Editor’s Note: The article originally appeared in PopMatters on 9 September 2003.
A friend, a former rock critic at the turn of the ‘70s, declared after the show: “If he had made it, no one else could have.” She was referring to Arthur Lee, whose band she—as someone literally living in the rock biz of the era, as a person of African descent involved with outlaw culture—had surprisingly never heard. Sadly, although not surprisingly, the number of blackfolk unfamiliar with one of the aesthetic giants and social rebels of their race was evident from the paltry showing at the Polish National Home just before the holidays. Still, it was exhilarating to finally see the Master in the flesh after so many years and watch my friend get turned on during “My Little Red Book.” Her sonic Saul-to-Paul conversion was a rush and miracle to behold.
“All God’s chillun gotta have dey freedom…” By the Grace of the Ancestors, I have lived to see the Son of God that is Arthur Lee released from six years’ (erroneous) imprisonment to the warm embrace of an ever-growing circle of acolytes. Perhaps, as with his faithful Job, Lee’s God may have abandoned/tested him in the long, shadowy interim between 1970 and 2002. Yet we are witnessing wondrous times in which—largely thanks to the devotion of fair Albion and its museum culture—we can catch the reconstituted Love that is Baby Lemonade in action, and hopefully soon an entire orchestra backing Lee in delivering the entirety of his early masterpiece Forever Changes (recorded when he was all of 21). Also, for all that Lee seems more a precursor that torched his own template rather than a figure who spawned a thousand imitators—like his erstwhile Elektra protégé Jim Morrison—we are currently enjoying the ascension of young vanguard artists who are directly or indirectly indebted to Lee’s revolution: MeShell NdegéOcello, Cody ChesnuTT, Cee-Lo, OutKast. I greatly respect my colleague Patricia Kenneally-Morrison and would not like to earn her wrath, but it must be said that, compared to Love’s classic trio of albums, Morrison and Manzarek’s overlapping output reads rather on par with *NSYNC’s versus the classic boy band oeuvre of the Jackson 5. Today, the Doors would likely be the house band of frat hippies in a pool with the Dave Matthews Band, Galactic and Phish. Lee would seem to be not just the “obscure” survivor of the Summer of Love’s dark side but the far more fortunate icon to have mavericks on the order of NdegéOcello and André 3000 embodying his spirit instead of lightweights like Scott Stapp.
We arrived too late to catch the act of buzz band opener Enon, yet from the balcony at Warsaw the room seemed to really fill up during the long interval between their set and the main attraction. Both ‘60s vets and Gen X fans worriedly whispered amongst themselves as they waited impatiently, apprehensive that the legend might have wigged out. I was hoping not to endure another scenario akin to a—speaking of “unorthodox” black artists—Kool Keith show I’d attended a year or so before, where the Black Elvis made us wait for over two hours after Black-Eyed Peas’ great set and I finally got fed up and left the hall when the pizza guy showed up seeking directions to the backstage. Apparently, Kool Keith did finally play about ten minutes after my departure, but only for a little less than 20 minutes then left abruptly. There was no way I wished for my first live encounter with the Love leader to be marred by such discourtesy, especially after the hike over hill and dale from Bedford Street L.
Fortunately, Arthurly came out strong at last, ever the pimp-dandy in hat, shades, star-spangled doo-rag, cowboy shirt and snakeskin boots. He spoke little initially, yet was absolutely on point by the middle of “Orange Skies”, and the highs just ascended from there on. Alternating between guitar, maracas and tambourine, Lee’s trademark precisely enunciated vocals (once described by a critic as “Johnny Mathis meets Mick Jagger”) held the audience spellbound as the Love boys came with the raw excitement. Old songs—the bulk of Forever Changes—and new went down in a seamless suite that felt in the moment as if it could never be rivaled. “7 And 7 Is” and the perfectly executed “Alone Again Or” were the big standouts of the set’s first half. “Everybody’s Gotta Live”, with its clever infusion of the chorus from John Lennon’s “Instant Karma”, got everyone to sing along without self-consciousness (even this non-Beatles fan).
Proceedings took a fiery turn once the band arrived at “The Red Telephone”. Lee began to rap with the crowd and got political by saying, “When you pick up the red telephone, the war is on.” He made further references to our warmongering state and Saddam Hussein, spreading the mirth around when he said, “We have satellites where we can see an ant pissing on a piece of cotton, but we can’t find Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein!”
We were all urged to chant “Freedom!” along with the man as the song dwindled. You began to feel the waves of love washing back over Lee and him drawing strength from the audience as he announced song after song as the band’s last and then launched another again. This drove up the pitch to the point where the fans were almost beside themselves with much cheering and at least some of us dancing at the back. Arthurly seemed quite touched, not wanting to leave and we were loath to release him. His news about the imminent tour with full orchestra to celebrate the anniversary of Forever Changes holds out a ray of hope that Gotham will enjoy him again soon.
All in all, the thrill of this show was in finally seeing the high-flyer made flesh, the voice of the man behind the stone walls of Bela Lugosi’s castle present in real time. And to see the songs long passed on by cult rites—chiefly, “Between Clark and Hilldale”, “Alone Again Or”, “You Set the Scene” and “The Good Humor Man”, wherein lead guitarist Mike Randle amazingly pulled off the staccato ending originally recorded with strings—performed with such vigor (even sans mariachis and strings) that one would be hard pressed to say any time had passed but for sensing the ghosts of Bryan MacLean and Johnny Echols. Although Lee recently told The Guardian in the UK that a “journalist has no life”, I ain’t hatin’ on my brotha. Playa needs to be encouraged to keep on keeping on, especially by his peeps here in America; mustn’t let Blighty claim him in perpetuity as they did his disciple Jimi Hendrix. If Lee did in fact pioneer with the first multiracial rock band, envision the style that Hendrix and Sly and André 3000 have been partial to, and record the first real Los Angeles-shaped gangsta rap through his songs of menace, then he must be my primary hero. And it must be my duty to further his aim of making Love a household word.
While still in jail, apparently his God told Arthur Lee that “Love on Earth must be.”
I second that emotion.
As your erstwhile disciple once declared, Play on brother!