Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973–92
University of East London (UK)
Hold on to Your Dreams, on deceased New York musician Arthur Russell, is Tim Lawrence's second book and follows 2003's Love Saves the Day (LSTD). Whereas the social and musical backgrounds of both are broadly similar authorial purpose and the resulting tone are markedly different. Whereas the earlier book tells a straightforward history of disco, though varying from other accounts as Lawrence argues that Loft party supremo David Mancuso's role remained pivotal from first to last, Hold on to Your Dreams is primarily an unswervingly intimate portrait of an unclassifiable, restless musician who "skipped between sounds and scenes with the nonchalant ease of a kid playing hopscotch" (2).
In the Preface, Lawrence is clear about his endeavour: "Along with the topography of Russell's choices, the testimonies of Russell's family, friends and collaborators have heavily shaped this book" (xix). He explains that, if alive, Russell might have hindered the biography as the cellist, singer, songwriter and quixotic producer was "often cryptic and cagey when interviewed" (ibid.). Intrigued when a leading light in the 70s disco scene told him that Russell's "mutant disco" tracks like "Go Bang!" and "It's All Over My Face" are quite simply sublime, and that the quietly-spoken, obstinate man from the US Midwest was an unsung era from the golden days of downtown, Lawrence set out to "combine the burrowing mentality of the archaeologist with the presentational outlook of the museum curator and the emotional sensitivity of a diarist" (xx).
The word definitive is not strong enough for Lawrence's deep excavation of Russell's life. With clearly no stone unturned, the text might have been plodding and over-worthy. But Lawrence repeats the trick of LSTD: whenever he senses that a gossipy tale, music description or cultural analysis may start to tire, he shifts the beam to something else, confident enough to begin a new section sometimes unconnected from the one before.
The chapters in Hold on to Your Dreams tend to start with a contextualising section such as Chapter Four's "Intensities", on how the experimental music scene took shape in downtown spaces like The Kitchen. Chapter Five's "Variations" explores the time when disco had passed its creative and progressive peak. Lawrence suggests that performance spaces integrated "all kinds of avant manifestations" (179) while generic distinctions blurred. This was Russell's time, a period when pop, new wave, experimental, jazz, funk and mutant disco rubbed shoulders, if not always easily or amicably.
Russell epitomised downtown's wildly creative aesthetic in the way he always worked across genres and was quintessentially community-minded. But, for Lawrence, Russell's gift reached beyond this time period too. He pre-figured the post modern, multi-mix where music would be re-invented in an infinite number of ways. However, early on Lawrence identifies this Renaissance man's Achilles heel (5).
(He) spread himself across too many scenes and worked with too many musicians to build up a major reputation in a single genre, yet his lack of commercial success cannot be attributed solely to the music industry's distrust of eclecticism. Russell's perfectionism was peppered with obstinacy—;on one occasion he spent the whole day fine-tuning a kick drum while his co-musicians waited to begin.
However, Lawrence goes on to argue consistently and persuasively that "there was something beautiful about Russell's reluctance to decide on a final mix of many of his works" (ibid.). In a moving passage, Lawrence explains how, towards the end, and to the immense sadness of his many friends, Russell was just too sick to comment on how his multitude of mixes could be better dissected and reconstructed.
There are many light hearted and frankly amusing stories on Russellian disapproval. He complained loudly to all about heavyweight dance music producers Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian's remixes—;which garnered significant scene-approval. Russell had fulminated that the versions of "Go Bang!", played to thousands of ecstatic gay dancers in clubs The Saint and Paradise Garage, were too obvious and under-subtle, preferring his own complex, loopy takes, which strung a dizzying array of sonic ideas together as if out to confuse the dance floor. And when remix genius Walter Gibbons worked with Russell in re-designing the beautiful "Let's Go Swimming", an observer later offered Lawrence an insight into the all-night studio sessions (262).
There were incredible scenes of screaming and fights... Arthur was shrieking and tearing his hair out, raging around the studio like a psychotic bat, while Walter was calmly snipping and pasting the tape as if it was macramé. Arthur would say, 'You're ruining my fucking vision!' And Walter would reply, 'Arthur, Arthur, calm down!' (ibid.)
If Russell comes across as an obstinate perfectionist—;and just a little "queeny"—;then the reader is adroitly pulled into agreeing that moves to commercialise his, and downtown's, singularly creative flow of music were (sort of) unethical although clearly successful and worthwhile in cases like Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson. As Lawrence reminds, Russell's view was that "music's will to freedom was hard to contain, and each recording was capable of being re-born—;played differently and experienced differently—;in a unquantifiable range of settings" (190).
Lawrence remains an unashamed fan and a sensitive portrayer throughout but Hold on to Your Dreams exemplifies the same kind of minor weaknesses apparent in LSTD. Sometimes his urgency at getting inside Russell's head, to better understand motivation, psychology, or just to aid a smoother chronological flow, comes over as a little strained. After Lawrence declares that Russell "embodied radical change" (189), he feels the need to add, "it's possible that Arthur struggled to grasp the full range of his activity" (ibid.). And throughout, Lawrence feels irresistibly drawn to lists, the longer the better, where many authors consider such blocks of text prettier when shunted to a footnote, or endnote.
Small misgivings aside, Hold on to Your Dreams is an exquisitely moving, comprehensive and impressive work of human forensics which helps unlock the numerous edges, seams, schisms and passions of the 1970s and 1980s downtown eras. Rarely for works on non-art music—;rather, popular music—;cultures, it exalts in a uniquely detailed, satisfying and unswerving portrait of someone who, Lawrence convinces, was a great yet largely unsung musician, composer and arranger. In addition, and with a keen eye on cultural milieu interchanges, Lawrence identifies a profound effect of the Russell aesthetic.
Whenever he could, Russell... established the framework for an egalitarian, cooperative practice. He created music within a range of collaborative networks, and emphasized the group over his own individual presence (345).
In what must have been a trying test, Lawrence doesn't shirk the final, tragic moment in April 1992 when Russell died from AIDS-related complications, obscure, angry and frustrated, although surrounded by loved ones. He ends with a reflection from Russell's long term partner, Tom Lee, who tells Lawrence that "he should have realized the end was coming when Arthur stopped listening to his (Sony) Walkman, comparing Side A and Side B of the same recording" (333).
In a postscript, Lawrence tells how, since 2004, much of Russell's best work has been released, some even re-mixed, and a little of the many hours of dusty studio tape given the light of day for the first time. Lawrence leaves us with the firm impression that his subject's "ethic of pluralistic openness . . . has been embraced" (354).