Issue August 8, 2006

RIP Arthur Lee

Arthur Lee
Arthur Lee

One of the greater geniuses of rock music died last week, and many will not know his name. Not many folks under the age of 30 (and frankly, not even that many under 40 or 50) even know of Love (the band, but perhaps also the concept). Simply, Love were the first and best of all the L.A.-based psychedelic bands.
Love were the first rock band signed by then-fledgling Elektra records; it was Arthur who convinced Elektra to sign the Doors. Love’s third album, Forever Changes, is considered a masterpiece of psych-rock, and some go as far as calling it one of a triumvirate of classic late-’60s rock, along with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper.

Some (including this writer) insist that Forever Changes dwarfs those other two recordings as an artistic statement. Upon the re-release of Forever Changes, it had been suggested (in the pages of this newspaper and elsewhere) that Lee’s lyrics were often nonsensical or slapdash or simply meaningless. This was true only in the way that, say, Salvador Dali’s paintings were “meaningless.”

Here is an example of Arthur’s “meaningless,” “hippy-dippy” lyrics:
“… this is the only thing that I am sure of and that’s all that lives is gonna die and there’ll always be some people there to wonder why and for every happy hello there will be goodbye there’ll be time for you to start all over.”

Arthur Lee was the loser in a long battle with leukemia. It wasn’t the only battle he fought and lost. Drugs beat him up pretty badly, and so did the police. When he was released a few years back from San Luis Obispo penitentiary after serving time for a three-strikes-you’re-out violation, things seemed calm.
When Arthur teamed with the L.A. group Baby Lemonade and toured England, recording the fantastic “Forever Changes Concert” (an in-sequence performance of Love’s masterpiece), he looked healthy and hungry and confident and reasonably happy and supremely alive.

He was a felonious sort of fellow, prone to disappearing for days in the middle of his infrequent tours and generally behaving irrationally. Many, many of his collaborators over the years have had very little to say about him that was complimentary. Dope was part of it. Some have suggested Arthur was mentally ill.
Not by a long shot.

We were once almost labelmates. I worked for a record company in Los Angeles that was trying to sign Arthur to a solo recording contract. The label hosted a party for Arthur in an attempt to woo him. He showed up hours late, glowering with his three biker friends, and stayed only 30 minutes before announcing that he “had to run a real quick errand,” and would “be right back.” Stories circulated then about Arthur outrunning the cops in freeway chases. Those were the days before helicopters, I suppose. The label ended up settling for an Arthur Lee tribute record and Arthur went to jail.

Love never had a big hit. Their cover of Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book” charted for about 15 minutes in 1966. But it is by no means true that Forever Changes was his only masterpiece. Love’s later albums are undiscovered gems. Try listening to a large portion of the Love catalogue, and then try to think of a more soulful singer in the rock genre.
There aren’t any.