THE RECORD SCRATCH November 3, 2023

Cover Songs: On Arthur Russell, Queer Obsession, and Failure

I. Arthur

In a memorable 1987 interview with David Toop, the avant-garde musician Arthur Russell appears in a newspaper hat, tongue-in-cheek, his face shadowed but with an air of resolve, the acne cratering his left cheek even more visible in the black-and-white photo. “The Weird One,” reads the headline, and he was, and I’m a weird one, too. Aren’t you?

Come with me; we’re in the most recent compilation of his work, Iowa Dream, a title that speaks to and romanticizes Russell’s past—his lonely childhood in the small Iowa city of Oskaloosa before he relocated to New York. In the title song, the dreamy speaker pedals through his hometown, singing, “I’m ridin’ my bike, I’m doin’ what I like / the mayor’s home, the city hall, the big red house / I see it see it all.” Arthur does what he likes, and he sees it all, even the parts he might want to escape (his dad was the mayor). He makes the past better in his music. I make the past better here. He died young. I won’t tell you why here.

I’ll only go in-depth on “Wonder Boy,” the first song on the 2019 album from Audika Records, but here are some of the other tracks, pointing toward the utopian and the quotidian, future, past, and present: “Everybody Everybody,” “You Did It Yourself,” “Barefoot in New York,” “Just Regular People,” “I Felt,” “I Kissed the Girl from Outer Space.” The verb tenses are past, present, or imperative, but they often gesture toward hope: “I Still Love you,” “I Wish I Had a Brother,” “Come to Life.” They assert optimism: the title of “I Felt” cuts off there instead of continuing into the actual words of the song, “I felt so bad / I never knew the friends I had.” On the last track, “In Love With You for the Last Time,” Arthur reiterates how it’s the last time, how he’ll never talk about his love again, his love who’s rejected him, but there’s a nostalgia to the tune, and, clearly, he’s singing about it. Clearly, I’m singing about it: I learned to play the song on piano. I recorded it for my senior recital at an even slower tempo than Arthur sings it, with more longing and less wryness, with more drama—no, too slow, too indulgent, not playing it cool.

Maybe if I write poems about him and cover his music, I’ll become him, I’ll love him, I’ll meet this man I’ve never met, I’ll meet this dead man in some future world.

Those are the lyrics. How to describe the sound? On Iowa Dream, we get the folksy, plaintive drift of Arthur’s voice, forthright yet quirky piano chords, an assemblage of Arthur’s friends on horns and vibraphone, a guitar cycling in high gear, a cacophonous meander through the streets of New York. The album notes frame it as Arthur’s failed pop hits, demos he made for famous record producers, but there’s a queer mix of earnestness and irony that, perhaps, made it too weird for mainstream. On the title track, Arthur intersperses sounds of dogs barking as if to evoke the small town he left. Arthur’s cello doubles up on the bass line as the electric guitar romps through Oskaloosa. Once, playing it on the speaker at my home in New York City, my dog perked up at the barks: listen, another member of her species. In some ways, that’s what Arthur’s become: a marker of a species of queer, of a certain musical sophistication. Listening to his music, we can kiss the girl from outer space. We, too, can walk on the moon.

So. Here’s the first verse of “Wonder Boy”:

I’m a wonder boy
I can’t do nothing

The river was free of all ice
Except where the water froze
The dogs went down and drank once or twice
Water still drips from their nose

It disappoints because that’s what life does. The melody subverts expectations: “I’m a wonder boy” outlines a minor chord, while “I can’t do nothing” traces a major one, somehow sounding more forlorn. The band, with sparkling vibraphone and buoyant drums, joins Arthur’s voice and piano for the verse, but there’s only ice where there’s ice; what’s a poor queer to do?

It’s an optimistic tautology. Arthur’s a glass-half-full kind of guy. If the river’s free of ice in some places, then the dogs can go down and drink the water. If Arthur can jam with his friends, David Van Tieghem can get credit for the song’s “vibes.” If his music survives, the “bits of paper nailed to a tree” after somebody tore down a poster can mean something—does it matter what?—“that’s all I found.”

Imagine the poster is for an Arthur Russell concert. (They still exist; along with my other merch, I have a black long-sleeve shirt with a poster of his Instrumentals performed at The Kitchen in New York on April 27, 1975, twenty-four years before I was born.) Imagine the poster is for an Arthur Russell concert, and let’s extend the thought experiment of the NPR critic who writes that “in part because his legacy was never fully in his own control,” the image of the torn poster “lives on as an inwardly critical fantasy, rather than the self-fulfilling prophecy it nearly became.” Bits of paper? Is that what would be left of Arthur if he was left to his own devices, Arthur the perfectionist who only managed to release one solo album in his lifetime, Arthur whose scores were scattered around his cramped East Village apartment? Is this image in the song an “inwardly critical fantasy” of such failure? Perhaps, but it’s also an acceptance of spontaneity, of randomness. Sometimes, that’s what happens. Sometimes, bits of paper are all that’s found. Sometimes, as in the song’s final verse:

The forest was planted in rows
At least I think they are
But rows are straight as everyone knows
These rows don't extend too far.

Arthur’s rows, because they’re queer, can never be straight. In “Wonder Boy,” he literally speaks to a queer sense of time. The song’s speaker removes himself from time to look at fragmentary moments in a pastoral setting, where he seems like a child dipping his toes into the snow by his boot, where the sky surreally disappears “behind a twig, / All the way down to the root.” Even the images seem random, improvised—a river, a poster, the snow, the sky, the forest. The refrain of the chorus, a spare two lines—“I’m a wonder boy / I can do nothing”—insists both on the inevitable disappointment of these fragments, of the present, and on the strange wonder of the failing, barely-scraping-by-on-rent artist, of these queer rows that “don’t extend too far”—but does it matter? Arthur, your rows extend to me. You’re in the future now.

You’re in the future now: the wondrous revival of Russell’s music in the twenty-first century speaks further to his queer futurity. I am far from the only one to be moved by him across time, as the burgeoning amount of writing on his music, often by young, queer writers, proves. Many critics, hearing the compilations of Russell’s music newly released in the 2000s, described it as “beyond its time.” His friend Ernie Brooks says in Matt Wolf’s documentary on Russell, Wild Combination, that “some of this stuff was just, it was out of its time, it was ahead of its time, it was behind his time, it just existed as itself.” And here I am, singing his music, trying to reach you in this essay, leaning too heavily on nostalgia.

The songs on Iowa Dream existed solely in archives for years, carefully preserved on cassette tapes by his longtime partner Tom Lee and Steve Knutson, a record producer who founded Audika Records to release Russell’s work. Audika has most recently shared live concerts from the 80s; like a true Russell fan, I download them from Bandcamp. The Deer in the Forest: March 2, 1985, Live at Roulette. Roulette: the TriBeCa loft art space that moved in 2000—one year after my birth—to Brooklyn, mere blocks from where my family lives. Sketches for World of Echo: June 25, 1984, Live at Ei, the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, run by Arthur’s friend Phill Niblock. “Sketches”—when Arthur himself, interviewed by Frank Owen in Melody Maker, called the 1986 release of World of Echo incomplete:

World Of Echo isn’t a complete version of echo, it’s a sketch version of echo. I want to do the full version which will have brass bands and orchestras playing outdoors in parks with those bandstands that project echo. I also want to have Casio keyboards on sail boats. Have you ever been on a sail boat? It’s so quiet, all you hear is wind and sea.

It’s incomplete. He’s incomplete. (These rows don’t extend too far.) He failed to achieve the fame he—at times—wanted. He failed to make it big with Paul Nelson at Mercury Records; he failed to make it big with John Hammond at Columbia Studios; he failed to make it big with Philip Glass in the minimalist avant-garde music scene; he failed to make it big with The Talking Heads, with whom he played on the B-side of “Psycho Killer.” But what does failure mean to him, to us? Can failure itself leave a legacy outside of his own time, outside of what some theorists call straight time? In his loops and echo and reverb, we can hear ourselves: the queer time of his music is about more than intention—it’s about reception. Every time—the hundreds of times—I put my headphones on and play World of Echo, hear Arthur’s voice wash over me—Anything you find goes back to the sea—it’s so quiet, Arthur, all I hear is me.

II. Reuben

  1. The person who told me about Arthur was a queer with painted nails from Oregon. We were visiting a college that they would attend, and I wouldn’t. I didn’t kiss them.
  2. I studied cello from second grade to twelfth grade but failed to fully devote myself to the instrument. Failure isn’t failure: I discovered more music, I began to sing in chorus, singing would become my only love. Arthur was another cello-toting queer; in fact, that’s what the Oregon fag had said: “If you’re gay and play cello, you should listen to Arthur Russell.” That line appeared in the third or fourth poem I wrote about Arthur.
  3. My elementary cello schoolteacher played with Arthur Russell. I know this from a photo in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biography, Hold Onto Your Dreams. They performed “Song I” and “Song II” by the minimalist composer Jon Gibson in a lower Manhattan church, repetitive, vaguely folksy pieces. If I want to be especially insufferable, I can say I played cello with someone who played cello with Arthur. I can call it fate.
  4. In my more capricious moments, I imagine breaking up with someone by sending them the video of me singing “In Love With You for the Last Time.”
  5. In one life, I am happy in my relationship. In another, I imagine myself husbanded to Arthur because there is no partner who will complete me. In one life, I am a wonder boy, perpetually adolescent, perpetually incomplete. In another, I am an anxious wreck. In one life, I live fluidly, like prose. In another, I am fragmented by line breaks.
  6. In the real world, I am studying library science and working in a library. I want to become a music librarian. I want to succeed in all the ways I am supposed to, knowing at some point, it will feel like failure.
  7. I listen to the live version of “Another Thought” from The Deer in the Forest. The cello enters in a mind-bending breath so typical of Arthur’s music. Then the keyboard saunters in, an electronic groove, the thought delayed, and finally the voice: “When your left foot takes your first step / A single thought takes up your whole time…”

But the I of the song can’t focus on a single thought: “I want a thing that I can’t see matters / Lacking form / Take my whole time.” The I of the song can’t, he can’t do nothing; I can’t write this essay as an essay because I want to write it as a poem. The music enlarges my brain, and I don’t know how to end it, or I don’t want to. The music takes up all my time. Be mine, be mine, be mine.

Reuben Gelley Newman (he/him) is a writer, musician, and librarian-in-training based in New York City. His chapbook Feedback Harmonies is forthcoming from Seven Kitchens Press in November 2023. His poems are available or forthcoming in SalamanderFairy Tale Review, The Journal, Alien MagazineNorthwest Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. A Co-editor at Couplet Poetry, you can find him on Instagram, Twitter, and BlueSky @joustingsnail.