If I Could Translate Tears Into Words…

On September 12th, 2013 I received an email from my bass player, spiritual conspirator and close friend, Robert Russell. It started with this sentence:
“I am so sorry this is the first you have from me on this; firstly, it all went down like a shockwave and, secondly, I never had to share with people I love so dearly bad news… about me.”

I will share the rest of the email below, but first, some further context. I met Robert back in 1994. At the time, I was signed to Delicious Vinyl/Brass Recordings, coming out of the gate producing and programming all of my music. But they had me arrange all that grooviness, so I could play gigs up and down the west coast with an eight piece band! Enter Robert on electric bass, his brother, (my close friend) Louis Russell on guitar, Greg Cook on keys, Darryl Woolfolk on drums, Katisse Buckingham on sax and flute, all power-house musicians. Over time, a host of other talented vocalists and musicians, like Les Falconer would pop in a out.

Robert Russell with The Angel - Ajax Lounge - San Jose

Robert Russell with The Angel – Ajax Lounge – San Jose

Robert Russell with The Angel – Ajax Lounge – San Jose

Robert Russell with The Angel – Ajax Lounge – San Jose

It was a strange time and a tough transition, moving from London to L.A. I never loved being on stage, but I did what I had to do because in those days, a girl needed to be out front singing. Me, I always loved being in the back room, producing, writing and recording in a quiet space, where I could create without having to be some sort of spectacle… but these musicians made it all really special and most have stayed in my life ever since. Though no one has stayed closer than Robert.

There’s a reason why Robert was the only bass player I would bring in for recording sessions. Working with him was like having a direct line from my brain straight to his fingers. My head is constantly filled with melody; basslines, piano lines, horn lines, tricked-out electronic instrument lines and everything in between… Either I play them myself or I bring in musicians to play them. Robert would consistently “go with me” on even the most “out there” idea, and instinctively knew how to build on anything I threw at him. In turn, he would encourage and inspire me to go places I never thought I’d go and he’d consistently tell me that I thought outside the box, like Miles. Bless him… We would spend as much time laughing and experimenting, as we did getting down to “serious work”… And that was priceless. It’s easy to forget that every day and every minute counts. Work has to be pleasurable, or we’re not really living. It all has to be feeding our souls and that’s what our collaborations mutually did. But it was also the sharing of every day life that was so precious and soul feeding.

Robert wasn’t an upright player, but that didn’t stop me asking him to give it a go… It only took one time to make it a more regular occurrence. And on one occasion, we translated what I’d originally played as a heavy, subby, electronic bass over to the acoustic, driving bassline on the 60 Channels track, “Still Burnin'”. You can hear Robert’s hands speak through that upright on the instrumental version here.

Robert has played on tracks by The Angel, my alter ego 60 Channels, my film and TV scores for Boiler Room, Gridlock’d, Gaia, Junkyard Saints, The Heart of The Game, Standoff and HawthoRNe. I often write basslines as lead lines and in the case of the score for the independent film, Gaia, the simple, haunting basslines, in combination with guitar lines played on bass, inform the tone of the entire score. It is a very moving, delicate interplay and with Robert it needed no explanation because he could always follow me and feel it. That’s what we shared most.

But it isn’t just bass that we toyed around with. I managed to get Robert playing guitar, mandolin and autoharp (which he gave me as a gift)… and we often bowed the electric, or messed around with ways to get unusual sounds by using picks on gongs and hand made instruments that I own. Or recording a handclap track together on a cue for The Heart of The Game. I guess the key word here is that we played together… Like properly grown up kids.

Always get my bass player Robert Russell to play something unorthodox and in an unorthodox manner

Always getting my bass player Robert Russell to play something unorthodox and in an unorthodox manner

Last year, Robert called me one day to tell me that he was about to do something he’d never done before. One of his musician friends had recommended him to the filmmakers of a documentary, but not as a musician. They were interested in having him narrate the film! Apparently, they were looking for a Morgan Freeman-esque tone. Well, Robert had that… and more, being incredibly articulate, with an astounding vocabulary. I was so excited for him… Perhaps this would lead to a second career, doing voice-overs? I couldn’t wait to get more information about the film and hear it for myself when it was done. Surely this would open up a new world of opportunities for him. And he was thrilled to be able to expand his talents after a lifetime of faithful marriage to music… And then, in the body of Robert’s email, this:

“I just returned home for what is called extended home-care late Monday night, September 9th from an amazing 2 weeks at LAC USC Hospital. Not outstanding… There, they performed a delicate 9-hour surgery to remove cancerous tissue, as well as a skin graft to the tongue, where most of the offending tissue was removed. Imagine me not talking, OMG!! I am told that, in time with a good deal of determination, my speech should return; not the same, but intelligible. Aw, man… I totally would have preferred to lose… well, you know.

The emotional journey has been over the top completely. I usually cry sometime around 9 each evening as I get that ‘who am I kidding’ feeling, as well as simply missing my chaotic, poor but healthy life. I am glad I never took that for granted and, hence, feel a great deal of Love and gratitude for God – regardless. I never really wanted to be that guy that was all ‘God’s the bomb’ when I’m rollin’ the way I want and all ‘God sucks’ when it’s not. The fact is I still love and cherish you; I still love the bass (too weak to play well just yet) still look forward to better days for myself and for my loved ones… like you. We got work to do!

Yeah…oh…and I have a G-tube for “eating” – the night after they installed that shit, the idea of not eating even Jack-In-The-Box was excruciating. I like eating good food and enjoying good company more than sex, ya know what I mean? So…we move forward with my first appointment with radiation oncology – I know those very words put shivers in your timbers – and I guess we’ll talk then about what is next. So…I pray that all is well with you. You are loved cherished and missed. I shall provide future updates, I promise.

Much Love,

After I read this email, I felt like I’d been struck by lightening. I rallied back with encouragement and firm belief in his recovery. And we kept up the email dialogue in the absence of his speech until Robert became so weak that he just couldn’t find the strength to keep writing as regularly. I’m so thankful that he called me in December, so that I could hear his voice, though it was distressing because he was losing faith in the treatments and started to doubt that the outcome would be good. But we agreed to stay positive and made a pact that he would beat this thing. And then he went quiet…

I was unprepared for the impact of the phone call from Robert’s brother, Louis, two weeks ago, telling me that Robert had passed. Noooooooooooo… echoed in my head. This is a devastating loss, not only for me, but for all who knew Robert. As his long time friend, Nancy said to me, Robert was all about love, and it’s so true because I always felt it… and the beautiful thing is, we never ended a phone call without saying I love you to each other, and not in that bullshit L.A. way, (and he’d love that I got “all Brooklyn there”), it came from a place of true understanding – a real bond.

My message to Robert now, is one that he would say to me so many times over the years, with a little something extra, “Consider yourself warmly (and publicly) hugged…”

Robert Russell with The Angel in the studio recording for 60 Channels

Robert Russell in the studio recording for 60 Channels

If you’re reading this and you knew Robert, please share whatever kind of love you’d like to spread, in the comments section. My heart goes out to Nancy, Louis, Tania and Gregory.

1 Comment
  • Carlos Avila
    Posted at 18:49h, 06 March

    Sometimes you never meet someone and you’re still touched by their generosity… On a film that I made, Robert made an essential contribution to the musical score. Working under the guidance of composer, The Angel, Robert’s work gave the music a tautness and emotional resonance that helped me tell my story. When you conceptualize a story for film, you’re always wondering where that missing component is that will help you bring your story home for an audience. Robert’s music lifted my story up and gave it life. What a wonderful gift he gave to me and my work… Thank you for that, Robert… Te lo agradezco…

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