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A Ginsberg Collaboration Rediscovered - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


A Ginsberg Collaboration Rediscovered


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Arthur RussellCourtesy of The Allen Ginsberg Trust Arthur Russell began collaborating with Allen Ginsberg in the 1970s with Mr. Ginsberg often reading his poetry over Mr. Russell’s instrumentals. The new track was recorded in 1977.

In 2003, Audika Records founder Steve Knutson was digging through a Long Island City storage-facility when he struck tarnished, cassette-tape gold. The space held the archives of late East Village avant-garde composer Arthur Russell, and Knutson had found, albeit in horrible condition, “Ballad of the Lights,” a five-minute 1977 collaboration between Russell and the poet Allen Ginsberg.

Now, an individual record release will highlight the work of the two East Village cultural icons for the first time. The track, which will be released Oct. 19 was recorded in New York with Mr. Russell’s band The Flying Hearts, and Mr. Ginsberg on vocals. The track will be available on 10-inch vinyl via Japanese label Press Pop as well as digitally on iTunes via Audika Records.

Since 2003, Audika Records has been catalyst for a Russell revival of sorts, promoting a composer who was unknown beyond the New York City underground during his lifetime. Mr. Knutson, also general manager of Rough Trade Records in North America, founded Audika for the purpose of releasing Mr. Russell’s archives — which display the diversity of the 1970s and 80s downtown scene. Ranging from avant-disco and experimental pop, to ethereal cello compositions, to folk-tinged love songs, Russell collaborated with the Talking Heads, Studio 54 resident DJ Nicky Siano, and minimalist composer Philip Glass, among others.

Though never officially released until now, a snippet of “Ballad of the Lights” — distorted and faint, but powerful — appeared in Matt Wolf’s 2008 documentary “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.”

“The song is an intimate glimpse into Allen and Arthur’s fascinating creative exchange and personal bond,” Mr. Wolf said. “I had seen Allen call Arthur’s music ‘Buddhist Bubblegum’ in archival footage, and this song is the proof.” As described by Mr. Wolf, the song’s lyrics are a vivid, meditative narrative of a young man, “not unlike Arthur,” thinking deeply as he wanders along the West Side piers.

Mr. Knutson found the “cruddy quality” cassette-tape recording when he began compiling Mr. Russell’s work seven years ago. But four years ago, when assembling Russell collection “Love is Overtaking Me,” he found the tapes, “little five-inch reels” in “horrible condition.” He gave the track’s intro piece to Mr. Wolf for use in his documentary and set it aside for another time.

Ballad of the Lights coverThe track will be released Oct. 19.

“Which is what I do,” Mr. Knutson said. “I have other Arthur songs just sort of sitting around, waiting for the right time.” For “Ballad,” a request from the Allen Ginsberg Trust was indication enough that the time was right. Chris Taylor of New York band Grizzly Bear cleaned the audio, going back several times to digitally remove hums and noise.

The track on the single is “Ballad of the Lights.” Technically, it’s “Part Two” of “Ballad of the Lights;” the first part appeared on 2008 collection “Love is Overtaking Me.”

The single will be backed by “Pacific High Studios Mantra,” a 1971 Ginsberg-Russell collaboration previously released on the rare 1994 Ginsberg box set “Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs,” where Mr. Ginsberg chants a Tibetan mantra over Mr. Russell’s droning cello. (Press Pop also recently created this Allen Ginsberg toy figure.)

It was in San Francisco in 1971 where Mr. Ginsberg first met Mr. Russell, who playing with a Buddhist ensemble. Bonding over interests in Buddhism and poetry, the two began recording, with Mr. Ginsberg often reading his poetry over Mr. Russell’s instrumentals. In the mid-70s, Mr. Russell moved upstairs from Mr. Ginsberg at 437 East 12th Street; Mr. Ginsberg’s apartment was recently rented to a new tenant.

“Arthur was more of an illusive, eccentric, underground figure,” Mr. Knutson said. “But he was able to touch and be touched by many interesting and influential people on the Lower East Side.” Mr. Russell has been cited as an influence by contemporary New York bands such as Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, and Twin Sister. “That’s the satisfying thing now,” Mr. Knutson said. “There’s love in the air for this stuff.”