“I wanna see all my friends at once!” screams a vocalist on Arthur Russell’s “Go Bang”. It’s a line that might ultimately define the man – a musical genius of the glory days of disco who seemed to be loved, even pined after, by all who knew him. The feeling couldn’t have been any more apparent than at the emotional Electric Minds tribute to the man last night at Santos, at which the surviving members of Russell’s disco projects Loose Joints and Dinosaur L performed his tracks live.
Russell’s most important work, for us at least, came when he moved to NYC and became the coordinator for the Kitchen – a creative roosting place for composers and instrumentalists – where he would meet and eventually collaborate with an avant-garde elite (Phillip Glass and David Byrne included). He had spent his youth cavorting with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and John Cage (while studying at the Ali Akbar Khan School of music in San Francisco; later, the young composer grew to be a playboy in the underground disco scene, gaining notoriety for his unique take on the genre and his entourage of nightlife’s disco kings. Most fascinating was the fact that his peers put up with him at all. He often dropped projects mid-way (including an opera for Robert Wilson, later saved by Glass), respectfully declined to work with John Hammond (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin’s producer), and sometimes created so many versions of the same track that the end result was confused or went un-recorded. Not to mention his many romantic entanglements, some of which led to the poetry that served as his lyrics. In all, Russell was an innovative composer and musical virtuoso whose unique strengths and weaknesses combined to make him both adored and, for all intents and purposes, unknown.
When we arrived at Santos around 11pm, Flagrant Fowl’s Pocketknife was DJing to a remarkably empty room. An older man in loafers and a leather jacket spun across the bare dance floor while a chorus of “Come Back Home” played from above. Another gray-haired man did a move that resembled the Macarena on his tippy-toes. Soon the band took the stage and a man in a gray suit took the microphone; “My name is Stephen Hall and we’re going to play ‘Lucky Cloud.’ This is the Pocketknife remix”, he said in a shy monotone, referring to Russell’s lovelorn, mumbly anthem. The ten-minute rendition was as beautiful to watch as it was to hear, even if Hall turned his back on his audience for its entirety. “The band complains about that a lot,” he told us later. “When I feel the groove, I turn to the band to relate to them. It’s better that way.” Vocalist Joyce Bowden was equally as adamant about not looking at her fans, as she dazed off, gazing towards the ceiling (her voice is as sultry as it ever was). I thought I saw her tear up, but I could have been projecting.
Russell’s disco hit “Go Bang” was next, prefaced with some more painfully sparse commentary by Hall. “There are too many people here to name, we’ll remain a secret.” (A subtle jab at going unnoticed in their prime? Who knows.) Either way, the extended performance was a full body experience. Each crescendo of the chorus line, “Go Bang, go bang, go bang, go bang, go HA!”, was backed by Peter Gordan’s sax (and his son Max’s trumpet), an eerie sounding trombone wail, and every single member of the band screaming at the top of their lungs. They looked like people possessed (though we weren’t scared) – wild eyed, hands flailing in the air, vocal squeaks resembling some sort of monkey call. At one point a vocalist slapped himself mid yell. By the time we got to the Loose Joints classic “Tell You Today”, Bowden had lost her reserve – she jumped around the stage, hair in her face and smiling as she sang the words she had originally recorded in 1983.
There were a slew of DJs too – Danny Krivit, Brennan Green, Yam Who, and Dolan Bergin were all on the bill – but our night ended with the live show. While I certainly never knew or even revered Russell, I couldn’t help but feel like I was there to honor my friend–the aging performers were so ripe with passion and love for their songs that it literally moved me to tears. As far as Loose Joints, they live on as Arthur’s Landing – a band that plays Russell’s songs – and even have a record coming out this month. Meanwhile, Gordon’s own project, Love of Life Orchestra (which once featured Russell on cello), will put out a record on DFA in the coming month.