"My favorite song" by Ramesh Srivastava

“This is How We Walk on the Moon” by Arthur Russell

Ramesh Srivastava (Photo: Eric Morales)

Arthur Russell “This is How We Walk on the Moon”

by Ramesh Srivastava

I lived in Berlin for the majority of 2008. First I stayed alone in Mitte, then I moved into a simple-but-charming flat with Scottish artist France-lise McGurn, situated on a quiet corner in Friedrichshain, not far from the Oberbaum Bridge.

Having just finished a long touring cycle for Voxtrot’s self-titled debut album, I had decamped to Berlin under the auspice of writing a follow-up record. In truth, I was so bewildered by the whirlwind of the previous two years — and by what I interpreted as Voxtrot’s commercial failure — that I was in no place to write. I did a lot of wandering, contemplating and partying in those days, and found myself turning inward, quietly galvanized by my new friendship with France-lise (and the art world she introduced me to), as well as the few other close friends I had nearby.

Three months into our Friedrichshain sojourn we were forced to move flat, and suddenly we found ourselves in a fairly depressing carriage house apartment in Neukölln, replete with minimal sunlight and clinical black furniture. As it goes with hindsight, I now see a sweetness and beauty to that chapter of my life, but at the time I was so twisted up with confusion that I mainly felt fear and disappointment.

One morning after we’d had a big night out, in an effort to shake off the hangover, France-lise put on a song I had never heard and began dancing slowly in a circle, stirring up the energy in the room with her hands. It featured a soothing melancholic cello line, joined suddenly by a sweet male vocal drenched in reverb and delay, and then an arhythmic stomp of kick drum and horns. I asked France-lise the name of the song, which surprised her since I was at that point already a self-proclaimed Arthur Russell fan.

The song was “This is How We Walk on the Moon,” and hearing it prompted me to further research Arthur’s life and music. For those who don’t know, Arthur Russell was a multi-instrumentalist — though he is perhaps best known as a cellist —who lived in New York City during the heyday of the disco epoch, as well as the more experimental Downtown era that followed it. His eclectic musical output includes massive disco hits (“Kiss Me Again” by Dinosaur, “Is It All Over My Face?” by Loose Joints), avant-garde improvisations, and even a country album.

As with many gay artists of the time, his story is punctuated by AIDS and he died in 1992 at age 40, following a return to his home state of Iowa with partner Tom Lee. Their story is movingly told in the documentary “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell”, which features vignettes of the countless hours Russell spent in his apartment on Manhattan’s East 12th street, experimenting with a variety of instruments and recording techniques.

When I am in New York City, I am repeatedly struck by the residual collective spirit of these gay creative visionaries, most of whom died in the 80s and 90s. To walk around the West Village and feel the pulse of ballroom culture (immortalized in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 film “Paris is Burning”) … to wander down St. Mark’s Place past what was once Club 57, where artists like Keith Haring and Ann Magnuson got their wings … to stand outside a parking garage on King Street in SoHo, remembering that this is the former home of the Paradise Garage, where Larry Levan delivered his legendary DJ sets and helped create the template for modern clubbing … being a gay artist myself, visiting these holy sites makes me feel grateful, heartbroken and empowered.

Using a combination of interviews and archival footage, Joseph Lovett’s 2005 documentary “Gay Sex in the 70s” illustrates how profound the feeling of freedom for LGBTQ+ people was during that decade, especially considering how restrictive and terrifying the previous ones had been. As one interviewee, activist Rodger McFarlane says, “If you can remember what life was like before 1969 for gay men, it puts all this in perspective. Up until then, we had to hide from our families, who would disinherit us, if not institutionalize us, subject us to insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy.”

By contrast, the film’s narrator describes 1970s New York City (particularly in the West Village, a neighborhood sandwiched between Greenwich Village and the Hudson River) as “the most libertine period that the western world has ever seen since Rome, basically.” As is emphasized in the latter half of the documentary, this period of celebration was of course once again contrasted by the unbelievable tragedy of AIDS, which began devastating the gay community in the early 1980s.

Located in the West Village (and much discussed in the film) were the piers at the end of West Street, which served as a central point for cruising. Though the full structures are long gone, ruins of them remain, and over the years I have often found myself leaning against the railing at the water’s edge, watching the river lap slowly back and forth over the weathered studs. In that meditative stillness I have felt a bittersweet camaraderie, a spiritual brotherhood with these gay men — artists and non-artists alike — who came before me. I owe a debt of gratitude to them for weathering such a challenging time in history and paving the way for my freedom, and have true reverence for the artifacts that the creators among them left behind.

Lyrics of “This is How We Walk on the Moon” by Arthur Russell 

Each step is moving, it’s moving me up
moving, it’s moving me up
Every step is moving me up
moving me up, moving, moving me up
Every step is
moving me up
One tiny, tiny,
tiny move
It’s all I need
And I jump over
Every step is moving me up
This is how we walk on the moon
This is how we walk on the moon
Every step is moving me up
I’m so far away
One moment there
Moving me up
Every step is moving me up
One moment there
One tiny, tiny move
It’s all I need and I jump over

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