed circuit of the commodified recording. Third, he made music that was aesthetically rhizomatic in that it was often decentered, loosely structured, non-hierarchical and non-teleological. Fourth, he worked across three broad blocks of sound ⎯ orchestral/composition music, pop/rock music and disco/dance music ⎯ and often worked on them simultaneously. Fifth, he worked with genres and sounds that were “non-despotic” and valued forms (such as pop, disco and hip hop) that were to varying degrees associated with the feminine, the black and the gay (i.e. the non-hegemonic). Sixth, he attempted to make connections between genres and sounds that were to varying degrees segmented. And seventh, as a result of these connections Russell helped generate the idea of an integrated downtown community (rather than a series of segmented, semi-autonomous scenes).
What follows is an initial outline of Russell’s rhizomatic politics ⎯ a politics that was concerned with the creation of an egalitarian, tolerant, integrated, non-individualistic artistic community (rather than an activist politics that argued and campaigned for the future introduction of such a community on a much wider scale). Russell did not develop his rhizomatic approach through individual study, but instead through a series of interactions that began in Oskaloosa, accelerated in San Francisco and reached their zenith in New York. He engaged with orchestral/composition music while in Oskaloosa, San Francisco and New York; he started to explore pop (in its loosest sense) in San Francisco, and then much more concertedly in New York; and he started to explore dance only after he had arrived on the East Coast. The rest of this chapter develops a condensed outline of those blocks, their relationship to the assemblages of Oskaloosa, San Francisco and New York, and their links to each other ⎯ at least as these relations were imagined and practiced by Russell. Because the thematic block approach creates an impression of generic order and relative separation that never existed in Russell’s day-to-day life, the blocks should be imagined as existing in parallel, even though can only be presented one at a time. Russell was respectful of the differences that existed between these blocks of sound, but the lines that ran between them also intrigued him, and whenever it was possible he kept sound in rhizomatic play.
a. Compositional Music
Arthur Russell’s primary musical affiliation as he grew up in Oskaloosa was with compositional (or orchestral/art) music. Suggesting a conservative outlook, his affiliation in fact constituted a rebellion against pop, the preferred music of his peers ⎯ “the jocks in school in the small town that I grew up in,” as Russell described them later ⎯ who liked to beat him up. After running away to Iowa City and then San Francisco, Russell enrolled in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition as a part-time student, and also in the Ali Akbar College of Music, where he studied Indian classical music, again in a part-time capacity. Russell moved in tangents in both environments. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music became the avenue through which he started to take private lessons with an influential tutor, William Allaudin Mathieu, whose inspirations ranged from Nadia Boulanger (the influential French-born composer, conductor and teacher) to Pandit Pran Nath (the renowned north Indian vocalist), and during these lessons Russell focused on writing angular folk songs. Meanwhile, at the Ali Akbar College he persevered with his cello, a non-traditional instrument in this context, and looked to blend the aesthetic practices of Indian classical music (vocal techniques, the drone, devotional songs, rhythm cycles, etc.) with other musical forms. “He wasn’t letting anyone dictate to him that he needed to make a choice,” recalls Alan Abrams, a friend in the college. Russell pursued this dual track of Indian classical music and Western art music before he became aware of composers such as Terry Riley, who pursued a similarly unusual path in his attempt to overcome the formal conventions of Western art music. Signaling his intent, Russell featured the darbukka among more conventional western instruments in his first public concert, which was held at 1750 Arch Street in San Francisco in 1973.
In the spring of 1973 Russell decided to move to New York in order to develop a livelihood as a musician, and the following autumn he enrolled in the MSM, a prestigious launch pad from which to begin a career as an academic/composer. Situated uptown and embedded in the complex, intentionally alienated sounds of serial and post-serial music, the MSM failed to satisfy Russell’s desire to reach beyond the formal and social limits of the Western orchestral tradition. Russell sought out friendly alliances yet became perturbed by the way students were required to obey the aesthetic model set out by senior professors if they wanted to have a chance of pursuing a career as an academic composer. “He was having interesting problems with Charles Wuorinen [an influential serial composer who was based at the MSM],” remembers Christian Wolff, who Russell visited at Dartmouth during this period. “Wuorinen is this hyper controlling, rationalized serial composer, so he was completely at the other poll of what I imagine Arthur was interested in doing and what I was doing. The idea of him studying with Wuorinen blew my mind. They were at loggerheads the whole time.” On one occasion, when Wuorinen gave umbrage to one of Russell’s compositions, “City Park,” a repetitive piece that fused music with writings from Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, Russell explained that he was excited by the way its non-narrative structure meant listeners could “plug out and then plug back in again without losing anything essential.” Wuorinen replied, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.”
During his first semester Russell looked into the prospects of transferring to another college. Having spent an afternoon hanging out with John Cage the day after he arrived in New York, Russell got in touch with Wolff, one of the pioneers of indeterminacy, and thought about transferring to Dartmouth. That option appears to have become less enticing after Russell was invited by Wolff to play in a New York concert, at the end of which he met Rhys Chatham, the first Music Director of the Kitchen. Chatham was sufficiently impressed with Russell to persuade Robert Stearns, the director of the Kitchen, to appoint him as the venue’s next Music Director for the ensuing season, which ran from the autumn of 1974 to the summer of 1975. Having accepted the offer, Russell attempted to support other local and relatively low profile composers rather than build a program that accentuated the work of composers who were beginning to acquire an international reputation. His season opened with Annea Lockwood, a local musician, who performed “Humming: and Other Sensory Meditations,” a minimalist piece that invited audience participation. And the final concert featured Nova’billy, an upfront communist outfit led by Henry Flynt, whose wacky take on music and politics was not always respected by the serious end of the music market. It was left to Stearns to etch out a night for Steve Reich.
In rejecting the serial/post-serial establishment and exploring a line of orchestral music that has been variously dubbed “gradual music,” “phase music,” “process music,” “static music” and “minimalist music,” Russell joined a comparatively flat network in which the pioneering figures (especially Riley, Reich, Glass) were still young and lacked the authoritative gravitas that could come with an institutional base. Even though the aesthetic forged by these composers was still in its infancy, younger composers such as Chatham and Russell, as well as figures such as Peter Gordon and Garrett List, were not interested in repeating their approach, but instead sought to develop their own radical flights. “Arthur was very much influenced by the whole minimalist thing,” says List. “But we didn’t want to be minimalists, so we tried to find a way of dealing with it without jumping on the bandwagon.” Downtown’s compositional network was also flat because its participants sought to write music that would attract an audience ⎯ an outlook that had been dismissed by uptown composers, who were not overly concerned with their accessibility. “This [serial music] was seen as a complex music and the uninitiated listener was supposed to find it as difficult to understand as advanced physics,” notes Gordon, who developed a close relationship with Russell. “The composer’s ‘audience,’ therefore, was a small group of fellow composers, academics and aficionados. What we posited was a populist philosophy: new music could be composed which addressed both the sensual needs of the listener as well as the intellect. The audience for this music was seen as being the members of the community — artists, writers, neighborhood people.” Because the vast majority of downtown composers never had any money to put on shows, they regularly asked their composer/musician peers to volunteer their services, and a network based on an extended exchange of favors became the central mechanism through which new compositions got to be staged. Russell became a player in this network, playing for friends, who in turn participated in his own performances.
During his year as Music Director, Russell also staged a performance of Instrumentals, his first major composition. Although Instrumentals was notated, its modular structure allowed Russell and his co-musicians to select a range of sections to practice, after which they would listen to a tape of their efforts and decide collectively which blocks should be performed during the concert. This decentering of the author was embedded further thanks to Russell’s decision to encourage his musicians to use the notated score as a launch pad for improvisation, a move that signaled a further shift away from the stratified and hierarchical foundations of the compositional tradition. Drawing heavily on the basic standard era chord progressions that had dominated popular music during the 1930s and 1940s, the content of Russell’s provisional score contributed to the impression that he was deliberately distancing himself from the elitist underpinnings of compositional music, while the sheer length of the composition, which ran to a possible forty-eight hours, inevitably decentered the position of the composer, whose artistic intention would always remain fragmented. The introduction of an accompanying slide show (featuring nature photos taken by Yuko Nonomura) encouraged the audience and the musicians to assimilate the music in relation to the cosmos rather than the figure of the composer. Meanwhile, Russell conducted the concert in a deliberately low-key style in which he restricted himself to deciding when an improvisatory flight from the selected refrain had become so chaotic it was no longer feasible to continue. The clipped effect of these sections, some of which did not extend beyond thirty seconds, resulted in the performances out-popping pop in their sparkling brevity.
Glass believed Instrumentals demonstrated Russell was “way ahead of other people in understanding that the walls between concert music, popular music and avant-garde music are illusory.” (“There have been attempts from both camps to bridge the still very considerable gap between contemporary art music and the wilder shores of popular entertainment, with concerts by Peter Gordon at the Kitchen and some of the work of Brian Eno immediately coming to mind,” wrote Robert Palmer of a later performance in the New York Times. “Mr. Russell’s presentation, imperfect though it may have been, suggested not just a furtive embrace, but a real merging.”) Glass began to take a keen interest in Russell and, in his capacity as Music Director for Mabou Mines, invited him to play a cello piece during the theatre company’s performance of the Samuel Beckett radio play Cascando. A short while later, Glass arranged for Russell to compose the score for Medea, which was staged by the avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson. (The high-profile commission appeared to mark a decisive turning point in Russell’s career as a composer, but Russell ended up falling out with Wilson and was eventually replaced by the British minimalist composer Gavin Bryars.) Glass went on to release Russell’s score for Medea on his own label ⎯ the piece was re-titled Tower of Meaning ⎯ and Russell followed this up with the release of Instrumentals, which came out on the Belgian label Les Disques du Crepuscule. The Wilson fall-out left Russell deeply disillusioned with the compositional world, however, and although he would go on to perform pieces for the cello at downtown venues such as the Kitchen and the Experimental Inter-media Foundation, he no longer harbored the dream that he could flourish as a composer of orchestral music.
b. Pop and New Wave
As a kid growing up in Oskaloosa, Arthur Russell held popular music in disdain, and when he moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s he steered clear of the city’s rock scene, which was so successful it was dominant (at least locally). Nevertheless Russell did start to compose avant-garde folk songs for the guitar and cello during this period, and he began to embrace pop music after hearing Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers play live in New York towards the beginning of 1974. That experience was powerful enough for Russell to decide to invite the band to perform across four consecutive nights at the Kitchen during his year as Music Director, and the following year he persuaded his successor to book Talking Heads. “Arthur’s unique contribution was to introduce rock groups to the programming, which was considered heresy at the time, but proved to be prophetic in its vision,” recalls Rhys Chatham. “I was shocked. But it made me think, and I ended up joining in.” Russell had come to appreciate that pop music as well as compositional music was engaged in a form of minimalism ⎯ or a pared-down repetitive music that could generate a transcendental experience ⎯ and in a 1977 interview with the composer-musician Peter Zummo he argued that pop was often ahead of the avant-garde in terms of aesthetic progressiveness. “In bubble-gum music the notion of pure sound is not a philosophy but rather a reality,” he told Zummo. “In this respect, bubble-gum preceded the avant-garde. In the works of Philip Glass or La Monte Young, for example, which are clearly pop-influenced, pure sound became an issue of primary importance, while it had already been a by-product of the commercial process in bubble-gum music.” Russell added that pop music’s commercial self-sufficiency enabled its practitioners to be honest and unencumbered, whereas avant-garde art music tended to generate pretentious discussions about value (including discussions about its superiority to pop and jazz) because its composers had to justify their right to be scheduled on aesthetic rather than commercial grounds.
The separation between the worlds of compositional music and popular music was so ingrained that even though the old Mercer Street Arts Centre housed both kinds of music, there was no point of interaction between the two sets of players. The cultures remained separate until Russell became interested in their points of intersection, and in a rhizomatic act he disrupted the institutional boundaries that existed between the two factions in order to demonstrate their overlapping aesthetic principles. The decision to programme the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads was Russell’s way of demonstrating that minimalism could be found outside of compositional music, as well as his belief that pop music could be arty, energetic and fun at the same time. “[F]or all of time painting has had the project of rendering visible, instead of reproducing the visible, and music of rendering sonorous, instead of reproducing the sonorous,” write Deleuze and Guattari, and the showcasing of the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads, like the construction of Instrumentals, was intended to render audible the lines that run between compositional music and pop. Within a couple of years the Kitchen was regularly programming rock-oriented performers, and two of its most prominent composers, Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, became significant figures in the No Wave scene.
Although Russell worked in a range of pop contexts during the 1970s and early 1980s, he consistently avoided anything that required him to either assume the role of the lead artist or sacrifice his desire to pursue other forms of music at the same time. When John Hammond invited Russell to record some demos at Columbia, Russell upset the legendary A&R executive (who had most recently talent-spotted Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen) by turning up not by himself but with a unique mix of pop and orchestral musician friends. A short while later, Russell appears to have stepped back from the offer to become involved with Talking Heads because he was afraid that the band was too self-consciously arty, ironic, cool and straight-suited for his looser, more Beatnik persona. Instead he developed a tight alliance with Ernie Brooks, the bass player from the Modern Lovers, and invited the drummer David Van Tieghem (who played with Steve Reich) and the guitarist Larry Saltzman (who came from a pop background) to form the Flying Hearts. The group recorded a series of light, quizzical songs that were full of promise but failed to win a contract with any of New York’s record companies, who were focused on the zeitgeist of punk and new wave. Seeking out a friendlier environment, Russell took up an offer to record with the Italian pop-rock outfit Le Orme, and when that did not work out as planned, he teamed up again with Brooks and joined the Necessaries, a new wave outfit that the bass player had joined following the break-up of the Flying Hearts. Russell helped the Necessaries win a recording contract with Sire, the cutting-edge new wave label, but he became disillusioned on a number of counts. First, the band’s pyramid structure prevented him from developing his own songs; second, the tight, fast aesthetic proved to be aesthetically restrictive; and third, the rigors of playing in a band that wanted to break through restricted his ability to participate in parallel music projects. Russell’s concerns ended up bubbling over during a promotional trip to Washington. As the tour van approached the Holland Tunnel ⎯ the symbolic staging post at which he would have left downtown New York in favor of a one-way journey into a recognizable sound, a life of on the road, and a requirement to devote all his energies to a single project ⎯ Russell decided that he had had enough and jumped out.
By the early 1980s, the exchange between pop/rock and new music was at its most intense, with no wave one of the most important sites of this exchange. “The no wave bands were at the borderline between art and pop, not only demographically (in terms of membership and audience), but also institutionally, insofar as they trafficked back and forth between art institutions (the alternative spaces) and seedy rock clubs,” notes Bernard Gendron. “Such sustained crossover activity between avant-garde and pop institutions was altogether unprecedented in the history of rock music or any American popular music, for that matter.” For all of its diversity, however, no wave regularly fell back on a series of aesthetic and performance strategies that were aggressive and even violent, and Russell appears to have been put off by the pressure to, in the words of his composer-musician friend Ned Sublette, simulate “the sound of World War Three.” Russell was too delicate and sensitive a soul to flourish in a scene that was charged by charismatic individuals and reverberant noise, and when the New York Rocker ran an extensive survey of the downtown scene that focused on the crossover between the art and rock scenes in June 1982, Russell did not feature, even though he had helped forge the early connections that culminated in downtown’s most popular point of crossing.
That did not deter Russell from playing and recording pop-oriented material in a barely traceable series of set-ups. He reformed the Flying Hearts with Brooks and other floating musicians and vocalists; he played in folk-oriented groups with Brooks and Steven Hall (who was introduced to Russell by Ginsberg in the mid-1970s and became one of Russell’s closest friends); he established a mutating improvisational/experimental pop outfit called the Singing Tractors that included Mustafa Ahmed (an African-American percussionist), Elodie Lauten (another composer-musician) and Peter Zummo; and he invited these and other musicians/vocalists to play on recordings of his own songs. “We would rehearse, get a set list out of Arthur, go on stage and have no idea what was happening,” recalls Zummo of Russell’s modus operandi with the Singing Tractors. “There was just no way to tell whether we were playing the songs in the order they were indicated on the set-list or not. He would just start going and you would have to make a decision, but it would be a difficult time to make a decision. That happened all the time.” The tangential explorations continued in the recording studio, sometimes to the frustration of Russell’s peers, who often did not know what they were working on, or when their contributions would be formally wrapped up. “Working with Arthur was not easy and not typical,” remembers Ahmed. “I worked for hours on tracks but never got the sense we were finished because of his constant editing. Anyone who worked with Arthur would tell you this was the most frustrating aspect about working with Arthur. He never seemed to finish anything. Arthur was never satisfied.”
Russell’s obsession with editing tape ⎯ of bringing separate sonic recordings into the same sonic continuum ⎯ culminated during the recording of World of Echo, which was released in 1986. “We would be mixing on a piece of tape and I would see a splice go by,” recalls engineer Eric Liljestrand. “It was all very confusing. I could never really tell what we were working on until it was done.” On the album, Russell’s cello playing accentuated affective range rather than virtuosic ability, while his voice, which had been subjected to the will of the instrumental tracks on previous pop recordings, discovered a similar freedom. Yet it was the interconnected quality of the voice and cello, which fused together like drifting gases, floating and merging until at points they were difficult to distinguish, that stood out. A shimmering, mystical celebration of vowel sounds, “Tone Bone Kone,” which would become the symbolic opening song of the album, expressed itself as textural affect rather than semiotic meaning, and for the rest of the album the songs evolved in meandering, mesmerizing threads, fluttering about in tender butterfly movements that were impossible to predict and would have been terrible to contain or discipline. “When I have written songs,” Russell wrote in some accompanying, unpublished notes, “the functions of verse and chorus seem to be reversed for some unknown reason.” The comment underestimated the extent to which structure was dissolved almost entirely, and Russell’s decision to blend all of the songs together into one continuous plateau where there was no beginning or end suggested that if listeners did not willingly abandon their bearings before listening the album would do this for them. The aim, Russell noted around the same time, was to “redefine ‘songs’ from the point of view of instrumental music, in the hope of liquefying a raw material where concert music and popular song can criss cross.” That made World of Echo the song-oriented successor to Instrumentals, which introduced popular forms into compositional music.
c. Dance Music
Arthur Russell did not plan to move into disco, just as he never planned to be blown away by the Modern Lovers, but having had serious affairs with two women, he started to date men, and one of them took him along to the Gallery, one of downtown New York’s underground private dance parties. Russell was inspired by the dance environment, in which a predominantly black gay crowd formed a material-spiritual body that built to an ecstatic peak through dance, and in so doing introduced additional sonic and affective layers (screams, whistles, whoops, smiles, bodily movements, etc.) to the vinyl selections. Integral to the Gallery assemblage was the DJ, Nicky Siano, who would select records in relationship to the mood on the dance floor, thereby extending and the world of recorded vinyl. The collectively generated selections created a profound impression on Russell. Arriving from a background in minimalist art and pop music, he was struck by the way in which 1970s dance music offered an aesthetically radical African-American variation of the stripped down minimalist sounds he was hearing in other parts of downtown. In addition, the economic viability of disco was established at a grassroots level, with the record companies providing free test pressings to DJs, who would in turn report back on their dance floor effectiveness, thereby providing the companies with valuable information about the commercial viability of their records. From 1976 onwards the importance of maintaining this link between the dance floor and the wider disco market was embedded further when record companies started to invite DJs to remix songs that were being lined up for release on the new disco format, the extended twelve-inch single, and DJs took to testing demo versions of these remixes with their dancers in order to gauge which parts required further work. It made sense, then, that Russell should be drawn not only to disco’s social milieu but also to the culture’s mode of music making, which was experimental, democratic and self-sufficient.
Teaming up with Siano, Russell started to record “Kiss Me Again” in November 1977, and he ferried reel-to-reel and acetate tests between the studio and the Gallery until Sire released the single towards the end of 1978. Although the track would turn out to be one of Russell’s more orthodox dance recordings, it nevertheless subverted a range of disco conventions. Running at thirteen-minutes, which was twice the length of a regular disco twelve-inch, “Kiss Me Again” stretched out into a mutating exploration of becoming-sound ⎯ and therefore encouraged dancers to do the same. Ordinarily figured as the smooth-running engine of any disco recording, the rhythm section ⎯ the drums, the bass and the rhythm guitar ⎯ was tripped up intentionally by Russell’s decision to deploy two drummers and two bass players, which created a subtle dissonance. And although the vocalist hoped to echo the typical performance of the disco diva, who would draw on soul and gospel techniques in order to deliver an assured performance that blended ecstasy, passion and pain, Russell aimed to destabilize her voice by inviting Siano (who was regularly high and had never entered a recording studio prior to “Kiss Me Again”) to produce her. The vocalist’s nervous delivery complemented the song’s lyrics, which recounted the story of a woman caught up in a S/M relationship ⎯ hardly the run-of-the-mill story of romance and resistance (or moving one’s body) that was so common to disco. Following the practice of cutting edge remixers such as Walter Gibbons, Russell observed the reaction of the dance floor to a series of reel-to-reel tapes and test pressings in order to ascertain how the record could be improved. A collective production that drew in a range of musicians, technologies and crowd responses in addition to Russell’s own musicianship, the record was released under the anonymous collective name of Dinosaur, even though it would have served Russell well to foreground his own name on his debut release. That, however, would have ignored the fact that the record was a product of the Gallery assemblage.
Russell accentuated the dance floor component in his next collection of recordings, which were released under the anonymous artist name Loose Joints. Whereas demos of “Kiss” had been used to test the response of the dance floor, this time around Russell invited dancers into the studio in order to channel the heightened affective atmosphere of the floor onto an original vinyl recording. Working in conjunction with Steve D’Acquisto, a pioneering New York DJ who he had met at the Loft, the incubator of the downtown disco scene, Russell invited a group of dancers to sing, play percussion and party alongside a number of the seasoned session musicians, and engineer Bob Blank, one of disco’s most experienced studio hands, remembers this being the moment he realized there was “a different vibe out there in the trenches.” “It was like a circus,” says Blank. “It was really important to let these people, who were regulars at the party, perform with the music because it was all felt.” Dominated by the regimented sound of European producers and the disciplinary R&B groove of Chic, disco’s aesthetic had become slick and heavily mediated by the end of the 1970s, but Russell hoped to develop a looser sound that was connected to the organic spirit of the down-town dance floor, and so he ensured that the established “profes-sionals” adapted their playing to the go-with-the-flow perspective of the dancer-musicians. Released under the studio name Loose Joints, recordings such as “Is It All Over My Face?” and “Pop Your Funk” featured drums that dragged behind the beat (instead of keeping the tempo precise or tight), jangly percussion, flat homoerotic vocals, street noise and ringing phones. Containing the plural voices of downtown disco, these and other records inspired by their uncon-ventional aesthetic combinations contributed to the adaptable resil-ience of downtown’s dance network during the national backlash against disco, which persuaded the US majors to slash their disco output in the second half of 1979, and were later judged to be seminal examples of “mutant disco” or “disco-not-disco.”
Russell’s next set of recordings, which were laid down shortly after the Loose Joints sessions, opened up disco not to the atmosphere of the dance floor but instead to the practices of downtown art music. A number of downtown composer-musicians (including Julius Eastman, Peter Gordon, Jill Kroesen and Peter Zummo) were invited to join the principle players from the Loose Joints line-up (the Ingram brothers and the Loft singers) and read from a detailed score of Cagean-like parabolas. Russell’s ambition, however, was not to reproduce the form of lavish orchestral disco that could be heard on labels such as Philadelphia International and Salsoul, but instead to develop a form of conceptual minimalism that, evolving out of Cage and Young’s principle of indeterminacy, commenced with the written score before opening out into an improvisational jam. Intent on illustrating the serious minimalist credentials of disco to the wider downtown compositional com-munity, Russell took a performance of his “orchestral disco” music into the Kitchen, and in so doing revealed the minimalist connection that existed between the downtown compositional and dance scenes ⎯ a connection that seemed unlikely to the scene’s more conven-tional composers, who (like many of their new wave peers) were skeptical about the aesthetic value of disco.
Russell’s dance productions were becoming more and more deterritorialized. “Kiss Me Again” worked with the refrain of a recognizable verse/chorus structure, yet opened out into the lines of flight of the rhythm section. The Loose Joints sessions also began with the text of a prepared song, although on that occasion Russell encouraged the musicians to develop a jam that was rooted in the improvised ethos of the dance floor. Then, with the orchestral disco sessions, Russell deterritorialized the dance and art spheres, after which he made a copy of the master tape and started to explore the infinite sound combinations that existed in the two-inch master tapes. Cutting and editing between the different tracks and sessions, the subsequent release, which was titled 24 → 24 Music, amounted to a vibrant, startling democracy of downtown sound that included a funk-oriented rhythm section, fusion-driven horns and keyboards, reverberant rockish guitars, and a range of voices (operatic/mono-tone/deranged/shouted). Appearing under the artist name Dinosaur L ⎯ a subtle but deliberate mutation of Dinosaur ⎯ 24 → 24 Music suggested a production that was rooted in reels and reels of multi-layered, twenty-four track tape that contained limitless immanent potential.
Russell continued to work as a lightning conductor of the downtown soundscape during the mid-eighties when he integrated Latin rhythms (which were ubiquitous on the streets of the East Village) and the looped breakbeat ethos of hip hop (which had made its way from the boroughs to the downtown club scene) into a series of dance productions. Working in collaboration with Ahmed and Gibbons, Russell released two standout twelve-inch singles, “Let’s Go Swimming” and “Schoolbell/Treehouse,” both of which developed a tidal polyrhythm of forward flows and drag-back undercurrents. Moving away from the disco-not-disco of “Is It All Over My Face?” and the avant-garde orchestral disco of 24 → 24 Music, the two records forged a form of jittery, jagged dance music that confounded easy categorization. “This is an impossible dance music, jumbling your urges, making you want to move in ways not yet invented, confounding your body as it provokes it,” Simon Reynolds wrote of “Let’s Go Swimming” in Melody Maker. “In its tipsy mix, I seem to hear Can, Peech Boys, Thomas Leer, Weather Report, hip hop, but really this is unique, original, a work of genius.” Having become habituated to the regulated sequencing of mid-eighties hip hop and house, New York’s DJs struggled to assimilate the unfixed contours of “Swimming” or “Schoolbell,” which left a disappointed Russell to forecast (correctly) that his broken-up aesthetic would eventually be “commonplace.” Instead of turning away from polyrhythm, however, Russell began to integrate black funk aesthetics into the pop recordings that he worked on right through to his death in 1992. The posthumous release of a number of these tracks on Calling Out of Context in 2004 provides evidence of a musical perspective that continued to draw together disparate influences while steering clear of rock music’s all-too-frequent disavowal of black music.
3. Deleuze and Guattari: Music, Composition, Genre
“This is how it should be done,” write Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in a passage in which it is difficult to not imagine Arthur Russell. “Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find poten-tial movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, exper-ience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times.” Having lodged himself in the downtown assemblage and experimented with the opportunities that were on offer, Russell became a notable “producer of flow conjunctions” in the wider downtown music scene when he introduced pop/rock into the heart of the downtown compositional scene, and forged a point of meeting between disco and the compositional scene. How, then, can his work be theorized in terms of its affective qualities, and, secondly, with regard to Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on music?
Music is especially rhizomatic because it is made up of sound waves that move through matter. Although light waves move more quickly than sound waves, they are less rhizomatic because they tend to be mono-directional (and can therefore be easily focused, as is the case with spotlights), whereas sound is omindirectional (and tends to spread, as is the case with a ringing bell). In addition, whereas light waves can move freely through air and transparent matter (glass, clear/shallow water, light plastics etc.), they cannot move through opaque material (earth, rocks, deep water, heavy fibres, etc.), while sound waves cannot pass through a vacuum, or non-matter, but can pass through everything else (which is why it is so difficult to insulate sound). The senses of seeing and hearing are similarly structured in that the seeing agent separates itself from the object of its vision through the eyes, which project the object as being in front and separate, and can also block out the object of vision with relative ease by closing its eyelids or averting its gaze. The hearing agent, in contrast, actively absorbs the sound waves of the object not only through its ears but its entire body, and this agent is unable to easily block out the object of sound, with the strategy of turning or blocking its ears of limited effect. In contrast to light waves, then, sound waves are structured according to their rhizomatic con-nectivity, and music, which is the cultural organization of sound, necessarily becomes a promising terrain for a rhizomatic politics. As Edward Said has put it, music has a faculty to “to travel, cross over, drift from place to place in a society, even though many institutions and orthodoxies have sought to confine it,” and this makes it materially transgressive (even if it might not always be politically progressive).
Early on in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari note that music has “always sent out lines of flight, like so many ‘trans-formational multiplicities,’ even overturning the very codes that structure or arborify it,” and conclude that music is “comparable to a weed, a rhizome.” They go on to note that music begins with a refrain, after which its object becomes the deterritorialization of the refrain, the “final end of music: the cosmic refrain of a sound machine.” Whereas color tends to cling to territory, they add, sound is an effective deterritorializer, and music that breaks away from the refrain is invariably rhizomatic and therefore related to the process of becoming. “What does music deal with, what is the content indissociable from sound expression?” ask Deleuze and Guattari. “[M]usical expression is inseparable from a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, a becoming-animal that constitute its content.” In other words, music is a process of becoming-other that, in the words of Ronald Bogue, unfixes the “commonsense coordinates of time and identity,” in which the commonsense is figured in the man/ adult/human oppositions to woman/child/animal. The becoming, adds Bogue, does not involve the imitation of a woman/ child/animal, because this would enforce social codes, but “an unspecifiable, unpredictable disruption of codes that takes place alongside women, children, and animals, in a metamorphic zone between fixed identities.” In this respect, becoming-woman/ child/animal might be understood as a range of bodily expressions that get to be closed down by dominant heterosexuality and accordingly exist as an affective-material articulation of the sexual politics posited by queer theory.
Nevertheless Deleuze and Guattari do not romanticize music and note the dangers that lie within. Music can drag listeners into a “black hole” as well as open them to the “cosmos,” they argue, and since its “force of deterritorialization is the strongest,” it can also effect “the most massive of reterritorializations, the most numbing, the most redundant,” resulting in a “potential fascism.” What distinguishes a potentially democratic music from a potentially fascist music? Referring to Spinoza, a key philosophical influence on Deleuze and Guattari who maintained that the central issue of ethics was the ability to affect and be affected, Andrew Murphie argues that music becomes ethical when it is productive rather than anti-productive, when it sets free lines of flight rather than wears itself down through repetition that does not change, when it enables “movement and connection between different communities, different territories, environments, individuals” rather than erases difference and “allows both connection and escape from sovereignty.” Or as Bogue puts it, “The final ethical measure of any music is its ability to create new possibilities for life.”
Deleuze and Guattari stay close to the art music cannon in their discussion of music, with Boulez, Cage, Debussy, Messiaen, Schumann, Varése and Verdi cited for their becoming-ness, and the applause directed towards Boulez (the central figure in European serialism) for his work around “nonpulsed” or “floating” time that “affirms a process against all structure and genesis” might have puzzled the pioneers of minimalist music, who were clear about the way in which their aesthetic contrasted sharply with unapologetically elitist movement of serialism. In contrast to serialism, minimalism signaled a return to tonality (versus atonality), single notes (versus complex harmonic sequences), accessibility (versus difficulty), repe-tition (versus progression) and improvisation (versus music that was entirely scored). A choice had to be made: as Glass put it, European serial music was a “wasteland” dominated by “maniacs” such as Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as US proponents such as Babbitt, “who were trying to make everyone write this crazy, creepy music.” Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate that they do not feel bound by the ideology of serialism when they comment on Young’s “very pure and simple sound” and go on to celebrate the move “from modality to an untempered, widened chromaticism” before adding, “We do not need to suppress tonality, we need to turn it loose.” Elsewhere, they describe Balinese culture as an example of a rhizomatic plateau, or something that is always in the middle rather than at the beginning or the end, because it offers “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.” That, however, does not lead them to highlight the way in which Balinese Gamelan formed the aesthetic framework for Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians ⎯ which debuted in 1976 and was considered his first major post-minimalist composition ⎯ and they are surprisingly hesitant when it comes to the rhizomatic potential of minimalism and post-minimalism given that this alternative movement had achieved a foothold in Europe by the time they published A Thousand Plateaus.
The suspicion that time and place cannot explain the omission of minimalism and post-minimalism from Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis is reinforced by the fact that the Belgian minimalist composer Wim Mertens published his own Deleuze-inspired account of minimalism in 1980 (the same year that A Thousand Plateaus was first published in France). In American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Mertens draws a parallel between the Deleuzian concept of the decentralized work, which does not rely on teleological development and lies outside of history, and the goals of the minimalist composers, who generate “singular intensities” that are “ever changing and shifting” and have “no content” beyond themselves. Mertens analyses the way in which minimalist music shifts the listener’s attention from the content of change to the process of change. “In repetitive music this change is a kind of new content, and in a way one gets the suggestion of an entirely free flow of energy,” he argues. “The ecstatic state induced by this music, which could also be called a state of innocence, an hypnotic state, or a religious state, is created by an independent libido, freed of all the restrictions of reality.” In this Mertens rearticulates Jacques Attali’s analysis of the way in which minimalism’s “increase in libidinal intensity” compensates for the loss of historical content (the primary object of serial and post-serial music). “What is important is the shift of energy,” writes Attali, who is quoted by Mertens. “The intensity exists but has no goal or content.”
The striking absence of any sustained reference to minimalism/post-minimalism in A Thousand Plateaus is trumped only by Deleuze and Guattari’s failure to reference the entire field of popular music. Admirers of their theoretical work have stepped in to deploy the concepts of the rhizome, the assemblage, and the Body without Organs (which is described by Bogue as “a decentred body that has ceased to function as a coherently regulated organism, one that is sensed as an ecstatic, catatonic, a-personal zero-degree of intensity that is in no way negative but has a positive existence”) to a range of music genres. Tim Jordan analyses rave culture in Deleuzian terms and notes that dancers abdicate their subjective identity in order to merge into a collective body that resembles a Body without Organs. Simon Reynolds draws attention to the rhizomatic structure of the music of Can, Miles Davis, dub, hip hop, house and jungle. In a wide-ranging analysis of improvisation, Jeremy Gilbert draws attention to the way in which the groundbreaking jazz fusion albums of Miles Davis are “perfectly rhizomatic,” and argues that “music made through a non-hierarchical process of lateral connections between sounds, genres and musicians, which aims always to open onto a cosmic space, must be archetypically modern and rhizomatic in Deleuze’s terms.” In a separate piece, Gilbert also comments on the way in which Richard Dyer’s “In Defence of Disco” essay anticipated Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of music by a year, and in so doing provided an example of a music culture that achieved the quality of a BwO more convincingly than any of the compositions cited in A Thousand Plateaus. In addition, Drew Hemment examines the affective modes of the electronic dance music assemblage, while Michael Veal notes the way in which dub has influenced applications of Deleuzian theory. A convincing case can therefore be assembled that Deleuze and Guattari’s theory not only could but also should be applied to popular music because it is there that it can find its most persuasive home.
The qualities associated with Deleuze and Guattari’s depictions of the rhizome and the BwO were certainly felt in music scenes that emerged in downtown New York during the 1970s and early 1980s. Mertens refers to minimalism’s ability to create a “hypnotic” or “religious” or “ecstatic state,” as well as an “independent libido, freed of all the restrictions of reality,” and all of these elements were prominent in the new wave scene that developed out of CBGB’s and the no wave scene that mushroomed soon after. At the same time, Mertens’s description seems to better describe the Gallery, where the DJ and the dancers embarked on a trance-inducing journey that, evoking the title of A Thousand Plateaus, would vary according to the shifting plains of affective intensity that were generated through the collective act of “playing the vinyl.” Mertens writes that repetitive music “can lead to psychological regression,” but it was on the floor of the Gallery rather than CBGB’s or the Kitchen that dancers whooped and screamed as they let go of their socialized selves under a sky of multicolored balloons. And while Mertens draws attention to the way the “so-called religious experience of repetitive music is in fact a camouflaged erotic experience,” it was at the Gallery that participants generated an unrivalled exchange of sensual movement.
Minimalist/post-minimalist music, Indian classical music, Bali-nese Gamelan, new wave, no wave, jazz fusion, dub, disco and electronic dance music all generate decentered structures within which a range of rhythms and instruments are interwoven. Many of the musicians who produce these sounds also move in rhizomatic ways: the jazz improviser who gives up her or his artistic autonomy to the improvised collective drive of the group; the DJ who is sandwiched between pre-recorded music and the demands of the dancing crowd; the dub engineer who dismantles structured songs and opens sound into an anchorless, shifting universe; and so on. What is striking, however, is the extent to which the applications of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts to music centre around either distinctive musical genres (including jazz fusion, which became a recognized subgenre of jazz) or, to a lesser extent, specific modes of making music (such as improvisation, which occurs within a set of demarcated practices). While these genres and modes of music making remain compelling, little work has foregrounded the question of how a musician might work rhizomatically (other than participate in the playing of music that is rhizomatic/encourages rhizomatic ap-proaches to playing), and it is this question that will provide the main focus for the rest of this essay.
Following the earlier survey of Russell’s three blocks of intertwining musical practice, it will come as no surprise that I want to argue that Arthur Russell is “a component” (rather than “the man”) that can help explore the ramifications of Deleuze and Guattari’s writing on music in terms of musicianship, not only because he worked in downtown during the heightened era of the 1970s and 1980s, but also because he zigzagged across the downtown spectrum with as much if not more conviction than any of his peers (many of whom were still notable for their dedication to zigzagging). Having noted that a BwO is characterized by gaiety, ecstasy and dance, Deleuze and Guattari stalled when it came to applying this concept beyond the field of art music, and although downtown composers understood that minimalist rock could reach a heightened level of affective intensity, Russell was almost alone in realizing that it was in disco that the “hypnotic,” the “religious” and the “ecstatic” found their fullest expression. In addition, while new wave and no wave outfits including the Bush Tetras, Konk and Talking Heads appreciated the potential of seventies disco and funk and integrated elements of black polyrhythm, their music was still channeled towards the rock scene and rarely featured in New York’s clubs. There were no ifs and buts when it came to Russell, who played and recorded successfully in all three scenes, and approached music as a series of tangential possibilities rather than dialectical problems and solutions. Like a vine, Russell appeared to only move up or down if such a movement was necessary to move across.
4. Arthur Russell’s Rhizomatic Musicianship
One of the most striking features of Arthur Russell’s musicianship was that he did not work within a single genre, but rather a multiplicity of genres, and did so not by imagining a progression from one to another, but instead in an act of whirlwind simultaneity. Many of Russell’s composer-musician friends were also notably wide-ranging ⎯ Peter Gordon, Garrett List, Ned Sublette and Peter Zummo spring to mind ⎯ and together they developed a resolutely eclectic approach to music-making that contrasted with composer/musicians who either remained focused on staying in the art/orchestral realm or explored plural aesthetic forms in a dialectical manner inasmuch as their goal was to find a “solution” to a musical problem. Although this latter approach did not preclude cross-generic work, it could often involve an analysis that divided the musical spectrum hierarchically according to aesthetic values or, more viscerally, taste.
A radical downtown musician who shared an East Village apartment with Russell for a year or so in the mid-1970s, Rhys Chatham offers a contemporaneous example of this pluralist-dialectic approach. Having started out as a committed student of serialism, Chatham began to explore minimalism/post-minimalism/new music after attending a Terry Riley concert, and as the decade progressed friends introduced him to free jazz and then new wave, which he began to explore in relation to compositional music, establishing himself as a significant no wave artist in the process. “The amazing thing about the first half of the eighties in New York was that art music, improvised music, and rock had reached a point where the formal issues endemic to each nearly perfectly coincided, to such an extent that art music made by art composers in a rock context was rock music; where improvised music made by improvisers in an art music context was art music; where improvised music made by rock composers in a jazz festival context was warmly welcomed by the jazz audience,” writes Chatham, who remained affiliated primarily to the art music scene throughout. Chatham adds: “While it is certainly possible and indeed desirable in many instances to skirt the fringes of both fields, one eventually must make a choice regarding which set of issues to address in order to do any serious work in either. Anyone who says otherwise is being either cynical or naive.”
Because he refused to choose, Russell (and his like-minded peers) did not only deterritorialize music within a specific set of aesthetic coordinates but also between these co-ordinates. Developing an embedded art that responded to specific circumstances, he formed an alliance not with a specific genre (or social scene that attached itself to a specific genre) but instead with music itself. That kind of scope was not ordinary, even in downtown New York. As Jason Toynbee argues, “the radius of creativity of musician-subjects is circumscribed,” and “it is difficult to make new or different music because possibility is so constrained [ . . .] by the magnetic attraction of conventional patterns and choices” as well as “the difficulty of hearing possibilities near the outside.” Toynbee acknowledges that “extraordinary music can be made” and, drawing on Bakhtin’s work on heteroglossia, maintains that this occurs through a process of “social authorship” in which the social author “cites and inflects voices, that is musical sounds and forms which have already been produced, musical possibles in other words. Concluding that the author is neither dead nor a transcendental spirit, but is instead an editor and a parodist, Toynbee cites Charles Mingus as an example of a social author who urged his musicians to develop distinctive voices and integrated these with a broad range of references (including gospel, the blues, early jazz, Latin music and Caribbean music). Yet Toynbee notes that Mingus is both ideal and atypical in his range, and that other authors “may cite less often, less reflexively and with a weaker sense of the possibilities of combination.” Working with an equally broad range of references, Russell was also atypical, and his reluctance to bring these sounds together into an identifiable generic field ⎯ in the case of Mingus, jazz ⎯ suggests a particularly fluid, decentered outlook.
Russell’s approach to music making was not liberal. That kind of outlook would have involved him either situating himself in one genre and professing his tolerance (but not actual appreciation) of other genres; or situating himself in one genre and being prepared to integrate the aesthetics of another genre on the terms and conditions of the first genre; or hovering between a number of genres while neglecting to confront the difficult question of how to mediate between their contrasting and conflicting aesthetic and social priorities. Instead Russell attempted something much more radical and challenging, which was to work across a range of generic sounds and to explore their potential points of interaction in a non-hierarchical manner. As a result, there were occasions when he integrated pop into compositional music (Instrumentals), and other occasions when he took compositional music into pop (World of Echo). Pop and compositional techniques were also explored within the context of dance (Loose Joints, Dinosaur L), while dance and funk were merged with pop (on the Calling Out of Context recordings). None of this work involved the seamless meeting of two different worlds. Instead, Russell struggled to find local solutions ⎯ and it is reasonable to assume that the material we can now hear constitutes the more successful of these combinations. Along the way, other musicians had to be persuaded of the reasonableness of the exercise, and Russell did well to surround himself with so many open-minded and (perhaps above all) patient collaborators.
Lacking a home turf, Russell ventured into unfamiliar territory. When he made these journeys, as was the case with Indian classical music (the Ali Akbar College), disco (the Gallery, the Loft, the Paradise Garage), and rock/new wave (CBGB’s, Danceteria, the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, the Other End, the Village Gate), he did not approach the musical scene in question as a tourist or even anthropologist, but instead attempted to become part of it. Struck by the wondrousness of the worlds he was encountering, Russell encouraged others to make a similar journey, so he took composers down to CBGB’s, rock friends to underground dance clubs, and club dancers to the Kitchen. Shuttling between the roles of host and guest, Russell maintained this radical-plural-nomadic perspective from the moment he ricocheted between classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Ali Akbar College of Music (and sought out intersections between these forms and folk) right through to the end of his life (when he recorded songs on his cello for an art music label, as well as funky pop played on a range of electronic and acoustic instruments for a post-punk label). In other words, Russell’s cross-generic, inter-milieu work was not a phase; it was his purpose.
a. Making Music
Arthur Russell enjoyed making music in the mould of the composers that are celebrated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which is to say that he composed music that opened with a refrain before it embarked on a process of deterritorialization. At the same time he also pursued this trajectory in a more radical manner than the composers cited by Deleuze and Guattari inasmuch as he regularly elided his own authorial presence in the process. As a result, the move from the simple refrain to the complex process of deterritorial-ization could not be straightforwardly attributed to Russell, which in turn contributed to the undermining of the figure of the towering, authoritative composer ⎯ the bourgeois-liberal figure of superior insight who has been critiqued by, among others, Jeremy Gilbert and Jason Toynbee. In Instrumentals, Russell allowed his musicians to decide which parts of the score they wanted to play, and during rehearsals and performances encouraged them to improvise out of the score, thereby generating a collective line of flight. In a similar manner, the Loose Joints sessions began with Russell’s written songs, after which the assembled musicians were encouraged to improvise around a groove. (Sometimes these moments of improvisation were so hot they displaced the refrain, as became the case with the seven-inch single release of “Pop Your Funk” and, a little later, the “Female Version” of “Is It All Over My Face?”) Regarding the sessions that resulted in 24 → 24 Music, the musicians began not with songs but a more developed orchestral score, yet the next stage followed a now-familiar path: they were invited to jam. And when Russell got together with Mustafa Ahmed, Elodie Lauten and Peter Zummo (plus a range of other musicians) to play the experimental pop of the Singing Tractors, the group would start out with some straight-forward chords, after which Russell did his best to engineer an extended spell of creative chaos.
Russell was sufficiently committed to the deterritorialization of the author to have this reflected in the naming of the various groups in which he performed. Although it would have been easy for him to release his dance recordings under his own name, Russell was absolutely clear that that would have been untrue to the collective process that underpinned the productions, and so he released these tracks under a series of non-individualizing pseudonyms (Dinosaur, Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean, etc.). While Russell’s ventures into pop and rock were framed by the conventions of the genre, in which musical collectives regularly assume a generic name, Russell was quick to correct anyone who described the Flying Hearts as his own band. And when his chance to rise to individual fame as the new Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen arrived, he glided past the opening as if it was not there and invited a collective of friends to play in the hallowed presence of John Hammond.
The ethos of attributing authorship to a networked collective that is neither a homogeneous mass nor a group of individuals was organically linked to the downtown milieu in the 1970s, where money was scarce and composer-musicians could for the most part only perform their music by entering into a network of favors in which they performed for each other for free. Yet while the experimental composer Arnold Dreyblatt notes that many composers remained committed to their identities as composers, Russell showed little concern for such tags. “Someone like Rhys Chatham had new music credentials and developed a composed music with the electric guitar, maintaining all along that he was first and foremost a composer,” comments Dreyblatt. “Arthur, though, was absolutely unconcerned with identity ⎯ with projecting ‘I am just this’. Rhys was standing there saying we are composers, whereas Arthur didn’t need to do that at all. That loss of identity ⎯ the loss of the I-genius ⎯ can be very threatening to the new music world, but that was Arthur.”
Russell’s reluctance to forward himself as an author/composer according to the enduring model of the bourgeois individual is further evidenced in his unwillingness to settle on a final mix because it is this kind of definitive commodity-statement that (at least in the twentieth century) that has become the focus of artistic and material value. “Arthur would talk about the process being as important as the goal,” says Jeff Whittier, who attended the Ali Akbar College and remembers Russell being committed to the Indian musical concept of “practice,” or riaz. “I didn’t entirely agree because as a musician you are defined about how you play at any given time and the product is the measure of the riaz. But Arthur would say that the process was more important than the end product.” Many friends remember bumping into Russell while he walked the streets of downtown, listening to alternate versions of his own recordings on a Walkman, unable to decide which version he should settle on, and his fascination with the infinite possibilities of sound received further reign in the recording studio, where he would spend hours and hours introducing intricate details that were often beyond the perceptive range of engineers. Often characterized as being indecisive, Russell appears to have been rooted in a reluctance to cage music, or constrict it to a final take. “In a way Arthur disliked his records because he felt that the performance involved was just one of many possible ways of interpreting the song,” says Donald Murk, a companion who worked as Russell’s personal manager for a couple of years in the late 1970s. “Recording was always a drawback because it preserved something, whereas the moment after might be better, so he didn’t accept that the vinyl version was something he had to duplicate. He wanted to use the music as a platform to create a sound environment.”
Russell’s willingness to view music as its own agent, in which it could assume infinite forms until an author closed down those possibilities, reinforced his enthusiasm for dance culture. Drew Hemment has commented on “the multiplicity of indeterminate circuits through which electronic music passes, and that are composed by its passing,” and this analysis can also be applied to the predominantly non-electronic dance form of 1970s disco, in which spinners such as Michael Cappello, Steve D’Acquisto, Francis Grasso, Bobby “DJ” Guttadaro, Richie Kaczor, Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Howard Merritt, Richie Rivera, Tom Savarese, Tee Scott, Nicky Siano, Jimmy Stuard and Ray Yeats became specialists in picking out isolated records and recontextualizing them in a far-reaching narrative that either juxtaposed or blended sonic and verbal elements over several hours. The inventiveness of these DJs culminated in the creation of a new format, the twelve-inch single, and although Russell remained suspicious of uncreative remixers who threatened to make his records sound more conventional (as was the case with Jimmy Simpson’s remix of “Kiss Me Again”), he was enthusiastic about the interventions of Francois Kevorkian (“Go Bang”) and Walter Gibbons (“Let’s Go Swimming”), who took his recordings in new directions. Nor was Russell bothered when the popularity of Larry Levan’s remix of “Is It All Over My Face?” prompted another group of musicians to call themselves Loose Joints and perform the same song on the New York club circuit; rather, he welcomed their work as offering another interpretation of the song. When the counterfeit Loose Joints was scheduled to appear alongside the original Loose Joints at a Brooklyn nightclub, Murk threatened to cancel, but Russell liked the idea of the two groups performing the same song back-to-back. Murk remembers the counterfeit band was tight, but Russell thought that “they sounded like a cover band, and that our group was making music.”
Russell was committed to expanding the concept of musicianship beyond the normative mode of the gifted composer (in art music) and the charismatic figurehead (in pop and rock), and he developed this ethos wherever he went. Whereas the recording studio has been described as a site where music is cut up, manipulated and therefore denaturalized, it remains the case that many engineers and producers attempt to make their recordings sound seamless and natural (as is the case with most art music recordings) or highlight the precision/skill/presence of key elements in the line-up. Russell, however, took an alternative approach and left experienced engineers in a state of amazement. “Arthur showed me that anything is possible, that music is a continuous flow or process,” says Bob Blank, who had always looked to make music symmetrical and encourage the ears to go to the part that were most important. “Music can evolve out of things. It’s not a form that you fit things into… Arthur taught me that the off-chance thing going on in the left hand corner can be as important as what’s happening in the middle.” Russell approached the concept of musicianship in the same way: he encouraged R&B vocalists to sing in an off-kilter voice and orchestral musicians to improvise; he invited dancers to play musical instruments and sing on the Loose Joints sessions; during an overdub for Loose Joints he asked another “amateur musician” friend who had discovered a broken guitar to come in and record with the instrument; he took to leaving windows open during recording sessions so that the “musicianship of the street” would seep into the mix; and he worked with unconventional sounds, including those generated through the microtonal system of just intonation, which enabled the reintroduction of the non-western colours that had gone missing from Western art music.
Russell’s use of the cello was typical of his determination to explore sound from every possible angle. Although he practiced hard, Russell had no interest in developing the skill of a virtuoso musician, and played his cello in a range of intentionally unconventional ways that sought to unleash the instrument’s full range of sonic affects, one of which involved him holding it horizontally and plucking its strings with a coconut shell in order to generate a percussive sound. Taking the instrument out of its regular Western art music habitat, he played it across a range of Indian classical, folk and disco settings, and during this process he further dismantled the cello’s orchestral status by connecting it to an amplifier. At the same time, Russell came to view the instrument not so much as a piece of manipulable technology as an ally-agent of immanent affects. During his time in San Francisco he lived in a Buddhist commune for a couple of years and took to retreating into a closet in order to play the cello, not because (as some have written) playing was forbidden, but because the acoustics were so powerful he was able to forget the distinction between himself and his instrument. That sense of being both decentered and expanded was set down on World of Echo, where voice and instrument twisted around each other in such an interactive, ethereal manner it is impossible to think of them as individual components. Capturing two live performances of these recordings on video, the experimental musician and filmmaker Phil Niblock kept his shots so tight that Russell’s body is never seen in full, instead appearing as a series of interacting parts ⎯ the movement of the hands, the body of the cello, the meeting of the bow and the strings, the tilt of the head ⎯ as if providing a tour of the various components of the recording assemblage rather than a representation of a complete and coherent artist. Niblock might have been enabled by the music, which calls attention not to the transcendental genius of the author, but the material/molecular workings of the various parts of the musical machine, which are of equal worth. Andrew Murphie’s description of popular music as “not necessarily art but as interactive artisanship” is clearly applicable to Russell.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari warn that because the force of deterritorialization “is the strongest” in sound, sound also “effects the most massive reterritorializations, the most numbing, the most redundant.” Implicit is the idea that music, like other cultural forms, has the ability to behave conservatively as well as radically, to stop making rather than continue making connections. And when Deleuze and Guattari add that sound can also lead to a “black hole” as well as the “cosmos,” it would seem that they are alluding to sound that is so obscure that it becomes disconnected and lacks any kind of audience. The suggestion is the avant-garde should go about its work with vigour, yet should always remember to check its audience every now and again, just to make sure someone is listening.
The presence or absence of an audience might not have been foremost among the concerns of serial composers, but the forerunners of minimalism decided that they cared. “We were performer-composers,” explains Glass. “We were not academics who wrote treatises on the future of serial music. We made a clean break with the academic world, and the cleanest break you could make with the academic world was to go out and play music, because they didn’t do that.” By aligning himself with the minimalist and post-minimalist composers who clustered around the Kitchen, the Experimental Intermedia Foundation and other downtown venues, Russell made it clear that he hoped to write music that could appeal to a non-specialist audience, and the fact that he helped pioneer the introduction of popular chords in his compositions made him a particularly bold experimenter in this regard. Yet it was in his engagement with pure pop ⎯ which ranged from booking pop acts to play at the Kitchen to joining pop bands such as the Flying Hearts ⎯ that his desire to reach a popular audience was most explicit. “The Flying Hearts was pointedly a pop group, and didn’t pretend to have any artistic aspirations,” says Gordon. “In fact, Ernie and Arthur repeatedly argued about what would be ‘too weird’ for pop music.”
Even though he liked to experiment, Russell had no desire to remain obscure and worked hard to connect with an audience. While living in San Francisco, Russell became friends with Allen Ginsberg, and it was with Ginsberg, as well as Steven Hall, that he forged his plan to record a form of Buddhist pop music. “When I first met him, Arthur and I would talk about using Buddhism as some kind of force in pop music,” recalls Hall. “We wanted to write songs that used these ideas. Arthur was really passionate about this.” Having performed queer Buddhist mantra chants alongside Ginsberg and Hall, Russell pursued his dream of connecting with the popular by forming the Flying Hearts with Ernie Brooks, and the two of them studiously avoided anything that resembled experimentalism, even if Russell’s ultra-laid back stage persona and penchant for songs with gently shocking twists (“I Wish You Were A Girl”) undermined their potential to become a commercial success. Russell continued his pop quest by traveling to Italy to join up with Le Orme ⎯ this was a dream of sweetness and sunshine and simplicity ⎯ and when the band reacted badly to his arrival he returned to New York and started to focus on producing disco, where the connection with the public was immediate and powerful.
During this period and beyond, Russell never felt compelled to make a choice between the avant-garde and the popular. He wanted to be free to introduce interesting ideas, and this approach ended up frustrating John Hammond, who hoped to nurture Russell in the mould of Dylan/Springsteen only to discover that he thought (in the words of Tom Lee, Russell’s future lifelong partner) “there were lots of singer-songwriter wannabes and that he didn’t want to be another person in that world.” Having paid for Russell to go into the studio, label reps from Sire and West End were also left frustrated that his recordings were not immediately recognizable. Yet in contrast to a number of avant-garde musicians situated in free jazz, art music and no wave, Russell did not fall into the trap of making the unpredictable predictable. While the Flying Hearts lacked a strong ego, the group’s songs were deliberately modeled on the standard conventions of pop. In a similar vein, Russell’s “Wax the Van” did not venture far beyond the parameters of conventional dance, while the less orthodox “Tell You (Today)” was unashamedly catchy. Although Russell often made music according to an overarching counterpoint, in which simple refrains gave way to complex periods of playing, his songs did not always develop along these lines, and as such he did not generate a new conformity of avant-garde complexity or lapse conversely into a straightforward populist commercialism. Lacking a label that understood his desire to straddle the popular and the experimental as well as a range of musical genres, Russell ended up co-founding his own imprint, Sleeping Bag, which became the publisher of 24 → 24 Music. But when financial difficulties convinced Russell’s partner, Will Socolov, that he had to assume sole control of the company because Russell’s taste was insufficiently commercial, Russell’s recordings started to pile up in the rejection box. Russell spent the rest of his recording life seeking out independent label bosses who trusted him to get on with his music and were happy with the idea that they would recoup their costs (if all went well).
c. Becoming-woman, Becoming-child, Becoming-animal, Becoming-cosmic
Although Arthur Russell made a point of emphasizing the collective, he started to use his own name more regularly from the early 1980s onwards. Philip Glass, who had cultivated a successful career by repeating an identifiable strain of orchestral music, was an important influence in persuading him to use the “I” more boldly. Russell went on to release two orchestral album ⎯ Instrumentals (Les Disques du Crepuscule, 1983) and Tower of Meaning (Chatham Square, 1984) ⎯ under his own name, and had little choice but to repeat the approach on his solo voice-cello album, World of Echo (Upside Records, 1986). After that he used his name one more time on the twelve-inch single “Let’s Go Swimming” (Logarhythm, 1986), while “School Bell/Treehouse” (Sleeping Bag, 1986), which was released more or less simultaneously, was attributed to Indian Ocean. Compared with the spiraling egos of the mainstream pop acts of the 1980s, Russell’s hesitant “I” hardly amounted to an act of uncontrollable narcissism. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s comment that they used their names on the cover of A Thousand Plateaus “purely out of habit” and because “it’s nice to talk like everybody else” springs to mind, as does their comment that they hope to reach “not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I.”
Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of becoming-woman, becoming-child and becoming-animal sheds further light on Russell’s reluctance to assume a kind of singular and persistent “I” presence. In A Thousand Plateaus, woman, child and animal are contrasted with man, who is “majoritarian” (rather than “minoritarian”) not because there are more men than there are women, children or animals, but because he enjoys a “state of domination.” Deleuze and Guattari add that all becomings must pass through becoming-woman ⎯ because this revolves around the decentering of the mode of masculine modernity. And they also warn that women, children and animals do not necessarily occupy a position of becoming because they can reterritorialize on a majority state, so women, children and animals must deterritorialize (become-woman, become-child and become-animal) in order to serve “as the active medium of becoming.” The authors comment that “there is no medium of becoming except as a deterritorialized variable of a minority,” and point out there can be “no becoming-man because man is the molar entity par excellent, whereas becomings are molecular.” Finally, none of these becomings involve the act of imitation of a woman, a child or an animal, but (in the words of Ronald Bogue) “an unspecifiable, unpredictable disruption of codes that takes place alongside women, children, and animals, in a metamorphic zone between fixed identities.”
Russell was able to become-woman not by becoming an actual woman (through a sex change) or attempting to pass as a woman (through drag), but instead through a series of cumulative practices. The contours of Russell’s becoming-woman can be traced to his physical proximity to a series of scenes and, in particular, his avoidance of comparatively macho music cultures that were not only dominated by men (something that defines many music scenes) but perhaps more importantly by men behaving in a masculine way. In the field of art music, Russell steered clear of serialism because of the music’s denial of bodily pleasure and emotional expressiveness, as well as its insistence on molar hierarchy, impermeable aesthetic borders and social stratification. Instead he gravitated to the field of minimalism/post-minimalism, which was more open to female composers (including Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Anderson, Jill Kroesen, Annea Lockwood and Charlemagne Palestine); was non-phallocentric in its deployment of tangents, repetition and circularity; and anti-patriarchal in its willingness to dismantle the mind/body binary and give value to the exploration of the non-rational (both bodily and spiritual). Russell’s engagement with the pop/rock terrain followed a similar pattern. He appears to have avoided psychedelic rock in San Francisco because of the culture’s tendency to valorize masculine virtuosity and individuality, after which he co-founded a band whose very name, the Flying Hearts, suggested a form of becoming-woman-ness in its emphasis on emotional connectivity. Lacking a lead vocalist and developing a lulling aesthetic, the Flying Hearts contrasted sharply with the precise, linear, aggressive contours of punk and new wave. And when Russell joined the Necessaries he became unhappy with the band’s tougher sound and heavy reliance on lead singer Ed Tomney, who occupied rock’s well-honed position of man/leader/poet/figure of cool. Meanwhile Russell showed no interest in the angry and sometimes intimidating aesthetic sensibilities and performance rituals that became the hallmark of downtown’s ear-splitting no wave scene.
Russell was drawn to music scenes that were affirming, inclusive and positive, so while he repeatedly tried to find his niche in pop and rock, he was far happier operating in the world of downtown dance and, more specifically, the black gay downtown dance scene, which was far more socially inclusive and musically disparate than the homogeneous, mono-cultural white gay scene, which evolved in so-called “A-list” venues such as the Tenth Floor and Flamingo. Russell had already started to write songs that articulated non-hegemonic forms of gender and sexual behavior before he became immersed in downtown disco. Sung by a man, “I Wish You Were A Girl” gestured towards an unsettled gay subjectivity, while “Don’t Forget About Me” gave permission to a lover of a non-specified sex to leave for another man (“You know you know you are free / But baby don’t forget about me”). It was the experience of dancing at downtown dance venues such as the Gallery and the Loft, however, that inspired Russell to write a series of songs that brimmed with sexual innuendo ⎯ including “Is It All Over My Face?,” “Pop Your Funk,” “Go Bang,” “Clean On Your Bean,” “Wax the Van.” These songs were queer rather than gay thanks to their willingness to shock (which was never the intention of Hot 100 gay artists such as Sylvester and the Village People) as well as their availability to different-sex interpretations.
Plurality and openness were central tenants of New York’s earliest black gay dance formations, where crowds were openly mixed and the dance floor was conceived as a space of open-ended community, non-normative expression and body-sonic transform-ation. Although a number of these possibilities would be closed down by white gay disco (as articulated at the Tenth Floor and Flamingo) and mainstream straight disco (as represented in Saturday Night Fever), Russell frequented venues where the drive to gay congregation and liberation did not close down more expansive notions of community and sexuality, and this was reflected in his songwriting. “Arthur was inclusive in a way that even some early gay pride pioneers were not in terms of straight sexuality, and he was also informed by his experiences with women,” comments Hall. “It is limiting to think of his music through the gay prism.” Gruff male voices provided some of these songs with a homoerotic undertone, while female vocalists (including Lola Blank, Jill Kroesen and Melvina Woods) were encouraged to sing in unconventional (drunken, demented, little girl, etc.) voices. The cumulative result suggested that sexuality, as Deleuze and Guattari write, “is the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings.” For listeners who were not in the know, and maybe were not ready to know, non-sexual readings were also readily available, so a song like “Pop Your Funk” could be interpreted as a nonsense wordplay around music genre. Even when they were received in a more puritanical fashion, however, the experience of listening to these records was hardly reassuring because Russell’s non-hegemonic meanings were not simply articulated in the lyrics, but also in the sonic structure of the recordings. Producing music that avoided the molarising features of teleology or stable form, but instead moved in tangents, loops and grooves while slipping across generic boundaries, Russell’s dance tracks were almost always in a state of becoming-woman.
The downtown dance floor also provided Russell with a space that was open to becoming-child. Thanks to their private status, venues such as the Loft were able to sidestep the regulations laid down by New York’s licensing authorities, and as the parties acquired marathon-like proportions, participants left behind the outside world of measured, regulated time and replaced it with an alternative world in which time was unmeasured and unregulated (thanks to the absence of clocks, the non-applicability of mandatory closing times, etc.). Guided by the flux and flow of the music, and supported by the disorienting effects of drugs and lighting effects as well as the unfixing vectors of darkness and proximate bodies, dancers lost their sense of teleological time and entered into a block of time that fused past, present and future ⎯ a time, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, of “Aeon” rather than “Chronos.” In this environment, dancers would not experience memories of being a child (a fixed point in time that precedes adulthood) so much as open up to the experience of becoming-child (an unfixed line of becoming). When dancers started to whoop and scream under a ceiling of birthday-party balloons, it revealed not that they had regressed into actual childhood, nor that they were attempting to imitate being a child, but that they were transcending the fixed-time of their adult selves and replacing it with a transversal time. Russell also introduced child-like motifs to his dance recordings: the monosyllabic accessibility of “Pop Your Funk,” the call to play of “Go Bang,” the pubescent sexuality of “Clean On Your Bean,” the child-like spontaneity of “Let’s Go Swimming” and the symbolic memories of “School Bell/Treehouse.” On “Wax the Van,” Russell went so far as to ask Lola Blank’s seven-year-old son to contribute vocals.
Russell also attempted to capture the pre-socialized spontaneity of the child during a number of recording sessions, which he ran according to the principle that the first take was the best take because it was the most unselfconscious take. (When Audika released a compilation of Russell’s orchestral works, the album was titled First Thought Best Thought. The phrase “first thought best thought” comes from William Carlos Williams and was adopted by figures such as Allen Ginsberg.) Chogyma Trungpa’s The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, a book recommended to Russell by Ginsberg, reinforced his belief that the moment of inspiration was a heightened moment of poetry and that expressions of child-like innocence and spontaneity should be treasured. Russell took to playing recordings to his nephew in the hope that he would either like them or reveal what was required to make them more appealing to young people. When Beau expressed an appreciation of the hard rock of Van Halen, Russell was disappointed, but he continued to address the minority grouping of children as well as encourage adult listeners to abdicate the sensibility that came with their position of power. “Hiding Your Present from You” evoked the familiar scene of a parent preparing for a child’s birthday (or, just as plausibly, an adult hiding a present from another adult and becoming-child in play); “Get Around to It” contained lyrics about childhood sexual experimentation (“Show me what the girl does to the boy”); “Cornbelt” [sic.] called to mind the rolling Midwestern cornfields that surrounded the town in which he grew up; the name of the Singing Tractors repeated the reference to his rural roots; “Wild Combination” contained lines that referred to childhood holidays by the Minnesota lakes; and “Calling All Kids” was a childhood manifesto (“Calling all kids, calling all kids / Entering in binocular mode / Calling all kids, calling all kids / Grown-ups are crazy, crazy, crazy”). Regarded as a strange outsider as he grew up in Oskaloosa ⎯ his childhood came to an abrupt end when he ran away from home before completing high school ⎯ Russell was unable to look back on his younger years through the soft lens of nostalgia, and the sonic strangeness that runs through these songs underlines his non-romantic outlook. Rather than idealizing a lost era that cannot be retrieved, Russell sought to create a connection with the affective sensibility of play that lies within all adults in order to realize a form of freeing alterity.
Russell was also drawn to becoming-animal (as well as fish). Hand-made flyers featured child-like sketches of birds and antelopes; a bunny rabbit stared out from the front of his cello (perhaps because Russell identified with the sweetness of the animal, or perhaps because his approach to making music was similar to living in an underground warren); a koala bear appeared on the logo for Sleeping Bag; and songs such as “Eli,” “Tiger Stripes” and “Deer In the Forest” developed animal themes. Russell even took on the cause of the minority within the minority when he evoked endangered and extinct species: Dinosaur and Dinosaur L appeared as artist names, and he also assumed the producer-moniker of “Killer Whale” on a number of his records. Taken individually, Russell’s animal references were not rhizomatic, in the way that identifying or having a relationship with a pet is not rhizomatic. But taken together, his cumulative references to animals and fish foregrounded a rhizomatic outlook in which Russell identified with the becoming-animal charac-teristic of, to quote Deleuze and Guattari, moving in “a pack, a band, a population, a peopling, in short, a multiplicity.” The hungry, roving composer/musicians who lined up for each other in down-town concert after downtown concert were also fundamentally pack-like in their behaviour.
Becoming-animal did not involve Russell actually becoming an animal, but rather engaging with the deterritorializing status of an animal, which for Deleuze and Guattari implied not so much becoming-animal as becoming-non-human. It follows, then, that Russell’s evocation of a range of environments in his music and performances can be considered to be a parallel move towards becoming-animal. Instrumentals was played against a backdrop of nature slides taken by his San Francisco Buddhist teacher, Yuko Nonomura, while images of the sky, light and clouds, as well as water, rain and the ocean, ran through songs such as “In the Light of the Miracle,” “Let’s Go Swimming,” “Lucky Cloud” and “Platform On the Ocean” as well as artist names such as the Sailboats and Indian Ocean. Russell lived in New York City because he calculated that that was the best place for him to make music, but he regularly headed to the peers that ran alongside the Hudson River because he needed a regular fix of water. And although a lack of money stopped him from traveling further westwards, he regularly dreamed of the mountains of San Francisco. Russell, in other words, was concerned with the lines that ran from the animal to the mineral and the geological, and it made good sense to pursue this interest through music, for as Deleuze and Guattari argue, “musical expression is inseparable from a becoming-woman, a becoming-child, a becoming-animal that constitute its content.”
From a young age, Russell attempted to immerse himself in a range of musical environments (environments that are conducive to becoming-woman/child/animal) to the extent that music became the primary medium through which he experienced life. When he locked himself away in the closet on the Buddhist commune in San Francisco, the claustrophobic, darkened space enabled him to merge into music, and the immersive rooms of downtown dance culture functioned as a more accessible zone in which music became one’s life for an eight or a ten or a twelve-hour period. Russell also engaged with becoming not one form of music (genre) but music itself (something close to the full range of musical sound), and his outlook became so resolute that after he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive in 1986 he deliberately avoided completing an album that had been commissioned by Rough Trade in order to make sure he always had something to work on, as well as eke out additional advances that could help him develop a nest-like home studio. “I began to understand that his being ill was one reason it was taking him so long,” recalls Geoff Travis, the head of Rough Trade. “It gave him a reason to live, and I was glad about this.” Writing an obituary for Russell in the Village Voice, Kyle Gann commented, “His recent performances had been so infrequent due to illness, his songs were so personal, that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”
Russell, in short, was intent on becoming-music, and his work regularly involved him engaging with the cosmic. In a postcard written in September 1973, Ginsberg applauded Russell’s “precision in words” and the way he would show both “courage” and an “un-derstanding of basic reality” to “rely on so delicate a fact and persevere with confidence in memories drawn from actual rather than idealized life.” Russell’s work, added Ginsberg, reached the “final loveliness and Buddha smallness of the Actual,” and the Beat poet concluded, “Staying with the real… is a rare art you have.” As described by Ginsberg, Russell’s transcendental materialism intersects with Deleuze and Guattari’s call for “the people and the earth” to “be like the vectors of a cosmos that carries them off; then the cosmos will be art.” Russell’s journey was barely mappable, consisting as it did of a blur of projects, sounds and collaborations, and his refusal to stand still or be readily identifiable might have further recommended him to the authors. “Produce a deterritorialized refrain as the final end of music, release it into the Cosmos ⎯ that is more important than building a new system,” Deleuze and Guattari write of Schumann, and might have written of Russell. “Opening the assemblage onto a cosmic force.”
5. Strategic Consequences of Arthur Russell’s Rhizomatic Politics
Arthur Russell was no more than partially successful in his attempt to open up the downtown assemblage to the cosmic. He managed to draw a line between the compositional and pop/rock scenes, but his efforts to persuade the rest of downtown to take disco seriously were less successful. Just as scenesters did not always grasp the scope of Russell’s work, so the chroniclers of downtown ⎯ including Kyle Gann, Bernard Gendron, Tom Johnson and Marvin Taylor ⎯ have not been drawn to his presence. Was Russell’s elision from these and other historical accounts of downtown the inevitable result of his determination to pursue so many sounds simultaneously (and often anonymously)? Did Russell’s rhizomatic musicianship undermine his ability to make an undeniable impact in any single genre of popular music, or downtown culture more generally?
The answer is, “Yes, but…” for while Russell’s position in the radical middle made and continues to make him hard to capture ⎯ as Deleuze and Guattari write, the “middle is not an average; it is fast motion, it is the absolute speed of movement” ⎯ his rhizomatic practice has also contributed to his durability. The muted loneliness of Russell’s voice-cello songs resonated with the height of the AIDS crisis in the first half of the 1990s; his groundbreaking post-disco recordings opened him to an audience that was beginning to explore the forgotten terrain of disco as well as search for the missing links that led to the emergence of house in the second half of the 1990s; his off-kilter dance tracks from the mid-1980s caught the imagination of the early followers of Broken Beat in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and the recycling of the electronic pop cannon from the first half of the 1980s has made his unreleased recordings for Sleeping Bag and Rough Trade sound premonitory in the early to mid-2000s. All of this percolating interest came to the boil in 2004, when Soul Jazz released The World of Arthur Russell and, more or less simultaneously, Audika launched Calling Out of Context. Since then, Russell has enjoyed a level of media adulation, record label interest and commercial sales success that has easily surpassed anything he achieved while he was alive ⎯ a testament, if ever one was needed, to the durability of a rhizome.
Although the recent chronicling of the disco era combined with the newfound interest in the “downtown era” of 1974-84 has enabled a contextual reading of Russell’s work, there should be no confusion that a return to the past is either possible or straightforwardly desirable. “It’s senile. And it wasn’t all that,” the downtown graffiti/conceptual artist Jeff Harrington wrote in a recent thread on the history of downtown. “I think today’s more chaotic, less holy, more eclectic and poorer scene is a lot more interesting.” While a degree of nostalgia might permeate the histories of New York music culture in the 1970s and 1980s, anyone who pines for a return to the so-called heyday of downtown longs after an era in which Russell did not find acceptance ⎯ or at least nothing like the kind of acceptance that makes him such a relevant figure more than twenty years after his death. Importantly, Russell’s new band of listeners do not appear to be driven by nostalgia, but instead by the fact that his music sounds so contemporary ⎯ so chaotic, unholy, eclectic and grassroots. Considered historically, the act of listening to Russell indicates not an act of nostalgia but a commitment to an atemporal music culture that confounds chronology and brings together the past, the present and (hopefully) the future.
Russell is also enjoying a powerful revival because his wide-ranging approach to music makes such good sense in the digital era, in which forms of musical fusion are proliferating and music collections are accumulating and broadening at an unprecedented rate. Of course fusions have always taken place: twentieth century music was in many respects an epoch of a twisting, accelerating hybridity, especially from the late 1960s onwards. And if the 1980s began to close down the move towards eclectic experimentation ⎯ in the United States the contest between white rock and black/Latin hip hop became entrenched, while in Europe rock was figured as the last bastion of resistance to black dance ⎯ by the beginning of the new millennium a growing band of music listeners had become tired of these alliances, as well as the hyperbolic exchanges that seemed to fuel their sense of purpose. The willingness of these listeners to travel beyond a primary generic allegiance was aided by the spread of burning, downloading and file-sharing. As the digital era accelerated, listeners increasingly defined their taste in music as being “eclectic,” and this paradigm shift resulted in an increasing number of listeners being equipped with the kind of open-mindedness that was required to assimilate the full range of Russell’s musical repertoire.
Russell might not have been the first musician to produce a broad range of styles and sensibilities, yet he was and remains an exemplary figure with regard to this kind of practice, and it is possible that his newfound appeal is tied to the complexity of the present historical moment. “Unless one likes complexity one cannot feel at home in the twenty-first century,” writes Rosi Braidotti in Metamorphoses. “Transformations, metamorphoses, mutations and processes of change have in fact become familiar in the lives of most contemporary subjects.” Russell’s profound complexity, which resulted in him resisting all forms of categorization, proved to be impossible to translate beyond the limited confines of downtown New York during the 1970s and 1980s, but is becoming comprehensible in the contemporary era of mutation, speed and transformation. If Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me became a timely soundtrack for the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 thanks to its soothing simplicity, spirituality and sweetness, Arthur Russell’s Another Thought, World of Echo and Calling Out of Context offered all of those qualities along with restlessness, difficulty and edginess. That might not have appealed to listeners who wanted to stay with the reassuring sound of musical chloroform, or those who rejected Jones in favor of a pumped-up sound that put them in the mood to conduct a xenophobic war against evil. But for listeners who wanted to grasp the complexity of the new millennium, Russell’s catalogue resembled a prescient time capsule from a bygone era.
In a strange twist, Russell’s apparent incoherence ⎯ the thing that made the major music companies so reluctant to sign him during the seventies and eighties ⎯ has become the foundation of his recent success. Although it might have become unexceptional for mainstream artists to record across a range of genres, this practice often takes place not because it is creatively or ethically interesting, but because it offers artists a chance to renew a jaded career, or reach out to a wide range of niche markets. Digital technology has made it easy to cobble together a twelve-inch single that features a range of mixes (R&B, hip hop, rock, dance, etc.) in order to reach as many audiences and sell as many copies as possible. Yet the resulting productions tend to be forgettable because they are often produced in the slipstream of a digitally enabled tourist trip of musical genre that looks to tick off the lowest common denominator of sound ⎯ a manifestly liberal engagement that can result in an arborescent mode of music-making whereby the producer reterritorializes sound (everything starts to sound the same) rather than deterritorializes sound (by developing new lines of flight). A radical artist who explored difference by taking it seriously and finding points of intersection, Russell offers an alternative ethos of musical and social engagement. Listeners cannot help but fall in love with the idea of his music, never mind the music itself.
Russell’s engagement with radical difference is reminiscent of the late 1960s, in which the rainbow coalition of civil rights activists, gay liberationists, feminists and anti-war demonstrators organized around a range of local issues ⎯ racism, homophobia, sexism and war ⎯ and also discovered the commonality and interconnectedness of their struggles through the countercultural movement. Russell was loosely connected to this movement. As a teenager, he read the Beat Poets, he grew his hair long, he took LSD, he ran away from home to live in Iowa City and then San Francisco, he went to live on a Buddhist commune, he studied Indian classical music, and he became good friends with Allen Ginsberg. In contrast to Ginsberg, however, he displayed no interest in participating in the overtly political end of the countercultural movement, so he showed no interest in joining the anti-war campaign, and he remained equally uninterested in the gay liberation movement, even after he came out as a gay man. Why?
In the late 1960s, Russell was a young man who might have been overly (yet understandably) invested in being different. Having grown up in a small Midwestern town where he felt like an outsider, he experienced a period of acute angst during his teenage years, and was only sixteen years old when he ran away from home in 1967 (a few months after the Summer of Love). By the early 1970s, the relative failure of the countercultural movement would have confirmed his view that the moment for an alternative form of politics ⎯ one that was less ambitious, less purist, less activist and less Utopian ⎯ had arrived. “I saw the fallout of the drug scene that resulted in the broken promises of freedom and free love,” says Steven Hall. “The heavier drugs such as speed and heroin resulted in a dissipation of creative energies and the deaths of artists and writers. The countercultural movement failed politically because of a loss of focus and lack of long-term vision.” Along with Russell, Hall became interested in developing a local form of lived politics. “The desire was to express ourselves through our work,” he comments. “The radical lifestyles we led were enough, and presenting our lifestyles in our work was our political activity. We had no time for overt political work and a subtle bias against political art, which we felt was compromised by its stridency.” Russell and Hall did not so much disagree with Ginsberg’s public stand on a range of issues as seek to go about creating a political reality according to a less ambitious set of criteria ⎯ a set of criteria that were concerned with working collaboratively, forming a non-hierarchical community, developing a radical and expressive form of art, and enacting a local politics of liberation. “We thought that we would rather play music and live out the principles Allen taught as a matter of praxis,” adds Hall. “To write a song about men having sex was just as political as protesting for freedom of speech.”
By the early 1970s, skepticism about the countercultural movement had become widespread. Manuel DeLanda has noted the way in which the activists of the 1960s “thought they were going to achieve everything within the 60’s ⎯ and what they wanted was not achievable, period.” Russell turned to Buddhism when his own attempt to breakthrough too quickly (via LSD) did not result in the transformation of his daily experience, and that philosophical-religious framework continued to frame his view of the world when he moved to New York, not because he was especially devout, but because the precepts of Buddhism provided him with an explanatory framework of how he already related to the world. Having settled in Manhattan, Russell continued to forge networks of collaborative musicians, yet hoped to do so while earning enough money to support himself (just as other more dedicated countercultural activists also decided it was time to “grow up” and get a job). Along with many other downtowners, Russell appreciated that there was no position “outside” of capitalism, and at times he even hoped that being on the inside ⎯ of, say, CBS or Warners ⎯ could help him survive as a musician while spreading a message of hope. During these and other projects, Russell retained his commitment to developing communal relationships and producing a form of ethical, adventurous art. Like many of his peers, he did not talk about changing the world through campaigning politics, but instead restricted himself to the less declarative business of “doing.”
All of this made doubly good sense because by the middle of the 1970s it had become unclear what an activist politics might achieve. The disintegration of the civil rights movement closed down one possible avenue of involvement, while the successes of the gay liberation movement (in terms of enabling gay men and lesbian women to congregate legally) appeared to lessen the need for action. Instead of divorcing himself from the concerns of black and gay politics, however, Russell made music that engaged with black and gay aesthetics and forged inter-communal relations. This kind of work should not be taken for granted: it did not exist on the periphery of the organized leftist during the 1970s, and downtown’s investment-minded artists also opposed it when they campaigned against the presence of venues such as the SoHo Place and the Loft (because they believed that an increased presence of ethnic gay men in the neighborhood would deflate the value of their properties). Russell knew that his work was not going to change the world; as far as he was concerned, forging a progressive community was quite enough to be getting on with.
Russell’s interest in affective communities ⎯ in communities that were organized around musical sound and bodily sensation ⎯ intersected with the some of the most compelling philosophical interventions of the 1970s. Michel Foucault’s investigation into the way in which discursive power is exercised through the regulation of sexuality and the body marked a significant break with the traditional leftist preoccupation with class and exploitation, as did Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s emphasis on the importance of developing a non-linear, decentered politics that is organized around affective, non-hierarchical relationships. Meanwhile poststructural feminist theorists such as Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous analyzed the relationship between sexuality and language, and argued for the development of a feminine writing and, in the case of Irigary, an acknowledgment of the importance of the pre-Oedpial child’s bodily contact with the mother. There is no reason to believe that Russell read these authors, but his concern with creating a series of communities through the experience of music, often in relation to the body, marked a parallel trajectory. He was practicing what these critics were theorizing, and he was joined by other downtown musicians from new music, new wave and disco in the quest to experience a form of transcendence through sonic repetition and social ritual.
Twenty years later, in an era of deepening inequality, neo-colonial war and looming environmental catastrophe, this project risks looking inadequate, if not negligent. “The next generation of gay boys was more overtly political because after the onslaught of AIDS two things happened,” notes Hall. “The focus shifted from the bacchanal, crazy, nonstop sex-drug parties, and the burgeoning gay culture represented by mentors like Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol was decimated. Political engagement bypassed our generation and was taken up by the next generation with groups such as ACT-UP.” There is no knowing if Russell might have become explicitly critical of neoliberal conservatism if he had lived beyond 1992, or if the collaborative practice that he helped forge will contribute to the eventual emergence of an alternative society that is organized around community rather than the individual. Judith Halberstam commented recently that the “problem with any search for alternatives may well be one of scale ⎯ nothing seems big enough, grand enough, expansive enough.” Halberstam proposed a turn to the “small, the local, the anti-monumental… the tiny steps that lead to transformation rather than the grand gesture that pronounces it as a fait accompli,” and the tiny steps taken by Russell and his downtown peers ⎯ their focus on getting a good sound and forming productive relationships ⎯ might provide a handy guide to current and future interventions.
Of course no political system, however aggressive and regressive it might be, is ever totally hegemonic, or can ever wholly close off alternative ways of living. That has proved to be the case during the period of militaristic neoliberalism in the US, during which time downtown continues to offer the promise of creativity, community and dissent, even though it has been gentrified beyond recognition. The highpoint of downtown might have been dated as running from the mid-1970s through to the mid-1980s, but there has been no decisive end, however damaging the Giuliani era might have been for nonconformist, oppositional culture. In a sign of downtown’s resilience, radical outposts ⎯ including the Kitchen, the Exper-imental Intermedia Foundation, and the Loft, to name three venues that Russell visited regularly ⎯ continue to forge an alternative milieu. Nor should an examination of downtown be restricted to New York, because equivalent downtowns exist and are emerging all over the world.
By the end of 2007 one in two of the world’s population will be living in a city, and it would require an act of extreme Anglo-American centrism to assume that the only downtowns that matter are or will be those that exist in New York and London (where Shoreditch stands as an ex-down-and-out equivalent to TriBeCa). Although global downtowns have and will continue to forge a range of distinctive artist-community formations, it is possible that some protagonists will look to New York and maybe even Arthur Russell for lessons and inspiration. Wherever they crop up, downtown communities are likely to survive as locations where artists converge, exchange ideas and perform, if only because the global economy is so reliant on creative ideas and cultural production. Exorbitant property prices might force many artists to live in relatively cheap and peripheral neighbourhoods from which they can commute to their nearest downtown, and this form of semi-dispersion will make it harder for artists to work with each other. Then again, the rise of the internet as a place of meeting and exchange could compensate for this loss by establishing an alternative platform for a global network of downtown practitioners. As the web helps generate a decentralized, file-sharing, user-centered economy in which entertainment corporations make less and less money from their artists, it is even possible to imagine the entertainment sector reverting to an artisan-style economy in which local producers survive by performing and selling their work across a range of interconnected rhizomatic networks. In this scenario, the star system that has dominated the thinking of the music industry for so long will be unsustainable and the original ethos of downtown ⎯ the creative, non-materialistic, communitarian ethos forged by Arthur Russell and his friends ⎯ will thrive on an international scale.
The story of downtown, then, does not have to be a story of disappointment and loss. Instead it can stand as a reference point for a series of alternative cultural practices that develop a politics through their style of work ⎯ work that is communal and networked, and that avoids egoism and materialism. It is no longer clear this kind of work is sufficient, because for all the failings of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, downtown’s disengagement from national politics hardly enhanced its ability to survive. If it might be naive to suggest that a more activist engagement would have deflected the forces of global capitalism away from downtown New York, the extreme rightwards shift that has occurred during the first decade of the new millennium suggests it is no longer an option to ignore mainstream politics ⎯ unless downtowners are content to be perpetually reactive, seeking out new spaces to meet whenever an old space is closed down. Irrespective of this shying away from activism, however, the recent surge of interest in downtown New York of the 1970s and 1980s suggests that its rhizomatic practice might sustain and inspire new groups of artists as well as new forms of expression. That would be welcome, because this essay’s focus on Arthur Russell is not supposed to describe a past life, but rather offer a present understanding of a past life that continues to cut across time.
Select Discography and Filmography
This discography includes the published singles, twelve-inch singles and albums cited in this article. “Calling All Kids,” “Calling Out of Context,” “Deer In the Forest,” “Get Around to It” and “The Platform On the Ocean” are not cited but appear on the posthumous Arthur Russell album Calling Out of Context. “Eli” has yet to received a release.
Arthur Russell. Calling Out of Context. Audika (2004).
First Thought Best Thought. Audika (2006).
Instrumentals (1974 – Vol. 2). Another Side (1984).
“Let’s Go Swimming.” Logarhythm (1986).
Terrace of Unintelligibility. Audika (2004).
Tower of Meaning. Chatham Square (1983).
World of Echo. Upside Records (1986).
Dinosaur. “Kiss Me Again.” Sire (1978).
Dinosaur L. “Clean On Your Bean #1.” Sleeping Bag Records (1982).
“Go Bang! #5.” Sleeping Bag Records (1982).
24 → 24 Music. Sleeping Bag Records (1981).
Felix. “Tiger Stripes”/”You Can’t Hold Me Down.” Sleeping Bag (1984).
Indian Ocean. “School Bell/Treehouse.” Sleeping Bag Records (1986).
Lola. “Wax the Van.” Jump Street (1985).
Loose Joints. “Is It All Over My Face?” West End (1980).
“Is It All Over My Face? (Female Vocal).” West End (1980).
“Pop Your Funk.” West End (1980).
“Tell You (Today).” 4th & Broadway (1983).
The core material regarding Arthur Russell’s biographical story has been derived from interviews with Alan Abrams, Mustafa Ahmed, Bob Blank, Lola Blank, Joyce Bowden, Ernie Brooks, Rhys Chatham, Don Christensen, Steve D’Acquisto, David DePino, Arnold Dreyfuss, Barry Feldman, Muriel Fujii, Colin Gate, Jon Gibson, Philip Glass, Peter Gordon, Kent Goshorn, Steven Hall, Steven Harvey, Fran�ois Kevorkian, Steve Knutson, Jim Kohn, Jill Kroesen, Elodie Lauten, Sister LaVette, Mary Jane Leach, Tom Lee, Robbie Leslie, Eric Liljestrand, Gary Lucas, David Mancuso, William Allaudin Mathieu, John Moran, Bill Morgan, Donald Murk, Sydney Murray, Phill Niblock, Thomas R. O’Donnell, Toni Pagliuca, Bob Rosenthal, George Ruckert, Chuck Russell, Emily Russell, Julie Russell, Kate Russell, Bill Ruyle, Larry Saltzman, Alison Salzinger, Roger Sanchez, John Scherman, Carlota Schoolman, Nicky Siano, Jim Smith, Will Socolov, Robert Stearns, Ned Sublette, Elias Tanenbaum, Todd Terry, Geoff Travis, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, David Van Tieghem, Leon Van Weelden, Paul Waldman, Danny Wang, Jennifer Warnes, Jeff Whittier, Christian Wolff, Ellen Ziegler, Robert Ziegler and Peter Zummo. All of the interviews were conducted for my forthcoming biography of Arthur Russell, which will be published by Duke University Press.
Direct quotes that appear in this article are drawn from the following interviews:
Abrams, Alan. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 20 July 2005.
Ahmed, Mustafa. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 27 October 2004.
Blank, Bob. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 19 July 2004.
Chatham, Rhys. Interviews with Tim Lawrence. 25 February 2005, 28 January 2006.
D’Acquisto, Steve. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 9 May 1998.
Dreyblatt, Arnold. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 22 May 2006.
Glass, Philip. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 19 November 2004.
Gordon, Peter. Interviews with Tim Lawrence. 6 February 2007, 18 February 2006.
Hall, Steven. Interviews with Tim Lawrence. 30 November 2004, 23 January 2006, 5 August 2007.
Lee, Tom. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 18 February 2004.
Liljestrand, Eric. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 26 October 2004.
List, Garrett. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 23 October 2006.
Murk, Donald. Interviews with Tim Lawrence. 11 September 2005, 4 May 2006.
Sublette, Ned. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 1 June 2006.
Travis, Geoff. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 22 July 2004.
Whittier, Jeff. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 2 August 2005.
Wolff, Christian. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 2 July 2007.
Zummo, Peter. Interview with Tim Lawrence. 19 February 2004.
Anon. “The Most Exciting Place to Live in the City.” New York. 20 May 1974.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Foreword by Frederic Jameson. Afterword by Susan McClary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Bogue, Ronald. Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
“Violence In Three Shades of Metal: Death, Doom and Black.” In Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (eds.), Deleuze and Music. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004, 95-117.
Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Cambridge: Polity, 2002.
Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Carr, Tim. “That Downtown Sound… From A to Z.” New York Rocker. June 1982.
Chatham, Rhys. “Composer’s Notebook: 1990 Toward a Musical Agenda for the Nineties.” Published as the sleeve notes to Angel Moves too Fast to See: Selected Works, 1971-89. Table of Elements, 2003.
DeLanda, Manuel. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London and New York: Continuum, 2006.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translation and foreword by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (1980).
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (Volume I). Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990 (1978).
Gann, Kyle. Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2006.
“Square Rhythms.” Village Voice. 28 April 1992.
Gendron, Bernard. Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Gilbert, Jeremy. “Becoming-Music: The Rhizomatic Moment of Improvisation.” In Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (eds.), Deleuze and Music. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004, 118-39.
“Dyer and Deleuze: Post-structuralist Cultural Criticism.” New Formations, 58, 2006, 109-27.
Gilroy, Paul. Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race. London: Penguin, 2000.
The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward A Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Hagger, Steve. Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Hall, Stuart. “The Multicultural Question.” In Barnor Hesse (ed.), Un/settled Multiculturalisms: Diasporas, Entanglements, ‘Transruptions’. London: Zed, 2000, 209-241.
“New Ethnicities.” In Kobena Mercer, Black Film, British Cinema. London: BFI/ICA, 1988, 26-31.
“What is this ‘Black’ in Black popular culture?” In Gina Dent (ed.), Black Popular Culture. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992, 21-33.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London and New York: Routledge, 1991, 149-81.
Hemment, Drew. “Affect and Individuation in Popular Electronic Music.” In Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (eds.), Deleuze and Music. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004, 76-94.
Jordan, Tim. “Collective Bodies: Raving and the Politics of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.” Body & Society. 1, 1, 125.
Kostelanetz, Richard. SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.
Lawrence, Tim. Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene (1973-92). North Carolina: Duke University Press, forth-coming.
“I Want to See All My Friends At Once”: Arthur Russell and the Queering of Gay Disco.” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 18, 2, 2006, 144-66.
Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79). North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004.
“Mixed with Love: The Walter Gibbons Salsoul Anthology.” Published as the sleeve notes to Mixed with Love: The Walter Gibbons Salsoul Anthology. London: Suss’d, 2004.
McCormick, Carlo. “A Crack In Time,” in Marvin J. Taylor (ed.), The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006, 67-81.
Mertens, Wim. American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Translated by J Hautekiet. Preface by Michael Nyman. London: Kahn & Averill, 1988 (1980).
Morrissey, Lee (ed.). The Kitchen Turns Twenty: A Retrospective Anthology. New York: The Kitchen Center for Video, Music, Dance, Performance, Film and Literature: New York, 1992.
Murphie, Andrew. “Sound at the End of the World As We Know It: Nick Cave, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and a Deleuze-Guattarian Ecology of Popular Music.” In Gary Genosko (ed.), Deleuze and Guattari: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers. London: Routledge, 2001, 255-280.
Owen, Frank. “Echo Beach.” Melody Maker. 11 April 1987.
Palmer, Robert. “Pop Music: Modern Meets Rock.” New York Times. 6 May 1977.
Piekut, Benjamin. “Taking Henry Flynt Seriously.” Institute for Studies in American Music Newsletter, 34, 2, Spring 2005.
Reynolds, Simon. “Arthur Russell Let’s Go Swimming,” Melody Maker, 11 October 1986.
Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. London: Picador, 1998.
Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978–84. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.
Said, Edward. Musical Elaborations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Schwarz, K. Robert. Minimalists. London: Phaidon Press, 1996.
Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.
Sharma, Sanjay. Multicultural Encounters. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Terranova, Tiziana. Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age. London: Pluto Press, 2004.
Toop, David. Interview with Arthur Russell. 7 October 1986. Original transcript.
“The Weird One,” Face, January 1987.
Toynbee, Jason. Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions. London: Arnold, 2000.
Veal, Michael. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs In Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
Zummo, Peter. “Eclectic Buttle Gun.” SoHo Weekly News. 17 March 1977.
Many thanks to Enrica Balestra, Andrew Blake, Jeremy Gilbert, Maggie Humm and Michael LeVan for valuable comments on an earlier draft, as well as Steve Knutson, Audika Records and the Estate of Arthur Russell for granting permission to use clips from Calling Out of Context, First Thought Best Thought, and World of Echo. I am also grateful to the interviewees who took the time to share their memories, archives and tapes of Arthur Russell. This essay brings together some of the thoughts of these co-authors, whose names are listed in the “interview” section at the end of this piece.
The case is harder to make today, but once upon a time New York hosted the most numerous and adventurous DJ-led party spaces in the world. Visitors testify they had never experienced anything like it prior to their trip to the city. Some even returned home with the dream of re-creating something of their own.
New York’s influence can be traced back to the moment at the beginning of 1970 when David Mancuso hosted the first in a series of shimmering house parties that came to be known as the Loft. Around the same time, two entrepreneurs known as Seymour and Shelley took over a struggling discotheque called the Sanctuary and became the first nightclub proprietors to welcome gay dancers into a public venue.
Selecting records in relation to the energy of their multicultural and polysexual crowds, Mancuso and Sanctuary DJ Francis Grasso established the sonic and social potential of a contagious culture. Better Days, the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Le Jardin, Flamingo, 12 West, SoHo Place, Galaxy 21 and Reade Street bolstered the word-of-mouth network. With the media barely aware of its existence, the city’s dance scene remained resolutely subterranean – to most locals as well as tourists.
That began to change in the spring of 1977 when one-time restaurateurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened Studio 54 in Midtown Manhattan as a celebrity hangout. From the moment Bianca Jagger rode through the venue on the back of a white stallion, New York discotheque culture circulated as a global media story. It did so again in November when the release of the Brooklyn disco movie Saturday Night Fever carried the culture into its juggernaut phase.
With Laker Airways having recently launched Skytrain as the first long-haul, low-cost transatlantic airline, it became much more likely that disco would travel via the firsthand experience of dancefloor immersion as well as vinyl, tape and print-media distribution. The industry-oriented Disco Forum, first staged in New York in 1976 and held annually, helped potential nightclub operators meet lighting and sound operators. The hermetic culture of disco was all set to spread.
Responsible for installing the sound systems at Studio 54 as well as the Paradise Garage, a Loft-style private party located in a gargantuan parking garage on King Street, bass innovator Richard Long vacuumed up a significant portion of the technical work. The engineer described Studio 54 as his “best calling card” in an interview with Billboard, yet he also made a point of taking clients with a purist bent (including the future owners of the Zanzibar in New Jersey) to the Garage, an evolving sonic laboratory and the ultimate showcase for his work.
By the end of 1979, Long had installed some 300 systems around the world, most of them in Europe and South America. “Believe it or not, he was even contacted by an interested party in Iran,” Dance Music reported in early 1980. International dancers might not have known it, but the state-of-the-art technology that drew them to the floor originated in New York.
Already home to the Northern Soul scene, the north of England became an emerging hub for New York-style disco when the Warehouse in Leeds and Wigan Pier in Wigan opened during 1979. “The Wigan Pier was fitted out by a company called Bacchus,” notes DJ Greg Wilson, who started to play at the venue in 1980. “The people who owned it were going to do a normal club installation, but they got persuaded to do something New York-style. It was actually advertised as an American-style disco. The logo of the club was an American flag with a frog underneath it.”
When Wilson went to work at Legend in Manchester in the summer of 1981, the transatlantic connection struck him again. “Legend was a step further than the Pier,” he adds, referring to a system that channeled the high end through the ceiling, the mid-range around the dancefloor and the sub-bass from the floor. “They even had a sound sweep. You could send the sound in a circular motion around the floor. At the time there wasn’t a sound system to compare. There were never any specific clubs mentioned, but NYC was undoubtedly the influence.”
Studio 54 became the first New York discotheque to inspire an international replica when a version of the venue opened in Madrid, Spain, in 1980, with Studio selector Richie Kaczor as its DJ. (Rubell and Schrager had gone to jail earlier that year for tax evasion.) But the more compelling exchange continued to unfold in the north of England when the Manchester band New Order, formed from Joy Division after lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide, went on a muted tour of the United States in the autumn of 1980 with their manager Rob Gretton, and Tony Wilson of Factory Records.
Stopping off in New York, the band opened for A Certain Ratio at Hurrah, the first New York venue to blend DJing with live music. During their stay they also went to the Paradise Garage and Danceteria, another venue that mixed DJing with bands. They returned to Manchester with the dream of opening a Manhattan-style venue where eclectic crowds could come together to dance to diverse sounds.
In part because it reminded them of the post-industrial milieu they had just witnessed in downtown New York, Gretton, Tony Wilson and New Order settled on a former yacht warehouse on Whitworth Street, agreed to call their venue the Haçienda, and advertised that DJ Hewan Clarke would play “the latest American imports.” “Tony Wilson said they had seen the Paradise Garage and they wanted that concept in the Haçienda,” recalls Clarke.
Yet the influx of ecstasy during the spring of 1988 and the Ibiza-influenced summer that followed disturbed the Haçienda’s carefully calibrated New York equilibrium and persuaded a significant proportion of the black crowd to move on. “I regretted the fact that once you’d come down off the E everything was pure house,” argues Pickering. “I could tell, even in 1989, that that wasn’t a good thing and that what we were doing before was much more precious, because we were playing a wider range of music. By 1989 we were slaves to the beat.” For a while London looked primarily to Chicago and Ibiza for dance inspiration, but shifted its gaze toward New York when Justin Berkmann opened the Ministry of Sound in September 1991.
A disillusioned wine trader who arrived in New York in 1986 (his father having sent him there in order to find himself), Berkmann danced at the Paradise Garage until the venue’s lease expired in September 1987. “When the Garage closed it just left such an enormous hole in everyone’s life,” recalls Berkmann. “New York got pretty depressing pretty quickly. By February 1988 I was back in London.” Introduced to James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse, Berkmann proposed they develop a nightclub drink, which they rejected, and then a Garage-style venue, which they agreed to fund.
After an exhaustive search for an appropriate site, Berkmann settled on a parking garage located in Elephant & Castle, an economically deprived area of southeast London, and negotiated a 24-hour, no-alcohol license for the venue, which meant it would match the Paradise Garage’s juice-bar status. Seeking to match the Garage’s celebrated sound system too, he hired Austin Derrick – who worked with Kenny Powers, a member of Richard Long Associates – to install the venue’s sound system. Only the introduction of a VIP area stood as a direct affront to the King Street setup. “The concept was about 80% Garage and then the other 20% would have been a bit of Area and a tiny bit Nell’s,” adds Berkmann.
Berkmann cemented the Garage connection by inviting the venue’s to temic DJ Larry Levan to play at the Ministry of Sound three weeks into its run. Victor Rosado, who had become close to Levan, stepped in after the Garage DJ missed his flight. Several more were missed before Levan finally landed the following Saturday with no records, having got into the habit of selling his vinyl to raise money to buy drugs. Jeremy Newall and DJ Harvey, along with Berkmann, cobbled together a collection and Levan played that night. “He was still the Larry we knew and had come to love, with all his flaws and also his genius way of transforming a room,” Rosado remembers of the set. “He was very happy to see that what he had created wasn’t in vain – that it had inspired someone to create the ideals and ideas of what a party should be like. He was very motivated to take London by storm by showcasing the Ministry of Sound as his new home away from home.”
The development was symbolic. As a perfect storm of AIDS, gentrification, real estate inflation and the incremental city-led clampdown of the club scene made New York a less hospitable place for party culture, London became something of a new capital for clubbing. Ministry bolstered the case when it hired Zanzibar and Kiss FM DJ Tony Humphries to begin a residency in January 1993. But although Humphries looks back fondly on the opening months of his stay, in the end he felt underwhelmed by the venue’s “revolving door of DJs,” which made it hard to strike up an affinity with the crowd. DJ, producer and remixer François Kevorkian maintains that the venue “didn’t understand that it’s the crowd that makes the venue, not the furniture.”
New York still exerts a profound, if smaller-scale, influence on global party culture. David Mancuso started to build Loft-style parties in Japan and London when he became convinced that if he worked with overseas friends he could hold onto his house-party ethos outside of his home. Kevorkian launched his own long-running Deep Space night at Plastic People in London because nobody at home quite trusted his vision (the party eventually settled in at Cielo in NYC, where it still holds down Monday nights). Kevorkian, Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit started to travel the world with their legendary Body & Soul parties, building communities and hiring balloon machines wherever they went.
Cultivated in New York, the practice of bringing together diverse sounds and crowds in a single space for a night of dancing has grown to become one of the most compelling in global party culture. At times its international take-up has been successful. On other occasions the purity of its ethos has been hard to adapt. Either way, when they cross the Atlantic or head back through to the Pacific, New York’s ripples of influence evoke a pioneering history that will never be matched.
David Mancuso’s Loft is one of New York nightlife’s most everlasting contributions to late 20th-century western culture. It helped set the standard for a positive clubbing atmosphere (the art of the DJ, the top-notch sound system, the friendly audience) and defined the diverse sound of the city’s discotheques. But it also aspired to a revolutionary communal experience, one that operated under psychedelically driven, ’60s-flower-power ideals. And for the most part, it succeeded. In 2007, Tim Lawrence (author of Love Saves the Day, the definitive book on the Loft and the NYC disco scene) sat down with Mancuso to discuss the social nature of the party and how it differed from other clubs. Intended for the German magazine Placed, the interview never ran in print. We present it here, in an edited narrative format.Read More
Introduction to Voguing and the Gay Ballroom Scene of New York City, 1989-92. Photographs by Chantal Regnault.
Bursting into public consciousness between 1989 and 1991, the culture of drag balls and voguing can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century. Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge staged its first queer masquerade ball in 1869, and some 20 years later a medical student stumbled into another ball that was taking place in Walhalla Hall on the Lower East Side. He witnessed 500 same-sex male and female couples ‘waltzing sedately to the music of a good band’.1 A rickety old building situated at 119 East 11th Street, Webster Hall played host to further events during the 1920s, and by the end of the decade, masquerade parties were being staged in conspicuous venues such as Madison Square Garden and the Astor Hotel, where they attracted crowds of up to 6,000. Invited to attend another ball at Hamilton Lodge by the entrepreneur and party host A’Lelia Walker, Harlem Renaissance social activist and writer Langston Hughes proclaimed the drag balls to be the ‘strangest and gaudiest of all Harlem’s spectacles in the 1920s’ and described them as ‘spectacles in colour’.2 Noting the presence of ‘distinguished white celebrities’ during this period, Hughes concluded that ‘Harlem was in vogue’ and ‘the negro was in vogue’. 3
Held once a year, the balls came to feature a procession known as the ‘parade of the fairies’, which involved drag queen contestants sashaying through the auditorium in preparation for a costume competition. For the rest of the evening, dancers took to the floor in couples and formed partnerships that were superficially straight, with men (including lesbians dressed as men and gay men who favoured butch style) accompanying women (or men dressed as women, as well as straight femmes) while any number of straights watched on from the sidelines.
‘About 12.30am we visited this place and found approximately 5,000 people, coloured and white, men attired in women’s clothes, and vice versa,’ reported a team of undercover investigators following an inspection of the Hamilton Lodge ball held in the Manhattan Casino in February 1928. ‘The affair, we were informed, was a “Fag/Masquerade Ball”‘.4 Four years later, Broadway Brevities reported from another ball that men rivalled birds of paradise and peacocks, their plumed headdresses nodding and undulating from their ‘shapely heads’.5 Soon after, novelists Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler evoked the drag ball floor as ‘a scene whose celestial flavour and cerulean colouring no angelic painter or nectarish poet has ever conceived.’6
With the balls gaining popularity, the New York state legislature had criminalised ‘homosexual solicitation’ in 1923 as part of a wider backlash around male-male sexual relations. But drag ball organisers found they could continue to stage events if a neighbourhood organisation applied for official police sponsorship on their behalf. The hiatus lasted until the autumn of 1931, when officers, reacting to the cultural experimentation of the Prohibition years and the onset of the Depression, began to clamp down on the city’s queer community and targeted the balls.
‘If the cops have their way,’ reported Variety, ‘the effeminate clan will hereafter confine its activities to the Village and Harlem.’7 Yet the police struggled to contain the culture when, following the second world war, many gay men who had travelled through Manhattan on their way to the battlefront returned to the city. Officers responded by intensifying their regulation and cases of entrapment (whereby police officers would ‘entrap’ gay men through sexual solicitation before producing their badge) increased exponentially. Drag ball organisers, however, were bolstered by the wave of new arrivals. At one ball, reported Ebony in March 1953, more than 3,000 contestants and spectators gathered in Harlem’s Rockland Palace ‘to watch the men who like to dress in women’s clothing parade before judges in the world’s most unusual fashion shows.’8
By the early 1960s, drag ball culture had began to fragment along racial lines. For although balls such as the one held at Rockland Palace boasted a remarkably even mix of black and white participants, with the dancefloor also notably integrated, black queens were expected to ‘whiten up’ their faces if they wanted to have a chance of winning the contests. Even then, their chances were slim, as they might have pondered further when the white-skinned Venice Lamont won first prize at the Rockland Palace event for looking ‘most like a woman’, her figure ‘the envy of many of the women spectators’.9 So black queens started to stage their own events, with Marcel Christian staging what might well have been the first black ball in 1962.10
If anything, dresses scaled new heights of extravagance and glamour. At one event, Cleopatra arrived on a ceremonial float flanked by six servants waving white, glittering palm leaves; and at another, a 2,000-watt incandescent lamp was lit just as a fashion model flung open her Mylar lined feathered coat, leaving the front rows momentarily blind. ‘It was Vegas comes to 3 Harlem,’ commented Michael Cunningham in a 1995 article about ball culture. ‘It was the queens’ most baroque fantasies of glamour and stardom, all run on Singer sewing machines in tiny apartments.’11
Founded in 1972, the first house came into existence when Lottie, a Harlem drag queen who worked in the welfare office on 125th Street, asked Crystal LaBeija to co-promote a ball. One of the few black queens to be awarded a Queen of the Ball title at a white-organised ball, LaBeija had also become tired of the anti-black bias of the balls, as she made clear during The Queen, a documentary film directed by Frank Simon that tracked an Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant drag contest where contestants Rachel Harlow, LaBeija and others competed in front of a panel that included Larry Rivers and Andy Warhol. Convinced the result was a Caucasian fix, LaBeija flew into a rage when host Flawless Sabrina declared the winner to be Harlow, described by the New York Times as a ‘frail, blonde, pouting young man, formerly Miss Philadelphia’, and the experience prepared the way for LaBeija’s collaboration with Lottie.12 ‘Crystal agreed to do it so long as she was a highlight of the ball,’ notes Terrence Legend International. ‘Lottie made the deal sweeter by convincing Crystal that they should start a group and name it the House of LaBeija, with Crystal’s title as “mother”. Crystal agreed. The event was titled Crystal & Lottie LaBeija presents the first annual House of Labeija Ball at Up the Downstairs Case on West 115th Street & 5th Avenue in Harlem, NY.’13
Referencing the glamorous fashion houses whose glamour and style they admired, other black drag queens started to form drag houses, or families that, headed by a mother and sometimes a father, would socialise, look after one another, and prepare for balls (including ones they would host and ones they would attend). Mother Dorian and Father Chipper founded the House of Corey in 1972, and two years later Father Jay set up the House of Dior, after which La Duchess Wong and Nicole Wong established the House of Wong, and Paris Dupree and Burger Dupree inaugurated the House of Dupree, all in 1975. The House of Christian and the House of Plenty augmented the total before Mother Avis and Father Kirk launched the House of Pendavis in 1979. Extending drag ball culture out of Harlem, three more houses—the House of Omni, the House of Ebony and the House of Chanel—sprung up in Brooklyn during 1979 and 1980.14 Then, a couple of years later, Pepper LaBeija became the new mother of the House of LaBeija, having made her ball debut around 1972. From this point on, contestants battled to win trophies, with multiple entrants walking along an imaginary runway in costume and character for each category. At the end of each round, a group of scrupulous judges would cast their verdict, sometimes rewarding optimum realness—or the ability to pass as straight in the outside world—sometimes backing sheer outrageousness and opulence. ‘It was our goal then to look like white women,’ LaBeija told Cunningham as she reflected on the days before the black queens organised their own balls and initiated a very particular housing boom. ‘They used to tell me, “You have negroid features,” and I’d say, “That’s all right, I have white eyes.” That’s how it was back then.’15
If the beginning of the black balls coincided with the intensification of the civil rights movement, the formation of the houses paralleled the increasing confidence of the gay liberation movement, which enjoyed its symbolic breakthrough when drag queens occupied the frontline during the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969. A black angel of history who could navigate the tempests and hurricanes of destiny with only an occasional change of outfit, Sylvia Ray Rivera was one of many queens who enjoyed hanging out at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar situated in the West Village that permitted dancing in its back room, and which police tolerated in return for regular, under-the-counter payments. When those payments were delayed, officers would raid the bar in order to remind the owners of their obligations, but during the bust that took place in June 1969, Rivera and her friends, already on edge following the funeral of Judy Garland, fought back. The ensuing blur of stiletto-kicks and handbag-swipes triggered days of rioting that have come to define the symbolic birth of Gay Liberation. Perhaps some quirk of collective historical memory played its part, for the rebellion also marked the 100th anniversary of the inaugural masquerade ball of the Hamilton Lodge. At the very least, the defiance involved in the act of dressing up as a member of the opposite sex doubled as a form of pre- training for Rivera and her co-rebels.
The establishment of the houses also paralleled the twists and turns of New York’s gangs, which flourished between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s as the city shifted from an industrial to a post-industrial base while dealing with the upheavals of urban renewal, slum clearances and ethnic migration. As historian Eric Schneider argues, gangs appealed to alienated adolescents who wanted to earn money as well as peer group prestige. They flourished until the mid-1960s, when Mayor John Lindsay introduced gang intervention programmes and placed a greater emphasis on community action, while political radicals and civil rights activists attempted to ‘engage gangs in larger political struggles.’16
But the underlying conditions that led to the rise of the gangs in the first place didn’t go away. Gangs started to multiply again in the early 1970s, especially in the South Bronx, where endemic poverty and an epidemic of arson attacks and heroin addiction overwhelmed the city’s programmes. Meanwhile, black, gay, working-class drag queens found themselves estranged not only from their biological families, which were usually intolerant of their choices, but also the ruling cadre of black nationalist leaders, whose increasingly macho ‘real man’ discourse was popularised by the gangs that multiplied on neighbourhood streets. With nowhere else to turn, they formed their own self-supporting gangs, which they preferred to call houses.
A quite distinct phenomenon from the clusters of individuals and circles of friends who would head to the balls, houses began to operate as de facto orphanages for displaced kids. Some found themselves on the streets and many lived with families unable to come to terms with their choices. When Pepper LaBeija’s mother discovered women’s clothing in her child’s closet, for instance, Pepper insisted they belonged to a friend, only for her secret to become uncontainable when she started to grow breasts. That prompted her mother to burn Pepper’s mink coat in the back yard. ‘Devastated, I stood there and cried like a baby,’ LaBeija recalled later, while her mother doggedly stuck to calling her by her birth name, William Jackson.17 At the same time, the work the houses carried out in between balls enabled them to incorporate children who might not have been interested in dressing up yet still wanted to hang out, have fun and enjoy the warmth of an extended community, and those who, in addition, wanted to help other members of the house prepare for the ball without walking themselves. ‘A rich taxonomy of gender personas and identities flooded in: thugged-out hustlers who were “new” to gay culture, butch lesbians with erotic attachments to gay men, bootleg black designers and fashionistas eager to put their garments “to test” in a new, urban scene,’ notes the black cultural critic Frank Leon Roberts in an article posted on Wiretap.18
Houses continued to multiply and diversify during the 1980s. Willi Ninja founded the House of Ninja in 1981 or 1982 and set out his intention to bring Asian aesthetics and philosophy into the ball world. Possibly founded by Father Hector in 1982, the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latin house, formally entered the drag ball scene when they attended the House of Omni ball in 1983. Carmen, David Ian, Danny and Raquel established themselves as the new house’s most compelling representatives, and Angie became mother in 1984, after which ‘impossible beauties’ Angie and Carmen began to pick up prizes in 1984 and 1985.19 (Hector never made it to the House of Omni event and died either before or soon after its staging.)
Then, in 1987, the boutique owner and fashion designer Pat Field established the House of Field as the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls. ‘We call ourselves House of Field now because that is what we have evolved into,’ Myra Christopher, a salesclerk in the boutique, who encouraged Field to create the house, commented in 1988. ‘We were always around, though, as Pat Field kids, and we’ll evolve into something else eventually. Becoming a house was just officialising it for some other people’s benefit, so we could compete on their terms.’20 In the end, the members of the House of Field had to comfort themselves with the thought that it was the taking part that mattered. Inspired by new wave fashion and disdainful of the elegant look propagated by corporate labels, its contestants never threatened to dislodge the ruling sensibility of the uptown houses.
As the houses proliferated, so did the balls, because each house aspired to host its own ball, and during the 1980s they became monthly affairs, which was about as frequent as anyone could manage, preparation being an immense challenge for the event’s participants, never mind its organisers. Beginning at 5am, when each house would join the grand march, the balls developed into marathon-like affairs that featured a wide range of competitive categories. ‘Paris Dupree held her first Paris is Burning ball in 1981, and that’s the first time the categories were really there,’ says Kevin Ultra Omni, originally Kevin Omni, founder of the House of Omni. ‘I remember having to watch all these categories.’ Categories had always existed, but they played a comparatively minor role in earlier balls, so in the 1970s, for instance, contestants who wanted to dress up as men could only compete in one category. ‘It was called “Butch Mod Face” and what that meant was, you had to be butch, real masculine, not a punk or a sissy, and you had to be a model with model’s looks, and you also had to have a nice- looking face. Then in the early 1980s, we separated the categories out, so there was a category called butch realness and another called models effect and another called face. Then we created all these other categories, like executive, town and country, ethnic, and they continued to develop through the eighties.’ Other categories included best woman, best man, punk versus future, shopping through famous avenues, realness, performance, leather versus suede, executive hi fashion and Hollywood evening wear. Gone were the days when drag balls revolved around the act of men dressing up as women. Now, in an extended scene, men embraced a series of masculine alternatives. In keeping with the times, houses also became more competitive, with many deciding to only admit new members who had walked at a ball and won a prize.
Growing out of the drag queen ritual of throwing ‘shade’, or subtly insulting another queen, voguing emerged as a distinctive dance of first the houses and then, inevitably, the balls, where specific voguing categories were eventually introduced. ‘It all started at an after hours club called Footsteps on 2nd Avenue and 14th Street,’ says David DePino, an influential DJ for the voguing community. ‘Paris Dupree was there and a bunch of these black queens were throwing shade at each other. Paris had a Vogue magazine in her bag, and while she was dancing she took it out, opened it up to a page where a model was posing and then stopped in that pose on the beat. Then she turned to the next page and stopped in the new pose, again on the beat.’ The provocation was returned in kind. ‘Another queen came up and did another pose in front of Paris, and then Paris went in front of her and did another pose,’ adds DePino. ‘This was all shade—they were trying to make a prettier pose than each other—and it soon caught on at the balls. At first they called it posing and then, because it started from Vogue magazine, they called it voguing.”21 An alternative account has it that voguing was first practiced by the black gay inmates of Rickers Island, a New York City jail, who pursued the movement as a way of attracting the attention of boys and throwing shade. ‘Maybe they didn’t have a name for it, but that’s what they were doing, or so it’s said,’ notes Kevin Ultra Omni. ‘I know Paris was an early pioneer of voguing. But I believe that vogue existed in some other form through other people as well. I also think that a lot of voguing poses come from African art and Egyptian hieroglyphics.’
Voguing evolved into a contorted, jerky, slicing style of dance when drag queens incorporated kung fu aesthetics into their routines, having become familiar with the swift, angular movements of Bruce Lee and his co-stars while working trade inside Times Square’s porn cinemas, or heading there after a night’s work to get some rest. Also inspired by the precise, angled strokes of Egyptian hieroglyphics, voguers hailed from the same ethnic, working-class environments as the kids who pioneered breaking in the mid-1970s. And just like the breakers, they honed their skills through a mix of competitive instinct, athletic ability and, above all, a desire to be seen (rather than a desire to become part of the crowd, which motivated most club and party dancers). The ritualsofthrowingshade and(when they felt especially confrontational) 'reading’ even found a parralel in the breaker convention of burning, or the technique of miming attacks and insults, while voguers and breakers were also committed to ‘keeping it real’. However, their conceptions of realness couldn’t have differed more markedly, and the societal status of the sexual preferences that underscored these differences led breakers to dance in public street settings, often in broad daylight, and voguers to head to the abandoned stretches of the West Side piers, where they would hang out and practice moves, or to the clandestine spaces of gay-driven dance venues such as Better Days, the Paradise Garage and Tracks. When there was no ball to attend, that is.
Whereas most of the dancers who congregated in downtown’s network of private parties and public discotheques gravitated to the centre of the main floor, where space was at its most concentrated and the collective euphoria felt most strongly, voguers tended to head to the periphery, or even an alternative room, where they would find more room to practice their moves and, perhaps more importantly, enter into an economy of seeing and being seen. Better Days, for example, contained a main dancefloor along with a back room where dancers would head if they fancied a break or a spot of cruising or a chance to dance the hustle, or as Omni discovered when he started to go to the spot in 1975, to model in front of what might have been an imaginary mirror, styling and posing in time with the music, turning a hat sideways before bringing it back, and pivoting with grace, ‘all to the beat’.22 ‘I met Paris in 1975,’ says Omni, ‘and I remember her in Better Days, posing on the back dancefloor and throwing shade.’ It even transpired that some voguers—including Hector Xtravaganza, who headed to Peter Rabbits as well as Better Days—turned it out like nobody’s business at the clubs, yet were unable to land any prizes at the balls.
The clubs nevertheless provided voguers with a more regular outlet to practice their moves than the ball circuit and the Ganzas, as the Xtravaganzas were nicknamed, became the first house to congregate at the Paradise Garage on King Street, where DJ Larry Levan, a one-time member of the House of Wong, selected records according to their emotional intensity. Beginning as a small cluster of friends who occupied the fringes of the venue, the Ganzas came to the attention of David DePino (Levan’s best friend and trusted substitute spinner) when they clashed with some of the dancers connected with Pat Field. They consolidated their foothold in the spot when Danny Xtravaganza and DePino discovered they lived within a few blocks of each other on 14th Street. 'I got Danny, Ian [David Ian] and Eddie membership cards, and I would comp others like Angie, Coko, Luis and Michael,' says DePino, who was made an honourary. Xtravaganza and DJ for the house’s first ball, held at Elks Lodge. ‘I also made them friends with everybody who thought they were shady kids. Then Pepper LaBeija and Duchess Wong and Willi Ninja started coming, just as themselves. And before you knew it, a lot of the ball kids were hanging out at the Garage. In one corner there’d be the LaBeijas, and in another there’d be the Duprees, and so on. Once a certain song came on they would start to out-vogue each other— because not all songs would want to make you vogue.’
When DePino started to play on Tuesdays at Tracks on 19th Street and the West Side Highway in 1985, voguers flocked to the club in a more concerted way than had ever been the case at the Garage. ‘At the Paradise Garage there was voguing here and there. But at Tracks it was going on the whole time,’ says DePino. ‘There were constant battles. It was like a Yankees-Mets game. And if you were brave, you’d jump into the middle of it and make it a three- way battle.’ Thanks to the size of the room, the battles didn’t interfere with those who wanted to enjoy a more conventional club energy. Yet the sensibility of the voguers ruled the night. ‘Tracks was very gay, very streetwise and rather hardcore. Not sissy but cunty [or a form of exaggerated, clever, powerful femininity],’ says Adam Goldstone, who became a regular at the spot when he moved to New York. ‘It was black and Latin gay, plus women, mostly dykes. David used to play a lot of the ballroom records for the girls in the houses, but he also played mellower, down-tempo songs. It was a real set. I thought he was a great DJ.’ An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 dancers flocked to the club every Tuesday.
Drag ball culture and its voguing specialists edged further into the public domain when the dominatrix doorwoman, barwoman, performing artist and promoter Chi Chi Valenti published an article about New York’s clubbing nations—or close-knit clubbing families—in Details in October 1988. Valenti included profiles of the Pyramid Nation (the Pyramid being a bar with a backroom dance floor/performance space where drag queens mingled with a diverse East Village crowd) and the Haringtons (or Keith Haring’s close-knit group of friends and employees, who headed to the Garage with the artist and helped him stage his Party of Life events). She also introduced descriptions of the House of Field (who were looking to reinvent the drag balls in the format of a tightly packaged entertainment show) and the now 60-strong House of Xtravaganza (whose outsider years helped forge fierce pride). ‘Modern balls, with their judging panels holding up numbered scorecards, petty jealousies among lifelong rivals, and partisan crowds booing their favourite’s low scores, have all the flavour of great sporting events,’ Valenti argued. ‘Add to that dead- serious categories like realness: Rikers Island versus Sing Sing (butch queens only) and ferocious style presentations and it’s little wonder that uptown balls—with a little help from House of Field, the first downtown house—became last season’s sleeper entertainment hit.’23 Valenti concluded her piece with the obser vation that the Xtravaganzas were hoping to take ball culture out of the ballrooms, although they weren’t sure how to make that happen. ‘Some dream of bigger runways and fashion careers,’ she wrote. ‘Some look only as far as their next category.’24
The breakthrough came about when voguers started to walk the runways a year later, first for Thierry Mugler’s show in Paris, then for the Design Industries Foundation for Aids Love Ball event at the Roseland Ballroom, which was staged by club promoter Susanne Bartsch and Details editor Annie Flanders. ‘The evening had all the elements that make New York City nightlife remarkable: beauty, pageantry, celebrity and gender confusion,’ reported the NY Times. 'Leading figures from the fashion industry were on hand to sponsor, perform or judge in perhaps the biggest public display to date of “voguing”, a campy, stylised version of runway modelling that has flourished for decades in Harlem and more recently in downtown nightclubs.’25
Beneath the jubilant tone, however, the corporate sponsors of the event made a point of handpicking the houses that attended (LaBeija, Omni and Xtravaganza), and systematically excluded those that, by dint of their names, were deemed to have encroached in an unacceptable manner on the proprietary interests of major-player fashion emporiums (such as the Houses of Chanel, Dior and Lauren). ‘In the end the House of Chanel had to add “International” to their name and spell it differently otherwise they were going to be sued,’ recalls Kevin Ultra Omni. Appearing at the event as the master of ceremonies, David Ian Xtravaganza said: ‘I never thought I’d see the day when we’d be doing this downtown.’26 Reporters from Time magazine noted the mainstreaming impact of the Love Ball event as well as the circles that were forming around the House of Xtravaganza at Tracks. ‘Forget breakdancing,’ they declared hyperbolically. ‘So long to hip-hop. At the hottest clubs in Manhattan, on MTV and at Paris fashion shows, the ultra-hip are into voguing.’27
Voguers also started to make inroads into the recording studio in 1989 when Willi Ninja appeared on Malcolm McLaren and the Bootzilla Orchestra’s Deep in Vogue as well as the accompanying video, the first of its kind.28 Widely known for his high-profile adoption of punk and hip-hop, McLaren found out about voguing when Johnny Dynell, a Tunnel DJ, member of the House of Xtravaganza and husband of Chi Chi Valenti, sent him a tape of an unfinished movie by Jennie Livingston in the hope that it would help the director raise money to wrap up her project. ‘I told Malcolm about the ball house scene because I thought it was perfect for him,’ recalls Dynell, who encountered voguers and ball kids on the West Side piers before they started to head to the Tunnel, and who was asked to DJ at the Love Ball. ‘Of course, he immediately put sound bites from the movie on his record. What the hell was I thinking?’ Totally relaxed about drawing on other people’s work while purportedly spreading its visibility, McLaren also reproduced the last lines of Valenti’s article about club nations, which ran: ‘Sometimes on a legendary night / Like the closing of the Garage / When the crowd is calling down the spirits / Listen, and you will hear all the houses that walked there before.’ (‘She sued and won credit,’ says Dynell.) As with hip-hop, McLaren promoted the voguing scene as a subcultural trend that harnessed working-class energy into music and dance. ‘It is to do with everyday life,’ the impresario told the New Musical Express. ‘It’s amazing, so many of the shows here, you’ve got all these bimbos who walk without passion. The great thing about Voguing is you walk with passion.’29
Also released in 1989, Elements of Vogue featured David Ian Xtravaganza talking over a backing track that sampled the drums and horn stabs from the Salsoul Orchestra’s Ooh I Love It (Love Break), a ball favourite that contained a pre-rap rap by the Salsoul Hustlers. Co-produced by David DePino and Johnny Dynell, the idea for the record was hatched on the Tracks dance floor. ‘David Ian and I threw a ball at Tracks,’ remembers DePino. ‘At this ball was a guy from England. He was inspired by the voguing and Johnny brought him to the booth to meet me, and he asked if Johnny and I would like to make a vogue record. We all went to England; Johnny, David Ian, Chi and myself. This was late 1988.’ David Ian delivered the rhymes: ‘Vogue the latest dance obsession / A form of total self- expression / With no regard to your profession / Elements of vogue / Make a banjee or a femme impression / Striking poses in succession / Get ready for your first real session / Of vogue.’
Drag ball and voguing culture made its screen breakthrough in 1990 when Livingston’s movie, titled Paris Is Burning after the 1986 ball staged by Paris Dupree and the House of Dupree, began to pick up awards at film festivals. Shot between 1986 and 1989, the documentary provided a rich cultural insight into the previously clandestine culture of black and Latin drag balls through its mix of ballroom footage, everyday-life material shot at the piers, and interviews with Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Xtravaganza and others. At one point in the film, one protagonist turns to another and says, ‘You have three strikes against you; you’re black, gay and a drag queen.’ Later, as the joyous, sublime and often hilarious scenes of the ball fade from view, the narrative turns to the day-to-day reality of life on the street as Venus Xtravaganza, a member of the House of Xtravaganza since 1983, describes her plan to save money for sex reassignment surgery while working as a prostitute, hoping that one day she might live as a ‘spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs’. Venus was subsequently found murdered in a New York hotel room, her body shoved under a bed, with Angie left to recount the heartrending tale of her daughter’s death to Livingston.
Leading queer theorist Judith Butler responded to the film by asking whether the depicted drag queens undermine dominant values around gender and sexuality, showing them to be based on performance rather than some form of essential identity, or whether they effectively reinforce them by placing a high value on the lifestyle and material values of dominant white culture. ‘Venus, and Paris Is Burning more generally, calls into question whether parodying the dominant norms is enough to displace them,’ argues Butler. ‘When Venus speaks her desire to become a whole woman, to find a man and have a house in the suburbs with a washing machine, we may well question whether the denaturalisation of gender and sexuality that she performs, and performs well, culminates in a reworking of the normative framework of heterosexuality.’30 In another response, the black intellectual bell hooks argued that Livingston was only able to make the film in the first place because she was white, educated and therefore more powerful than the drag queens she represented. Developing her attack, hooks added that ‘the whiteness celebrated in Paris is Burning is not just any old brand of whiteness, but rather that brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness that presents itself—its way of life—as theonlymeaningfullifethereis’.31 Hooks also critiqued the wider media for assuming that Livingston ‘somehow did this marginalised black gay subculture a favour by bringing their experience to a wider public’, giving ‘these “poor black souls” a way to realise their dreams’ while masking her own gains.32 By the time hooks’ critique appeared in her book Black Looks, the documentar y had shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance film festival and went on to gross $4m at the box office.
Madonna also latched onto the drag ball and voguing scene, and working to a much tighter turnaround and with a good deal more capital than Livingston, came out with the single and accompanying video of Vogue in March 1990. Co-produced by Shep Pettibone, the remixer behind Ooh I Love It, the track reproduced the drum patterns and synth stabs of Elements of Vogue, introduced the bass line from Love is the Message plus a snatch of another melodic line from the same record, and featured Madonna’s lyrics, which instructed listeners to ‘strike a pose’ and ‘vogue to the music’. Madonna also listed a series of Hollywood stars before adding ‘Ladies with an attitude / Fellows that were in the mood / Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it / Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it’. Drawing on art deco aesthetics and the Golden Age of Hollywood, the highly stylised black-and-white video featured Luis and Jose Xtravaganza voguing with Madonna in between shots of the singer posing in the manner of some of the name-checked movie icons. Vogue became the best-selling single of 1990.
Madonna parachuted into the voguing scene in order to build her single and piece together a cast for the video. ‘Madonna’s friend Debbie M always came to Tracks and was a friend of mine and two other Xtravaganzas, Luis and Michael, who was a hairdresser and did Debbie M’s hair,’ notes DePino. ‘They set up a meeting with me and Madonna, who came to Tracks when the club was closed to meet and watch some voguers. I had a group of kids there to vogue for her, including some kids from other houses. She picked out who she liked for the video.’ Madonna also started to head to the Sound Factory, where Xtravaganzas were beginning to dance on a Saturday night thanks in part to DJ Junior Vasquez’s 1989 production Just Like A Queen by Ellis D (a play on LSD). ‘The first time she came to the club she called ahead,’ says Vasquez. ‘She came into the booth and then sat on the speaker in front of me. After that she came periodically for about three months.’ When Jose and Luis were hired as backing dancers for Madonna’s critically acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, which ran from April to August 1990, they took voguing around the world, and they loomed even larger when they featured as the unofficial co-stars of Madonna’s behind-the-scenes documentary of the tour, In Bed with Madonna (titled Truth or Dare in the US). In the movie Madonna could barely resist their lithe bodies, emotional exuberance and sly sense of humour.
Although they reaped very different rewards, both Madonna and Livingston were accused of ransacking drag ball culture for their own ends, and for benefiting from their engagements with ball culture and voguing in a much more explicit way than the participants they maintained they had helped. ‘Madonna never came back to the Sound Factory after the tour,’ says Vasquez. ‘She was over vogue.’ Meanwhile, the queens and voguers who had co-operated with Livingston saw no reason to assume an uncharacteristically meek guise when asked for their views. ‘When Jennie first came, we were at a ball, in our fantasy, and she threw papers at us,’ says Pepper LaBeija. ‘We didn’t read them, because we wanted the attention. We loved being filmed. Later, when she did the interviews, she gave us a couple hundred dollars. But she told us that when the film came out we would be all right. There would be more coming. And that made me think I would have enough money for a car and a nice apartment and for my kids’ education. Because a number of years ago, to please my mother, I took a little break from being a 24-hour drag queen, and so I have a daughter, 15, and a son ready for college. But then the film came out and—nothing. They all got rich, and we got nothing.’33
Then again, LaBeija also declared her approval of the broader project and its knock-on effects. ‘I love the movie, I watch it more than often, and I don’t agree that it exploits us,’ she commented in 1993. ‘It brought me international fame. I do love that. Walking down the street, people stop me all the time. Which was one of my dreams doing the drags in the first place.’34 Adding that a payment of just $10,000 would have been enough to help her realise her main ambition—to move out of her mother’s house—LaBeija’s response indicated that while Paris Is Burning suggested that drag queens aspired to a life of fame, money, designer clothing and the high life, their ambitions were in fact extremely modest. For sure, they were drawn to an idea of glamour, an idea that long preceded the rise of the supermodel and the global pop icon, but in pursuing that end they developed a unique mode of expression that was always consciously aware of its working-class and ethnic rootedness. Back in 1989, the New York Times had added to its report of the Love Ball that ‘Voguers employ fluttery hand movements, gymnastic contortions and freeze-frame poses. They also chew gum. They do not look like Vogue models’.35 Nor, it could be deduced, did they aspire to look like Vogue models.
For many, the years that followed the release of Paris Is Burning and Vogue were markedly anticlimactic. The most notably successful voguer of his generation, Ninja pieced together a career that included dance appearances, club promotion, occasional recording studio work and, most pointedly, tutoring sessions for women on how to behave like a woman. Appearing under their given names as they pursued careers, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez teamed up with Vasquez to record The Queen’s English under the name of Jose & Luis for Sire in 1993, after which Luis pursued a modestly successful career as dancer-
choreographer. But few other managed to find work from the national spotlight that shone briefly on drag culture. A somewhat humiliating case in point, Angie Xtravaganza was invited to perform and pose with her children in a shop window at Barney’s as part of the store tribute to the visiting Duchess of York, and that was that. Meanwhile, the intensification of the Aids epidemic in the immediate aftermath of voguing’s media breakthrough appeared to threaten the very molecular structure of the drag balls and their associated houses.
First identified in 1981, Aids took eight years to claim its first 100,000 lives, and another three years to claim its next 100,000 lives, after which another 300,000 passed in the four years that ran to 1995, the year the disease peaked. Angie Xtravaganza died on 6 April 1993 aged 27. ‘She died of complications from Aids, but she also had chronic liver trouble, probably brought on by the hormones she’d been taking since the age of 15 to soften her skin and give her breasts and hips,’ Michael Cunningham wrote in his elegiac enquiry into her life. ‘She’d lived for over 10 years as her own creation, a ferocious maternal force who turned tricks in hotel rooms over a bar called the Cock Ring and who made chicken soup for the gaggle of friends she called her kids after they came home from a long night on the town.’36 Reporting from the Sound Factory Bar memorial party, Jesse Green of the New York Times noted the outpouring of grief. ‘It’s not just her, it’s all of them,’ commented Hector Xtravaganza. ‘My entire gay childhood is disintegrating before my eyes.’
Green added that drag ball culture had become a victim of its fleeting success, noting that once the mainstream had started to copy the subculture that was copying it, ‘the subculture itself was no longer of interest to a wider audience, and whatever new opportunities existed for the principals dried up.’37 That left the cast of Paris Is Burning minus Dorian Corey and Willi Ninja determined to pursue Livingston for additional payments and in 1991, the director agreed to pay out a total of $55,000 (a figure she says she was always committed to) to the 13 performers based on the length of time they appeared on screen. ‘The Bette Davis money just wasn’t there,’ Dorian Corey told Green. ‘But I didn’t do it for money anyway - I did it for fun. Always have.’38 Corey proceeded to express her fears for younger drag queens who had taken to ‘turning tricks’ to earn a living. ‘And today it’s so risky, with the almighty shadow opening the door,’ she said. ‘Even I have to worry. I’ve had such a torrid past.’39 A little over four months later, Corey died of Aids complications on 29 August, aged 55.
Since then Avis Pendavis (1995), David Ian Xtravaganza (circa 2001), Pepper LaBeija (2003), Willi Ninja (2006), Octavia St Laurent (2009) and Paris Dupree (2011) have all died, most of them from Aids complications, some from unspecified causes. The cumulative culling of the last remaining mothers and fathers from the pioneering house scene has generated the impression that, as Green put in the New York Times, ‘Paris is no longer burning. It has burned.’40 Yet the fateful narrative of Aids = Queer Death should not be allowed to obscure the fact that as terrible as the consequences of the disease have been for the drag ball community, the demonstrative and courageous underpinnings of ball culture also went on to infuse the political and aesthetic radicalism of Act-Up, the campaign that applied dramatic public pressure on the US government to act more decisively around Aids, with drag queens a prominent, declarative presence on the organisation’s high-octane marches.
The ball scene also flourished in the period that followed the expectation- raising interventions of Livingston and Madonna. Before Paris Is Burning came out, there were 27 active houses in New York, Christian Marcel LaBeija, grandfather of the House of LaBeija, told Gay City News in 2003. A year later, there were 70. Meanwhile, says community health specialist Ivan Monforte, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis founded the House of Latex in 1990 in order to address HIV/Aids through dance and the staging of an annual ball at the Roseland Ballroom. ‘Known simply as the Latex Ball, it has been attended by as many as 5,000 people, functioning as something akin to the Academy Awards for the House and Ball community,’ says Monforte. ‘Awards are given to members of the community for their contributions to the scene and for their efforts to deal with the prevalence of HIV/Aids within the House and Ball community.’41 Voguing remains a difficult dance, and its take-up has been less marked than the equally difficult practice of breaking, whose proponents have never had to overcome the stigma of queerness when promoting their style. Yet voguing lives on in dance clubs, drag balls and houses, oblivious to those who assumed that the early 1990s combination of over- exposure, commercialisation and Aids would leave it for dead.
‘People don’t understand the continuing importance of the houses,’ Andre Collins, DJ at the Warehouse in the Bronx, a hub for voguing from the late 1990s onwards, told the Village Voice in 2000. ‘They think it all ended with Paris Is Burning. Those legend—Paris and Pepper and Dorian—are important, but what nobody realises is that the concept has transferred from one generation to another.’42 Stretching back to the late 19th century, drag queens have sought out non-conformist means of dressing and dancing as a basic freedom, and that wasn’t about to stop because a film failed to bring fame to a handful of drag queens, or because Aids terrorised the houses for a 15-year period. ‘You have to realise,’ added Collins, ‘that, from the onset, there has been a need for gay people to have a unity. Being a homosexual, a lot of these kids have been ostracised, beat up by their families, thrown out of their homes. It’s no different now than when I was a kid. Some of these kids are homeless and struggling. They don’t know how much talent and ability they have going on. So, if they join a house, they can belong somewhere. They can be part of a team.’43
In 2006 Kevin Ultra Omni co-directed How Do I Look, a community-driven documentary that aimed to (in the words of Omni) ‘iron out some of the discrepancies of Paris Is Burning’. ‘Jennie Livingston only showed the drag queens going on about having nose jobs and snatching burgers, and she never even addressed HIV or Aids,’ adds Omni. ‘Our film shows the femme queens who actually went to college. It shows one of them who works now in Washington DC and who just reopened the House of Christian. She’s a registered nurse and is going for her PhD.’
And what if the queens knew that society would always exclude them from assuming power? Did that mean that they had to stop dressing up on a Saturday night? Critics didn’t necessarily take care to think through the powerful impetus that underpinned house ball culture, which was not to become so proficiently real that they could actually pass for the thing they were imitating, because the queens knew they barely stood a chance and shared few illusions about their prospects in the fashion world. No, the shared impetus was to socialise, have fun and survive, because this was the only life they had in front of them and they might as well live it. That didn’t mean the media spotlight of 1990-91 had no effect, and since then drag ball culture has never been able (nor felt a great need) to see itself as being subcultural and underground. Omni maintains that at today’s balls men outnumber drag queens three-to-one, in part because many ex-queens have had operations and, as women, no longer want to take part in drag categories. New legends are forging their reputations, even if the pioneering legends remain an inspiration to all. As Valenti put it, 'Listen, and you will hear all the houses that walked there before'.
1. Chauncey, Gay New York, 293.
The quote “Listen, and you will hear all the houses that
walked there before” is drawn from Chi Chi Valenti's
article article “Nations”, Details, October 1988, 158-74.
2. Hughes, Big Sea, 273.
3. Hughes, 227-28.
4. Quoted in Chauncey, Gay New York, 130.
5. Broadway Brevities, 14 March 1932, 12. Quoted in
6. Ford and Tyler, Young and the Evil, 152.
7. Quoted in Chauncey, “Campaign Against
8. “Female Impersonators: Men Who Like to Dress Like
Women Combine Fantastic Fashion Shows with Gay
Masquerade Balls in New York and Chicago”, Ebony,
March 1953, 64.
9. Ibid., 64-65.
10. From the “Timeline... The History of the Ballroom
Scene” discussion on the Walk 4 Me Wednesdays
Shade Board, http://walk4mewednesdays.com
11. Michael Cunningham, “The Slap of Love”, Open City,
12. Renata Adler, “Movie Review: The Queen”, New York
Times, 18 June 1968. Crystal La-Beija’s response
can be seen at
13. Posted by TheGreatestBallOnEarth! (Terrence Legend
/nsb9/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=21572 on 16 May
14. The dates are drawn from the “Timeline... The History
of the Ballroom Scene” discussion on the “Walk 4 Me
Wednesdays Shade Board”, posted at
c.php?f=14&t=21572. They are the most reliable
15. Cunningham, “The Slap of Love”.
16. Eric Schneider, Vampires,
Dragons and Egyptian Kings, 217.
17. Spoken in Livingston, Paris Is Burning, 1990.
18. Frank Leon Roberts, “There’s No Place Like Home: A
History of House Ball Culture,” Wiretap, 6 June 2007.
19. Valenti, “Nations”.
20. J.D. Reed “They’re Puttin’ on the Vogue”, Time,
21. Interview with the author. Ensuing interviews are
conducted with the author unless other-wise stated.
22. Kevin Ultra Omni, “The Beginning”, Rock Star
Magazine, April 2005.
23. Valenti, “Nations”, 160.
24. Ibid., 170.
25. Woody Hochswender, “Vogueing Against AIDS: A
Quest for ‘Overness’,” New York Times, 12 May 1989.
26. J.D. Reed and Janice C. Simpson, “Living: They’re
Puttin’ On the Vogue”, Time, May 22, 1989.
28. The video can be viewed at
29. Jim Shelley, “Vogue this Way”, New Musical Express,
15 April 1989, 13.
30. Butler, Bodies That Matter, 125, 133.
31. hooks, Black Looks, 149.
32. Ibid., 153.
33. Jesse Green, “Paris Has Burned”, New York Times, 18
34. Green, “Paris Has Burned”.
35. Hochswender, “Vogueing Against AIDS”.
36. Cunningham, “The Slap of Love”.
37. Green, “Paris Has Burned”.
41. Ivan Monforte, “House and Ball Culture Goes Wide”,
42. Guy Trebay, “Legends of the Ball”, Village Voice, 11
43. Trebay, “Legends of the Ball”.
Busch, Wolfgang, with Kevin Omni and Luna Khan.
How Do I Look? US: Art from the Heart, 2006.
Bodies That Matter:
On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York and
London: Routledge, 1993.
“The Campaign Against Homosexuality”. In Colin
Gordon (ed.), Major Problems in American History,
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture,
and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.
New York: Flamingo, 1995.
Ford, Charles Henri, and Parker Tyler.
The Young and the Evil. US: Masquerade Books,
1996, 1975 (1933).
Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston:
South End Press, 1992.
The Big Sea: An Autobiography.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1993 (1940).
Paris Is Burning.
New York: Miramax Films, 1991.
“House and Ball Culture Goes Wide”.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 17, 5,
September/October 2010, 28-30.
Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings:
Youth Gangs in Postwar New York. New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1999.
The Queen. Evergreen Film, 1968.
Reprinted in Loops, Switzerland, 2011.
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.