Friday, July 21, 2006

Arthur Lee: He Sees Everything Like This

This entry was originally one long-assed blather on about why Arthur Lee, his band Love, and Love's third album Forever Changes are so blasted essential. But the resulting thesis was pretty damned drawn-out, so out most of it went.

It's easy for me to lapse into such diarrhea of the keyboard when it comes to this band. Love have inspired scores of other musicians, and in addition to giving Jimi Hendrix his first recorded gig (and being instrumental in getting the Doors their first major label deal), Arthur Lee, his songs, and his haunted rock and roll life engender the kind of mythology from whence cult legends are born.

Here are the Cliffs' Note basics. Love was a California psychedelic band whose heyday lasted from 1965 until about 1968. They started out as a rough-hewn garage rock band (think Rolling Stones, with a bit of Byrds-type jangle) on their first record, 1966's Love, then they quickly evolved into a stunningly innovative musical outfit.

Da Capo, their second record, showcased an astonishing growth spurt, incorporating bossanova, ornate psychedelia, staggering time and key signatures, and what could rightfully be labelled the first punk rock song ("7 and 7 Is," my vote for the most volcanically furious speedball of a sixties rock song ever unleashed).

The band's undisputed masterwork, though, was 1967's Forever Changes. On the surface, it's a lushly-orchestrated psychedelic pop record of a sonic kinship with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, or the Zombies' underrated masterpiece, Odessey and Oracle. But the world view of Love's lead singer/principal songwriter Arthur Lee renders this sixties artifact utterly unique. Forever Changes alternately captures and transcends its era of birth.

Lee wrote most of the record's lyrics in a state of extreme fatalism and paranoia. Though barely legal drinking age, the iconoclastic songwriter was convinced that his time on earth was near an end, and Forever Changes possesses an urgency and darkness just 'neath its layers of deceptively plush orchestral grandeur. Lennon and McCartney sang that all their generation needed was love: The words that threaded through Arthur Lee's enduringly beautiful compositions interspersed arcane beatnik-style free verse with disarmingly direct bursts of Vietnam-fueled media skepticism ("The news today will be the movies for tomorrow"), errant morbidity ("Sitting on a hillside/Watching all the people die"), and sarcastic slaps at the facade of flower-power pacifism ("There's a bluebird sitting on a branch/I think I'll take my pistol"). The complex melodic and rhythmic changes present on Da Capo still surfaced, this time couched in some of the most magical string-and-horn arrangements to grace a pop record.

I've probably listened to Forever Changes more than any other album I've ever owned. It still reveals layers to me since I first threw an audio cassette of it into my beat-up home stereo over twenty years ago. The sharp left turns taken by the music, Arthur Lee's tremulous unearthly croon, the philosophical and psychological restlessness of his lyrics, and the strains of hopefulness suffusing the tension like shafts of sunlight through gaps in a tightly-closed set of blinds--all of these things still move me to the core. When I die, I sincerely hope the majestic, achingly beautiful, and indescribably profound "You Set the Scene"--Forever Changes' closing track--is playing as I leave this world.

The original and definitive lineup of Love splintered after Forever Changes. Lee continued on with a revolving door of musicians, putting out middling records in the '70's under the Love moniker, while the ragtag musicians that formed his greatest creative foils receded into obscurity. Bassist Ken Forssi and guitarist Bryan MacLean (a brilliant and oft-underrated arranger and musician whose influence looms large on Forever Changes) both died in their early fifties, and misfortune followed Lee throughout the '80's and '90's, culminating in a firearms charge that landed him in jail for six years.

The dawn of the new millenium seemed to renew Arthur Lee. Once he finished his prison sentence in 2001, he hit the road, touring as Arthur Lee and Love with a young and enthusiastic band of acolytes (actually members of the LA band Baby Lemonade). Their performance in Seattle in 2002 was, truly, one of the most transcendental live experiences I've ever had: the man's voice remained magnificently intact after thirty years, and he and his new bandmates tore into the Love back catalog with passion, ferocity, and--yeah--love.

But the cloud of misfortune that hovered over his old bandmates settled over Lee earlier this year when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He's currently battling the disease in a Memphis hospital, and like all too many artists he faces this struggle with no medical insurance. Fortunately, The Love Society (a non-profit consortium of musicians, friends, and fans)has been raising funds to cover the Love founder's medical expenses.

A recent New York benefit concert featured longtime Love fan Robert Plant as headliner, and the Led Zeppelin frontman isn't Lee's only high-profile worshipper. The man's songs have been covered by everyone from the Ramones to the Damned to Rush to Ted Nugent, for Petes' sake, and his band's blend of lush psychedelia and dark lyricism all but singlehandedly spawned the British psychedelic revival of the eighties.

The ripple effect still courses on. Bands like Belle and Sebastian and the New Pornographers continue to use Love as a touchstone, and White Stripes frontman Jack White has taken to covering Love tunes in concert with his side band, the Raconteurs. But the most immediate example of the intense devotion Arthur Lee's work inspired came to me last year, when I had the good fortune to meet New Pornographers lead singer Carl Newman (no slouch in the twistily-brilliant songwriter department himself). Gawky and graciously Canadian, Newman had just finished playing a lengthy Pornographers' show in Seattle. When I offhandedly mentioned that I'd heard he was a fan of Forever Changes (we Love geeks often seek others of our kin), his weary face lit with childlike delight. "I think that's about the most beautiful record I've ever heard," he intoned reverently. I couldn't have said it better myself.

It's 3 in the morning on a Friday as I finish this up and write a check to the Love Society. It's not much, but it's the least I can do for someone who forever changed me.


Laurie /Lozman/Eldred J said...

So sorry to hear about the loss of Arthur Lee. First Syd Barrett, and now his tempestuous transatlantic twin. I know Interstellar Overdrive was Syd's attempt to nick the riff from Can't Explain and then they both depart in a month, weird. I have posted a mini trib on my blog at if you want to leave a comment

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