Love With Arthur Lee

I was first introduced to Arthur Lee and Love in 1972, at age 13, when my older brother Mark found the band’s 1966 debut LP for 99 cents in the cutout bin at our neighborhood Jewel in Morgan Park. One look at the cover had persuaded him that the album was worth incalculably more than the handful of busboy’s coin it had cost him: it was just an unaltered photograph of the band, but it far surpassed the yuk value of anything else in the kitsch sections of our record collections. (Until then my oldest brother, Greg, had whipped all comers with his copy of I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap by bluegrass royals Don Reno and Bill Harrell.)

Greg and I huddled close while Mark peeled the cellophane from the spectacularly alien image: a racially integrated band in dated hipster mufti, perched in varied attitudes of Sunset Strip cool around a ten-foot brick-and-fieldstone curiosity in the garden of an estate I’d later learn had been Bela Lugosi’s. There in the center was the man, Arthur Lee, sewn into black-and-white plaid pants and draped to midthigh in a black leather jacket. He was lofting us a “Go ahead, fuck with me” glance over the rims of his diamond-shaped purple granny glasses–and in the air past his right shoulder hovered the word “Love” in big, trippy red letters.

Drummer Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer looked freshly scrubbed but clinically depressed, trying to funk up his button-down short-sleeve shirt and jeans with a neckerchief and Sonny Bono fur vest. Guitarist Johnny Echols wore the air-whipped hybrid of pageboy and pompadour that Johnny Mathis would adopt in the postpomade 70s. Guitarist and singer Bryan MacLean, Lee’s songwriting foil, flaunted a package in his drawers that would strike Chris Matthews dumb and puckered up in an early version of the rock pout refined by David Lee Roth and Nigel Tufnel. Hiding in back of Snoopy and Arthur was bassist Ken Forssi, in a white windbreaker and vintage 1964 mop top, looking just a bit less rigid than the stone edifice behind him.

We set the record spinning on Greg’s turntable–a Zenith Circle of Sound, state of the art in 1972–and the music that came out was just as hilarious and befuddling as the cover. We were hip, or thought we were; we listened to Hendrix, the Doors, and the Beatles. This stuff was amateurish, underproduced, and positively dorky–I don’t think any of us ever listened to more than two or three cuts. Love’s take on Bacharach and David’s “My Little Red Book,” driven by tambourine and bass, was mildly sinister but bush-league in execution, an affront to my sensitive pubescent hearing buds. And when MacLean sang “Hey Joe,” the duress in the poor guy’s cracked tenor made him sound like a man with a knife to his throat–a far cry from Jimi’s cool, menacing delivery. These guys were a joke, and it was a mystery to us why a major label like Elektra–home of the Doors, no less–had signed them.

I ended up adopting the album, and it traveled with me unplayed through high school and college. Friends and classmates who saw it never lit up with recognition or curiosity. It was the mid-80s, when I was in graduate school, before I learned that anybody besides me, my brothers, and a few terminated A and R guys at Elektra knew or cared that Love had ever existed. When my grad-student buddy Will saw the record, he stopped in his tracks. “Damn! I can’t believe you have a Love album!” he said.

“You’ve heard of them?” I asked.

“Hell yeah. Arthur Lee. He’s a legend.”

Will’s judgment had heretofore seemed unimpeachable, and I started to doubt myself. He knew a thing or two about music too. He had a jones for Delta blues, the primitive, jerkwater howling you can only hear on crackly recordings made by crazy-eyed anthropologists. And he liked reggae, not the radio-friendly strain purveyed by Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley but rather the real hard-core U-Roy stuff–turgid, soporific, sticky with humidity, and reeking of ganja and goat’s blood. In short he was into the sort of music that white people listen to for the same reason they listen to the Tavis Smiley Show on NPR–a soul-needling desire, as Albert Brooks’s character puts it in Lost in America, to “touch Indians.” But I still suspected Will was way off the beam on this one. Did he really believe there was something authentic behind that goofy album cover?

Perhaps he was just being contrary. “No shit,” I said. “A legend, eh?” I fancied myself a music geek, conversant with pop mythology. Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Alex Chilton–I knew their work well and dropped their names with aplomb. I hadn’t heard word one about Arthur Lee. Did Will actually like the guy, or was he pulling my leg? I called his bluff and loaned him the album. I never saw it again.

I gave little further thought to Lee or his music for the next 15 years. Then in 2001 my brother Greg handed me a handsomely packaged double-CD compilation called Love Story, released by Rhino in 1995, and on the back of disc one was the same photo we’d gotten such a kick out of three decades before. I chuckled, feeling my hip and ironic preadolescent self stirring inside my middle-aged body. It’d been a while since I’d seen the boys–the purple granny glasses, the bulging plaid pants, the fringed suede boots, the Cuban heels.

With his best poker face, Greg said, “Give it a listen.” After he was gone I obliged, popping disc one into my portable for shits and giggles. My ears pricked up instantly as Lee’s tambourine rattled like a pissed viper into “My Little Red Book.” What had sounded to me 30 years before like a Sacred Cows performance on Get Smart was now a revelation. When my brothers came home with Sgt. Pepper’s or Abbey Road, just a few hours after the albums had hit the stores, I knew even at that age that I was in the presence of something magical and enduring. But I hadn’t been jazzed like that once in my adult life–not until I finally really listened to Love.

Suggesting that a band belongs on the same plane as the Fab Four is a good way to get branded a hack or a heretic. I cop to neither–Arthur Lee and company are the real shit. My midlife crush on Love can’t be explained away by the nostalgia that prompts so many aging fans to jump on every revisionist bandwagon that rattles past, either–I don’t think schlock-pop hit makers like the Carpenters, Abba, and Styx ever should’ve ended up classed as “legends.” Quite simply, my ears have matured. I can see now that even as a college student my taste in music was often in my ass: as a freshman DJ at the Knox College radio station I tossed Talking Heads: 77 onto the turntable, cranked up “The Book I Read,” and within a minute lifted the needle and apologized to my audience. Like a toddler in a high chair I still spat before tasting, and it’d be years before I gave a fair hearing to the Talking Heads, a group that burned like a surgical laser through the blubber of late-70s cocaine-and-fog-machine rock.

When my brothers and I first laid eyes on Love’s debut, Bowie was glam, Robert Plant preened in ripped denim hip-huggers and unbuttoned girlie shirts, and most southern rockers could pass for Spahn Ranch security. Arthur and the boys naturally seemed a bit out of touch to us. But reappraise the photo on that Love album alongside the big releases of 1966: on the bowdlerized “Yesterday”…and Today cover the Beatles look like pasty English tourists, and I suspect that the run on ten-gallon pooh-bah hats in the wake of the Mamas & the Papas’ breakthrough was short-lived. In hindsight Lee’s getup on the cover of Love’s debut anticipated the mix-and-match harlequin duds with which the Woodstock Nation would accoutre itself.

In the matter of fashion Lee once made the grandiose claim that, were it not for him, there would’ve been no Jimi Hendrix or Sly Stone–he called himself the first black hippie. In 1966 he was LA’s preeminent scenester, cultivating a surly-flower-child sensibility that captivated Jim Morrison, who retooled it to come up with his famous Lizard King persona. Love was the first rock band on Elektra’s roster, and it was at Lee’s behest that the label went on to sign the Doors.

More important, Lee was a musical prodigy, alchemizing folk balladry, protopunk, bossa nova, and psychedelia into a new and unheard-of genre. By ’67 all the planets were aligned for Love, but the band didn’t seem interested in stardom. They were offered a prime slot at the Monterey Pop Festival and turned it down. Elektra boss Jac Holzman tried to arrange press junkets for the group to broaden their fan base, but they only went on one, spending a single day in New York and snubbing the media. Holzman urged them to tour nationally, but Lee hated travel and Love rarely played more than a few dates at a time outside California. In 1970 the band toured England, but by then the magic moment had passed: after four albums, Elektra had dropped the group the year before, and Love’s two subsequent records for Blue Thumb weren’t even good enough to qualify as swan songs.

After releasing a solo disc in 1972, cutting a second in ’73 that never saw the light of day, and assembling another version of Love for a last little-noticed album in ’74, Lee essentially abandoned his career in music, performing only sporadically and recording even more rarely. “I just got tired,” he says in the liner notes to Love Story. In the 80s he returned to his old neighborhood in LA to care for his father, who was dying of cancer, but to many of his old fans it must’ve seemed like he’d fallen into the same wormhole that swallowed Syd Barrett.

Lee’s second act began in earnest in 1993, when he met an LA band called Baby Lemonade. Committed, sincere, and entirely contemporary, they channeled the spirit of the Summer of Love without sliding into retro shtick, stubbornly holding the high ground as a wave of self-obsessed, beflanneled crunchmeisters flowed outward from Seattle and flooded the rock landscape. Lee liked what he saw and asked Baby Lemonade to work with him–not as Love Again, not as Love of the 21st Century, but as Love. For a short time he maintained an unprecedented touring schedule with this vital new group, both in the States and abroad. But in 1996 Lee, always a volatile personality, was sentenced to 8 to 12 years in jail after allegedly firing a pistol in the air during a dispute with a neighbor. (Previous convictions on unrelated charges made his possession of the weapon a felony under California’s three-strikes law. Of his lawyer, Lee commented to the Seattle Weekly, “He should have died in his daddy’s dick.”)

Fortunately one of the charges he’d been convicted on was thrown out, and in December 2001 Lee emerged from prison in one piece. At this point a proper Love reunion wasn’t just far-fetched, it was impossible–MacLean and Forssi had both died in 1998–but Baby Lemonade, which had soldiered on with its own music during Lee’s incarceration, was still eager to play the role of his old group. Last year lead guitarist Mike Randle told me that Lee came to his house the day after he was released, his head full of new songs, saying that in prison he’d dreamed every day of getting back onstage with the band.

In the summer of 2002 Lee set out on his first bona fide U.S. tour, Baby Lemonade in tow. At their August gig at the Double Door, twentysomething hipsters mingled with the bifocaled, relaxed-fit-dungaree set–in sharp contrast to the lavish shows I’ve seen Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson put on recently, where the number of fans under 40 was mathematically insignificant. Hell, even the Prince crowd at Allstate Arena this summer was practically geriatric compared to the audience waiting to see Love–something I don’t think the Purple One’s hefty ticket prices can entirely account for. I suspect it’s because people who weren’t even born when Love unraveled can still feel like they’re discovering the band today; whatever else you can say about Wilson and his Smile tour, the constant ubiquity of the Beach Boys’ hit songs since the 60s has made it all but impossible to feel the same shiny-new-thing excitement about him. That, and you can’t beat an outlaw persona like Lee’s for bringing out the kids.

Wearing a tasseled suede jacket and a straw cowboy hat decorated with a spray of feathers, Lee led the band through a two-and-a-half-hour set, performing not just with passion but with a generosity and good humor he’d militantly avoided in his younger days. He held his shivering tambourine aloft to cue the propulsive introductory bass line of “My Little Red Book,” and his corroded pipes were well suited to his growling take on that old ditty. (Not so well suited, though, to the high notes in the MacLean-penned confection “Orange Skies.”) The hypnotic “The Red Telephone” crept under my skin as insidiously as an early Pink Floyd tune, and the punky, neurotic “7 and 7 Is” held its own almost 30 years after actual punks caught up to it.

In June 2003 Love returned to Chicago to play Park West, this time accompanied by a small orchestra of bright-eyed young Swedes on strings and horns. With this tour Lee fulfilled a decades-old dream of bringing his 1967 masterpiece, Forever Changes, to the stage–something the original Love never managed. MacLean’s “Alone Again Or” evoked the big-sky majesty of Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven sound track, and pizzicato violins suffused the odd pastoral “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” with balletic grace. Before leaving the stage at the end of the night Lee addressed the audience one last time: “Do one thing for me after you leave here,” he asked. Nary a beer bottle clinked. “Love one another.” It didn’t even occur to me to think what a corny thing that was to say.

Lee and Baby Lemonade return as Love this Friday night at Park West, warming up for the Zombies. There won’t be horns or strings, but if it’s your first time, you don’t have to worry that you’re missing out. The first time’s always the best, even if it’s taken you 30 years to catch on.

When: Fri 10/8, 7:30 PM

Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage

Price: $25

Info: 773-929-5959 or 312-559-1212