Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tom Lee Interview

Continuing to post interviews relevant to the Arthur Russell article that ran last week at the Voice, coinciding with a series of tribute concerts. At the Friday night concert, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Tom Lee, Arthur's longtime live-in boyfriend and the man who bears the herculean task of keeping Arthur's legacy extant in the physical world. I sent him a set of questions and received this as his reply:

I was very excited when Matt wrote to me about making a film about Arthur. I remember that I was away for the summer and was very enthusiastic about meeting with him when I returned that September. His letter was direct and a little formal…very respectful, as is Matt’s demeanor. When we met he had a variety of ideas that really interested me because he wanted to create something that was not a ‘typical’ looking documentary. I right away thought that it will be interesting for a person of a different generation, who was not a witness of Arthur’s times, to make this film. I also was aware that there was not very much footage of Arthur performing and I remember being a little concerned that Matt might be discouraged when he discovered that. To his great credit he not only used what I knew to be available but on his own and working along with Steve Knutson from Audika Records he was able to unearth some archival footage of Arthur performing.

When Point Music came forward right after Arthur died and catalogued and put together “Another Thought” I was very pleased that this would be a tribute to Arthur’s work. It showcased a good variety of his music and yet I was still at that time holding out hope that a bigger release would still follow. Arthur was always in touch with Geoff Travis at Rough Trade and I think he and I thought that his strongest songs would be released by Rough Trade. He liked Geoff a great deal and Geoff was always supportive…emotionally and financially. Even though it didn’t happen during his life I was still sure that it would after he died. I was a little disappointed that “Another Thought” did not create any sparks of interest.

Of course it is a little bittersweet that it took until many years until after Arthur died for his music to appeal to so many people. People have somewhat mythologized Arthur’s methods and practices…never being quite satisfied with a song, creating many versions of the same song, adding and subtracting a variety of drums, keyboards, horns, etc., but at the same time there were a few very profound factors involved. On one hand the musicians and studios that he worked with would often change…people got steadier gigs, moved on and out of the city, began to work with other people; he would present his music to many different people in the music business, hoping to hear an encouraging word back from them but of course one can’t control that; and of equal or greater importance is that as he kept to practicing at Westbeth, listening to endless takes on his Walkman, scheduling recording sessions on the days and nights of the full moon, arranging gigs at Experimental Intermedia Foundation, The Alternative Museum, La Mama, etc.; he was concurrently attending to an amazing amount of health issues.

AIDS was so complex at that time that even as he followed various regimens of treatments he would often be fighting malaise and fatigue and at the same time be afflicted with any number of opportunistic illnesses that hiv and the medicines might produce. He was heroically moving forward in spite of all of this. All of this work does not automatically lead to acceptance and success and that certainly did not seem to be what Arthur was counting on. I almost think he was courting that idea so that he might get some more money to pore into more studio time to keep going on with his next idea!

After Arthur died it was very hard for me not to continually play various songs to my friends and family. It got so that I could just imagine hearing “Wild Combination/That’s Us” on the radio, where I still feel that it should be heard. I was so wrapped up in every nuance of his music. I was revisiting and re-discovering his music in an almost fanatical way. I have dozens of favorite songs and I tease out my own meanings for slight phrases in certain songs….as I remember him calling me at work to ask when I would be home, or hopping on my bike after a breakfast together in the East Village. I can so clearly remember how much fun he had with the song, “Hop On Down To Petland”. As with many of his songs he wanted it to appeal to young kids and that is often what he strove for with certain songs. I also fell in love with the tender songs of “World Of Echo” after he died. I would just get carried away listening to all the various versions on tape of that record…and the songs that were left off the record, a few of which Steve Knutson included on the re-issue of that album on Audika. It is always a part of my life and there isn’t any way to put it aside.

The idea of “moving on” has taken on a certain meaning because I have been a caretaker of Arthur’s legacy and as people became interested they would be referred to me by others. This also would lead them to the musicians that Arthur played with over the years. (I would be happy to make a list but to save some time here I will wait until you say you need some names of those folks.) In the years that followed the release of “Another Thought” people would periodically contact me about releasing some of Arthur’s music. I would make them compilation tapes of my favorites but they mostly wanted to re-release the dance tracks to test the waters before they would commit to previously unreleased music.

Happily, Steve Knutson contacted me and he was the first person willing to take a chance on releasing some of Arthur’s music that was not known. I was long waiting for someone to take a chance and let people hear the music I was so in love with. The record, Calling Out Of Context, presents some of Arthur’s great songs. (A personal favorite of mine is “Platform On The Ocean”, which I did not think anyone would release. It is so hypnotic to me and as Arthur was creating it he would give me ninety minute tapes of that song to listen to on my Walkman and then as I returned to our apartment we would discuss it and together make edits of it. It was the one song of his that I actually spliced and taped versions of!) Steve has been a fantastic steward and caretaker of Arthur’s music. Arthur’s family and I are so grateful for all that he has done.

The reason that I am so close to Arthur’s family, his parents, Chuck and Emily Russell, and his sisters, Julie and Kate, is that they are such amazing people. Under different circumstances we might have lost contact over the years, but I just love them like my own family. I grew to know Kate and Julie quite well when Arthur was sick and they would visit a few times over his last few years. With his parents calls from Iowa we gradually got to know each other and their support and concerns were so heartfelt. It was such a worrisome time that often it was about comforting, reassuring, informing and consoling one another. Along the way we discovered common interests and we continue to have strong friendships with each other. We have helped each other try to understand who Arthur was during his time on this earth and how our time with him has impacted our lives. We also move on and share a lot of time together during the summer in Maine.

In terms of your last question, Arthur looking for a hit, perhaps we could talk that out a bit. I think that it is complicated. He did not purposely go from project to project because one failed to produce a ‘hit’. He stayed with bands and groups for awhile….The Flying Hearts, The Sailboats, The Necessaries, but would move on as things did not catch on. He would at the same time keep working the ‘dance’ scene and there it was a constant education for him. What are the new ‘beats’, who are the hottest re-mixers, how did a group achieve that ‘sound’ on their record? And as he was considering all that he was trying to think up a new catchphrase to build a song around, such as: “new shoes on my feet…I want to tell you today,” or “wax the van,” or “let’s go swimming!” I’ve called theses songs his ‘call to action’ songs. As people responded to these entreaties Arthur might have just had a sly smile on his face and thought, “hmmm, now what should I do for my next trick?”