A Story to Fall in Love With
One is tempted to suggest, if sardonically, that now is the time for a reappraisal of Love. But that is unlikely. It’s never been time for Love, then or now, and this one-two punch of bad timing and bad luck tends to encapsulate the band’s maddening legacy. Love could never quite get over, and this certainly contributes to the enigmatic air that hangs over their history.
Of course, the music they made (their first four albums in particular) insulates them from easy analysis, so fans and especially critics are unable to neatly pigeonhole them into a particular period. This is remarkable in itself, considering the year they made their masterwork, Forever Changes: it is, in so many agreeable ways, utterly of its time as a reflection—or, really, a refraction—of 1967, but it also remains fresh and unfettered, more than 40 years later.
Don’t think so? Consider how much of the music, circa 1967, sounds not only dated but instantly identifiable. Even records by the better bands (The Rolling Stones and, yes, even The Beatles, to name two of the top dogs on the scene) have not necessarily aged well. While Sgt. Pepper is not quite as lionized as it was, say, 20 years ago (it is venerated, appropriately, for its symbolic import as much, or more, than the songs on the album), it is still considered one of the all-time masterpieces of rock ‘n’ roll.
With that in mind, if you put Forever Changes alongside Sgt. Pepper and did a track-by-track comparison, Love would, at worst, be in a dead heat. That aside, it is difficult to deny that Forever Changes stands up to repeated listens, and it remains an exciting album simply because of the sheer quality of the individual songs.
What might get lost in the discussion of Forever Changes is the fact that Love existed before that album, and more surprisingly, they existed after it. More, they managed to actually make some worthwhile music. Not enough people know this, but it almost does not matter; plenty of people know that Forever Changes is indelible: not for nothing does it consistently pop up on “best albums” lists; it is a perennial favorite of musicians as well as critics.
Which brings us around to the question of whether there could possibly be an audience for a DVD detailing the band’s history. The answer, of course, is yes. Love Story is an overdue gift for the converted, and will serve as a valuable introduction for the uninitiated.
Love Story is, by any reasonable criterion, a considerable achievement. The first-time film makers, Chris Hall and Mike Kerry, have assembled tons of footage, including insightful interviews from Arthur Lee and his band mates, as well as Jac Holzman (head of Elektra Records), Bruce Botnick (producer) and John Densmore (drummer from The Doors)—among many others. The story unfolds chronologically, tracing Arthur’s (and childhood friend Johnny Echols’) upbringing in Los Angeles. Generous portions of interviews culled from 2005 and 2006 (again, featuring both Lee and Echols) make up the bulk of the narrative. In an early sequence, Lee is filmed driving through the LA streets, and it is sobering to consider all that has changed (in his life, in his city), and the things that will never change.
Lee was a star athlete in high school, but when he saw Echols playing guitar and—in classic rock cliché fashion—saw the girls seeing Echols, he understood immediately where his future lay. Lee was precocious, with ambition to match his gifts, and his confidence made the subsequent success seem all but inevitable. By the time they got serious about their musical careers, Lee and Echols hooked up with Brian Maclean, a guitarist so keen on joining up with The Byrds he’d become one of their roadies.
The alchemy was immediate: Maclean’s folky influences embellished Echols and Lee’s blues and R&B leanings, creating a sound that was both bigger and better than it might have been. The name the band chose was not only a no-brainer for a west coast group in the mid-‘60s, it was more than a little appropriate for the first racially integrated rock outfit. Love started gigging on the sunset strip, catching the attention of Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, who quickly signed them to his label (which, to this point, had primarily focused on folk music).
A classic—and prescient—Arthur Lee anecdote followed: the singer split with the $5,000 advance and returned later that day in a new Mercedes. He then proceeded to give the other members (Echols and Mclean, as well as bassist Michael Stuart and drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer) one hundred bucks each, because that was what was left. It’s hard to say what is more astounding: Lee’s audacity or the fact that a Mercedes convertible cost less than $5k!
Entering the studios, the band was tight and focused from months of steady gigging. Their self-titled debut was recorded quickly—the band essentially came into the studio and performed their regular set. From the first, there was never the slightest question about who was in charge: Love was Lee’s band. Holzman credits Mclean with lightening Lee’s intensity and broadening the scope of his compositions; Mclean was an accomplished—and determined—musician in his own right, and a natural, if inevitable, competition evolved. For a while, it was a fruitful partnership, and the two men brought out the best in each other.
The hit from the first album was the band’s annihilation of “My Little Red Book”, giving Burt Bacharach a menacing edge a few years before Isaac Hayes did his own extraordinary deconstructions of songs like “Walk On By” and “The Look of Love”. Another dark, unique tune is the appropriately entitled instrumental “Emotions”, with Echols creating something like surreal surf music; it sounds like The Ventures after a sketchy acid trip. And here was another harbinger of Love’s unique M.O.: taking the (mostly) sun and fun vibes of guitar-heavy surf rock and giving it a solemn edge, turning something simple inside out, exposing the shadow beneath the glow (this ability to see, and insinuate, the darker side of the free love ethos is arguably what made Love difficult to fully embrace, and what makes them still sound unique, now).
Love quickly became the Kings of Los Angeles, with celebrities like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane dropping by “The Castle”, the large house up in the LA hills the band shared. They immediately commenced work on the next album, partly to capitalize on the collective energy and excitement, but also (crucially) because the band was not interested in hitting the road to promote the first record. Da Capo is an album that most fans (including this one) consider a 50 percent masterpiece: the six songs on side one are stunning, and represent incredible forward steps, full of sophistication and inventiveness (The Stones happily stole/honored Lee’s words in “She Comes in Colors” for their own hit “She’s a Rainbow” and there is little doubt Robbie Krieger studied “The Castle”—a song that introduced flamenco guitar to rock music—before composing the music for “Spanish Caravan”).
Side two, notable as the first side-long track (an innovation that was embraced by other acts, much to the rock critics’ collective disdain when this practice reached its prog-rock apotheosis the following decade), was, according to Lee and Echols, a scorcher in their live set. They failed to capture the energy—or whatever it was that captivated the crowds—in the studio, and the result is a kind of half-assed blues romp with plenty o’ noodling that mostly goes nowhere. Nevertheless, the sum of Da Capo is far greater than its parts; or, perhaps, the parts, assessed one a time, constitute six songs out of seven that are homeruns, and no athlete (or artist) could ask for much more than that.
Around this time another young group was starting to develop a reputation on the strip. Lee took them under his wing, going so far as to convince an initially unimpressed Jac Holzman to sign them. This band, led by a charismatic young man named Jim Morrison, famously stated that their original ambition was to be “as big as Love”. The rest, of course, is history.
Holzman fondly recalls The Doors being eager and, compared to Love, more obsessed: in a nutshell, they were willing to pay the obligatory dues, touring the entire country and steadily cultivating an audience. Echols and Lee both express bitterness that Elektra latched onto the Doors, ignoring the band that had delivered them on a platter. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give a great deal of credence to these sour grapes: by all accounts the escalating internal tensions, Lee’s control freak tendencies (in and outside the band) and of course the increasing drug use—along with the aforementioned refusal to tour—arguably combined as an imperfect storm to prevent Love from striking while the Zeitgeist was glowing.
The subsequent Forever Changes sessions almost never happened. By the time they returned to the studio, Lee’s band was a mess: exhausted, apathetic and strung out. Eventually, Lee cajoled them into pulling themselves together and, against some serious odds; they hung in there long enough to make one of the greatest rock and roll records of all time. The album failed to break the Top 100, and Lee was crushed. According to Jac Holzman, people simply needed to see the band performing the songs, but it wasn’t to be. A fuller analysis of Forever Changes can be read in “Forever Never Changes” (PopMatters August 2006).
Lee admits, in addition to his band mates, “I was kind of spaced in those days.” To a certain extent Lee’s defiant nature is understandable, or at least explicable. When you are that naturally talented, it has to be more than a little challenging to jump through the necessary hoops in order to connect the dots of pop star accessibility. Many years later, Lee acknowledges, and regrets, his self-defeating intransigence. To Holzman’s credit, he flew Lee out to New York City, but the singer was the opposite of Woody Allen in Annie Hall: he was allergic to the big apple and only felt comfortable in L.A. Lee begins to sound like rock music’s Jake LaMotta: he understood the game, but because he saw through it, or felt above it, or was willfully sabotaging himself or—most of all—he simply couldn’t be bothered, he never seized the gold ring that was gleaming right in front of his face.
The proverbial writing was on the wall: even Lee had pushed himself to the edge (to the point where he became certain he was going to die; that the world was going to end), and the band was unable to return again to the well (although subsequent sessions produced some incredible songs, found on the Forever Changes reissues). Heroin was the drug of choice, and almost the entire band succumbed. As Echols summarizes, “You chased the dragon until the dragon catches you.” After the January ’68 sessions, Maclean left the band and an oft-repeated rock tale played out: neither Mclean nor Lee was ever as good apart as they were together. Nevertheless, Lee carried the banner, and while the results were decidedly mixed, Love (with a rotating cast of backing musicians) made some meaningful music in the ensuing decades. Four Sail, while never approaching the heights of its predecessor, is somewhat of a lost classic, and is overdue for reassessment.
Unfortunately, Lee received more attention for his behavior than his music in the years that followed, culminating in his controversial jail sentence for a firearms charge (courtesy of California’s three-strikes law). Fortunately, he was released half-way through his ludicrously harsh 12-year term, and soon after began touring with a revamped Love line-up. The tour, where the entirety of Forever Changes was played, won critical praise and drew large crowds.
Finally, it seemed, Lee was beginning to get his due. Tragically, in the midst of his latest return from oblivion, Lee was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and he passed away in August 2006, before filming of Love Story was completed. The post ‘60s years are somewhat glossed over, and while there is (obviously) a great deal of material to cover there, Lee is probably the only one who could speak about those darker days. Of course, the only people who will be disappointed by the lack of dirt are the ones for whom the melodrama is more important than the music.
Lee left his mark, and he knew it; and before he died, he had a decent opportunity to witness the collective appreciation. That he was able to tour the world in his last years is just, that he was taken before he could add to his legacy is regrettable. That old fans and, hopefully, legions of new listeners will continue to discover his work is exactly as it should be.