Tom Lee Remembers an Unsung Arthur Russell

Tom Lee doesn’t mind sharing Arthur Russell with the world. Through a series of posthumous reissues, a 2008 documentary, and now Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell—an all-star charity tribute album featuring the likes of Robyn, Blood Orange, Hot Chip, Devendra Banhart, and Sufjan Stevens—the listening public has slowly gotten to know the unassuming musical visionary Lee lived with for more than a decade in New York City’s East Village.
As Lee tells Nylon, he wants to “sell everybody” on the amazingly wide-ranging set of songs Russell recorded during his career, which spanned the early ‘70s through 1992, when he died of AIDS-related causes at the age of 40. Lee is a terrific salesman—a guy who loved Russell dearly and still gets choked up talking about his late partner’s lyrics—though on some level, he wonders what makes the product so appealing.
“The big question I have of all the artists on [Master Mix] is that I would love for someone to unlock the secret of what they connect with,” says Lee, who oversees Russell’s catalog and works as an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. “Because I don’t understand it. I only know it’s happening.”Arthur Russell Lee knows what he connects with: Arthur’s voice—a sad, tender bellow he describes as “plaintive” and “pining.” It’s among the only constants in Russell’s body of work. Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he was bound to be an outcast; schooled and shaped in San Francisco, where he discovered Buddhism, befriended Allen Ginsburg, honed his virtuosic cello skills, and hung with the Haight-Ashbury crowd; and ultimately rooted in NYC, where he skirted the disco, punk, and avant-garde scenes, Russell was that rarest of things: a true original who never repeated himself.
Because Russell never got famous enough to have to explain himself in interviews, there’s a wonderfully mysterious quality surrounding his music. How could the guy behind art-house dance jams like “It’s All Over My Face” and “Go Bang”—records that paint him as a sort of proto James Murphy—also have recorded the simple folk-rock tunes found on the 2008 compilation Love Is Overtaking Me? And then there’s Russell’s masterpiece, 1986’s World of Echo, an album of delicate pop experiments featuring little more than reverb-heavy vocals and percussive cello work.
Lee knew him better than anyone, and even he doesn’t have all the answers.
“It was a mystery, but it was more a questioning for me,” Lee says. “When he was doing World of Echoes, it had built gradually. It wasn’t like a big riff or cutoff from doing a song like [the folky] ‘Oh Fernanda Why’ one day and then suddenly doing ‘Being It’ the next day. Part of the way he got to songs like ‘Being It’ and the songs on World of Echo was dabbling with the equipment. ‘How is this box going to affect the sound from the cello?’ One memory I have is of him standing there with his cello in the living room, legs spread as he’s holding it up, and just crooning into the microphone—crooning these songs and turning a dial a little bit, and then doing it again, then tapping the bow on the strings, then sliding the bow. It was all organic, to me.”
According to Paul Heck, who co-produced Master Mix with Dustin Reid, the Red Hot Organization fielded requests from hundreds of artists interested in contributing to the project. After an initial Kickstarter campaign didn’t take, the renowned AIDS nonprofit linked up with the indie label Yep Roc, which releases the album on Oct. 21.
The finished product runs 26 tracks and includes everyone from flamboyant neo-disco heroes Scissor Sisters to Glen Hansard, the earnest Irish singer-songwriter best known for the film Once. About the only thing all of the participants share in common is a love of Russell’s music, and Heck has a theory about what draws them to his songs, be they disco thumpers, strummy folk tunes, or minimalist sketches.Arthur Russell
“He wrote unbelievably great heartfelt songs—that's really where it begins and ends,” Heck says. “I wish people would just say that, state the obvious. The dance stuff, the folk-rock stuff—the common thread is great songs with amazing hooks and lyrics. That's it. You start with a song or two, and then you get hugged by everything he's done.”
In the 2008 film Wild Combination, one of Russell’s friends suggests that Arthur wrote many of these tender songs about his live-in boyfriend. There may be some truth to that, but Lee doesn’t quite see it that way. Maybe that’s why he’s not weirded out by hearing a bunch of young indie artists he’s never met cover songs he had the privilege of listening to on his Walkman days after Arthur recorded them.
“I think the truth is Arthur was writing more generically than that,” Lee says. “There are songs on World of Echo where there are phrases that are mindful of Arthur and me. One in particular is where he says, ‘He gets on a bike…” Little phrases like that. That’s what I did. We would have breakfast together in the morning, and he would go to the studio, and I would hop on my bike and go to work.”
When Russell got to the studio, he, like many geniuses, would tinker and tweak incessantly. By all accounts, he was never satisfied, and in the end, it might have been his perfectionism as much as his eclecticism that kepthim from attaining the success he deserved—and that he may have even wanted.
“I think he did want it, but I think he’d need someone to deliver it for him,” Lee says. “An image I think of is from my fandom of Joni Mitchell. She would talk about ‘birthing’ these songs of hers. Arthur would birth them, but he really needed someone else to take them away from him.”
 

Words By: Kenneth Partridge

Photos Courtesy: Audika Records