Do What I Want: Lessons From Arthur Russell

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by Kyle Wall

Arthur Russell was one of the strangest musicians of the 20th century in just about every sense, and the numerous musical personas and contradictions that hooked me into being a major fan of his years ago were on full display at a recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It also made me ponder what it would be like had he made it to the 21st century, and what artists today have that he did not – namely the internet.

Born and raised in the cornfields of Iowa, the socially awkward, acne-scarred teen fled to San Francisco to study Indian classical music and collaborate with Allen Ginsberg. He moved to New York City to share the sound of his avant-garde cello at legendary underground music venue The Kitchen, became a pseudonymous disco star, dabbled in pop, rock and folk through various other projects, and died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1992.

(Wax Poetics)

Russell’s long string of music defies logical sense – there’s the sparse, dew-eyed folk of “Close My Eyes“; the ominous, psychedelic instrumental “Tower of Meaning“; the playful pop of “Hey! How Does Everybody Know“; the droning disco of “Is It All Over My Face?” and so on and so on. What connects it all is Russell’s imperfect, haunting voice and an endless sense of adventure and experimentation given the limited resources a broke, unknown cellist had in the 1970s and 80s.

While Russell was a shining light in the NYC underground music scene (with perhaps his most high-profile collaboration being an outtake recording of “Psycho Killer” with the Talking Heads), his name was far from a household one while he was alive. His roving mind and perfectionism led him to start and abandon a number of projects in the eighties despite interest from record labels, he did not tour the country, and he passed away before he could be cited as an influence by the next generation of indie icons.

This begs the question: If Russell’s career took off 20 years later, in the late 1990s through the early 2000s, would he have benefited from the type of blog hype that elevated acts like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Neutral Milk Hotel to varying degrees of indie-rock stardom? Or if it was 35 years later, could his monumentally groundbreaking World of Echo album (sampled by Kanye West on last year’s The Life of Pablo) have gone viral on SoundCloud after being linked in a tweet by some modern-day Byrne or Ginsberg? The answer to both seems to be an obvious yes.

Throughout March and April, the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted “Do What I Want,” a brand-new exhibition of Russell’s lyrics, sheet music, posters, rare records and more. It culminated in a screening of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, a 2008 documentary chronicling his life and work. The film was sold out, with fans lining up at the door for at least an hour beforehand, and you could hardly move inside the exhibition on its opening night.

As an Arthur Russell fan, it was bittersweet to see an art retrospective of a man who couldn’t find mainstream success in his time – though it’s been debated how much he really wanted it. But seeing fans obsessively flock to it 25 years after his death showed that his music had truly resonated, and despite the cliche, was well ahead of its time.

As an independent NYC musician, the exhibition drove home the point that I should always remain restless and fearless when it comes to navigating different sounds and musical genres; Arthur Russell proved that the best template is having no template. It also made me appreciate the era that I live in, despite how uncool or obnoxious it may seem at any given moment. There are endless ways to get my music out to millions of people at the click of a button, without a record label or PR firm . In 2017, if you have the talent and put enough energy and creativity into it, your path to acclaim and attention is clearer than it has ever been.​

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