Love's labors lost

That Arthur Lee's Love shattered like a bottle only heightens the group's claim to the title of California's greatest psychedelic band.

Topics: Rock and Roll,

It’s a long drive from where we are to where we’re going so let’s play
one of those time-wasting, miles-eating, desert-island games. Tell me,
what was California’s greatest psychedelic band? The one with the loyal,
nomadic following? The one Oliver Stone made a film about? Or one with a
place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? What if it was none of the
above but rather one with few modern fans, no merchandising and hardly a
song your average radio listener would remember? What if California’s
greatest psychedelic band was Love?

This isn’t really a very radical theory. “Forever Changes,” the Los Angeles band’s third album, makes a lot of top rock album lists and Love
has been the subject of at least one tribute album. A strong return on
the part of front man Arthur Lee in the ’90s caused some critical
reconsideration, with Rolling Stone calling them “the missing link
between the Byrds and the Doors.” Lee is also considered an influence
(sartorial, at least) on the early Jimi Hendrix: black hippies on the
acid-soaked mid-’60s L.A. music scene.

Race is just one factor that set them apart: Before Jimi’s Experience
and Sly’s Family Stone, Love was an integrated rock band, its sound
the result of some odd musical cross-pollination. Though Lee grew up
emulating crossover artists like Nat King Cole, he was struck by the
chiming sound of the Byrds and the foppish pose of such Brit bands as
the Kinks and the Stones. “Lee wanted to bring in very traditional folk
elements, very light almost ‘white’ tones,’ ” producer Harvey Kubernick
told the L.A. New Times in a recent piece on Love. “He wasn’t making dance
music for your feet or body, he was making dance music for the mind.”

Dance music for the mind. That’s probably as good a description of
psychedelic music as you’ll find. That Love and the minds behind it
shattered like a bottle only heightens the group’s claim to the title of
greatest California psychedelic band, for psychedelia ain’t supposed to
last. But there is sadness lurking behind much of Love’s sound –
sadness, confusion and sometimes anger.

“Their name should be Hate rather than Love,” Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company
groused at the time, and it’s obvious that Love’s edgy attitude didn’t
play in San Francisco’s would-be utopia. But how authentic was that
city’s peace-and-love vibe? The Dead hung out with Hell’s Angels and the
Airplane were spoiled rich kids. Love was like a ticking time bomb; in
any case, today Lee is doing a minimum of eight years in a state
penitentiary and two of the band’s original members are dead. The
explosion at the end of “Seven & Seven Is,” two minutes and 15 seconds of punk apocalypse, may be the punctuation they were looking
for.

“I started playing guitar when I was about 17,” Lee told the New Times,
“but I started playing on washtubs at the age of 3 or 4.” After
fronting for a few garage bands, Lee saw the Byrds perform and that was
all she wrote. Hooking up with former Byrds roadie Bryan MacLean, Lee
founded Love and married Roger McGuinn’s circular guitar style to his
own pained lyrics. It was like shadows on a sunny day (“Can you find your way/Or do you
want my vision?/It’s dark there they say/But that’s just superstition”), and
some say the tension in
Love’s songs came from the chemistry Lee forged with MacLean. A handsome
blond rich kid from Beverly Hills, a kid who dated Liza Minneli in high
school, MacLean was Love’s unsung hero. To his utter frustration, the
group only recorded four of his songs (including the hypnotic “Alone
Again Or”) but his playing and singing are everywhere.

The impact Love had on Elektra music founder Jac Holzman was immediate.
Though Elektra was a folk label (Judy Collins and Tom Paxton two of its
big names), they were on the prowl for something electric when Holzman
heard Love’s cover of “Little Red Book.” The song, taken from the film
“What’s New, Pussycat?,” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and
was only hip in a square way (who the hell had a little red book?); it
was Love’s pulsating beat — the descending bass line, the tambourine –
and Lee’s strangled vocal that brought the song to life. “Five guys of
all colors: black, white and psychedelic,” Holzman recalled in his
autobiography. “My heart skipped a beat.”

Love’s first album, “Love,” had the Byrds
stamped all over it: chiming guitars, plangent vocals, choir-boy
harmonies, most in service to radio-friendly ditties (a huge hit
locally, “Little Red Book” only went to No. 52 nationwide). But there was
something unique here too: a sense of childlike loss and yearning in
the heartfelt “A Message to Pretty” (“I go slip-slip/You go
slip-slip/Away”), a realistic depiction of junkie life in “Signed D.C.”
(named after a former band mate) and bad vibes abundant. Lee sang of
“little children dying in an age of hate” on “Mushroom Clouds” and
brought down lots of listeners. The songs were rife with drug
references, and not the nice kind. “Don’t force your smuggled drugs my
way,” he sang on “My Flash on You,” “Cause I cleansed my soul and
that’s how it’s going to stay.”

So much for good intentions. By the time the band was gearing up for its
second album, everyone was pretty wasted. Heroin was a factor, with at
least one member becoming strung out, but Lee was, according to many, on
acid 24/7. The band now lived together in a Gothic mansion once owned by
Bela Lugosi; its destroyed fireplace and spiral staircase appear in most
of the Love photo shoots. The songs on “Da Capo” (1966) reflected the
songwriter’s state of mind. The whimsical “Que Vida!” almost seems like
a parody of a hippie song, punctuated with what sounds like a pop gun.
It is on the album’s fourth track, “Seven & Seven Is,” that Love reached
ground zero. Launched by an insistent, rolling-thunder drumbeat (courtesy of
new drummer Michael Stuart) and propelled by slashing guitars, the song
is like a rocket lifting Lee’s bizarre missive into the stratosphere:

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When I was a boy I thought about the times I’d be a man
I’d sit inside a bottle and pretend I was in a can
In my lonely room I’d sit my mind in an ice cream cone
You can throw me if you wanna ’cause I’m a bone and I go
Oop-ip-ip, oop-ip-ip, yeah!

Profound nonsense, a miracle of self-abnegation; if Iggy wanted to be
your dog, Arthur was a bone, a barking moron in the basement who
might save the world — or kill your family. The song crescendos with a
sound like crashing surf above Lee’s hushed panting and then a countdown
to apocalypse. “Seven & Seven Is” went to No. 33 nationally — the band’s
biggest hit — and still smolders like a volcano today. “I was born in
‘Da Capo’,” Lee later told Lenny Kaye, and Love seemed primed for the
big time. But 1967 saw the release of their masterpiece and the end of
their chances for commercial success simultaneously. Elektra put its
money on the Doors while Love seemed content ruling Sunset Boulevard –
“Between Clark and Hilldale,” as one song title had it. “I don’t think
they were willing to travel and go through all the games and numbers you
have to,” Jim Morrison said — numbers that included playing at Monterey
Pop, the record companies’ premier showcase for new talent in 1967.

By all accounts, the recording of “Forever Changes” was a fiasco. Band
members were often so out of it they couldn’t perform and studio
stalwarts the Wrecking Crew actually laid down many of the tracks. The
ultimate effect was dreamlike, alternately soft and focused. “This is
rather like a soundtrack from an LSD movie,” Dave Marsh wisecracked, and
there is a dated, trippy-hippie feel to a lot of the music. If this is a
concept album, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the concept is:
Aimless rebellion, self-conscious poetry, oblique jokes and flashes of
madness swirl about, often in the same line. On the flamenco-influenced
opener, “Alone Again Or,” Lee shares vocals with MacLean, as strings and
mariachi horns carry them aloft.

Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
That I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are the greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear

In a single self-contradictory lyric Love refuted the very, well,
love that was flooding the airwaves. The other side of the
transcendental experience was isolation — an isolation that felt all the
more acute in the Summer of Love. Small wonder the band broke up
immediately afterward — several members were in need of recovery and
MacLean had a religious conversion when he tasted a drink turning to
sand in his mouth. Jesus quenched his thirst after that — he died of a
heart attack in December 1998 (original bass player Ken Forssi died
of brain cancer the same year).

And Lee, well, suffice it to say that the true stories are almost as
bad as the
apocryphal ones. Though he did not blow his brains out on stage or kill
a roadie, he could be found panhandling on Sunset in the ’80s,
oblivious to former colleagues. After “Forever Changes,” Lee recorded two
albums with new Loves and two solo LPs (a collaborative effort with Jimi
Hendrix was never released). In 1992, Lee released a new record in
France as Arthur Lee and Love; touring with several indie bands here and
abroad he drove fans over the wall with the old songs. “He looked very
healthy, was in fine voice and was bounding all over the stage,” one U.K.
fan wrote online of a ’96 show.

Unfortunately, Lee’s wayward ways caught up with him in September of
1996 when a judge sentenced him to eight to 12 years for pointing a pistol at a
neighbor. All a misunderstanding, Lee insists from his new home at
Pleasant Valley state prison in Coalinga. But it was one that followed
several other misunderstandings involving weapons and spousal abuse, and
in three-strikes California the judge saw no reason to be lenient,
upbraiding Lee for (among other things) driving without car insurance
since 1963.

Personally, I think it’s amazing Lee even had a license all those years. If half the stories that remain are true, it’s a
miracle that the hammer didn’t come down sooner (he did two years on an
arson charge in the ’80s — another misunderstanding). To cast him as
the innocent, the butterfly broken upon the wheel, ignores Lee’s role in
all of this. “Arthur’s a master con man,” producer Botnick has said and
there is something of the hustler to his legacy. The scene Love was on
the margins of was the same one that produced the Manson family, and
echoes of the band’s hedonism can be heard in the transcendent despair
of L.A. groups as diverse as Jane’s Addiction and X. Was Love
important? Do they
deserve to have a burger named after them at the Hard Rock Cafe? For that you’d have to ask
Arthur Lee who might simply
sing the final lines of “Seven & Seven Is”:

Through a crack of light I was able to find my way
Trapped inside a night but I’m a day and I go
Oop-ip-ip, oop-ip-ip, yeah!

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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