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Love - Forever Changes (Rhino)

7 June 2008

I once read somewhere that when people are asked what they think of LOVE, they typically say one of two things.

“Who?” or “Love’s amazing!”

That’s generally been my experience too when discussing the legendary Los Angeles group.

However, while I’m a Love acolyte through and through, I wasn’t always.

I picked up Love’s third and most celebrated album, Forever Changes (1967), when I was in my twenties after hearing so many great things said about it. With high hopes I listened and listened—and was a bit puzzled. I appreciated the obvious artistry and originality but felt the record, while enjoyable, in no way deserved such adulation and fierce devotion.

On and off, over the years, I revisited the album and gradually came to enjoy it more but never quite got what so many did. My verdict: very good but very overrated. (I can only imagine how many others made the same conclusion and walked away from the album for good.)

Then in 2002 after learning that ARTHUR LEE, Love’s lead singer and guitarist, was sprung from prison after serving seven years on a firearms charge, and touring to critical praise, I saw him perform and was awestruck.

I finally got it.

Breathtaking performances are rare as it is, but this was ridiculously great and ridiculously improbable. For perspective, this was roughly on par with a pitcher hitting four home runs in a game. Here was Arthur, a man of myriad contradictions and personal demons, staging a remarkable comeback near age 60, a time when most people are closely eyeballing their 401k accounts.

Keep in mind too that before Arthur’s prison stint he was widely dismissed as a sixties casualty, the guy who had his moment with Forever Changes then flamed out. There was some truth to that when you consider that Arthur hadn’t created music at a consistently superior level since the much underrated Four Sail more than three decades earlier!

So it was all but impossible to fathom, yet it was happening. From 2002 to 2006, audiences treated Love like the legends they were, especially in England, where the group had always received a warm welcome.

In the liner notes to the outstanding Forever Changes Live (2003), the late GENE KRAUT, who managed Love during the group’s recent resurrection, quoted OASIS’ manager as asking him “what’s it like being the manager of the best band in the world?!!” (Here is the immensely recommended DVD release of that same show.)

Arthur even visited the House of Commons in London after the BBC reported that Members of Parliament voted Forever Changesthe greatest of all time.” (Somehow, me thinks hell will freeze over before members of Congress ever consider undertaking a similar measure here.)

Things couldn’t get much better for Arthur. Could they? They couldn’t. Things changed—and fast.

After increasing bouts of erratic behavior, Arthur split with his highly talented band mates—MIKE RANDLE, RUSTY SQUEEZEBOX, DAVID GREEN, and DAVE CHAPPLE, who comprised BABY LEMONADE—and returned to his hometown of Memphis where he sadly passed away two years ago due to acute myeloid leukemia.

I wrote a tribute to Arthur for this site that DIANE LEE, Arthur’s exceptionally kind and gracious widow, republished on the official Arthur Lee web site (scroll down a bit to read).

It may be a cliche, but it’s absolutely true. Although Arthur is gone, thankfully his music isn’t. Forever Changes, more than any album I know, gets better with repeated listens. It’s the one album I most urge people to be patient with. Just as a flower blooms in its own time, so too does Forever Changes.

Aside from the accessible opener, “Alone Again Or,” much of the album is not immediately catchy. Sales at the time of its release bear this out. Despite doing far better in England, Forever Changes only climbed as high as #154 on the Billboard charts.

Love was the toast of L.A. at the time, but Arthur’s refusal to tour aggressively and to play in high-profile festivals (not to mention the band’s confrontational and churlish nature) did little to help matters. Commercial success simply was not to be. After the “disappointment” that was Forever Changes, the band dissolved. Arthur continued Love in various incarnations but never flew so high again.

Okay, at this point I can hear you sighing and audibly wondering what the big deal is about. Well, let’s start with the staggering compositions. Arthur, who wrote nine of the eleven songs, was a songwriting master at all of 22. His tunes were wildly ambitious yet never boring or less than totally heartfelt. And they definitely were not self-indulgent wank-out jam sessions as so many were from the time.

These songs for the most part are short to medium length (eight of eleven clock in at under four minutes). They are clearly defined and meticulously constructed. Although a dreamy and disorienting mood prevails, every note and sound seems to be exactly in the right place. SALVADOR DALI serves as a useful corollary. Dali’s paintings tend to be vivid and precise and of clear vision yet the net impact of Dali’s vision, like Lee’s, evokes haze, disorientation and strangely enough, remarkable clarity.

Forever Changes’ songs, all with distinct and strong identities, work seamlessly together. Their sequencing is masterful and I would argue that side one (“Alone Again Or” through “The Red Telephone”) is as good an “album side” as any I’ve ever heard.

Forever Changes’ songs, importantly, serve up unexpected left and right turns. However, these aren’t non sequiturs or arbitrary expressions of irreverence. These are byproducts of a highly original and razor sharp vision. These unorthodox compositions may also explain in part why the songs are so hard to fully appreciate yet stand up so well over time.

The album embraces rock, psych, folk, orchestral pop and more. Yet instead of being an incoherent mishmash lacking in focus, it seamlessly pulls together wildly disparate elements and presents them in a manner that seems strikingly logical and sensible.

Despite the band’s earnest name, which perfectly tapped into that era’s zeitgeist, Love was a tough, rough-edged group that married usually beautiful music to dark and unsettling words.

Amid strife and disillusionment, during a period when many Americans felt society was literally imploding, Arthur was not one to say “give peace a chance” and pretend that all was well with the world as so many did. He was a hard boiled (and scrambled) egg who was well aware of what was happening in society but grounded enough to have his sweet and sour sentiments reflected in his music and words.

In light of the U.S. fighting in Vietnam then, and again now in Iraq and Afghanistan, some lines had prophetic overtones: “More confusions, blood transfusions. The news today will be the movies of tomorrow” from “A House is Not a Motel.” Also, “served my time, served it well, you made my soul a cell,” took on added poignancy when Arthur sang “Live and Let Live” post prison as he did with “The Red Telephone”: “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key. I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?”

At the same time, Arthur wasn’t a hostage to what he saw as he proved capable of imagining an idyllic world as he did in the wonderfully titled “The Good Humor Man, He Sees Everything Like This.”

Arthur also had one hell of a voice. In short, the man could Sing. The irony is that while Arthur’s range was better in 1967, his voice, almost four decades on, satisfied more despite sometimes struggling to reach certain notes. Why? In his latter years he brought an enormous amount of soul and raw power to his singing that I simply did not hear on his studio albums. This validates my belief that when it comes to music, heart, spirit and conviction beat technique each and every time. In the best of all worlds, heart, spirit, conviction and technique all come together as they do with Love.

Listen to “Orange Skies” from 2002-2006 and you’ll hear more passion and the song take on an entirely different dimension due to how Arthur’s voice redefines it. Or listen to the out and out staggeringly brilliant “Old Man,” written by Love guitarist and fellow songwriter BRYAN MACLEAN (who also penned “Alone Again Or”). The song is mesmerizing on Forever Changes with MacLean singing it.

But hearing Arthur sing “Old Man” decades later is hard to beat. His voice soars and the song takes on an added spiritual dimension. I can’t help but think that after years of being locked away, Arthur was literally born again as an artist, elated and grateful each time he walked on stage.

Arthur also is an extremely able rhythm guitarist. This adds to his formidable musical persona and credibility. In Arthur you have a musician who can write staggeringly great songs, sing with the best, play guitar very competently and blow a vicious harp. Listen to the deep blues of “Signed D.C.” and you’ll hear what I mean.

When Forever Changes was recorded, Arthur thought he would soon die despite his youth. So this literally was his grand final statement. That urgency and sense of trying to say everything that must be said clearly comes across. In fact, the album’s finale, the majestic and triumphant “You Set the Scene,” is as close to a life philosophy as any articulated by Arthur. It’s also arguably Love’s finest song.

The new double-disk Rhino reissue is essential for Love aficionados. For neophytes, the 2001 single-disk release might suffice. That said, if you have a few extra bucks, the new Rhino release is probably the way to go, considering the enormous payback this album provides over time.

Rhino smartly puts the proper Forever Changes album on one disk and all the alternate mixes and outtakes on a separate disk, unlike the 2001 release that put everything on one disk.

With Rhino’s new release, when “You Set the Scene” ends the album it leaves you with a stillness and silence that evokes awe and wonder at what you just heard, the same way that the record did when heard on vinyl years ago. The 2001 version instead launches into the pretty but incongruous “Hummingbirds” demo.

On the current release, the alternate mix of the album on disk two is strictly for the fans and even there the differences are more academic than aesthetic. What’s more interesting are the instrumental versions of “A House is Not a Motel” and “Andmoreagain.” On “House” the acoustic guitar sounds as docile as a just fed kitten in contrast to the incendiary electric solos on the album version that scream like caterwauling cougars.

However, “Andmoreagain,” despite spottier production value, retains its beauty. Sans voice, the guitars sound more nuanced, the drums seem to hit more fills and the bass seems to dance across the fret board with less friction.

A new inclusion on the second disk is an outtake of “Wooly Bully.” Yes, that “Wooly Bully.” Okay, this seems an awful choice for an outtake. But with Love, circa 1967, every damn thing is well worth hearing, especially anything from the Forever Changes sessions. The song springs forth spontaneously as the group segues from a failed take of “The Red Telephone” (referred to as “Hillside” during the recording) into a bout of gleeful tomfoolery and then a strangely inspired version of the song.

While some reviews have criticized the inclusion of “Wooly Bully” on the disk, both for being juvenile and reducing the band’s mystique by letting us peep into what really was happening, I found it highly endearing, not so much for the song itself but rather for allowing us to momentarily tip-toe into the studio to hear what really was happening.

Everything you read about the band from this era says that they were a combustible bunch who were constantly at each others throats. While I certainly don’t dispute that overall assessment, it was nice to hear—even for a short time—a group of musicians genuinely enjoying each other’s company while making musical history.