04 August 2006

All You Need Is Love..or R.I.P. Arthur Lee

14 Mordad - Year 1385

"This is the time and life that I am living
and I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
and the things that I must do consist
of more than style..."

--Love, "You Set The Scene" 1967

It was announced earlier today that Arthur Lee, mastermind and founder of legendary L.A. psychedelic band Love, passed away yesterday following a long battle with leukemia. He died in his native Memphis, Tennessee after being nearly a life-long resident of L.A.

Lee was born in 1945, just as World War II was ending. His family found that there were more opportunities out West, so the family (including Lee's cousin, Johnny Echols, who would become an essential part of Love) moved to California from Memphis when Arthur was 12.

He and Echols attended the same high school and started playing together, Johnny on guitar and Lee on congas--which gave them a bit of attention in their neighborhood. Lee also took organ lessons and he and Echols formed their first band--playing covers of standard R&B tunes, like Booker T. & The MG's Green Onions. They then gigged around as various out-fits, Arthur Lee & The L.A.G., American Four and ALJE. In 1965, Lee and Echols saw The Byrds at Ciro's and decided that's where they were headed. They chamged their name to The Grass Roots and adopted more of a "folk-rock" sound. An altercation with producer Lou Adler after their set one night, led to Adler forming a studio group quickly and poaching the "Grass Roots" moniker. Lee & Co. didn't have enough money to sue for rights--so they had their audience pick their new name, and Love it was.

The band continued on--through a few more line-up changes and many club gigs. Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, spotted the band in late 1965--and offered them a deal. They accepted and entered the studio to record their debut album. The line-up now included Bryan MacLean, a former Byrds roadie and guitar player (and relative of Shirley MacLaine, the actress), Alban 'Snoopy' Pfisterer on drums and Ken Forssi on bass. The album was released in September 1966, and boosted Elektra's rock credibility--but didn't make much of an impact, aside from their re-working of Burt Bacharach's My Little Red Book--which infuriated it's composer. It was issued as a single and actually dented the lower regions of the chart, while becoming the first "classic" Love track. There were other gems on the first one, though, like Can't Explain, Maclean's Softly To Me..and the haunting, cautionary Signed D.C., about former Love drummer Don Conka.

After constantly gigging throughout 1966--the band returned to the studio the same month that their debut was released. This time around they made a huge jump ahead with quality of material and studio production. Two new members were added to the group as well. Michael Stuart-Ware became the drummer (while 'Snoopy' was moved to keyboards) and Tjay Cantrelli brought his jazz sax-playing to the mix. The result of the sessions was Da Capo, released in February 1967. Every track was a minor masterpiece--but the standouts are Seven & Seven Is, a psychedelic proto-punk force of nature that inspired hundreds of garage bands. Que Vida, one of my all-time favourite Love tracks, with it's trippy Lee lyrics and descending guitar riff and sleigh bells in the coda. She Comes In Colors, which would crop up in the lyrics to The Rolling Stones' She's A Rainbow (on their psychedelic album Their Satanic Majesties Request), sung by Lee in his best Mick Jagger impression--adding to the brilliance, a black man singing like a white man who sings like a black man. MacLean's Orange Skies is a nice contrast to "7 & 7 Is", again sung by Lee, but this time in a Johnny Mathis affectation. Side 2 (of the LP) saved the biggest innovation for last--an entire side of a record for one track, called Revelation. Lee decided to one-up the Stones, after they released Going Home, and 11-minute blues tune, as the final song on Aftermath. It starts with a harpsichord solo--then the band come in with a blues jam, each member gets a solo spot--and then back to the harpsichord, in 18 minutes! Quite a bold move for a rock band, though it was the norm in jazz. The best was yet to come.

Unfortunately, first, Cantrelli and Pfisterer were let go, as Lee was told by the record label that the line-up was beyond their budget for touring and recording. The rest of the band (or Lee) didn't gig much and barely played together in the beginning of 1967. Lee became convinced (possibly through drug use) that he would die very soon and it coloured his lyrics. By the time the remaining five reconvened in the studio in June 1967, they were in poor shape and Elektra actually brought in studio musicians to back Lee, instead of the rest of the group. Frightened that they would be replaced completely, the others practised for two months and in August 1967--they performed as a unit again and produced their best album, Forever Changes. So much has been printed about this record that I won't go into detail about it--except to say that it presents, along with "Satanic Majesties" and The Deviants' Ptoof!, an alternative to the love-n-flowers aspect of '67 that balances out the psychedelic dream and nightmare of the decade.

In 1968, the band began to fall apart, due to Lee's often dictatorial control of the band--and, of course, the harder drug use that was becoming prevalent, especially by Ken Forssi. A disastrous short residency for the band in New York City exacerbated the tensions--with Lee's decision to pull the group from the Miami Pop Festival of that year spelling the end of the "classic" line-up of the band. Before the disintegration, they released one final single, Your Mind And We Belong Together b/w Laughing Stock. Lee convened a new version of Love, to MacLean's anger, in early 1969. This line-up recorded three albums, Four Sail, False Start and Out There between 1969 and 1971--of which "Four Sail" is the best, with a hint of the '67 Love sound remaining. The other two moved in a harder rock direction--and Lee did get to record with his old friend Jimi Hendrix, when Hendrix guested on The Everlasting First, a track on "Out There"--though the pairing wasn't as astounding as it should have been, the tune being a bit tepid. Lee recorded a solo album, Vindicator, in 1972--then put together yet another Love line-up in 1974, but the record they issued, Reel To Real, sank without a trace--longtime fans disappointed with Lee's overtly commercial attempt and trendy shift. After one more self-titled solo album, released in 1981--he disappeared for almost a decade.

Lee reappeared in 1991, recruiting a band (including original Love drummer Don Conka) and playing the old material--realising the impact that Love's material had on some bands in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, Bryan MacLean turned down an offer to re-join, as Lee's behaviour at a few joint shows in the early 80s caused a rift between them. He also played in the UK in 1992, with Liverpool band Shack acting as his backing band. Back in California, Lee's often erratic behaviour also got him into trouble with the law--and he was jailed in 1996 for illegally possessing a firearm. He was released in 2001, and re-joined his backing band, Baby Lemonade--who had played as Love from 1992 through '96, for some new shows. Their triumphal moment came early in 2003, when Lee and Co. played the entire "Forever Changes" record straight through--along with some Love classics, on a UK tour. A CD and DVD were released to commemorate the tour. All seemed to be well with Arthur--until a scheduled UK tour in summer 2005. Arthur split from the group on the eve of the tour, staying back in L.A. The band, now with Johnny Echols back in the fold, continued on with the tour--issuing a statement about what had happened. Pixie and I caught the show at the Zodiac, in Oxford, in July--and while the band performed the tunes brilliantly and note-for-note, even including a surprise "Revelation"--I couldn't help feeling that something was missing--now I really wish Arthur had been there.

Arthur Lee was an amazing songwriter and musician and while he could possibly never be described as a completely gentle person, he seemed to remain true to his own vision. Stories abound about his behaviour over the years--infighting with band mates, attacking photographers at Love's early shows, drug troubles and yes, the prison sentence. Through it all, though, his undeniable talent showed and he always seemed to get back to the music. It appears that the Love story has officially ended--as Bryan MacLean passed away in 1998. He will be remembered for that triptych of Love albums from 1966 and '67, culminating in the daring and beautiful "Forever Changes"--which seems to me to be one of the best albums yet released. First Syd Barrett and now Arthur Lee--all of the psychedelic 60s eccentrics are leaving the planet. Only Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson are left.

--if you want a decent account of life inside Love from 1966 to 1968, check out Michael Stuart-Ware's book, Behind The Scenes: On The Pegasus Carousel With Love--available on Helter Skelter Press. Obviously, it's from Sturat-Ware's view and Lee sometimes doesn't come across as a very sympathetic character, but the band practices, studio sessions and gig accounts are fascinating stuff.


Anonymous said...

Yet another great says 'farewell'. Love were an amazing band and if it wasn't for Arthur's erratic behaviour, would have been even bigger, I'm sure. Still, the madness and the genius going hand in hand and all. I must get around to finally buying 'Da Capo'! I'm sure Virgin or HMV will have a tribute stand somewhere.

RIP Mr. Lee.

The Purple Gooroo said...

I can copy "Da Capo" for you--I've got the re-issue with stereo and mono versions and the tracking session for "7 And 7 Is" as a bonus track.

Just remind me soon-ish :-)

Anonymous said...

That would be very cool. Wait until you've recieved my long promised discs, though. Coming soon!