In the fall of last year, I spent a night eating dates, clicking through Google Image results for baker island maine. Shot southward off the shoreline, the island is uninhabited year-round. Barely anything but blue opens off its edges. Seeing it for the first time, you'd be forgiven for thinking the world might end here.
At some point in the evening, as a coast of date pits piled around me, I clicked on a photo that made me pause. In it, there are two women — in wide-brimmed hats and pleated skirts, like unbent muffin wrappers. It's 1910. We're on a slab of rock, the ocean ahead of us. Locals, from the mainland, call this spot the Dance Floor. By all available evidence, the two women are dancing. In movement, their arms tuck in the same position: against their hips, chicken-like. For a moment, it seems a mirror has dropped from the sky and made one out of the other.
I can't say much more about the photo and the women in it. I can't say anything about what was making them dance. The photo, as you can guess, is soundless. That's what makes it — and most images of dance — so strange. We want to explain the cause of movement with some sort of music. Lacking this, we start to fill in.
I was skimming through photos of Baker Island because of the experimental musician Arthur Russell. The final outing Russell made with his family was to Baker Island. It was a special place for him. It's not hard to guess why. Arthur was a musician, but he loved the water. Across the top of one of his composition books, he scrawled out, as a potential life goal, "a job where you drive a boat."
Shortly before taking the trip to Baker Island, Russell was diagnosed with AIDS. It was the early 1990s. There was an end in Arthur's world. He sat facing water and, taking the recorder he carried with him often, clicked it on, setting down the waves on shore.
I couldn't find any photos of the island from the 90s, when Arthur would have been there. But, looking at this photo of the two women, barefoot and blurred against the sky, it strikes me at least one thing must have been the same. I can almost hear it: the horizon behind them, each wave breaking. A record-needle set down, striking into its groove.
If you google "arthur russell," the first song that comes up, via a YouTube link, is "That's Us / Wild Combination." Listen. Listen, mostly, to his voice. The song is all about it — starting in echo, looping around itself. I just wanna be, he confesses, wherever you are.
The video has 136,462 views — give or take a few, by the time you've heard it. It's not a bad count. Maybe even a good one, considering the relative obscurity in which Russell died in 1993, a few months after sitting on that rock on Baker Island. At the time of his death, he was working on an album for Rough Trade Records, under the working title 1-800-Dinosaur. His songs enjoyed moderate playtime at New York underground parties — the ones in high and cramped lofts, where the sound of bodies pulled by disco echoed out into the night.
Russell's name wasn't — isn't — a household one. He doesn't have a hit song you might have heard. But, his music turns up in unexpected places. You can find quotes where Allen Ginsberg — poet, infatuated with Russell — compares Russell's lyrics to William Carlos Williams. In 2016, his music was sampled by Kanye West on "Answers Me," a song I often hear bypassing car windows, or leaking out of headphones at coffee shops. In this way, Russell has always been stepping around the edges of fame, peering out behind its contours.
Since passing, he's been caught in its light more and more. The cultural currency Russell enjoys today is far wider than any he enjoyed during his life. Largely, this change can be explained by YouTube, and other kinds of digital platforms, resurrecting his work into a posthumous, qualified fame. It's a fame that is small in its scale, though deep in its intensity. It's an intensity that seems reserved for artists we discover after their death, who we stumble across out of some strange fortune. The kind of intensity you can get a sense of, scrolling through the comment sections of that same video. Listen.
ok i have just divided my life into before I ever heard of Arthur Russell and AFTER i heard Arthur Russell... / first song to make me feel anything in years / omg i want to live in this song / i love him / this sounds like the inside of a person's head / he'd been sailing so long, I hope he found the shore / this song found me this morning, Thank you Universe I needed this / if you like this please spread arthur russell's name
Charles Arthur Russell was born Charles Arthur Russell in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in 1951. His father, the mayor of the town, was also Charles Arthur Russell (Sr.) and so our Charles, in a bid for independence, insisted on becoming Arthur.
We know a scattering of things about Russell's childhood. He was a bookish child, with bad acne that scarred his face for life, who had a penchant for putting on magic shows in his spare time. He was a midwestern boy through and through, even after he moved out west to San Francisco, and then to New York, and people would still say there was something about him that made it seem like he just stepped off a tractor. (And it's true: on the cover for his album Love is Overtaking Me, he's pitched up in a cornfield, wearing a cowboy hat, eyes drifting past us).
It's easy to marvel at the oddness of his biography, to stumble when squaring how a quiet boy from Iowa could become, as he did, a fixture within the bounded limits of the New York underground music scene. Try to hold all the facts of his life and they seem to push off against one another — mayor's son; radically-experimental cellist; disco-lover; devotee of ABBA; Buddhist; music director of performance space The Kitchen, where Brian Eno, David Byrne, Steve Reich passed by.
Sorting through these bits of Russell's life and work, the biggest question that emerges is one of time: his lack of acclaim then, his sudden appraisal now. Read any of the write-ups devoted to Russell in recent years, and some form of this ask will appear. English music critic David Toop claims Russell was simply "too remarkable and too individual for his time." Others say he is just another example of someone who "never found an audience during life." "There is no market for the music of the future," sums up Olivia Laing, writing about Russell this year in the Paris Review. Arthur, it seems, was just ahead of its time.
In a sense, this is literally true. Most of the music we listen to by Russell was never released during his life. Russell was a notorious perfectionist — known to spend hours reworking demos, never feeling they were quite ready to release. He only ever shared one pop album under his own name: 1986's World of Echo.
The rest of Russell's material has been exhumed through a meticulous drive through his archive, facilitated by Tom Lee, Russell's boyfriend at the time of his death. It was Lee who took responsibility for the materials Arthur left behind — over a thousand tapes and recordings, scattered around his sixth-floor walk-up in New York City. Since 2004, Lee has collaborated with independent label Audika Records to produce compilations of Russell's music — most recently, 2019's Iowa Dream.
These albums join the ranks of a genre that has been given rich life in recent years: the posthumous album. Made by collaging material from an artist's cutting room floor, posthumous albums are usually facilitated, as in the case of Russell, by some overseer of estate and legacy. Thanks to this genre, three years after his death, there could be a new Prince album. Leonard Cohen's Thanks for the Dance could be released last year, absent the singer himself. Through these albums, we hear voices — ones gone, but speaking still.
To hear music in this way is perhaps unremarkable. Yet the ability for songs to find posthumous audiences is relatively new. While music today is largely consumed in recorded form, the detaching of songs from a present, performing body only really took off towards the middle of the twentieth century. Before then, live music didn't need an adjective to emphasize its liveness — it was the only kind of music there was. With the advent of high-quality sound recording in the 50s though, live music became, in music historian Leon Botstein's words, "an antique of sorts, an imperfect and outmoded experience."
In the place of live performance, recorded music became standard. Modern sound reproduction provided a pure, objective representation of a musical work, allowing for a piece to be repeated, identically, forever. Because of this technology, music now had evidence of its afterlife. When the body of a musician passed away, their sounds could float into our lives, fumbling towards us across the delay of time.
With Russell's music, this arrival is particularly striking. This isn't a case — as it is with Prince or Cohen — of us hearing a voice that is gone, but that many knew while it was still living. Most of Russell's fans today weren't aware of his work during his life. For them, these songs have only ever been elegy, and Arthur has only ever been absent.
When I came across Arthur, I felt like his music had been made for me — me, specifically — to figure out. I can't remember the first time I heard him. I don't think this to be strange. There are friends who are like this: not there, until they are. You can't believe their life once was outside the boundary of your own. You also know this fact to be true.
The furthest I can go back with him is a January of several years ago. I know it was January, because I can remember the cold. It was a party. The music was loud and hot around us. I met a boy, we spent the night clinging and, later, slouched towards a late-night diner. It's here that I remember the cold. It's here that I remember him.
He was coming through the speakers of the diner, as I was sprawled out in the booth, scattering a paper sleeve of pepper into my hand. Singing. I heard him then the way I would hear him later, even in the best of recordings: barely.
It was the first piece of Arthur — a gasp of a song called "A Little Lost" — that I remember falling in love with. I found it later by googling its lyrics, which I fumblingly wrote out onto my lower arm, borrowing the pen used to sign the check. Waking the next morning, the blurred ink on my arm — on my sheets, now, too — was enough to find it. Enough, also, to realize how much I'd gotten wrong.
Now I'm not / Me, my big, old ways.
Now it's harder, I'm not on my turf / Just me and those big, old waves / Rolling in.
I was surprised I hadn't been able to fill in the gaps, but was glad to have found the song, to see that there were more songs to find. I began working through every piece of Russell I could. Mostly, I heard him through a pair of blasted-out headphones, on long runs circling down into the ravines that are etched into the city where I live.
Before long, Russell's voice was everywhere — plastered up and along my mind. His words became a kind of audiotape, looping endlessly underneath my consciousness. When things didn't work out with the boy from the diner, it was Russell's words from "Our Last Night Together" I heard: This job is just a one-way street / It's taken you away from me. After my friends surprised me in the park for my birthday, I unconsciously clicked over to "Habit of You:" When I opened the door and saw / My orange birthday cake / I felt like crying!
None of these lyrics described exactly the thing I was feeling — not quite. There was no last night together, no door to open, no orange birthday cake. But,like gas filling its container, Russell's words always adjusted themselves, growing enormous or modest as needed, fitting neatly inside the volume of my emotions.
It happens a lot — this devouring Arthur into one's consciousness. In a New Yorker profile on Russell, one of the main things contemporary fans talk about is how, when listening to Russell, it feels as though he is "in their skulls." My friend Mathilde tells me when she was driving to Montréal along the Trans-Canada-Highway, and "That's Us / Wild Combination" was playing, it was like the song was saying everything she was feeling. It wasn't Russell she was registering, she says, so much as a perfect mirror, right there on the dashboard, singing out the form of her thoughts.
To a degree, this happens with all the music we listen to. But it strikes me that, in Russell's case, it's particularly easy to claim his music as our own, to view ourselves more than we view him. In part, this is because of the way his work sounds. Even in the best of recordings, you can barely hear him — his voice water-logged and blurry against the melody. His music seems to have been created in fragment. Like breath against you, it's there in the realest sense, but also in the faintest.
In an evaluation by Warner Bros. Music about a demo performance by Russell, an executive at the company, in disparaging terms, points to the weirdness of Russell's music, and the response it asks of us. Scrawled across the sheet:
Artist: Arthur Russell
Instrumental Performance: Uneventful .
Vocal Performance: This guy's in trouble .
Material: Who knows what this guy is up to —— you figure it out ——
So, you do: figuring it out, filling it in, making your own sense of it. When we hear Russell today, the gaps in his work are all the more vast now that he,too, is absent and we are on our own. There's loads of music theory that says it's only through listening to a piece of music that it gains "completion." Taking this idea at its word, Russell's work — every unheard tape crowding around his apartment — was unfinished until its release. Listening to him now, then, means our finishing things without him, giving him an end in our time.
When I first started listening to Russell, it unsettled me to hear his words coming from nowhere — unpinned from anyone I knew living, unearthed for the first time. Where did these sounds come from, and when? I wanted to know. Piecing together the fragments of mirrored sound left behind, I listened for an answer. Once the mirror was whole, its image seemed to belong to me — to now. Before long, I no longer registered Russell's words as his. I would speak his lyrics out suddenly in conversation, as if they had just come to me, as if they were mine.
It's hard to know what Russell would think of all of this. He left no directions as to how — let alone if — his music should be shared after his passing. Many say he wouldn't have wanted his stuff out there. (Steve Knutson from Audika Records, who works with Lee to put together the compilations, admits "Arthur probably wouldn't want any music to be released").
Others say he would have invited it openly. It's all conjecture.
But certain things are clear about Russell, his relationship to his music. One of these things: he cared massively about the particular moment of each song,the time and conditions when a track was recorded. He had this one idea that, if you laid a tape transfer at the moment of a full moon, the oxide molecules would align, the sound would be different. In other words: you could hear the moon in the song. To produce World of Echo, Russell recorded for three years on nights when there was a full moon, believing the evening would be there, just above the melody.
The more I listen to Russell, the more I find this kind of time — his time — appearing everywhere. Focus your ear and, often, you can hear the background of his day blurring into the music: the whir of a blender, the drawl of a fish-tank. So many of Russell's songs are suffused with this sense of time, capturing the world as it was — then, for him.
It seems false, then, to claim Arthur's songs were "ahead of their time," that they were sent as recordings from the future, as constant elegies. Truer to say: these sounds were made by someone years ago, on a night with a full moon. They were complete in their time, long before they came to me in the diner. There is a world staring at us through this music. It is not ours.
With the increasing popularity of posthumous albums, there's been much hand-wringing about their ethics — whether releasing music aligns with the wants of the deceased. To me though, the bigger point seems to be, not whether these records should be shared, but what it looks like to play each song and really listen: to pick up and hear, not our own voice, but the one on the other end of the line.
Russell loved people hearing his work. His perfectionism, his reluctance to release his music, wasn't a product of a hermetic spirit who wanted to horde things to himself. He was known to lurk around the edge of a party when his songs were put on, looking to gauge the size of the crowd brought to the dancefloor, how people moved. Russell took no issue with others listening to his music. He just wanted to be there as they did.
Play "That's Us / Wild Combination" again. Listen. Can you hear it? The white disk, the one he is below, the breath between notes. There is something of Arthur suspended there still, caught in the melody as it arrives. How much better it is to find Russell in his songs — to dance together and not alone. Turn up the volume. There is the moon, full. There is this voice, his.
In one of my memories, I'm staying in a small farmhouse in western Massachusetts. I'm there for a dance festival nearby. From where I am, it takes about an hour to bike to the festival grounds, spread through the mountains. By the time I get there, I'm red-faced and late for the show.
Later, after the last performance, some of the dancers and I linger at the open-air restaurant set up for festival attendees. We realize we have some overlapping friends and start talking. The night becomes black, so we leak out to the parking lot where I confess all I have is my bike, and no light, but assure them I would be fine getting home.
They don't have space in their car, but offer, instead, to drive slowly behind me, paving out my way with a milk-white slice of their headlights on blast. They do, and I ride, the world closing off to just this light, everything outside of it pure blackness, save for the slitted stars above.
At one point, I hear a voice calling from the car window. We're pulling over. A small lake pools next to the highway, like a fist. The driving dancer — a thin man with a wide back — turns onto the rocks by the shore, leaving the car lights on. Spilling through the doors, the seven of them trip towards the black lake and, quickly, I'm with them, swimming.
Out on a crop of island, we pull ourselves onto the rock. Back on shore, the headlights stretch out towards us. Through the light, I can see a birthmark on the driving dancer's back, as he moves, in the shape of Pangaea. The car radio is still going. Its sounds reach us after the lights do, in the delay across the water. But we hear him. I just wanna be — the air hot around us, the eight of us, dancing — wherever you are.
And I think that he would be here, if he could. And I think that, in a sense, he is. Looking through the pines, switching on his recorder. Out on the dancefloor, I look up. The night is black. I can hear the moon.