Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Calling all kids

Wild Combination: A portrait of Arthur Russell is a documentary by Matt Wolf about the strange magic produced by Russell throughout his too-short life. Anyone who isn't aware of him should, in my opinion anyway, drop everything and get listening. Although you may have heard his music before, in ads, in clubs but the strange thing is, for such a supremely talented avant garde disco savant to remain so slept on is nothing short of incredible. The story is unremarkable at the outset, talented but mixed up cello-playing MidWestern kid runs away to San Fran in the late 70's and joins a commune. What transpires afterwards is like a skewed version of a folk tale in which, befriended by Allan Ginsberg, Russell decamps to New York where he lives in a building with the aforementioned Ginsberg, Richard Hell and no end of pale and interesting residents. Here Russell, who was sent to the closet by his fellow communards to practice his cello, set about creating a bewildering array of music starting as from a singer songwritery to becoming an amazing bandleader through making "Instrumentals 1-5" with former Modern Lover Ernie Brooks and Saxophonist Peter Zummo and a number of other players. Russell worked in collaborations on a type of Buddhist Pop music that even now sounds bizarrely contemporary- a few years ago while on holiday i put on "First Thought: Best Thought" which contains the aforementioned Instrumentals. Difficult to describe, these instrumentals have a strange, almost ritual quality, slightly off kilter, trancelike but still rock music, reminiscent of a very breezy Tortoise. That's Tortoise, although the similarity extends to our little shell-wearing buddy too as it has a persistent unhurried charm and seems entirely self-contained. Laboured metaphors abound when dealing with Russell because his music is so unique and unfathomable that coupled with his early death earns him the unhelpful "lost genius" tag. Wolf prefers to use "Icon" which i think fits well. Russell, at this stage developed a reputation as being frustrating, difficult to work and collaborate with and obsessively perfectionist (Tom Lee, Russells lover describes how he took nearly 6 years to complete the title track That's Us/Wild Combination!)

Russell was at this stage "out" and immersed in the New York underground disco scene. Here was a new, emergent subculture that allowed him to mess with a whole lot of equipment, techniques and instruments. Ideal. Russell produced some of my favourite disco records and when Go Bang! appears I practically fainted with pleasure. There's a good treatment in the film of this period although by Wolf's own admission at the Q&A afterwards he does get feedback that it doesn't deal with disco in enough detail. For me that is the tragedy of Russells life and more broadly the disco era, AIDS and drugs decimated this subculture and this is palpable in the film by the absence of so many people. In my opinion this is a strength of the film and the absence of so many key players communicates the sense of loss that many of the contributers felt (and obviously still feel).
The film uses interviews with Russells parents, lover, collaborators along with a few others. There are reconstructions of the Loft and Iowa which put russells music into a sort of context as well as a beautifully realised recreation of Arthur listening to his own tapes on the Staten Island ferry. This evocative image was the first thing that sparked Wolf's imagination to make this affectionate portrait of Russell. His parents are funny, worldly people who loved and encouraged their strange little boy. Russells partner Tom Lee is really moving and a real sense of the love between them is exquisitely portrayed. The music Russell left behind (hours of reels of tapes, DATS, regular cassettes- all unreleased) is the real legacy- songs that never saw the light of day are now being released by Audika. Many of these songs (particularly on Another Thought and Calling Out of Context) describe togetherness, the kind of mundane spiritual wonder that you feel on a boring Tuesday evening when sat on the couch together eating crisps. Other work is entirely individual, like being alone on a pier in the middle of the night. The magic of Russells music is the way the music creates this transportative power in ordinariness, the zen of living completely in the moment, whether losing your mind on a wild dancefloor, cuddling on the couch or listening to music on the deck of a ferry.
Hannah McGill paid tribute to Optimo's DJ Twitch for introducing her and countless others to Russells music. He deserves it, Optimo have been pushing the NY Disco sound long before the haircut brigade cottoned onto it. For my own part I have Greg n' Shane to thank for introducing me to the wonky rhodes organ wonder of Loose Joints.
She got one thing wrong though, the "best club night in the world" is obviously Subculture!

1 comment:

brogues said...

This sounds great! I've been listening to "First Thought, Best Thought" again and it still sounds ace. I'm chuffed that you spotted the similarity between it and The Pastels' recent material. Good work, chap!