I discovered Arthur Russell last week. Let me rephrase that, I discovered how songs should be made last week. The act of making good pop songs is surprisingly hard to realise. At least, I have found it to be so. Arguably the greatest pop songs ever made were written by Lennon and McCartney. One only has to sit back and listen to songs such as “Michelle”, “Around the world” or “Here There and Everywhere” to attain a realization that they have just sat through quality. But, Lennon and McCartney are known by everyone. Literally everyone.
I was walking down my street Rue de la Roquette last Sunday as John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” came to an end in my earphones and besides me two French kids sang “A Hard Day’s Night” in their youthful broken English as the skated by and it made me realise how huge these pop songs are. What came on after John Lennon was “I couldn’t say it to your face” by a certain Arthur Russell and it sat next to the previous song so comfortably that it took me a while to appreciate that the beauty I was listening to was unknown beauty. So why is it that last week was the first time Arthur Russell blew me away? I feel deprived of such musical glory and so for the next few paragraphs I will try and strip all possible cello pop song deprivation for the oblivious and reiterate Arthur Russell for those lucky enough to know his name and music.
I live with three Swedish girls and with that comes nights of fake champagne and conversations that transpire into both Swedish and English. What also comes with nights such as the aforementioned is a constant background soundtrack of wonderful music courtesy of the most musically savvy and aware of the Swedes; Anna. With her monthly subscription to the wonderful Swedish magazine of Sonic, I have discovered many new bands and it was with one of their compilations that Anna found Arthur Russell and subsequently put it onto my iPod. All ingredients were ready for me to stumble upon his voice and cello last week. Yes, that’s right, a cello and a voice equaling a pop song? But trust me. Let me reiterate it was not a normal pop song. But Arthur Russell’s life was anything but normal. Born and raised in Iowa, he lived a normal childhood until a severe case of acne took over his changing face. With this came paranoia and loneliness and the poetry of Lawrence Ferllingetti and the transcendental words of Timothy Leary. As soon as he could, Arthur Russell set of for the hippie culture of San Francisco with his cello on his back and met Hinduism and Allen Ginsberg. From there his name spread and so did is talent but he never really met the limelight of his fellow New York musicians who were fusing avant-garde and pop music such as Phillip Glass. His off the wall pop music crossed genres, from disco music, instrumental music, and simple folk songs, always with his cello resting on his legs.
Russell died of aids in the early 90s and left behind him a huge back catalogue of music as he never stopped working with his withering fingers on the bow and strings. And it is only now that his music is coming out and people of my generation (who I think the music has touched most, and example is in the voice and musical layout of dirty projectors who for me clearly wear the Arthur Russell influence on their sleeves) are hearing it. There is not much to say, only to share his music; his life was short but his music is extensive and thoughtful. These are the most enchanting pop songs you are likely to hear and they were all done by an unknown man in New York; by fusing avant-garde sentimentalities and pop awareness together with the deep resounding melodies of his voice and his cello.