• ‘Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell A LifeBy Richard King
Review by Abigail Ward

I have always been intrigued by the music of Arthur Russell, owned a few of his cello records, cut some rug to his off-kilter disco hits. I adored ‘Wild Combination’, Matt Wolf’s poignant documentary from 2008. But I hadn’t experienced that deep emotional pull to Russell’s work that so many people seem to. This was perhaps because when I first heard it in the record shop I worked in in the late 90s, he was so revered by my male workmates they became rather cliquey about it, giving off a ‘well, how could you (a small town know-nothing kid, and a girl) possibly understand this avant-garde genius’ kinda vibe. I think this contributed to my resistance. So when I first cracked open Richard King’s ‘Travels Over Feelings’, a new hardback volume of photographed ephemera and transcribed interviews that tells ‘one version’ of Russell’s life, I was probably more in love with King’s own back catalogue (particularly ‘Original Rockers’ about – yes – a cliquey record shop) than Arthur Russell’s.

But within the first few pages of this engrossing exhibition-as-a-book I could feel that balance tip as I was drawn helplessly into the cult of Arthur. By page 15 I had rooted out my childhood magnifying glass to better decipher a handwritten letter sent by the teenage musician in 1966 to his friend Pat in which he states, ‘the conditions here (in Oskaloosa, Iowa, his hometown) are terrible. I can’t stand it. […] This is the loneliest period in my life so far. […] Everyone here is still smoking pot and worrying about their hair.’

Two years later Russell runs away from his middle class home, landing first in a Buddhist commune in Haight-Ashbury before eventually relocating to New York City in either ‘72 or ‘73, enticed there by Allen Ginsberg (whom he met at a Buddhist poetry reading), and record label executive John Hammond. We follow this journey through a series of photos and correspondence, including a card from Ginsberg, whose handwriting is also awful. Part 1 of the book ends with a scrawled note from Arthur to his then girlfriend that reads ‘I got a job playing with Alice Coltrane for about two weeks…’

And then the more familiar chapter of Arthur Russell’s life begins. A proposal for an experimental piece sent to composer Christian Wolff in 1974 reveals Arthur is now studying at the Manhattan School of Music. From there we watch as he quickly and confidently inserts himself into the epicentre of NYC’s avant-garde underground, becoming musical director of The Kitchen, a centre for video art, performance and New Music, aged 23.

Some of the documents King has reproduced that relate to Arthur’s ‘serious’ compositional work have to be studied carefully to be fully understood, but then for light relief we are treated to lyrical sketches for the artist’s more songwriterly material that radiate a kind of childlike, or mindful, wonder in simple things. They are spacious and rich with subtext: ‘To see where I am going / I’m depending’ on the light / of the lamppost on my left / and the buildings on my right / if I were to turn around by the lamp that’s burning bright / I’d have buildings on my left / and the lamppost on my right’ [From Tramplin’ Song for Jonathan Richman].

One of the most riveting aspects of the book is the way in which Richard King brings to life Arthur’s restless desire to work across a variety of scenes and genres. The cellist is just as interested in the the possibilities of pop as he is in ‘the new black jazz’ of Ornette Coleman, whose records – according to collaborator Peter Gordon – could be heard drifting down the street from Arthur’s loft on Prince Street at all hours.

When Arthur gets into disco in 1976 through DJ Nicky Siano at the Gallery, there is evidence that he is attacking its creative possibilities with the same rigour and seriousness that he did his avant-classical works. And it is at this point, during the making of his most well-known club records (as Dinosaur L and Loose Joints), that we witness the confluence of Arthur’s influences thus far: the conceptual experiments of New Music, the drone of Indian raga, the accessibility of pop and the erotic throb of the dancefloor.

Just as he penetrated the heart of the NYC avant-garde in what seems like a matter of months, so he infiltrates the disco scene, enlisting luminaries such as Larry Levan and Walter Gibbons to remix his work. Arthur was driven to make music that would create moments of transcendence at the Loft or Paradise Garage, but according to more than one interviewee in the book, he never danced himself, preferring to skulk around the sidelines waiting for his own track to come on so he could analyse its performance on the system. ‘The drums are muddy!’ was Arthur’s knee-jerk verdict on François Kevorkian’s mix of ‘Go Bang!’, according to Russell’s partner in Sleeping Bag Records, Will Socolov.

Tellingly, there are three letters included in the book that Arthur wrote to friends while actually in a club. I mean, who else goes to a club to write a letter? One of the records he delights in hearing out is Crystal Waters’ ‘Gypsy Woman’. He writes, ‘Will has set me up with the producers, but I’m afraid they might not like my voice.’

‘Drive’ is a word that comes up regularly in the testimonies. Russell was working constantly, every single day it seems, honing, refining, seeking opinions from others on which bass drum sound, out of a possible forty, might be best. There is the feeling at times that he is drowning in his own perfectionism, lost in a myriad of trajectories from which he cannot extract a ‘finished’ track. He doesn’t ever record over anything, which is why he left behind an archive of 800+ reels of tape.

Tom Lee, Russell’s partner from 1978 onwards, remembers, ‘Arthur would be out making phone calls, scheduling rehearsal and studio time; always plugging cassettes in and out of ever-evolving styles of portable tape players. At times he would leave a cassette atop a pay telephone kiosk as he paused to trade one for another into the tape machine, and a few blocks later dashed back to retrieve it…often long gone.’

And it is Arthur’s relationship with Tom that is most beautifully evoked here by a series of photos and postcards that delicately illustrate the love, understanding and sense of playfulness the pair shared, alongside tantalising glimpses of their ramshackle sixth floor apartment on 437 East 12th Street. Tom notes, ‘the problem with Arthur’s Buddhism was that he wouldn’t kill any roaches or mice.’

During their time together Tom financially supported Arthur via his job as manager of a fine art silk-screen workshop. ‘Travels Over Feeling’ also contains striking examples of Tom’s own design work, such as his handprinted sleeves for the ‘Pop Your Funk’ 7” promo and mock-ups for ‘World of Echo’, the only solo album Arthur released during his life.

Hanging over the book is the knowledge that we must reach its end, and the last chapter documents Arthur’s life from 1986 – the year he received a positive diagnosis for HIV – to his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1992. Arthur continued to write, record and perform for as long as he could. His final public appearance was in December ‘91 as part of trombonist Peter Zummo’s Labs II Ensemble. Zummo remembers, ‘He was quite weak and I got in trouble for it, because he ended up taking three couch cushions and putting them against a wall and lying down. He did a brilliant vocal lying down’.

Whilst there were times when I was reading this book I wished that, to aid understanding, King had included typewritten versions of the many notes and letters, or a little more interpretation here and there, I have come to realise that his curatorial style – letting the artefacts speak for themselves much of the time – demands readers ‘study’ rather than simply glance at the material. And it is this very process that pays dividends to those with the patience to go deep. The book’s unassuming layout and design give the impression that we are ourselves sifting through a vast archive and to some extent, filling in the blanks with our own narratives, divining our own meaning.

Which is clever, because it’s this exact approach that should be employed when listening to Arthur Russell’s genre-busting music. Something I am going to be doing a lot more of in the future.


‘Travels Over Feeling’ is published on Thursday 18th April by Faber & Faber. Copies bought from the Heavenly Recordings Bandcamp store come with an author signed book plate. Pre-order yours now.

Abigail Ward is a music producer, DJ and curator. In 2008 she edited the book ‘1 Top Class Manager – The Notebooks of Joy Division’s Manager’.

Abigail is also a co-founder of Manchester Digital Music Archive, an online repository of Greater Manchester music ephemera.