[18 July 2008]
“Once I had a singing group
Singing group done gone
Now, I’ve got another group
Didn’t take too long”.
—Arthur Lee, “Doggone”
What happens when the life you expected to end continues? Such was the predicament facing Love frontman Arthur Lee, who famously recorded his mortality-obsessed 1967 masterpiece Forever Changes under the impression he’d been worm food within a year. While Forever did not mark the end of Lee, it did mark the end of Love, at least its original line-up. By 1969, the still-very-alive Lee had assembled an entirely new band under the same moniker: players who, unlike Bryan MacLean (author of Love classics like “Alone Again Or” and “Softly to Me”), wouldn’t question or infringe upon Lee’s often dictatorial leadership. Indeed, these Phase 2 Love albums often play like Arthur Lee solo discs, with new musicians offering backup rather than additional (possibly competing) perspectives.
After Four Sail, Love’s final Elektra album, the band moved to Blue Thumb Records, and promptly released the double album Out Here in 1969, and the ten-track False Start a year later. These first two Blue Thumb albums have recently been reissued on Collector’s Choice, and both illustrate Lee’s concerted efforts to distance himself from his old band, his old music, his old life, and his old self.
Culled mainly from the Four Sail sessions (a more cohesive, though not superior, album), Out Here is, like many two-discers of its time, messy, indulgent, sporadically brilliant and often infuriating. For example, “Doggone” is a lilting tune of loss, until it unravels on an eight-minute (!) drum solo. Many good tracks end too soon to feel complete, and many bad tracks squander early promise on meandering jams.
Like many of his contemporaries, Lee was consuming drugs pretty liberally at this point, and the music reflects this. “Signed D.C.”, a tender acoustic plea to Love’s drug-addled first drummer from the group’s debut, is reworked as a blistering rocker. Where on the original, Lee seemed distant and preachy when inhabiting the first-person perspective, he now seems to be living the drug fiend’s life. It’s a tacit there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-went-I moment: he demonically repeats the word “dealer” and omits the title entirely, thereby leaving the viewpoint unshifted. In essence, Lee has become D.C.
Out Here is full of stellar highlights: two brief and funny country songs (“Abalony”, “Car Lights on in the Daytime Blues”), two gospel-inflected ravers (“I’ll Pray for You”, “Run to the Top”), trippy drug songs (“I Still Wonder”, “You Are Something”) and some righteous throwaways, including “Discharged”, an obvious yet amusing anti-army rant that semi-blasphemously quotes “America the Beautiful”. Lee contributes his share of pretty tunes, but where Forever was meticulous and timeless, Out Here is often tossed off and dated. It has more in common with the garage-psychedelia of Love’s earlier albums than the folk-pop beauty of Forever. There’s little to impress those who adore Forever: Lee’s vocals are more forceful hard-rock strutter than stoic prophet, and his lyrics eschew epigrammatic wisdom for uninspired bromides.
This is even more evident on False Start. Love’s most blatantly commercial album since their 1966 self-titled debut. Less than half the length of Out Here, False ditches the psychedelic excesses for terse, cowbell-happy pub-rock. Supposedly, the album’s marquee track is “The Everlasting First”, which lacks any discernible hooks or insight but does feature some wah-wah wanking from one Jimi Hendrix, a phoned-in performance that, if uncredited, would be unidentifiable. And its lyrics are pretty puzzling: Lee begins with a love song, and ends up talking about the unjust persecutions of Jesus, Lincoln, and MLK.
As a no-frills rock album, False Start is perfectly serviceable, diverse even. But as a Love album, it falls short, due more in part to lyrical superficiality than radio-ready concessions. Lee’s more pessimistic inclinations are masked, or chemically suppressed, with a hollow, up-with-people mentality. The man who once warned of water turning to blood and shooting bluebirds now sings of riding vibrations and sunshine. “Open up your heart and let the sun come shining in”, he suggests, a far cry from the fire-and-brimstone sermons he once recited. For finger-wagging sage advice, Lee can do no better than “You’re gonna reap just what you sow / I’m here to let everybody know / If you don’t do your best, you’re gonna find yourself in an awful mess”. “Stand Out”, a lesser track from Out Here, is duplicated in a rudimentary and no more impressive live version, and jaunty goofs like the immaturely titled “Slick Dick” (where Lee even admits “I know what it sounds like but it ain’t”) and “Gimi a Little Break” (note the Hendrix-fied spelling) further trivialize the album.
However, only in their weakest moments do these albums prove difficult, unpleasant listens: the band is tight and funky, the melodies are generous, and Lee is a versatile pop singer, probably more versatile than Hendrix even. It’s just that Lee is or was capable of so much more than these simplistic exercises. The double meaning of Love (hey, it’s an emotion, and it’s also the band name) is toyed with repeatedly, as on the eleven-minute “Love is More Than Words or Better Late Than Never” and “Love is Coming”, which might as well be a Monkees-esque self-referential theme song. At the end of “Keep on Shining”, Lee repeatedly shouts the word “love”, as though it’s imprisoning him, keeping him from shining, in fact.
And perhaps that’s the lesson of these albums. Forever Changes is a work not simply of prophecy, but finality, digging the grave for ‘60s idealism before the movement even peaked. In its aftermath, both Love the band and love the concept are debunked myths and irrelevant jokes. The man who once proclaimed “the things that I must do consist of more than style” is now prizing style over substance. On Out Here and False Start, Lee has become a casualty of that which he once railed against: it’s a sad, harrowing portrait of one more artist harnessed by the shadow of his own masterpiece, and the certainty of his own convictions. In that respect, these albums represent the shortcomings of peace-love utopianism every bit as much as Lee’s more regularly heralded work.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/love-false-start/