The author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, Lawrence takes a comprehensive look at Russell's life and work, highlighting his multi-faceted approach to making music. The following piece, which combines sections of the book, details the making of the iconic dance track "Is It All Over My Face?"
Together, Arthur and D'Acquisto started to go to the Ninth Circle, a gay bar, to look at boys, and when he didn't know Arthur's whereabouts, D'Acquisto would look for him in David Mancuso's Loft, which had reopened on Prince Street and attracted all sorts of visitors, including Arthur. "Arthur was a human musical instrument," says Mancuso. "He was a very old spirit. He had been around the cosmic circle many times." The Loft host says he and Arthur only got to know each other slowly, in part because both of them were shy, and in part because D'Acquisto tended to dominate social situations.
On one occasion at the Loft, D'Acquisto told Arthur about a song he wanted to write about dancing that would include the lyric "Sound now, seek and you shall find." The next time they met at the Loft, Arthur turned to D'Acquisto and said, "We've written a song." Picking up his acoustic guitar, Arthur sang, "Caught me, caught me, love dancing / Sound now, seek and you will find / Caught me, caught me, love dancing / Sound now, seek and you will find / It's many friends catch the wave, catch the love wave / Feel it up, catch the wave, catch the love wave / Is it all over my face? You caught me love dancing / Is it all over my face? I'm in love dancin'." Arthur then played "Tell You (Today)," "No Hearts Free," and (in the words of D'Acquisto) "a couple of other amazing songs." "It was then that I realized the talent," says the DJ.
D'Acquisto barely paused before he went to see Mel Cheren at West End Records, played him "Kiss Me Again," and announced he wanted to go into the studio with Arthur. "I sang him 'Love Dancing,'" recalls the spinner. "I said, 'Give me the money and I'll make a record!' Mel gave us a couple of thousand dollars, and then we asked for more money. Eventually we got ten thousand. I was a great salesman!"
Working as co-producers, Arthur and D'Acquisto agreed that the first thing to get right was the rhythm section, and that D'Acquisto should track down the Ingram brothers, a family of Philadelphia musicians who had performed on numerous disco cuts, including Sandy Mercer's "Play with Me." When the Ingrams confirmed they would play, Arthur could hardly contain himself, and he became even more excited when he and D'Acquisto arranged to record the sessions at Blank Tapes, where the engineer Bob Blank had leapfrogged to the top of the disco pile following his work on Musique's debut album, Keep On Jumpin', which included the hit single "In the Bush." That song alone made Blank "a fucking genius," says Steven Hall, one of Arthur's closest musician-friends] and having studied the credits on Keep On Jumpin', Arthur approached the wiry-bodied, bushy-haired engineer and handed him one of his tapes, which Blank found "totally different," "very random" and "very arranged." A short while later, Arthur returned to the studio with the Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg—a close acquaintance—who announced to Blank, "Arthur Russell is an important musician!"
Ginsberg's outlook would go on to hover over the sessions, for although the combination of the Ingram brothers and Blank carried the clear promise of a tight, smooth R&B groove, Arthur planned to record a song that bubbled with the earthy, collective spontaneity of the dance floor—and that was far removed from the calculated sound that had come to dominate disco by the end of 1978. In order to realize this goal, Arthur decided to run the recording sessions as a live mix and knowingly fell back on the philosophy of Chögyam Trungpa and Ginsberg, who argued for the poetic value of unmediated inspiration and lived according the maxim "First thought best thought."
A boisterous Buddhist who embodied the "first thought best thought" approach, D'Acquisto must have contributed to its adoption given that Arthur had run the recording session for "Kiss Me Again"—his first disco release—in a more conventional manner. "My whole part was to encourage people to go with the first idea," he explains. "The first idea is the best because it's always the absolute freshest. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, the first take is the best take, because it's not studied." According to Hall, D'Acquisto resembled a "Brooklyn mafia thug" whose behavior was "punctuated by wild, queeny outbursts" and a "kind of autistic brilliance," and he adds that Arthur would have seen him as an example of the Crazy Wisdom school that was represented by Trungpa and taught by Ginsberg.
About the author
This article is an extract from Tim Lawrence's biographical study of Arthur Russell, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92. Lawrence charts the entirety of Russell's life, but focuses his attentions (as the subtitle suggests) on Russell's time in New York as he found his place in a variety of different musical milieus: The disco world, the experimental music world, the pop world and more. Lawrence covers them all, but he came to Russell through dance music. His former work includes the essential and exhaustive Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79. We're eager to read the follow-up, which will tackle the subsequent decade. When he isn't busy documenting dance music, he leads the Music Culture: Theory and Production degree at the University of East London.
Arthur's primary goal was to get the Ingram brothers to play in the right way, which included having the drummer, John Ingram, lag behind the beat—a sacrilegious strategy in the metronomic world of disco. The ensuing session followed the free-flowing contours of an open-ended jazz workout rather than the carefully structured maneuvers of a disco recording, and as the rhythm section settled down, Arthur picked up his cello, and holding the instrument horizontally, attacked its strings with a coconut shell in order to create a funky, percussive effect. Convinced he was recording the disco equivalent of the Beatles' White Album, D'Acquisto egged everybody on. "They just played and I said, 'Keep going, that sounds great!'" recalls the DJ-turned-producer, who had replaced the studio's regular monitors with two of Mancuso's prized Klipschorn loudspeakers in order to replicate the vibrant, live atmosphere that was so closely associated with the Loft. "For me it was always, 'Let's keep that and move on!'" Blank was instructed to just let the tape run.
With the foundations of "Love Dancing" (as "Is It All Over My Face?" was initially titled) and several other tracks laid down, Arthur and D'Acquisto began to prepare for the recording of the vocals, solos and percussion. Their aim, once again, was to recreate the energy of the downtown dance floor in the recording studio, and in order to do this they invited a group of partygoers from the Prince Street Loft to join them. "Arthur approached me at the Loft while I was playing my shekere [an African percussion instrument] and asked me to record with him the next day," recalls Rome Neal, an aspiring actor and director who worked for the parks department in Brooklyn. "He just loved the sound of the instrument."
Arthur Russell, Tom Lee and Steven Hall at a SHINY magazine party at the Doug Milford Gallery in the early 1980s.
Robert Green, Leon McElroy, and Melvina Woods, who loved to sing along to the music during Mancuso's parties, were invited in a similar way. "Arthur was very interested in amateur musicians around the disco scene," explains Donald Murk, a boyfriend who also worked as Arthur's personal manager during the late 1970s. "He felt that disco proceeded out of some matrix, that something was bubbling away there that resulted in this music, and it needed this background in order to stay vital. Without the milieu, the music wouldn't exist, and it would also be strengthened by connecting with it."
Held on another full moon, the ensuing session began with Hall singing lead vocals, after which he and Arthur doubled up on the chorus, because Arthur was unsure if his voice was rich enough on its own. The mood of focused tranquility continued until D'Acquisto burst into the studio with the partygoers (plus Mancuso) in the early hours of the morning. Overflowing into a small, miked-up lounge located next to the control booth, the new arrivals played percussion instruments and danced while Woods (directed by Arthur) sang in a dementedly off-kilter voice, and Green and McElroy (again directed by Arthur) delivered their lines in a husky, almost absent, monotone chant. "It was like a circus," remembers Blank, who says the session ran for the entire night. "It was really important to let these people, who were regulars at the party, perform with the music, because it was all felt."
By the end of the overdubs, Blank had accumulated an extraordinary fourteen reels of twenty-four-track tape, a quantity that would have led many engineers to conclude that the artist had wasted a whole lot of time and money. But although he was a brash young guy who thought he knew everything there was to know about running a studio, Blank says he learned a thing or two during the sessions. "Arthur showed me that anything is possible, that music is a continuous flow or process," he explains. "Music can evolve out of things. It's not a form that you fit things into." Having always looked to organize material and encourage the ear to go to the parts that were most important, Blank also became less obsessed with symmetry. "Arthur taught me that the off-chance thing going on in the left-hand corner can be as important as what's happening in the middle," he adds.
"Is It All Over My Face?" explored the themes of promiscuous longing and—Arthur's primary meaning, according to Hall—oral sex (in which the it of Is it left little to the imagination). "When Steve and Arthur worked together they were first and foremost a gay team," notes Hall. "They saw themselves as maverick pioneers smashing barriers in both production and the social norm." Only the dark and sinister "Walk the Night" by the leather-clad Skatt Brothers, a cruising anthem released by Casablanca Records in 1979, was remotely comparable in its theme, at least within the disco canon. "Arthur was in this whirlwind, and then trying to produce music that was equivalent to what he was going through," adds Hall. "His songs became very sexual, very aggressive, and very suggestive. Arthur was very much under Allen's influence to be open about his sexuality in his music, and dance was a venue for this expression."
At the same time, Arthur was careful to make sure his mischievous songs were rooted in innuendo so that straight listeners could dwell on other, safer meanings. As well as dance-floor promiscuity and oral sex, "Is It All Over My Face?" evoked the love train motion of the dance floor ("Is it all over my face? / I'm in love dancing… Its many friends catch the wave / Catch the love wave") and the Bible ("Sound now, seek and you will find"), while toying with downtown's penchant for surrealist cool ("And springing out the same / Send one now at seven"). These subtle insinuations and layers came easily to Arthur, a dexterous writer whose meanings were often difficult to pin down.
going on in the corner can be as important
as what's in the middle." -- Bob Blank
The twelve-inch single received strong reviews. Noting that disco appeared to be returning to the underground, and that dance music was becoming more diverse as it commingled with rock, R&B, reggae, and "everything danceable in between," Dance Music Report declared the record exemplified this "anything goes" philosophy, and predicted that it was "destined to be a club monster." On the strength of only a few test pressings, the magazine added, "The street buzz is incredible." Record World also gave "Is It All Over My Face?" a strong write-up, describing the release as "off the wall entirely.... Strange, and impossible to ignore," while Billboard highlighted the record's blending of "new wave rock" and "R&B feeling," and concluded, "Arthur Russell and Steve D'Aquisto [sic] show promise with this release."
The record didn't sell well, however, and was only played at the Loft when one of Mancuso's dancers requested it. But Larry Levan played the 12-inch more willingly, in part because he was faithful to Cheren (who was giving him advance copies of every West End release), and in part because the record's punk-meets-funk aesthetic worked well with other records he was playing (such as ESG's "Moody"). That turned out to be enough for Levan to decide to make a little remix of the record—just for himself, just to play at the Paradise Garage—and because Cheren didn't have enough money to commission the work, Levan grabbed the tapes from West End and walked into Opal Studios, which occupied the same floor as the label's offices at 254 West Fifty-fourth Street. "It was literally done in an hour or two," recalls David DePino, who was tight friends with the DJ. "When Larry heard Mel coming back, he took what he had done and left. Mel got mad because Larry took the tape without asking permission, but that was Larry."
I caught you love dancing
The title and lyrics of "Love Dancing"—it was later retitled "Is It All Over My Face?"—were penned after Donald Murk caught Arthur dancing with another man at the Buttermilk Bottom. "I lost track of Arthur and it was getting to closing time," remembers Murk. "I found Arthur dancing with some cute guy, and there was some communication between Arthur and the guy that made me angry, because I was serially monogamous at the time." Realizing that Arthur and the guy would have gone off together if he hadn't been around, Murk was disturbed. "I insisted we go home then and there. When I said that I knew what was going on he replied, 'I guess it was all over my face.'"
Distilled and with a late-night feel, the new remix opened with a soothing groove, introduced a dreamy synthesizer solo by Arthur after some thirty seconds, and then cut to an unhinged, zigzagging vocal from Woods at one minute and thirty seconds into the track. Following the introduction of additional layers of percussion and more keyboard work, the recording eased into a spacey equilibrium, after which Arthur's hovering, shy-angel vocal of "Caught me, caught me love dancing / Sound now, seek and you will find" was ushered in. "All I did was follow Larry's directions," comments Kevorkian, who says he turned down Levan's offer of a co-credit because Prelude was beginning to get touchy about his freelance activities. "It was really Larry's gig, but it was fun. We did it in like three or four hours, and a good edit can take days."
Released as the "Female Vocal" of "Is It All Over My Face?"—the original mix was dubbed the "Male Vocal" and placed on the B-side of the twelve-inch—Levan's remix was so different from the original it appeared as if the Garage DJ had performed an act of alchemy, having transformed a set of tracks (brusque male voices, clattering percussion, choppy cello, and slurring horns) into something that sounded entirely new (a tight, singular, groove-oriented trip-mix). In fact Levan had developed his version out of the previously unused "Part 2" section of the "Love Dancing" tapes that included a series of similar-sounding yet ultimately fresh takes and instrumental combinations, which meant his remix was in part a conceit. Arthur didn't object to the remix, although he reckoned his effort was superior. For their part reviewers preferred Levan's sleazy "Female" version to the brooding homoeroticism of the "Male" original. As Record World noted in a representative entry, "It is still quite off beat but somehow more charming."
In terms of New York club play, Levan's remix received a varied response. "It was just too raw and stripped down for [white] gay club appeal," says Robbie Leslie, one of the DJs at the newly opened Saint, a white gay private venue situated on the site of the old Fillmore East. But of course Levan played it several times a night at the Paradise Garage, and his version soon acquired cult status thanks to the fact that the venue's dancers were well practiced in the art of identifying with female divas and took special delight in imagining themselves as Woods. "It was just so sleazy," says Jim Feldman, a dance floor regular. "Everyone knew what the lyrics referred to." Having heard "Is It All Over My Face?" at the Garage, the influential WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker started to play the remix on his Monday morning show, and the record went on to become a bona fide New York hit.
Ned Sublette, one of Arthur's composer friends, realized as much when he heard the kids on Avenue B singing the song as they left school. Long after it drifted off the airwaves, the record continued to receive play at New York's black gay drag balls. "There are about six or seven hyper-grand-classic vogueing anthems and 'Is It All Over My Face?' is one of them," notes Daniel Wang, a DJ who started to hang out in the ball scene in the early 1990s and made a point of talking to older ballgoers about their history. "That's because the groove is so funky, and also because to be ovah ["o-ver"] is gay black slang for being over the top or over the limit, the best of the best of the best. If your face is ovah, you are gorgeous, fabulous." Wang adds: "The ball-goers would have been amazed to know Arthur was a white, East Village type."
Arthur, however, wasn't happy. The bass player Ernie Brooks, another collaborator, remembers Arthur "going crazy" when, after several weeks of the remix riding high on the Billboard dance chart, he received a letter from West End stating that the single had settled at a position just below the point where royalties would have had to be paid out. "It was a huge seller, and that was just bullshit," claims Brooks. Arthur responded by visiting New York's record stores in order to calculate how many copies of the remix had been sold, and in the autumn he informed his parents, "[I have] found what I think might be reasonable evidence that West End is lying about how many copies they've sold." Seeking concrete proof that he was owed money, Arthur traveled to New Jersey to visit the plant that had manufactured the record, only to be told he'd be beaten up if he didn't go away.
As poor as ever, Arthur took on his first menial job in the late summer of 1980 when he started to work as a courier in a messenger office. "Perhaps you will have seen by the time you get this that 'Loose Joints' has risen to no. 40 with a bullet," he wrote to his parents between assignments. "Once again, I find my mind's preoccupation with this more and more tiresome. But not as tiresome as waiting here." In another letter he added: "It's hard to admit I should have been a farmer. . .." In another letter he added, "I suppose you'll have to tell everybody I'm a messenger now and ruin my superstar image, but that's the way it is."
Tim Lawrence's Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92 is copyright Duke University Press 2009.