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Four years ago, Christmas came early.
On December 20, 2002, I saw ARTHUR LEE for the first time. He was leading his backing band, BABY LEMONADE, at Warsaw in Brooklyn, New York. I was with my friend Dave. Near the start of this Love with Arthur Lee show—as LOVE’s latest incarnation was called—I remember thinking how amazing “Orange Skies” sounded and knew instinctively that we were in for a treat.
[Photo: TORBEN SKOTT]
And a treat it was. Arthur was perhaps the most charismatic and commanding frontman I had ever seen. A year earlier, this eccentric, unpredictable and wild sixties icon was all but left for dead as he served a jail sentence for a firearms charge. But tonight, he was every ounce the rock star. Arthur owned the stage, his tall, dark, mysterious presence absorbing the audience’s adulation like a parched plant soaking up water.
Projecting gravitas and unflagging confidence, Arthur delivered some of the best singing I had ever heard. I read plenty of press buzz about how smoking his post-prison shows were, but nothing prepared me for this. Arthur poured his soul into every song and the band played every nuanced note to perfection.
All eyes were glued to the shuffling shaman-like figure as he strummed his guitar, blasted his harmonica, smacked his tambourine, and sung like a man possessed. And in a sense he was possessed for Arthur had finally reclaimed his Freedom.
Having done little of artistic value in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Arthur’s career was finally showing signs of life in the early- to mid-‘90s before California’s “three strikes” rule sent him to the slammer in 1996. When I saw him, he was out of prison for almost a year after having been locked up for the previous six.
Ironically, Arthur’s prison stint may have been the catalyst he needed to change his drug-and-alcohol-addled life and stage a successful comeback. But Arthur has maintained in interviews that the reason he reassembled the band was because God told him that “love on earth must be.” So that’s what he did. He literally brought Love back to earth.
Last week, Arthur passed away, due to acute myeloid leukemia, in a hospital in his birthplace of Memphis, Tennessee, with his wife Diane by his side. Arthur lived only 61 years, but certainly saw and experienced more than most ever will. By every account, he lived a most extraordinary and improbable life.
A young black teen from a tough part of L.A. decides in the mid-sixties that he’ll make it in the ultra-competitive music business. For your average person, the best advice is “good luck and don’t forget the day job!” For your average person under 20 lacking industry connections the best advice is “good luck and don’t forget to go to college!”
But not only does Arthur establish himself as a pioneer in psychedelic rock, an area primarily occupied by white musicians, he was breaking racial barriers (fellow Love guitarist JOHNNY ECHOLS also is black) at the same time.
And Arthur wasted no time in making his mark. At 18, he had his first known recording under his belt, as part of THE LAGS. Around this time Arthur composed “My Diary,” which was performed by ROSA LEE BROOKS, and featured a then little-known guitarist named JIMI HENDRIX (possibly his first officially-released recorded output).
At 20, Arthur formed and fronted Love. A year later, the man who walked L.A.’s streets in one moccasin, had an album on Elektra. The following year, Arthur’s compositional skills flowered on the generally marvelous Da Capo (side two is composed of one long rambling and incoherent song that is best forgotten even though people who saw the band in the 1960s insist that the live version was staggeringly good).
Then Forever Changes, the 1967 psychedelic masterpiece that Lee primarily wrote, secured Love’s place in musical history. Guitarist BRYAN MACLEAN also contributed two gems in “Alone Again Or” and “Old Man.” Long revered in certain circles, Forever Changes has grown in stature and familiarity in recent years as Arthur and Baby Lemonade introduced the record to audiences all over the world, often playing it with orchestra in tow. On the eve of its 40th anniversary, the record continues to age like a fine wine.
However, Arthur also won widespread respect from his peers. SYD BARRETT, JIM MORRISON, ROBYN HITCHCOCK and HUGH CORNWELL have all cited him as an inspiration. And bands that have covered Love include THE DAMNED, THE RAMONES, BILLY BRAGG, YO LA TENGO, THE ELECTRIC PRUNES, MAZZY STAR, MISSION OF BURMA, ROBERT PLANT, and the VELVET UNDERGROUND.
If you look at this list, it’s quite a diverse bunch. I see punk rockers, folk musicians, psychedelic musicians, etc. To me that is part of what made Love so special. Its music could appeal to virtually anyone. Just consider that the fluffy-as-cotton-candy “Orange Skies” is on the same side of the same record as rambunctious “7 and 7 Is”!
Talk about versatility. But then we shouldn’t be surprised. Arthur always said that he hated being pigeonholed. In a 2004 interview, he named LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN as his favorite musician. He has also cited CHARLIE PARKER, THE BYRDS, and the THE BEATLES as inspirations.
In the shows I saw Arthur perform from 2002 to 2005, the audiences consisted of a mix of young, old, hippies, hipsters, punks, and none of the above. He transcended categorization in my mind. Most of his fans were white, which suggests that neither he nor his fans care too much about race. That said, Arthur has expressed disappointment in at least one interview about not being more recognized or celebrated by the black media (in particular, I seem to remember him singling out Jet magazine).
Many of the articles about Arthur passing away also mention his quote about being “the first so-called hippie.” I always cringe when I read that. Yes, Arthur dressed the part and loved drugs, and the band’s name was consistent with the prevailing hippie ethos. But Arthur was no hippie. He could be violent and he hurt many people close to him, which has caused some to half joke that the group should have been called Hate.
Even Forever Changes steered far clear of clichéd flower power sentiments. Arthur was far too original, complex and dangerous to be a mere hippie. He was a troubled genius who had problems. He also happened to make some of the best music this planet will ever hear.
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