Photo credit: John Ballon
Maybe This Will Be the Dawn of Arthur Lee’s Time, Or the Return of the Sunset Strip Night Tripper
19 Aug 2003: House of Blues West Hollywood, California
Something stardust and sunshine had characterized those days of flowers and civil unrest in the western canyons of America’s other neverland of dreams, Los Angeles. And the golden, jangly razzle-dazzle spread out from the easy going twang & psychedelic motherlode back up in them thar hills and down the racing silver of the Sunset Strip. That street, immortalized by Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth”, was Ground Zero for rock ‘n roll circa 1966, the site—other than Londontown far across the waters—where young electric gods walked tall: the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas & the Papas, eventually the Doors. There was none higher, to bite Run-DMC, than Arthur Lee and Bryan Maclean’s band Love (né the Grass Roots). They had almost seamlessly inherited the failing Byrds’ mantle of greatness and their audience… and they achieved this miraculous feat by holding up a dark, salt-eaten mirror worthy of Poe to the prophesied neverending party of light that was that brief, shining moment of the Aquarian Age. O.G. “black hippie” from the Crenshaw-Adams, Arthurly was the Poe of hardcore psychedelia, inventing “punk with strings” in the process—a genre that attained perfection in Love’s masterpiece Forever Changes (Elektra).
I know about that heady starshine in only the most amorphous of fashions, being one of the last of the radio babies, once fatally in love with the sixties but, inevitably, too young to participate. I am ever the faithful student, despite the persistent fact of our unrequited love affair gone sour, shining the midnight lamp in these failing missives for the fleeting endangered species who still hold forth in the arena: Stills, Dickey Betts, Neil Young, George Clinton, Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, Bobby Whitlock, Levon Helm, Richie Havens, Alex Chilton, Marianne Faithfull. And now, Lee. I learn at the feet of my blues-buoyed native guides, Bobby Jones, Mike Finnigan, Dick Cooper, Michael Lydon et al—and attempt to keep my face and ears and spirit to the sun. Yet the twin blight of Vietnam and Watergate was my earliest truth and thus the lurking dark was blinding my rose-colored vision from the git go.
The darkness of the Summer of Love would soon spread everywhere killing the halcyon Sixties (TM), beyond Arthur Lee’s tortured and complex mind shuttered in his Castle upon a hill in rock hamlet Laurel Canyon, through the histrionic verses of his acolyte Mr. Mojo Risin’, the opiate excess of band members Johnny Echols (lead guitar) and Don Conka (drums), the forlorn silencing of the Voice of California Dreams Mama Cass and Brian Wilson, the blood opera of thwarted rock ‘n roll dreamer Charlie Manson’s helter-skelter…and, of course, that great, tragicomic ancestor of the reality program: Altamont. On the outside of this shortlist litany of the Wild Wild West’s countercultural changes which have since become a matter of public and historical record, Lee, completely devoid of his inaugural band (the lineup of Forever Changes) and, increasingly, of his wealth, status and creativity, offered a precious few remaining recordings to the Cosmos. And then, the Void. Almost exclusive silence for over twenty-five years; deaths, incarceration, deals with the Devil and those debilitating changes.
Served my time, served it well
You made my soul a cell
—Arthur Lee, “Live and Let Live”
Now, perhaps as suddenly as the apocalyptic brilliance of Da Capo‘s “7 & 7 Is” (first punk manifesto? Indubitably.) must have asserted itself in the cerebellums of young, bauble-draped groovies like Miss Pamela DesBarres on the Sunset Strip Scene, the avatar that is Arthur Lee, the once and future King of Rock N’ Roll, returns from the depths, his genius intact, his nonpareil cool more plush than threadbare, to regale both sides of the world with this series of concerts honoring the masterpiece—aided by the badass and touchingly supportive Baby Lemonade led by black lead guitarist Mike Randle—and a new souvenir of his forever fascinating shadow and act: The Forever Changes Concert (Live) [At the Royal Festival Hall] (Snapper). Lee is the (first) and last prophet of the Strip (of the famous Sixties as a whole, perhaps) standing and I was fortunate, again, to catch a glimpse of what he sees beyond us mere mortals at his recent House of Blues show in L.A. The call of “Arthur Lee for Governor” was more than apt.
This was the Greatest Show Ever Told… or something like it. Accrue whichever of the Forever Changes 35th anniversary gigs you’ve seen over the last twelvemonth and you will collectively count them as the greatest rock n roll concert you ever saw, as I do with last December’s second night at Warsaw in Brooklyn, the inexorable summit of the Town Hall evening in Manhattan, and, now, the completion of this show, poetically unfurled on the Sunset Strip where Memphis-born Arthur Lee came into his own and eulogized his band’s greatest stand on the euphoric and breezily beautiful “Maybe The People Would Be the Times (Or Between Clark and Hilldale)”.
Many revelers who were in attendance or have managed to get a hold of bootleg recordings are calling this August 19th appearance not merely the greatest Love show they ever caught but the best rock n’ roll show of their entire concert-going career. It is hardly hyperbole for many of these exulting witnesses were from the old school of Lee’s original fans, young, starry-eyed men and women of multiple hues who haunted Bido Lito’s, the Whisky, the Fillmores, the Albert Hall in the sixties when legends such as Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, the Dead, and John Lennon still roamed the earth. Even one of the forefathers of rockcrit, Richard Meltzer, long disenchanted with the beast he helped create, told me that one of Lee’s phoenix-rise concerts last year was the best thing he has ever seen.
Other close watchers like to speculate about the degree of Lee’s bitterness that Sly Stone, [probably fellow hippie hoodie / astounding light-skinned Negro Shuggie Otis], and, above all, his former acolyte Hendrix took his warped blues and ran. Yet the man I saw on the Strip was by no means hard and twisted; he seems to have come out of his decades-long ordeal sound and rejuvenated, grateful for the lustiness and devotion of his audience and his young band mates. In his black hat with leopard band, jaunty blue-striped shirt bearing patches (evoking army medals? Boy Scout badges? Ha ha!), shades and boots, wielding his tambourine, maracas and white guitar with equal fervor and skill, Lee was nobody’s bitch, neither the trick baby of the Fame Country’s (thank ye, Clive James) internecine warfare nor the dog of history. Even more than Miles or the Yardbird, he seemed the very quintessence of Cool—my dear friend, who’d been seated front row at Town Hall, commented afterwards on just how much Arthur had made him acutely aware of his own “honkiness”—and edgy and mercurial enough still to dispel all the skeletons in his closet. It is only a matter of time before more powerful eyes, ears, hands and minds than mine—beyond the valiant efforts of those media blokes over in Fair Albion—ken the restored glory of Lee’s Love and promote how ably he is everyday rewriting the history of this thing so few of us care for still: rock n’ roll.
Opening with the final single of Love’s first, deified period, “Your Mind And We Belong Together”, Lee proved beyond all doubt that he is the Big Willie; I’d like to see the “hardest” of Dirty South thugs or Noo Yawk around-the-way rap kingpins step into the ring and attempt to battle rhyme with Arthur Lee. He’d wipe the stage with their narrow, saggy asses. Lee continued to impress by nailing the high notes on the delicate “Orange Skies”, before paying lip service to the more popular mainstream of sixties pop with his famed cover hit of “My Little Red Book”. Mike Randle, rhythm guitarist Rusty Squeezebox, and the other New Love members drafted from Baby Lemonade have already proved their mettle; Randle, over the course of several exquisitely executed solos throughout the evening will single-handedly restore the dead ideal of the Guitar God. And so it begins, with the appearance of the guest strings and horns ensemble who must b! e commended for adding what was missing from the music at Warsaw: the lovely, lilting and lachrymose strains of the late Maclean’s “Alone Again Or” alert the crush in the bowels of the icebox House of Blues that the delightful and harrowing wicked game of Forever Changes is afoot. Every consideration and distraction beyond the blue-tinged circle of light where the master trickster Lee holds court vanished.
Lee amuses and endears himself to the audience when he starts Maclean’s “Old Man” by turning the lyrics on the stand outward to face their eagle-eyes, proceeding to recite it perfectly. And by running his show unperturbed as the usual drunk, over-excited hecklers incessantly cry for “Hey Joe” and “Signed D.C.”. Lee’s hip, elliptical asides are well above mere stage banter, his signature jaunty moves bewitching and the rare glimpses of his eyes—bien sur when he sings the line “look in my eyes!” from The Raven‘s archrival “The Red Telephone”—riveting beyond belief. But as essential as the preeminence of Lee and Randle was the subtle work of the ensemble, integral to my favorite Love compositions: “Alone Again Or”, “Andmoreagain”, “The Red Telephone”, “...Between Clark and Hilldale”, “You Set The Scene”, and “Singing Cowboy”. Dan Clucas, on trumpet and flute, must be given special honor for his soloing and dexterity in hanging tough with those storied arrangements.
Heard altogether in sequence, Forever Changes never fails to meet its mark and earn its spot on all of those official Best Albums Ever lists. And unlike that spawn of another LA-associated weirdo, Trout Mask Replica, it holds up beneath the hype. But Arthur Lee has the misfortune of remaining black and freaky-deke in a space that’s been threatened by that at least since the cross-country adventures of Estevanico The Black. Lee is so weird and literate his lyrics make Steely Dan look like they’re still Hooked on Phonics (or is that Paint Me Ebonics?) . . . harrowing enough to make Hollywood peer Gram Parsons flinch; so far out he didn’t have the grace to die a spectacular Rock ‘N Roll Death and subsequently proved stronger than Jim Morrison and Jimi (and sly) who idolized him and stole what could be externalized as his shamanic psychedelic spade schtick to vast reward. Like many transgressive black men in this hemisphere, Lee’ soul was fettered by a cell for most of the nineties, while all his once-provocative contemporaries, like vocal fanatic Robert Plant, and proselytes of outrage except Manson were free to chase prepubescent white poon or indulge in narcotic orgies on the strength of their white skins and commercial usefulness to the major labels and the corporate rock machine. It’s even startling that Neil Young, once slated to produce Forever Changes and ever an admirer of Lee, is King of the Hill, the exalted position on the rock heap deserved solely by Arthur whose influence is arguably as far reaching into successive generations of music as our favorite guitar-blazing Canadian’s. Just because he didn’t pose at Max’s Kansas City with Iggy Pop and David Johansen nor is he captured youth! ful and triumphant in Woodstock does not mean he should be penalized in perpetuity. There are current threads on Love’s official website decrying the fact that Lee is not enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let Ahmet Ertegun, the sharpest and only cultured one of the Hall’s poobahs, prevail on Love’s behalf.
The music, some of the most complex ever derived from the bloodroot of the African Tradition, illuminated and enlightened as played at the HOB and certainly deserves a pedestal. Other high points were “August”, “My Flash On You”, Randle grinning at the Devil on “The Daily Planet”, the never tamed “7 & 7 Is” and, when he finally decided to appease the clamor, Lee delving into the primordial blue ooze of his immaculate Memphis conception on “Signed D.C.”. My utter favorites were the songs that elevated the show above spectacle to the Eternal: “You Set The Scene” and “Singing Cowboy”. The former is devastating—swinging from mariachi meets Byrdsian jangle on the Alpert-Mendes borderline to down-on-the-corner 50s doo-wop plaintiveness to psychedelicized torch song to bittersweet symphony that opens the heavens wide; the latter, a defiant, bare-bones horse opera (not quite in Gene Autry and Roy Rogers’ reckoning) brimming with optimistic visions of survival on the horizon, punctuated by the sympathetic cavalry horns of Clucas and Probyn Gregory. This was unsurpassed emotional rescue.
Clearly visible, especially to all of us frothing at the mouth at the lip of the stage, was Love’s original guitarist and Lee’s oldest musical accomplice Johnny Echols, standing open and happy and enraptured onstage for most of the night. At one point, Lee ended the torment of our speculation by announcing that Echols and drummer Don Conka (immortalized in “Signed D.C.”) would be sitting in. That historic moment finally arrived after the encores. Lee, accompanied by Echols and Conka plus BL bassist Dave Chapple, reached way back into the band’s treasure chest and withdrew a staple of their early Bido Lito’s residencies: “Smokestack Lightning”. Conka and Echols both bore the scars of their legendary excesses but played admirably, particularly Echols. His guitar lines were so fluid and bluesy and soul-deep such that they could barely be grasped; time seems not to have diminished his gifts at all. Unassuming in glasses, cords, Birkenstocks, and a version of the cap Donny Hathaway made famous, Echols was nonetheless the exciting Ethiopian Bryan Maclean and others have spun tales about, his countenance as unlined and fresh as that of Lee who leaned into him for support and unfathomable aesthetic connection. Together, the dark twins emanated a love like none other, leaving the stage on a high with their arms entwined. As it should be forever more. This was the best and most fulfilling remedy for my escape to LA, Blackout Blues; life-changing, truly the greatest thing I have ever seen. I eagerly await another chance to move mountains for the merest glimpse of Arthur Lee, genius unbound. You need this music, as you need air. Andmoreagain.