Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992

February 25, 2010

Despite numerous efforts by scholars over recent years to reassess approaches to the popular music canon, it would seem that most publishing houses (university presses included) have felt increasingly nervous about stepping beyond tried and tested subjects with proven markets.

Full marks to Duke University Press, then, for this welcome addition to the pop music pantheon. Not only is it not another foray along well-trodden routes (do we really need more books about the Beatles and Bob Dylan?), but it's also an exemplary demonstration of exactly what a biography should do.

In his rigorously researched investigation of musician and composer Arthur Russell, cultural theory lecturer Tim Lawrence effortlessly explores his subject and in so doing shines fresh light on the darkened recesses of both New York's downtown music scene and the popular cultural landscape of Russell's times. And despite Russell's relative obscurity, the book leaves you in no doubt as to how influential this maverick music figure has been.

Russell emerged as an avant-garde musician whose work combined minimalism with an early fascination with North Indian music. His schooling at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music provided him with a link with serialist composers (and previous conservatory students) Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez; however, his work held little sway with the serialist composers who surrounded him. Instead, he found a more fruitful relationship with beat poet Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry recitals Russell would often accompany as a solo cellist or as a member of an impromptu band.

Following a move to New York in the early 1970s, Russell became director of The Kitchen, a legendary arts venue that offered space to emerging music talent. From here, he was able to find an outlet for his own pioneering music path, one that would prove very influential on the emerging No Wave scene. In the years that followed, Russell would apply his avant-garde approach to genres such as disco, new wave and even folk. His forays into club-based music would sow the seeds of the nascent house and garage sounds; indeed, his early work with famed Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan proved to be a defining element in the emergence of the sound associated with that club.

Until his death from Aids-related illness in 1992, Russell's career appeared to be defined by his position on the fringes. Despite being central to the same minimalist avant-garde movement that would see the emergence of Laurie Anderson and Rhys Chatham, his name was all too often omitted from the telling. Similarly, his centrality to the early 1980s New York disco sound was also largely ignored in favour of producers such as Levan and Walter Gibbons. Yet Russell seemed to revel in the darkness.

It's in this darkness that Lawrence, too, is at his best. Rather than go for the obvious stories, he has opened up the cracks between those tales and revealed rarely told versions of events - versions that challenge many of popular music culture's dearly held myths. For example, he documents the development of Gibbons' DJ turntable techniques, which employed the mixing of two records. This technological and aesthetic development has largely been attributed to hip hop DJ Kool Herc. However, Lawrence reveals a fracture in that accepted myth, placing Gibbons at the forefront.

Built from an obsessively large collection of interviews and told with a combination of intuition and authority, Lawrence (whose previous book, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Culture 1970-1979, was equally impressive) opens up a history of music that is too often ignored in the rush for popularity; music from the fringes that gives space for the mainstream to emerge. This excellent biography will not only lead you to want to discover Russell's music for yourself, but will also greatly enrich your knowledge of this overlooked period.

Neither a Beatle nor a Dylan, perhaps, but Russell was one of pop's more beguiling talents. This book, then, is a must if you're interested in untold tales rather than yet another wander through familiar territory.

Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992

By Tim Lawrence. Duke University Press. 448pp, £62.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780822344667 and 4858. Published 19 November 2009

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