It’s like two years since I saw Wild Combination, a documentary about avant garde musician and occasional disco star Arthur Russell. So my impressions at this point are pretty much muted and blurred by the intervening years, the soft focus of memory and all the wine consumed that night. But whatever started me listening to Arthur again, that’s the kind of music that it is… overlapping at the edges like 3D images before you put the glasses on… gentle like the milky sleep fog of waking up without an alarm clock… bedded down within a vague hissing like a cassette recording of a cassette recording of a cassette recording.
Not sure I can do this man’s story justice, and just reading the documentary synopsis on film-maker Matt Wolf’s website, it says it all pretty perfectly so just watch me cut and paste:
WILD COMBINATION begins in the bucolic landscape of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Chuck and Emily Russell remember their precocious son Arthur’s early inspirations. As a teenager in the 1960s, Arthur was obsessed with Timothy Leary, John Cage, and Beat poetry. Clashing with his parents’ Midwestern conventionalism and inspired by these figures’ counter-cultural imaginations, Arthur ran away from home. He joined a Buddhist commune in San Francisco, and he met his lifelong mentor and collaborator, Allen Ginsberg. Allen described Arthur as “delicate, exquisite-minded, youthful, and at the same time oddly reticent.” The two collaborated on a number of recordings. But when the commune tried to take away Arthur’s cello, forcing him to secretly play in a closet, he followed his greater musical ambition, and he joined Ginsberg in New York.
Arthur began working with Philip Glass and other composers in the avant-garde music world, specifically at The Kitchen, where he became musical director in 1974. He composed melodic orchestral music and absorbed the vanguard ideas of the new music scene. Simultaneously Arthur discovered the liberating social and aesthetic possibilities of underground discos. Under the guise of various monikers—Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean—Arthur produced playful and eccentric disco records that became hits of the pre-Studio 54 era.
The rules and codes of established genre didn’t apply to Arthur. The serialized patterns of minimalist symphonies resonated with the repetitive rhythms in dance music. Likewise, the utopian social settings of the early discos were like the Buddhist commune Arthur had once known. With childlike innocence and fun, Arthur ambitiously explored all of these possibilities.
He fell in love with his boyfriend Tom Lee, and the two moved in together in the East Village, next door to Allen in a building populated by poets, musicians, and artists.
But despite Arthur’s musical talent and ambition, he was often tempered by self-defeating career choices and alienating perfectionism. It seemed that Arthur was creating a kind of utopia, where the absorbing process of making music was his life. Finishing his work was a secondary concern. Collaborators moved on to new projects, career opportunities passed, and Arthur began working alone in his apartment. What resulted was perhaps his most fully realized body of work, “World of Echo.” These transcendent solo cello-and-voice songs were like intimate diaries that fit somewhere between lullabies and art songs.
It seemed that popular success was within Arthur’s reach: He believed these diverse musical projects would reach a wider audience. But the devastation of AIDS cut Arthur’s career short. When Arthur died, he was puzzlingly lost in obscurity. His 1992 obituary in the Village Voice read, “Arthur’s songs were so personal that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”
I remember being tremendously moved – not just by the eerily beautiful music, and Wolf’s gentle, observational style of film-making – but particularly by Arthur’s parents. Good, simple Midwestern folks who were totally supportive of Arthur’s lifestyle and loves, as wildly divergent as they were from the world his family knew. Might need to splash out on a DVD to see this again…