Yesterday, while driving home from upstate, we listened to classic rock radio. I looked out the window, and imagined what it’d be like to hear an Arthur Russell song come on the radio, and how the world would be different if he had a hit. The dream puttered out from there. Which Russell? There were so many.
The disco producer.
The avant garde composer.
The earnest country singer.
The esoteric pop savant.
All these personas were facets of Russell and his approach. The farm boy from Iowa moved to the East Village in the 70s and tried to make music as pop as ABBA and experimental as the downtown music scene. The pursuit was to make divergenent elements converge—Allen Ginsberg even said Russell wanted to write “Buddhist bubblegum music.” Russell was creating a mold for future contemporary musicians: see through the walls that separate different styles of music and try to blend the sounds others think incompatible, even if that means mixing the deep and inane, or better yet, finding the depth in common things.
All this artsy-fartsyness sounds like an opportunity to get pretentious, but Russell’s earnest lyrics disarm any kind of posturing. From joy to isolation to romance, Russell always struck me as an artist more willing than most to take all the aspects of himself seriously and without shame—even the frivolous parts, even the cliché parts. There’s a magnetic realness to it. I defy anyone to not genuinely enjoy Wild Combination and its plain-spoken appreciation of being with someone you love:
So, what song would have been on the radio? Wild Combination is a strong choice, but my underdog vote goes to The Letter and it’s endearing, plodding pace:
But if I had to choose a personal favorite, it’d be This Is How We Walk on the Moon.
Everything with Russell was too early. In 1992, he died of AIDS. He was forty. We won’t get more music, but the existing songs are deep, even in their unfinished state. (Many of the available releases are compilations of his demo tapes). Those rough edges invite interpretation, so later this month, Red Hot (who did the Dark Is The Night compilation) is releasing an album of Russell covers to benefit AIDS research. Here’s José Gonzalez’s great version of This Is How We Walk On The Moon:
I urge you to check it out. Maybe you’ll find as much pleasure in these songs as I have.