Served my time, served it well
You made my soul a cell
—Arthur Lee: “Live and Let Live”
They’re locking them up today
They’re throwing away the key
I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow
You or me?
—Arthur Lee: “The Red Telephone”
Arthur Lee is currently serving 12 years in prison for allegedly threatening a neighbor with a gun.
So here we have the digitally re-mastered Forever Changes with seven bonus tracks from the archives, including tracking sessions for “Your Mind and We Belong Together” with Arthur Lee telling lead guitarist John Echols, “I don’t understand your trip, man!” This is way cool! Is anybody going to buy it?
Everyone knows the rumor that Forever Changes is a “psychedelic masterpiece” on the level of Blonde on Blonde and Astral Weeks—an album that draws critical superlatives like “indescribably essential” (Dave Marsh) and gets tip top of most hip top-100-albums-of-all-time lists. So how come nobody but the English (where it reached #25 on the charts) ever bought it? How come Love remain an unknown obscure-but-influential-‘60s-band long after other obscure-but-influential-‘60s-bands like The Velvet Underwear have become the alternative rock equivalents of The Beatles? How come Lou Reed is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Arthur Lee is in prison? How come Neil Young (who was originally supposed to produce Forever Changes) is king of the castle and Arthur Lee (“Lookout Joe”...I’m falling) is still a dirty wee rascal?
Elektra president, Jac Holzman, called Arthur Lee, “one of the few geniuses I have met”, and added that Lee’s tendencies toward inertia and isolation, “cost him a career”. Small time success may have been a handicap. In 1967 Arthur Lee was already a star…in LA. The jukeboxes between Clark and Hilldale always played his songs. After sold-out gigs at Bido Lido’s and The Whiskey, Love cruised back to The Castle, Bela Lugosi’s old mansion-turned-psychedelic-shack, Shaggy, Scooby and the gang. Think about it. You’re a psychedelic rock star in mid-‘60s LA. Money. Drugs. Adulation. Do you want to get on a bus and drive for days to New York to play…wherever? Of LA’s pre-Doors rock bands, according to Arthur Lee, “We were the most popular—and the laziest. East-Coast touring? Forget it. We were doing fine in LA.” That summer Love even refused to drive a few hundred miles up the coast to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival!
The move from acid to heroin probably gave Love an additional slack-boost. By 1967, they had the money to support big, soul-sucking habits, and they sure used it. The picture on the back of Forever Changes says it all. Five guys. One in a white sheepskin hat, his eyes closed, his hands raised in prayer. Opposite him, standing sideways to the camera, a skinny, high cheek-boned, hungry, half-breed-looking dude is holding two halves of a vase of flowers which appears to have come apart in his hands, marigold stems sticking out of the neck. To his right is a blonde jock in a blue shirt and khaki pants smiling an “Al-right!” kind of smile at the broken-vase guy. Behind them, a pugnacious dude with shaggy black hair stares off into space, while a skinny pretty-boy in a sweater smirks over broken-vase’s shoulder. The vibe is cryptic, but the message is clear: You don’t get it, do you?
Love’s music, despite flowing, melodic surfaces, which equal anything by Bacharach/David and Brian Wilson, may have been held back from mass popularity by its own higher-than-thou attitude. Love is so hip it hurts. Arthur Lee’s beautiful, mosaic-like songs are always somehow cracked by a wilfull odd-ball-ness that makes Steely Dan look like Dr. Hook. Jim Morrison borrowed much of his acid-shaman schtick from Arthur Lee’s stage presence, just as the Doors stole huge chunks of Love’s musical synthesis to create “their” sound (try playing “Spanish Caravan” and “The Castle” back to back). But Morrison knew how to sell it to the little girls, and make like a puppy dog when it counted. However weird he acted, Morrison was always just your bad-ass big brother, drunk and high. Arthur Lee was weird wierd. Morrison was also white of course, and Lee did push the 1960s Weirdo-Meter by being a freak and black. But the same combo worked pretty well for Jimi Hendrix, another of Arthur Lee’s friends, who also borrowed from the original black tripper’s immaculate sense of style.
Was it a black thing that held Arthur Lee back from the stardom Jim & Jimi grabbed in 1967? Was it a salesmanship thing? Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison copped out-there poses but they knew how to package them so as not to exclude the teen-buyer who wanted a poster god who would frighten the parents but was also cute. Cute like, misunderstood, lonesome, sad, deep, dark, but whose favorite color was blue and loved milk-shakes, a mix of big-guy-playground-protector and pussy-cat under all the leather and hair. Wrap “Foxy Lady” around “Third Stone From the Sun”, sugar-coat “Horse Latitudes” with a little “Light My Fire”, put some leather pants on it and set your guitar on fire. Jimi and Jim knew how to Barnum & Bailey that “psychedelic trip”. Arthur Lee knew too. He just didn’t try, perhaps for the same reason that he didn’t tour, do publicity stunts, give interviews, or do any of that “bullshit” that seems to help sell records.
Was Arthur Lee a loser? A brilliant, messed-up, super-slacker without even the commercial sense to OD? Will Love’s music always float in its own lush limbo: too good to be forgotten, too cool to be popular? Well…yeah/no. Forever Changes is a lost jewel, blah, blah, a “masterpiece”, blah, blah, way high on critics’ all-time, blah, blah, and not heard much on the radio or anywhere else. THAT WILL CHANGE!!! One day the world will catch up to songs like, “Alone Again Or”, “AndMoreAgain”, “Maybe the People Would Be the Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale” and…Wait a minute! Was it the song-titles?
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