Hold On to Your Dreams

Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992

Hold On to Your Dreams

Book Pages: 448 Illustrations: 85 illustrations Published: October 2009

Author: Tim Lawrence

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, Music > Popular Music

Hold On to Your Dreams is the first biography of the musician and composer Arthur Russell, one of the most important but least known contributors to New York's downtown music scene during the 1970s and 1980s. With the exception of a few dance recordings, including "Is It All Over My Face?" and "Go Bang! #5", Russell's pioneering music was largely forgotten until 2004, when the posthumous release of two albums brought new attention to the artist. This revival of interest gained momentum with the issue of additional albums and the documentary film Wild Combination. Based on interviews with more than seventy of his collaborators, family members, and friends, Hold On to Your Dreams provides vital new information about this singular, eccentric musician and his role in the boundary-breaking downtown music scene.

Tim Lawrence traces Russell's odyssey from his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, to countercultural San Francisco, and eventually to New York, where he lived from 1973 until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1992. Resisting definition while dreaming of commercial success, Russell wrote and performed new wave and disco as well as quirky rock, twisted folk, voice-cello dub, and hip-hop-inflected pop. “He was way ahead of other people in understanding that the walls between concert music and popular music and avant-garde music were illusory,” comments the composer Philip Glass. "He lived in a world in which those walls weren't there." Lawrence follows Russell across musical genres and through such vital downtown music spaces as the Kitchen, the Loft, the Gallery, the Paradise Garage, and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Along the way, he captures Russell's openness to sound, his commitment to collaboration, and his uncompromising idealism.


Hold on to Your Dreams sets a new standard for musical biography by virtue of its research methodology and focus on seemingly minor figures. Lawrence makes a strong case for the importance of Russell’s music to our understanding of late-twentieth-century cultural life and, perhaps most importantly, shows the value of historical biography written with an emphasis on musical mediation and social networks.” — Ryan Dohoney, Journal of the Society for American Music

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.” — Charles de Ledesma, Dancecult

“[A] deservedly serious, thoughtful treatment . . . . [An] excellent biography. . . . Lawrence's writing is up to the task of telling this narrative in a way that makes the pathos of Russell's life a deeply compelling window onto the ‘Downtown’ music scene of the 1980s and 90s. Indeed, part of what makes the book so successful is Lawrence's insight into Russell's ongoing ambivalence toward this scene, especially its fascination with the machismo of grand modernist gestures.” — Gustavus Staler, Social Text

“[R]espectful, admirably-researched biography. . .” — Ian Harrison, Mojo

“The most fascinating recount of the unfairly condemned-to-obscurity experimental musician. . . . Russell’s unprecedented genre-merging deserves this kind of exploration, and Lawrence approaches with a delicacy and direct intimacy reminiscent of the music itself.” — Oxford American

“Depicting with flair the short creative life of a near-forgotten musical visionary, this reverent study of an irreverent man is a sparkling fusion of serious scholarship, insightful analysis and colorful oral history.” — Richard Labonte, Q Syndicate

“I don’t have enough good things to say about Tim Lawrence's biography, which is thoroughly researched, well told, and which successfully pushes the envelope of what biographies can accomplish. One of the most impressive things that Lawrence does throughout Hold On To Your Dreams, is not only provide a sensitive and detailed rendering of Russell's life, but also the story of large and complex cultural confluences channeled by a single person.” — Thom Donovan, Fanzine

“It’s a mark of the success of Lawrence’s book that even though it sheds new light on Russell’s life – filling in key details about the time he spent at a San Franciscan Buddhist monastery, his occasional sessions with Bob Dylan and his close friendship with Allen Ginsberg for example – it never destroys the alluring enigma that is key to the magic of the man.” — Stuart Aitken, Flux Magazine

“Lawrence . . . is a wonderful writer, able to ruminate on music in a way that is deeply knowledgeable without ever losing the groove and the beat.” — John McLeod, Flagpole

“Lawrence does an admirable job of explicating the scope of Russell’s activities and achievements and he does what a good biographer ought: marshals the facts, but allows the story to be told largely through the words of his subject’s family, friends, lovers and collaborators. . . . Lawrence is even better on Russell’s personal life, which, given his penchant for collaboration, often overlapped with his artistic life.” — Tim Howard, The Enthusiast

“Lawrence’s book is obsessively researched . . . [and] his overriding thesis—that Russell’s boundary crossing was as important as the work he made—is sound, paying tribute to a man who was a connector as well as a spark.” — Michaelangelo Matos, Time Out New York

“Lawrence's writing style mirrors Russell's musical approach, fusing divergent disciplines and catering to different audiences in a single work. Serious scholars and academics will be pleased with the depth of research, and fans will enjoy the illustrations and anecdotes of Russell's life.” — Library Journal

“Russell deserves critical reassessment because his music is finally reaching wider audiences through new recordings and reissues. . . . [Lawrence’s] portrayal of Russell is nuanced and often moving. The epilogue is particularly valuable, because in it Lawrence summarizes the revival of Russell’s music while critiquing the very cultural trends and technological innovations that have made it possible. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-and upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, general readers.” — S. C. Pelkey, Choice

“Russell inhabited a world of his own, fascinatingly detailed in Lawrence’s book, which is, it has to be said, one of the best biographies I’ve ever encountered.” — Kris Needs, Shindig! Magazine

“Thanks to Lawrence's scrupulous efforts as interviewer and historian and critic, Dreams is the most fully realized portrait of Russell-the-man that fans have yet seen. . . . Lawrence's book offers a Russell with multiple dimensions: dreamy and obsessed, yes, but also venal, petty, caring, wounded, self-doubting, generous, and funny. . . . Finishing Hold On to Your Dreams, it's hard not to fall a little in love with the fallible human who produced this otherworldly sound, and to lament his early passing all the harder.” — Jess Harvell, Baltimore City Paper

“Through meticulous attention to detail and chronology, Tim Lawrence's book manages to piece together memories, letters, and records to give a very real sense of who Arthur Russell was; while placing him firmly in the times and places he lived. . . . This book is a vital document of the man and the times he lived in. It is nothing less than justice being done.” — Bernard Keenan, Quietus

“Tim Lawrence is ideally suited to tell Arthur Russell’s story. He knows the pople, music and places that comprised the creative world o lower Manhattan in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He has a good eye for details, his prose is blessedly free of trendy theoretical jargon, and the book is solidly researched. . . . Even for those previously unfamiliar with Russell’s music Hold On to Your Dreams will provide a fascinating look at the unique downtown cultural environment at that time. . . . Hold On to Your Dreams is certainly a worth addition to the legacy of this authentic, uncompromising and important sound experimentalist.” — Alan Waters, Signal to Noise

“Tim Lawrence’s biography, the first devoted to [Russell], significantly enhances our understanding of the hit-and-miss but endlessly productive and varied music scene in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s—and introduces us to a musician of genuine substance and partially realized promise as well. . . . Lawrence has formidable skills as a biographer, possessing not only the requisite fondness for his subject but a miraculous ability to track down obscure figures who dropped out of the music scene decades ago. . . . . .” — Stephen Luttmann, Notes

“Undoubted genius, small town boy, bright lights big city, amazing music! It's all here and Lawrence tells a tale rammed with anecdotes and with passion and gusto. Russell was disco's revenge, a true character and a great read.” — DJHistory.com

“Weaving threads of ethnomusicology, pop culture, race relations, bohemian celebrity culture, and the bedeviling schemes of monolithic midtown music labels, Mr. Lawrence’s breathtaking book informs and delights.” — Charlie Vázquez

“Written with crystal clarity but never overly dry despite Lawrence's academic background, this is a gripping portrait both of a unique artist and a time of spectacular cultural flux.” — Joe Muggs, The Word

“[A] sensitive and thorough biography. . . . In a sense, Arthur Russell was so much a part of his times that he tended to disappear into them, blending in with so many different scenes that the camouflage seemed at times to have taken over. Lawrence notes, for example, how many previous accounts of the New York downtown scene fail to notice him at all. With Hold On to Your Dreams, the outline of an outstanding and prescient artist can now be more clearly made out.” — Ken Hollings, The Wire

“[A]n exemplary demonstration of exactly what a biography should do. In his rigorously researched investigation of musician and composer Arthur Russell, cultural theory lecturer Tim Lawrence effortlessly explores his subject and in so doing shines fresh light on the darkened recesses of both New York's downtown music scene and the popular cultural landscape of Russell's times. And despite Russell's relative obscurity, the book leaves you in no doubt as to how influential this maverick music figure has been.” — Martin James, Times Higher Education

“[An exhaustive, often spellbinding account of the life of one of music’s true maverick enigmas. . . . While the book provides many fresh insights into the 80s downtown hotbed, Russell emerges as a strange, fragile figure, in a monumental work. Hold On To Your Dreams is a captivating record of a true original’s all-too-brief life.” — Kris Needs, Record Collector

“[W]hat makes this book valuable is that Russell’s shadowy ubiquity turns an ostensible biography into a first draft of that elusive comprehensive history of the downtown performing arts. Hold On to Your Dreams has to go everywhere, because that’s where Russell went. . . . [E]ven if you didn’t know about Russell and are not yet persuaded to pursue him further, this is still a book worth reading. . . . Psychologically, Russell emerges as indeed fascinating, more fascinating than his music, as a maverick without, Lawrence notes, the feisty self-righteousness such figures often embody. . . . Russell has inspired a book that helps us understand a thrilling twenty-five years of American cultural history.” — John Rockwell, Bookforum

“The passionate, revelatory anecdotes collected here follow Russell through those liminal downtown nightclubs, loft spaces, and recording studios that made his life and music possible.” — Carol Cooper, Village Voice

"I’ve read this book cover to cover three times. One of three in-depth books by professor Tim Lawrence detailing the downtown New York scene of decades past that I so admire. This one uses the musician and composer Arthur Russell as a kind of avatar to navigate the reader through what seemed like an extremely fruitful and creative time for the city. Arthur’s own frustrations with music and a battle with AIDS make this an inspiring yet tragic read."
  — Dev Hynes, New York Times Styles Magazine

"As a musician and composer, Russell’s body of work includes everything from boldly experimental compositions to ecstatic dance tracks to heartfelt pop confessionals. Lawrence’s book is a fantastic look at Russell’s music, and the impact it continues to have on what we listen to today."
  — Tobias Carroll, Signature

Hold On to Your Dreams tells the story of an artist whose life becomes more intriguing with every turn. Inspiring and written with love, this book takes us to the roots of Arthur Russell’s music, from the streets of New York to the cornfields of Iowa.” — Jens Lekman, musician

“Tim Lawrence has written a fascinating and insightful biography of a sensitive and searching soul. Arthur Russell was a personal artist whose musical vision led him to coexist in seemingly incompatible worlds. Through the lens of Arthur Russell’s life (never clouded with material success or celebrity), Tim Lawrence gives us a sharp and singular portrait of late-twentieth-century American life. A fine read, with a depth and detail that resonate with Arthur Russell’s sparkle and wit.” — Peter Gordon, Love of Life Orchestra

“With rich and animated detail, Tim Lawrence tracks Arthur Russell’s insatiable drive to integrate so-called serious music and pop. This definitive biography is both an engrossing record of Russell’s musical ambitions and a compelling account of the fertile downtown scene that supported his admirable dreams.” — Matt Wolf, director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Tim Lawrence is a freelance music writer and Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of East London.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations xi

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xxiii

Introduction 1

1. Formations (1951–1973) 11

2. Explorations (1973–1975) 47

3. Alternatives (1975–1977) 83

4. Intensities (1977–1980) 125

5. Variations (1980–1984) 179

6. Reverberations (1984–1987) 247

7. Tangents (1987–1992) 293

Epilogue 341

Notes 359

Discography 377

Bibliography 387

Index 393
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4485-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4466-7
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