Arthur Lee is free … for now. And he’s leaving LA with his legendary band, Love.
Lee’s history has always been one unique to the limelight. At the peak of Love’s fame in the late ’60’s, the mysterious psych-folk innovator refused to tour outside Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip and rarely left his secluded home in the Hollywood Hills. But spending more than half of the last decade in jail might have cured Lee of his need for isolation.
“Everyone in the band is so excited and happy that Arthur is doing again what he was put on earth to do,” says Mike Randle, Love’s lead guitarist. “The tour has been an inspiration to all of us and it’s so incredible when you experience how his music has touched people all over the world.”
In the mid-’90s, Lee was attempting to touch people in a different way. He was convicted of grossly negligent discharge of a firearm after he allegedly shot into the air during a dispute with a neighbor. He was convicted for illegal possession of the firearm in 1996. A year earlier Lee was arrested after breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment and trying to set it on fire. Love hurts.
But for the time being, Lee is out of jail due to a federal appeals court reversing the negligence charge. Last December rollingstone.com reported on the appeals court ruling that found the prosecutor at Lee’s original trial was guilty of misconduct, but that Lee still might face another trial.
Now the 56-year-old jailbird is enjoying his elbowroom, hopping from Denmark to North America to the UK. In addition to Lee and Randle, the current lineup includes David “Daddyo” Green on drums, Dave Chapple on bass and Rusty Squeezebox on rhythm guitar. Before Lee hired them to be a part of Love in 1992, they were an LA band called Baby Lemonade.
“As far as Baby Lemonade goes, we decided, about eight months ago, to put the band on hiatus and it just so happens that Arthur’s case was overturned by the courts,” Randle recounts. “He rang us up and asked if we wanted to put the band back together again. We all happened to be at a point where we were either going to seriously start working for the ‘man’ or continue to play music. Arthur’s offer came at a good time, I suppose. It’s worked out well so far.”
It’s less than a year since Rhino reissued Forever Changes, Love’s seminal third record with bonus tracks. The label also released the Love Story two-disc collection in 1995. Even though Lee has spent most of the last 30-plus years sporadically releasing records that don’t hold a candle to Love’s first three (Love, Da Capo, Forever Changes), his influence has only increased. The band has stoutly maintained an underground cult status, but fans and critics continue to laud Love, calling Forever Changes a contender for the best rock album of all time — a classic in good company with the more well-known staples such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
“Arthur will be the first to say he now wants to make ‘Love’ a household word,” says Gene Kraut, Lee’s manager. “But, then again, Arthur also remains a complicated man of mystique. I don’t think he’ll ever want to be so completely accessible. I also think he is acutely aware of how important his music has been to his fans, yet how few of them have actually seen him perform. And the more he goes on, the more he’s enjoying it.”
In the liner notes to Rhino’s reissue of Forever Changes, Detroit music guru Ben Edmonds offers a clear and contextualizing look at the Los Angeles community of working artists in 1967, the year Forever Changes was first released.
Under “smog-orange skies” and amid the “Hollywood dream industry” images were mass-manufactured. “There was no cultural concept they couldn’t appropriate, neuter, and gold-plate … Serious artists who lived and worked in the shadow of that dream-making machinery tended to be wary of any cultural images that were too easily available,” he writes.
“So while the media was dancing around San Francisco’s psychedelic maypole, the response of Los Angeles artists to the summer of 1967 was markedly different,” Edmonds writes. “Change the industry’s cynicism to a healthy skepticism and couple it with a willingness to seize every bit of the artistic freedom that image offered, and you get works like the Doors’ Strange Days, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trust Us,’ Tim Buckley’s Goodbye And Hello and Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention’s 1968 classic We’re Only In It For The Money. But none caught the strangeness of those days, or captured the combination of beauty and dread they contained, quite like Love’s Forever Changes.”
This beautiful dread Edmonds writes of is apparent in Lee’s work still today, which is built on an urgent, nervous energy. Perhaps this is because Lee always describes Forever Changes as a collection of what he thought were his last words. He had premonitions that he would die that year. Instead, the band broke up the following year, 1968. The early contributors to Love (Lee, Johnny Echols, Bryan MacLean, Ken Forssi, Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer, Tjay Cantrelli and Michael Stuart) worked musical magic together. But drugs and a general sluggishness overtook the band and Lee broke it up and continued on with the help of various backup musicians until 1992, when he hired Baby Lemonade.
Throughout the years, Love has kept its garagey energy, one that melded folk and rock with the sound of the British invasion, much like the band’s LA contemporaries the Byrds. But Love was an original. There are the obvious visual differences. Not only was Lee a black man fronting one of the most popular bands in LA’s mostly white rock underbelly, he often magnified his uniqueness in photos, appearing with a cigarette subtly dangling out of his ear or in belted short-shorts and nothing else next to his fully clothed band mates. Sonically, the band overflowed beyond the folk-rock tag with odd structures and orchestral arrangements, culling elements from Latin music, psychedelia and jazz. Some even say that Da Capo’s short and insurgent “7 and 7 Is” is a precursor to punk. The psych-punk band the Make-Up recorded “Free Arthur Lee” as a tribute in the late ’90s.
Kraut says that Lee isn’t too familiar with many current bands that cite him as a direct inspiration, but that most of what he does hear on the radio, he doesn’t like.
“In a recent interview he said that (even though his friend Rodney Bingenheimer has a show on the station) he can’t see how anyone could listen to the LA station KROQ, which pretty much covers all alternative and modern rock,” Kraut says. “He has said to me that he recognizes the need for good music and he thinks that is why so many young people are being influenced by him and coming out to his shows. In Madrid, for example, the band played in front of a long-sold-out show of 600 people. The majority were under 30 and singing along to all of the songs in English.”
So what does a man do after he’s done Love, travel and time?
“Arthur certainly has plans to record his next record very soon,” Randle informs. “I’ve heard the songs and I can honestly say they’re great; the best he’s written since ’75, in my opinion. Arthur plans to show us the songs and we’ll record what he wants us to record. Of course, he knows some of the best musicians in the world so I wouldn’t rule out several talented people [being] on the record as well.”
Randle’s not sure why Lee didn’t want to tour with the earliest formation of Love or why he decided that now was a good time to do it. “Arthur has written a book and it’s possible the answers are there. He certainly enjoys it and his performances have been stellar. He’s having a good time.”
Love with Arthur Lee performs Saturday, Aug. 3 at the Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward, Detroit; call 313-833-9700.E-mail Melissa Giannini at firstname.lastname@example.org