You might think a song nearing its 40th birthday would be allowed to age gracefully, but Arthur Lee would never have it that way. On stage to a sold-out crowd at New York City’s Town Hall on Oct. 13, 2004, he reaches the final verse of “The Red Telephone,” and skewers it, just so slightly: “They’re locking them up today / They’re throwing away the key / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow / Martha Stewart or me?”
The centerpiece of tonight’s show is Forever Changes, Lee and his band Love’s seminal 1967 album, now updated but still very much intact—very much like Arthur Lee himself, who was arrested in June 1995 for threatening a neighbor with a gun. Although a friend, Doug Thomas, claimed he—not Lee—fired the shot, the jury wasn’t convinced, and Lee wound up in prison, an experience he now recounts in lyrical twists directed at his own past and, here, Ms. Stewart’s present.
In December 2001 Lee was paroled, and, almost ever since, he has been on the most vigorous touring schedule of his entire life, reacquainting himself with older audiences and introducing his vast, unique oeuvre to a new generation of fans.
On June 18, 1966, Arthur Lee and Love played on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The band members, dressed in florid polyester shirts, fringe jackets, and knee-high leather boots, stunned the clean-cut audience with their searing version of Burt Bacharach’s usually poppy “My Little Red Book,” which the band saturated with garage-punk intensity—a full decade before punk was Punk.
A usually polished Clark, who didn’t know what to make of Love, their music or their attire, prodded the band to talk about their communal living arrangement in Bela Lugosi’s house—a macabre badge that almost instantly sealed their status as rock ‘n’ roll legends.
But Love’s Bandstand appearance was merely the cap to a period of enormous creative energy and critical acclaim. Lee and Love had already made their name on the Sunset Strip club circuit, where their blues-rock hybrid was the sound to imitate. Ray Manzarek, the Doors’ keyboardist, even recalled the young Jim Morrison as saying, “Man, if we could be as big as Love, my life would be complete.”
The original Love lineup disbanded the following year, shortly after the release of Forever Changes, and Lee went on to form various incarnations of the group throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, eventually giving up performing altogether to care for his ailing father. Then he reemerged in 1989 at the “Psychedelic Summer of Love” concert in Los Angeles, and in 1992 released a new album, Five String Serenade, from which the title track was rerecorded by the band Mazzy Star to wide commercial success.
Tonight Lee’s inimitable falsetto is still strong, and his energetic interpretations of the Love catalog make the classics sound fresh and alive. Love’s two lead guitarists—Johnny Echols, from the original lineup, and Mike Randle, a power-chord virtuoso who joined Love in the mid-’90s—carry on a musical discussion that crosses generational paths, and Echols’s crunchy chord progressions and riveting scales answer Randle’s hardcore, neo-psychedelic jams. The exchanges are most poignant in “Signed D.C.,” where lyrics in the form of a suicide note describe the narrator’s powerless addiction to drugs. Lee’s mournful wails on the harmonica add melancholic emphasis to the sketch, combining a bluesy cross-harp style with straight notes from the upper register.
The bespectacled, avuncular Echols, who had disappeared from the music scene for nearly three decades, delighted everyone, audience and band alike, when he took the final solo in “Seven and Seven Is,” a top single for the band—and Lee’s signature tune.
As a lyricist, Arthur Lee has always had an unfathomable talent for exposing life’s contradictions. After all, he named his band Love, then went on to debunk the Summer of Love’s myth of peaceful coexistence with Forever Changes, which would turn out to be an ominous premonitory gaze into the grim future of Tinseltown two years before the Manson murders.
When Lee assembled the original Love in 1965, Bobby BeauSoleil auditioned for the rhythm guitar slot. But “Bummer Bob,” a Manson acolyte, couldn’t compete with Bryan MacLean’s crisp, melodic chord progressions and folk picking. BeauSoleil, the inspiration for Forever Changes’ “Bummer in the Summer,” was imprisoned for murdering a Topanga Canyon acquaintance shortly before Manson’s Cielo Drive killing spree.
Forever Changes’ combination of tongue-in-cheek optimism, melancholic melodies, and ghastly themes of nuclear annihilation, genocide, and middle-class boredom highlight the dichotomy between L.A.’s fun-in-the-sun ‘60s idealism and the prophetic darkness of the Manson madness, the Cold War, and America’s involvement in Vietnam, themes that would be picked up by later California punk bands like Black Flag, the Germs, and the Dead Kennedys. One of Forever Changes’ most horrifying images appears in the final verse of “A House Is Not A Motel.” A Vietnam vet once told Lee that when blood mixes with mud it forms a sickly gray substance. Lee takes this image and literally brings it home in his description of a bathtub filled with mud, its spigot belching blood. Played live, the grotesqueness is equally powerful, and the lyrics that directly precede the image—”By the time that I’m through singing / The bells from the schools of war will be ringing / More confusions, blood transfusions / The news today will be the movies for tomorrow”—have not, given today’s state of affairs, lost a shred of their meaning.
After the Town Hall show, Lee says, “When I wrote Forever Changes, I was writing songs I thought would always be relevant.” When I ask if the songs are “timeless,” Lee’s gaze becomes fixed and serious. “Not timeless,” he replies. “They’re about things that happen all the time…like war and human suffering.”
More work from Lee and Love is forthcoming. At the Town Hall performance, Lee announced a full-length album in the works, along with the upcoming release of Rainbow in the Storm, his long-awaited autobiography. There is also a new EP, Love on Earth Must Be, which features three new compositions as well as new renditions of “Message to Pretty” and “Feathered Fish.” At the Town Hall performance, however, Lee and Love were content to stick to the classics. And the crowd… loved it.