Listening at the End of the Twentieth Century

Reviewed:

Tim Lawrence, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
David Suisman, Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

I began reading these two elegantly composed, deftly researched studies around the same time, with absolutely no sense that they might speak to one another. But despite the vast difference of their subjects, they form fascinating bookends to the history of American music in the 20th century. While most histories of sound recording have centered on technological “evolution,” David Suisman’s Selling Sounds shows how the music industry taught Americans to understand recorded music as a commodity. Concerned largely with the first three decades of the 20th century, he traces the emergence of standardized marketing and distribution strategies — from the star system to the décor of record stores — that lasted long into the century, as well as the struggle of copyright law to keep up with new versions of the commodity form. Indeed, despite its focus on the early 20th century, the story Suisman is telling is that of the formation of the musical landscape in which most of today’s adults grew up, a realm which has only recently been upended by the digitalization of music’s consumption. His writing is theoretically astute, but it’s the deep texture with which he presents formative chapters in this story that makes this book so enjoyable to read, whether the episode is the story of the “pluggers” who promoted records in live performances before the emergence of celebrity branding, or the transformation engineered around the figure of Enrico Caruso, the first major recording star.

Recognizing that the consolidation of the music business “was never static or homogenous, and [that] the growing concentration of power in the culture industry did not mean that it was experienced by everyone in the same way,” Suisman also offers a fascinating chapter on the short-lived African-American label, Black Swan, founded by a Harry H. Pace, a protégé of W. E. B. Du Bois. Black Swan struggled to establish itself in the early 1920s against the deep-seated racism in the industry and the popular music it was producing, and went under after just four years of existence. But it launched the careers of several major black recording artists (Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Fletcher Henderson) and demonstrated the profits to be made from a largely black listening audience to the white-owned major labels. Thus Black Swan, too, played a formative role in a period that “ensured that the way that most people thought about music and integrated it into their lives would be forever changed.”

On the other side of the century, we have Arthur Russell, the composer and musician whose work and life are given deservedly serious, thoughtful treatment Tim Lawrence’s excellent biography. Russell’s career was remarkable for its indifference to the regimented qualities of the market Suisman’s book historicizes. Originally a shy kid from Iowa, Russell lived and worked on the borderlines of numerous categories, musical and otherwise: he straddled musical genres such as “serious” experimental music, disco, pop, and country, and he lived a personal life in which the categories straight and gay applied obliquely at best. Russell grew up playing cello, and he remained closest to that instrument throughout his journies across genre. Initially he planned on becoming a composer of “serious” new music. After a brief stay among Buddhists in San Francisco, he moved to New York, where, buoyed by early supporters like Allen Ginsberg, he began looking for ways to channel his dissatisfaction with the sterility of post-Cagean minimalism. But rather than trying simply to turn new music in another direction, Russell turned to the most vibrant aspects of other, popular genres. Russell was 23 when composer Rhys Chatham offered to let him program a season of events at the now-legendary downtown performance space, the Kitchen; by inviting Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers to play alongside experimentalists like Alvin Curran and Phill Niblock, Russell opened up a form of “sonic democracy” that would become a hugely generative relationship between rock and the avant-garde in the 1970s.

Of all his generic experimentation, Russell probably brought the most passion to his work in disco, that long-degraded motive force in 1970s gay and black nightlife culture. His breakout song in that style, un-coyly titled “Is It All Over My Face?”, filters a bass track reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” into the essence of funkiness. True to Russell’s weirdness, it is also rife with unpredictable shifts in meter, and at least in its original version, sounds like it’s being sung by three drunk dudes doing karaoke (it was later re-recorded with a female vocalist and re-mixed several times). Lawrence’s book does a wonderful job of portraying this highly playful, queer sort of weirdness with which Russell infused his work, a quality very different from modernist machismo. I think these qualities are best embodied on his album World of Echo (1986), made up of songs that are mostly Russell accompanied by his cello, cast through a healthy portion of analog delay. The songs jumble beautifully composed melodies into weirdly repetitive structures, given an added layer of pathos by Russell’s plain-spoken lyrics and his understated singing. His vocal style on this album is made up of elongated vowel sounds that often obscure the sense of the lyrics, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of early Michael Stipe. The pervasive echo makes it sound as though Russell is playing music with the accompaniment of his own ghost.

As Lawrence shows in great and sometimes heartrending detail, Russell’s unwillingness to work within categories made available by the music industry came with many costs, including relative obscurity and its attendant financial woes. The book’s interviews with former friends, lovers, and associates paint a picture of a genuine and generous soul who desperately wanted a significant following, but struggled with a crippling perfectionism that limited his output as a recording artist. Accordingly, he was unable to capitalize on a couple of opportunities (an audition with John Hammond, a failed collaboration with Robert Wilson) that might have landed him a major record deal. The story only gets worse, and more representative of this period in the New York arts scene, as Russell learns he is infected with HIV and after a couple of years of struggling to get another album out, dies of an AIDS related illness. But Lawrence’s writing is up to the task of telling this narrative in a way that makes the pathos of Russell’s life a deeply compelling window onto the “Downtown” music scene of the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, part of what makes the book so successful is Lawrence’s insight into Russell’s ongoing ambivalence toward this scene, especially its fascination with the machismo of grand modernist gestures.

Appeals to Americanness as a reference point are cheap, and Lawrence mercifully avoids them, but all things said and done it’s hard not to think about Russell in relation to a line of queer American artists, from Walt Whitman to Gertrude Stein to Andy Warhol, whose journey to the avant-garde has involved a sustained, ineluctable engagement with the popular.

A Russell renaissance of sorts began in 2004, with the release of two CDs of previously unreleased work; more of these, along with some reissues, have followed. Matt Wolf’s 2008 documentary film, Wild Combination is a great counterpart to this biography. In one of his many insightful observations in his epilogue, Lawrence points out that Russell’s diversity is better suited to the contemporary moment — the one following the decline of the institutional structures whose emergence David Suisman traces — with the easy availability of so many genres 24/7 over one’s home internet connection. One can’t help but wonder about the ways Russell would have found to be queer in this world as well.

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