In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
The story of rock ’n roll is littered with unsung heroes, pioneers, and straight-up madmen, but few—if any—cast as long a shadow as Arthur Taylor Lee, the frontman of the ‘60s Los Angeles band Love. Last Friday, August 3rd, marked 12 years since his passing, but if anything his legend has continued to grow, not diminish, following his death at the age of 61.
Then again, that’s not saying much. For most of his life, Arthur Lee’s renown had nowhere to go but up. Love (the band) was more a theory than a working practice, and outside of a loyal local following in its mid-60s heyday, there were precious few rewards for the band’s labors: A handful of reasonable chart positions and occasional airplay, but little to no financial or critical acclaim, particularly after the essential lineup of the band quit (or were fired by Lee) following their late 1967 album Forever Changes.
After that, Lee spent the next couple of decades issuing a sporadic series of solo albums and half-hearted reboots, none of which garnered—or, frankly, deserved—much attention. So why celebrate him now? What about this troubled, and often troublemaking man deserves our attention?
At its best, Lee’s music embraced the spirit of contradiction in all its messy, confusing glory. Blending rock, folk, proto-punk, psychedelia, baroque pop, jazz and flamenco with utter fluidity, his songs were simultaneously a high point of ‘60s rock and a bursting through to something timeless lying far outside those narrow confines.
As an African-American growing up largely in South Central Los Angeles, Lee adopted a tough, streetwise veneer; as he later put it: “I don’t like violence but I love to fight.” The twist, of course, was that he named his band “Love,” their presentation a perfect distillation of mid-60s West Coast hipster cool.
Lee’s pugilisitic nature wasn’t lost on others; as one shaken San Francisco promoter said after a particularly traumatic booking: “They shouldn’t be called “Love”; they should be called “Fist.” And yet his lyrics betrayed a deep, uncomfortably raw sensitivity to pain and loss; “Signed D.C.”, from Love’s self-titled 1966 debut, is as harrowing and honest a song about addiction as you’ll ever hear.
This duality shone through loud and clear in the band’s cover of “My Little Red Book,” the stomping first track of that album. Covering a Burt Bacharach tune was nothing new (he’d written the number for the film What’s New, Pussycat? the year before), but Lee imbued the song with both an urgency and a heartsickness it previously lacked. No less than the Velvet Underground were impressed by Love’s reading of the song; inspired to cover it themselves, they apparently couldn’t master its charging 4/4 pace.
Love wouldn’t dabble much in covers themselves, but their influence ran far and wide. Sharp jabs like “My Flash on You,” an unironic rejection of the drugs that would bedevil many of the band members (Lee included), were catnip for aspiring garage rockers. Thee Sixpence would deliver an inspired cover mere months after it was released. While their version came and went in—what else?—a flash, the band refused to go quietly; they renamed themselves The Strawberry Alarm Clock and soon unleashed “Incense and Peppermints” upon the world.
More established musicians were taking note as well; Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix were fans, the latter an occasional collaborator. Decades later, Robert Plant would cover “A House Is Not a Motel”—a song we’ll return to—and the Damned would score their last Top 40 hit to date with a 1987 version of “Alone Again Or,” a tender masterpiece of a song penned by Arthur Lee’s bandmate (and rival) Bryan MacLean.
Other borrowings were more subtle. It’s highly possible the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” was influenced by Lee’s “She Comes in Colors,” an achingly lovely meditation on vision, projection, and transparency. Or, typically of Lee, perhaps on none of these things.
It’s this refusal to be defined, to continually deflect labels and stereotypes, that made Arthur Lee such a compelling artist and such a frustrating figure. Forever on the edge of widespread recognition, he would invariably sabotage it, firing his collaborators, skipping performances, or employing any other number of artful, maddening sidesteps to dodge the success he so rightfully felt he deserved.
Lee did experience a taste of this acclaim late in his life, but it wasn’t without its complications. Interest in the music of the ‘60s had bubbled quietly in the underground ever since the decade’s passing, and in the early ‘90s Lee put together a backing band and toured, something he’d been loath to do in his heydey.
I had a brief intersection with him during this phase, when a band I was in was booked to open for him. It’s difficult to conjure the sense of mystery and anticipation from those largely pre-Internet days, when information on cult figures like Arthur Lee was sketchy and inconclusive at best. Was it really him? What would he play? What kind of shape was he in?
When he finally arrived—late, of course—it was clear that he was not a well man. Maddeningly obtuse, he responded to even simple greetings with deflection and misdirection.
“Hi Mr. Lee, I’m Jesse. I’m so pleased to be playing with you tonight,” said my bandmate, by way of introduction. “Jesse James was my grandfather,” snapped Lee, firmly shutting the lid on any avenue for engagement. Head down, he made clear that he had no wish to converse.
Lee’s performance that night was confusing as well. At times he seemed fully immersed in the music, his voice and passion largely intact. At other times, his eyes widened as some inner turmoil took him over, and his spirit seemed to leave the room entirely. During one song, his physical form fled the stage as well, leaving his backing band—Los Angeles’ Baby Lemonade—to exchange knowing, exasperated glances and vamp until Lee returned a few minutes later, sauntering onstage with a Cheshire Cat grin that suggested everything was super-cool and under control.
It wasn’t. The remaining dozen-odd years of his life would be a tragicomic admixture of highs and lows: A prison sentence for a firearms crime, on top of previous convictions for arson and assault; sold-out performances at venues like London’s Royal Festival Hall, complete with string and horn sections to flesh out the majestic, towering arrangements of Forever Changes; then bailing out on tours while still on the jetway. And finally, the rapid and unstoppable onset of acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer.
Forever Changes, the last Love album made with a semblance of the band’s original lineup, provides a suitable vantage point from which to say goodbye to Arthur Lee. It’s a masterwork of an album throughout, and many artists ranging from the aforementioned Robert Plant to Calexico, Teenage Fanclub and many others would be inspired to revisit its songs.
But it’s at the end of the record’s second track, the deeply unsettling “A House Is Not a Motel”—inspired in part by an interaction Lee had with a soldier just returned from Vietnam—that the band truly launches into interstellar overdrive. Snapped to attention by the crack of a martial drum break, a phalanx of electric guitars delivers a clarion call of crushing urgency and purpose, an apocalyptic two-note figure fracturing into a twisting psychedelic helix. Perhaps it’s a portal into the beautiful, messy chaos of Arthur Lee’s imagination. Out, out, far out in the cosmos to which it beckons us, one hopes its creator has finally found some peace.