Suppose you'd been one of Jesus' disciples. Even hipped in advance to the resurrection, wouldn't you have been a little uneasy around the guy once he was out of the hole, what with him having recently been a lank cadaver and all?
That's how I felt about Love front man Arthur Lee, not deeply but always, ever since he emerged from his blurry years. You hear someone like Lee at full flower and then hear the gormless waste recorded a short time later, and you cannot reason how a soul once so alive and aware could then produce such insensate tone turds. It makes you realize that the soul can die, long before the body does, as Lee's body did on Aug. 3 of leukemia.
I was 12 when Love's Forever Changes came out, young enough to notice that the world grew sadder and deeper whenever “Alone Again Or” came on the radio, but too young to see Love on the Sunset Strip. When I did finally see Lee onstage in the mid-'70s, he was in shambles, his music a plodding simulacrum of “heavy” rock. He had a goofy Beatles haircut and ended the show with a dramatic flourish, tearing off what turned out to be a wig, impaling it on his microphone stand and setting it on fire. Lee acted this out as if it was on a magnitude with Jimi smoking his Strat at Monterey. One's defining moments are best not defined by the stench of burning hair.
In the early '60s, the Memphis-born Lee was in LA, writing, producing and recording R&B songs (including Hendrix's first recording), surf instrumentals and novelty dance tunes. Then he went mutant. Tim Leary once said the Beatles were beneficial mutants, sent to usher humanity to a greater consciousness. Their music turned a bunch of bluegrass folkies into the Byrds, the force of whose new music then released in Lee's head a fierce, melancholy muse, and so the mutation spread.
For a while, Lee was a rock avatar. You couldn't hear the manic “Seven N Seven Is” or the fragile “Andmoreagain” and remain unchanged. Like Van Morrison's stuff then, it was so personal and down in the slipstream that it was a wonder it also worked so well as pop music. Van sang about tuberculosis and death. Lee sang about dried snot and death.
Forever Changes? Yeah, it is that good, even if rock critics say it is. Not many people noticed at the time, and not long after it came out in 1967, Lee's mutant brain ran out of space or something and he went soul-dead.
Where did Brian Wilson, Peter Green, Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Arthur Lee go? Were they off jamming together in soul-dead rock N roll heaven, with Joe Meek at the controls? Did the band have to find a new bass player when Wilson's soul was yanked back to earth, just in time for the “Brian's Back” ad blitz?
It was never clear how much Lee was “back,” nor at all where he'd been. Homeless, waving at cars. Heroin-addicted. Just-fucking-nuts. Behind bars even. All part of the Arthur Lee mythos, and most denied by Lee, who in more recent interviews seemed like he was a little past impatience waiting for the world to catch on to his genius. He'd dropped from view for 12 years beginning in 1980, he said, to attend to his family. Whatever else he did then, when he went to prison in 1996 on a gun charge, it was a third strike. He drew a 12-year sentence, served five.
Before going in, Lee had enjoyed a resurgence of interest in his music, and, backed by a tight young band who kept him in line, Lee was in a position to feed that resurgence. Onstage, he would mug like Soupy Sales; he'd dissemble; his mind would wander. One night at the Coach House, the band quit en masse after the show because he'd called the bass player a “Chinaman” onstage. But when he sang his old songs, the magic was there.
After he got out of the big house, Lee seemed more focused and did a rapturously received European tour during which— la Wilson with Pet Sounds—he and his young Love did Forever Changes in its entirety, abetted by orchestral musicians.
I interviewed Lee four years ago (see “Ain't Love Grand,” Sept. 26, 2002), and he was seemingly reconnected with his errant soul and full of big plans. He'd written a book of his life, he said, written several albums worth of songs and was planning on recording soon, claiming, “It's going to be a powerful, powerful album. My music's going in an Arthur Lee direction. But all my old fans will recognize my voice. It's like Jesus, you know what I mean? The sheep recognize his voice. They should recognize my voice.”
We'll have to take his word, since nothing's surfaced. Whatever doubts others may have had about his resurrection, Lee seemed convinced he was “the last of the living legends,” without whom there would have been no Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone or Parliament, and that the future was his.
While his early work had been shadowed by portents of death, Lee shrugged that off as a stage “youngsters” go through. Death wasn't something that worried him anymore, and one hopes he remained equally philosophical at the end.
“You go when your time comes,” he said. “I've already had two lifetimes compared to Jimi Hendrix and how long he's been dead. Life's a trip, man. You just keep living, like my mother says, and you'll find that out.”