Triple Threat: Three Distincly Different Memories Connected To Arthur Russell

by Andrew Patterson

The first time I heard Arthur Rusell was in 2008 when Rough Trade issued the posthumous compilation Love Is Overtaking Me. B, my close friend and musical confidant of many years, was listening to the rather soft folk-rock found on the first half of the record. I teased him (as is my way) and mistook it for something akin to James Taylor. Little did I realize, Russell’s diverse musical output and humble persona would have a profound affect on the way I understand artistic identity in the coming years. Here are three distinct instances to which Arthur Russell’s songs have served as the perfect accompaniment:

A Summer Evening On The Northwest Arm:

A popular spot in the summer for locals and tourists alike in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When the sun is shining in the daytime, sailboats from the various yatch clubs cut seams through the still water. Paddle boats dock and depart at regular intervals from the Waegwaltic Club, a private club and “place of history with the luxuries of today” in the South End of Halifax. . Walkers can be seen on the long paths winding around the Dingle Tower (seen above).

At night these spaces transform: the Waeg’s security lights are left on and their pool decks emptied. As a teenager, when the mood struck and the weather was right, we’d hop it’s fences and take short-lived midnight swims. The arm on the water turns to glass. The Dingle darkends and it’s walking paths become a typical spot for less socially acceptable socializing (which also began in High School, but carried on much later in life; even still).

And so it was a typical, quiet summer’s night on the arm: B and I relaxing in the warmth of the evening at the edges of the Dingle Park; legs dangling off a stone wall, looking down the North West Arm towards the city lights. The water emptied of it’s recreations, the park speckled with shadowy figures speaking quietly, crunching pebbles on the paths underfoot, and cars pulling in and out of the parking lot thirty feet inland.

After smoking a bit of pot, B insisted: “You’ve gotta hear this song.”

I obliged by half-grunting, half-humming, in a daze.

Out of a decidedly less than flattering speaker, this song creeps into my ears:

Something about the slight percussion in the background, the warped vocals and the expanse of urban quietude made it sound as if the song were coming from across the water (or maybe beaming in from outer space). It prompted me to say: “Wait, but… listen.. is it?…” really trying to clamp my brain around the bizarre classic.

An Early Afternoon Outside Saint John, New Brunswick:

Late in August, my band headed out on a brief tour of the Maritimes with the short-lived, Sebadoh-steeped Bloodsport. We had booked two shows in one night: the first, a bar show in Saint John, New Brunswick and the second at a friends house/barn outside of Saint John. We opted to open the night at the bar so we could make it to the second show on time. We played at 10pm to a bar of about ten people: the bartenders, my extended family ( aunts, uncles, a few cousins, who were mostly horrified or confused), our singer’s parents, and a man named Jordan (who would later to be known as our “Jordanager”). After the set, we packed up as fast as we could, chatted with the families briefly, wished farewell to our touring mates and began loading our gear back into our truck.

Outside the bar, we were approached by Jordan, a very fabulous and beautiful man, who was really excited about our band. We were flattered, but eager to leave. We explained to him that we had another show to play and had to be on our way. As it turned out, Jordan had traveled from Montreal to see his parents and was looking for a ride to the same neck of the woods the following day. He had grown up near where our show was and offered to tag along, buy us coffees and pitch on gas. After deciding that such a sparkling individual couldn’t be all that harmful, we agreed to take him along with us; not really knowing what to expect when we got there.

We drove out through the city, where the promised caffeine was purchased and consumed. We refueled the truck and disappeared down an off-ramp. We followed a series of very dark back roads at a hectic pace (concerned we’d miss our opportunity to play). Weaving chaotically through the country, Jordan asked us all sorts of surprisingly probing questions and repeatedly insisted that myself and C, our bass player, should hitch our wagon to the star power that was our singer, P.

We pulled up to the only house I recall seeing for a good half an hour. The scene was mostly black and dark green, but at the sides of the houses lighters were being flicked, people were ambling down the long driveway in our headlights and chair circles were populated in the expansive backyard. We met the owner, an old friend of P’s, and he immediately directed us to a cooler of drinks on the back deck.

“Help yourselves” he said, emphatically.

That night flew by: we got set up, helped ourselves, played a raucous set in a jam packed living room, wandered down to the river by flashlight in the wee hours, talked with strangers, discovered uneaten hamburgers in the kitchen and devoured them, and finally passed out on the floor (with pillows generously provided).

Throughout the night, Jordan likened the scene at the barn to a beer commercial. I had to agree. In the morning, his parents arrived to pick him up. In parting, he told us that the party was “the most heterosexual thing he’d ever experienced” and that we had a place to play and sleep should we ever find ourselves in Montreal.

We loaded back into the truck with tongues stuck to the roof of our mouths, the beaming country sun on our backs and a few extra stragglers in the backseat; we headed towards a fry truck ten minutes down the road for breakfast. When I turned my iPod on, Arthur Russell’s “Nobody Wants A Lonely Heart” was cued up (after some forgotten listening session from the night before, no doubt):

Heading towards fried food with strangers in my backseat, looking out into the New Brunswick countryside and hearing this song was one of those indulgent moments that make you feel accomplished or proud about the previous night’s indulgences.

The Pee Wee Theatre Party In Edmonton, Alberta:

I was attending a show at the Wunderbar in Edmonton with my sister, who I was staying with at the time. She decided to leave the show and head to a house party. I wanted to catch the next set, so I decided to stay by myself. She gave me the address which, thanks to Edmonton’s fabulous number system, was all I needed to find my way to this party in a relatively unfamiliar city. It was blisteringly cold that night, and once the show was done, I zipped up my parka and headed out in search of the party.

Some thespians had just taken over a house in a low-key, residential neighborhood. The story, as I recall it, was that it was the home of a wealthy doctor who wasn’t using it and offered it out to the theatre community for a reasonable rent. The folks who secured the spot decided to throw a party to celebrate the newly minted community space.

I wondered up a snow-laden street that looked like all the rest. With minimal coordinates scrawled on a piece of paper in my pocket, I followed the vague thump of dance music in the distance. When I found the house, people were drunkenly spilling out onto the deck, couples left arm in arm. They passed me as the walkway turned to sidewalk and giggled. Surely, this was the place.

Stepping inside, it was total bedlam; a bedlam familiar to those who’ve been at an open house party in the late hours (though it’s always surprisingly to arrive at that hour in media res). There is no natural progression you can imagine, just pure unbridled celebration: shirtless guys with silver hair and gold-dusted torsos, women skulking on the stairwell with hair in their face, cheers and syncopated claps emitting from the kitchen, a chaotic mass of shoes being trampled upon in the front hall, people falling over.  I knew no one there, save for my sister, who was no where to be found.

I wondered the ecstasy of the party, seeing incredible displays of affection, occasionally locking eyes with strangers. There were several TVs set up around the house playing episodes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse on loop. The vibrant madness of the playhouse reflected very much the scene around me: strangers turned and smiled at me in slow motion, streamers hung from the roof, lamps were knocked to the ground, cigarettes were left unattended in ashtrays. At the very back of the house was a raging dance party.

Approaching, I stood briefly at the edges of the darkened dancing room. More shirtless, gold-dusted boys appeared. A few drag queens were grinding near the DJ table. At the center, from the roof hung what looked like a dentist’s light fixture that was being shone all different directions by a myriad of hands. I spotted my sister with a few of her friends in the far corner. Seamlessly, the DJ mixed in the opening of ‘Go Bang’ by Dinosaur L (an alias of Arthur Russell):

I began tapping my fingers against the door frame and, by the time I heard the understated “I wanna see all my friends at once”, I was lost to the party.

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