A Look At: Arthur Russell

Depending on the readers’ and the trespassers’ needs, this start-up of a series may be viewed as:

  • an artiste’s profiling and spotlight, often those tentatively unknown and unheard of;
  • a suicidal person’s last resort to saving his/her life before attempting;
  • a comforting shoulder to lean upon when a life’s shaping up against one’s hopes and wishes.

As we know that life presents us with a box of chocolates that sometimes may have worms in them, we can sometimes refer to how others had lived their lives, and learnt here and there from them and their past experiences. And no matter how shitty lives have become in these times and modern age, there will always be that other someone out there who will beat you to it – well, hopefully. So live away, make mistakes, play it cool, play it safe, live it your way.

Arthur Russell


Claimed a perfectionist, Arthur was known to leave songs unfinished and constantly revising his music. Quotes:

“never arrived at a completed version of anything.”

“his quest wasn’t really to do a finished product but more to do with exploring his different ways of working musically.”

After his death, he left behind more than 1,000 tapes, 40 of them different mixes of one song – to be slightly more precise,

“maybe 800 reels, two-inch reels and quarter-inch reels of tape, another few hundred cassettes, several dozen DAT tapes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of song lyrics and poetry”

Arthur moved out of his parents, or ran away, to San Francisco in 1967 – after an argument originating from his father, Charlie Sr. (he was still called Charlie at home) finding some paraphernalia (marijuana) in his bedroom.

An initial heterosexual, Arthur became identifiable as a gay man after dating a few men – renowned poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) (here), hairdresser Louis Aquilone (in the year 1976), Donald Murk (a tempestuous relationship, involving “lots of threesomes and fighting and very dramatic emotional scenes”) and silkscreen operator Tom Lee, their friendship rapidly evolving into a domestic partnership, leading Lee to become his last love till his deathbed.


Quiet and enigmatic, Russell caught the eye of Tom Lee as they passed each other periodically in the streets of the Village. As he remembers seeing Russell out and about – by the Tisch building, on 2nd Avenue, remembering locations with a New Yorker’s navigational precision – Lee grins with infectious delight.

“The time when I finally met him, I was coming home from Danceteria. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and there he was, in the Gem Spa, buying an ice cream. And I just thought, I have to talk to this guy. I don’t know if he’s going to beat me up, or what’s going to happen. This idea that I was gay and he was gay never… at that time, didn’t cross my mind.”

Arthur’s works have its musical influences on some of today’s indie favourite artistes. Most noticably, Jens Lekman released a tribute EP with covers, titled “Four Songs by Arthur Russell“. With smiles of reminisce during the first listen, Jens thought of Russell’s music of “something from the future.” Other artistes that have counted him as an influence and inspiration include Owen Pallett, Antony Hegarty and Beth Ditto.

His father, to this date, is pleased with the hype and credibility that his son has garnered through his short-lived music life – to see that whenever he goes online, there are “800 or 900 different blogs, whatever that is” singing his son words of praises.

Filmmaker Matt Wolf completed a feature-length documentary film titled “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell“. Tim Lawrence also wrote a biography – Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, published in 2009. Tracey Thorn covered “Get Around To It” on her 2007 album “Out Of The Woods“, and indie/electronic/alternative act Planningtorock covered “Janine” on her album “W” in 2011.

Arthur Russell’s death was linked with HIV. His partner Lee spoke of the time when he first came to the realization:

 “It’s funny, I still have the paper that says that he was HIV positive. It didn’t seem so bad. It seemed like that was happening to other people. I mean, certainly at that time when people were positive, they were getting sick and they were dying, and yet he seemed so real to me…”

Russell’s health was on its physical decline (with the virus yielding to the deleterious side efforts of AIDS, inclusive of throat cancer), but he continued to work on his passion, working on the voice-and-cello combination.

“He was writing his best work when he was battling AIDS. His gifts were increasing as his strength was leaving him.”

Russell passed away on April 4, 1992, at the age of 40.

“… His songs were so personal, that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”

Some extracts were obtained from here.





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