Arthur Russell

Chocks away as our esteemed columnist heads off into the wild blue yonder in search of musical yarns to spin

At first I paid little attention to the pleasant guy I often ran into who lived upstairs

For a few months in 1986, the first address I could call my own in New York City was 437 East 12th Street; near Tompkins Square Park and often known as the Poets Building. Richard Hell lived over the landing and veteran Beat poet Allen Ginsberg a floor below, often a benign presence at his doorway, ready with a pearl of wisdom.

Being located near Alphabet City’s heroin supermarkets, there was usually a lot of after-dark traffic on that wide old stairway. At first I paid little attention to the pleasant guy I often ran into who lived upstairs. To be honest, I was more concerned with the Puerto Rican junkie who lived next door to him and was bent on burgling my bedroom from the fire escape. Compared to the scary human debris littering the building, this man with neat hair and patterned jumpers cut a calm, always smiling presence.

Only the following year, by which time I had moved further west up 12th Street, did I realise the nice man on the stairs was Arthur Russell, the enigmatic genius behind Dinosaur L’s seminal ‘Go Bang!’ and molten disco marvel ‘2424 Music’ LP, a man recognised posthumously as someone who really did manage to transcend all musical categories, whether mutant disco, acid-folk or audacious composition to make music in his own likeness; invariably panoramic, intimate, spiritual and luminous.

In 1986 he had just released epoch-making voice-cello masterpiece ‘World Of Echo’ and was upstairs building his home studio after being diagnosed with the AIDS that would claim him 26 years ago this month. Of course, Arthur is now held as one of the major creative instigators of New York’s underground scene. For his full story see Tim Lawrence’s definitive biography, ‘Hold On To Your Dreams’,

The new EP will give curious newcomers a glimpse into Arthur Russell’s still unique world

In 2010, I undertook a project that involved talking to musicians and friends who had shared Russell’s pinballing orbit and witnessed Arthur’s Landing, the outfit launched in 1998 featuring a cast of musicians who’d worked with Russell, invoking his ethereal pop and disco magic at the ICA, led by singer-guitarist Steven Hall and serenely cool master-percussionist Mustafa Ahmed.

This month sees a new work of special beauty in his honour by his old friends Hall and Ahmed, who return as Arthur’s Landing on their ‘Spring Collection’ EP. Released on Hall’s Buddhist Army imprint, the new EP will enrapture old fans and give curious newcomers a glimpse into Arthur Russell’s still unique world. Its five songs start with a spectral romp through ‘Love Dancing’ and an instrumental take on ‘Your Motion Says’.

Both are taken from their last recording session with original band member Elodie Lauten (who Arthur first met in 1975 at Ginsberg’s apartment) before she passed away in 2014 and produced by Arthur’s beloved original producer Bob Blank.

Originally credited to Loose Joints and retitled ‘Is It All Over My Face’, the hyper-sleazy ‘Love Dancing’ basically invented New York’s mutant disco sound in 1980 as one of its furthest out, most unsettlingly-surreal hedonist statements after being remixed by Larry Levan. It reappears here as a funky ghost, bassline intact but everything mellow, slinky and haunting; like disco’s spirits reuniting on a heavenly dancefloor. After Elodie introduces ‘Your Motion Says’ on Blank’s Steinway grand piano, the new version is again restrained, respectful but shimmering with the ethereal magic Russell conjured.

The remaining three tracks, recorded at New York’s Russell Street Studios by Carlos Hernandez and Alex Lipsen, see Hall and Ahmed joined by Steven’s twin sister Andrea Derrickson, who supplies cool vocals, guitarist Walter Vernon Baker and original Scissor Sisters drummer Paddy Boom; gliding into dubbed-out disco on ‘List Of Boys’, the Twin Mix of ‘Your Motion Says’ (Mustafa letting rip on bongos) and gorgeous, slow-burning take on ‘Love Comes Back’ (first recorded by Arthur in 1990 when he knew his days were numbered). Blessed with spine-chilling vocals from Vancouver’s Adam Wazonek (aka Soliterre), it shows how Arthur may have responded to the yacht rock genre, by turning it into another facet of his quest to inject music with vulnerability and emotions.

This whole marvellous set could be illustrated by some words Steven Hall once said to me. “Arthur and I used to talk about the idea of Buddhist Pop; writing pop songs that contained Buddhist teachings, but without saying anything about Buddhism. All the references to light, sunlight, water, clouds and furry animals come from that.” Or the words Mustafa chose to describe his old friend; driven yet humble.

Sun Ra is well-known as being among the city’s prime electronic pioneers

Sun Ra is another old New York hero, the subject of many downtown sorties to find street sellers offering original albums for a dollar apiece. Just down on Third Street near Avenue B, the Arkestra played their residency at Slug’s Saloon in the 1960s and the Sun Palace HQ was also nearby. Of course, Sun Ra is well-known as being among the city’s prime electronic pioneers, using the Moog early in the late 60s and electronic keyboards much earlier than that.

Even when playing blues on piano, accompanied by a basic Arkestra, Ra still managed to conjure unknown worlds and distant planets through his supernatural sense of dislocated space. And that’s the format on the latest addition to his bulging discography, ‘Of Abstract Dreams’. Released through a coalition between the esteemed Strut and Art Yard labels, it showcases a sole-surviving tape from the many recordings made by Ra and the Arkestra at the University of Pennsylvania studio of radio station WXPN some time in the mid-1970s.
Ra and faithful stalwarts, including Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, Danny Ray Thompson, James Jacson and percussionists perform this wonderfully informal session, which includes the breezy ‘Island In The Sun’ (from ‘The Invisible Shield’), ferocious alien foraging of ‘New Dawn’, bonkers ‘Unmask The Batman’ (featuring Jacson’s screaming Jay Hawkins-style vocals) and ‘I’ll Wait For You’ building itself around the popular chant; Gilmore leading on tenor with coruscating bite.

It’s almost 50 years since the uk first heard Can

Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt’s long-awaited definitive Can biography ‘All Gates Open’ just turned up as the last word and consummate document of another uniquely magic band. It’s almost 50 years since the UK first heard Can; when Peel played ‘Mary Mary’ from ‘Monster Movie’ on his Sunday afternoon show. It seems somewhat incredible that it’s taken so long for this story to be told from the inside, but everything’s here and much, much more… oh, apart from the two astonishing Can gigs I witnessed in 1973 and 1974 at Friars Aylesbury, their favourite English gig. I touched on that 1973 show in Issue 35, the whole tale will have to wait for another time though as I’m still trying to process the shock of where the band took their music on both those occasions.

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