Self in the middle of the night: a new book chronicles the life, times and
masterpiece – Forever Changes –
of the late Love auteur.
BY RICK ALLEN
1967 saw some of the best, most memorable albums in
rock and roll history – Are You Experienced, The Velvet Underground and Nico, John Wesley Harding and, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band among others. Within a year on either side came Astral Weeks, Pet Sounds and Beggars
Banquet. But Love’s Forever Changes is right up there with any of those, high on any number of lists of the best
rock and roll albums of all time. There have been multiple re-packagings and
re-releases bought by longtime fans, people who were there and people who
missed it the first time around, as well as an ever-growing number of music
lovers who were born decades after its initial release.
Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book Of Love (Jawbone Press), Canadian music
writer John Einarson has done a remarkable job of telling the story of the
album, the people who were involved in making it, and Arthur Lee – the
visionary genius behind it.
The book is a mesmerizing read. Its revelations
unfold like the elements of a good mystery novel, yet in this case, knowing the
end, you turn page after page to find out not what happened but how. Einarson mines
information from almost every musician, living or dead, who was associated with
Love, from members of Lee’s high school band to the players who toured with him
in the last years of his life (he passed away in 2006 from leukemia) with his
acclaimed live recreation of the album Einarson rightfully calls a masterpiece.
Einarson, who has previously written books on Neil Young, the Buffalo
Springfield, Gene Clark and the Flying Burrito Brothers, also had the
immeasurable benefit of being granted the right to excerpt portions of Lee’s
Einarson calls Love, formed in 1966, the first
integrated (black and white) rock band. If you count The American Breed (which
morphed into Rufus) as a pop band, The Checkmates Ltd. as a show band and Lee’s
heroes, Booker T, and the MGs as an R&B band, he’s probably right. In any
case, Love was certainly one of the first integrated outfits to operate in the
same arena as contemporaries like The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo
Springfield. Love only registered on the singles charts with any real impact
with their first single, 1966’s “My Little Red Book” (a rocked up reworking of
the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song done by Manfred Mann for the soundtrack for
the Peter Sellers film What’s New
Pussycat) and “7&7 Is” which hit #33, also in ’66.
Where they really shined was as the kings of the Los Angeles club scene. They
were the envy of other bands around at the time with a heavy influence on ones
as diverse as The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, The MC5 and The Doors. Ray
Manzerek is quoted as saying “we wanted to be like Love” and that Jim Morrison,
who used to hang around Lee’s house like a smitten groupie, used to say that if
the Doors could be as “big as Love, man, my life would be complete.” Love’s influence
extended even to established groups like the Rolling Stones. Lee insisted that
the chorus of “Ruby Tuesday” is a blatant lifting of Love’s “She Comes In
Colors” from their album <Da Capo.
The Stones’ single and Da Capo were
both released in January of 1967 but Lee always said the Stones got the idea
after seeing Love perform in L.A. when they were already doing the song that original
Love guitarist John Echols says was inspired by a friend and fan who came to
the band’s L.A. shows in “outrageous gypsy clothes.” Considering the Stones’ history
it’s a very plausible argument; just ask Robert Johnson.
Robert Plant was a huge fan. So was Eric Clapton.
Certainly “The Rain Song” and “Battle Of Evermore” have at least some
inspirational connection to Love’s music. Eric Clapton was almost
singlehandedly responsible for getting Robert Stigwood to sign Arthur Lee to
his RSO label, giving him his last shot with a major label. The connection with
RSO and Stigwood would be one more burned bridge Lee would leave behind him.
Reading the things their devoted L.A. following has to say about them and,
most important, listening to Forever
Changes, if nothing else, it’s extremely hard to believe the band didn’t
hit the big time. Certainly a hard slog was in store for a rock and roll band
that not only had two black members but was also led by one of them. And some
bad decisions by Lee (he turned down a booking for Love at The Monterey Pop Festival
and at Woodstock), his reluctance to
travel, and being the first rock and roll band on a label with no experience
with that type of music (Elektra’s next rock act, The Doors, would benefit from
the mistakes that hindered Love) had something to do with it.
Still, that music was so great and the band was
the epitome of cool. The book has a wonderful photo of them onstage at L.A.’s Hullabaloo. In it
a rail-thin Lee stands at the mic in leather pants and cowboy boots and playing
harmonica while guitarist Echols, impossibly handsome in a pin-striped bell
bottomed suit and flowered tie (looking like a rock and roll Johnny Mathis),
plays his double neck guitar, out Brian Jones-ing Brian Jones.
But they were an American band, and in America
race was (and still is) the 300 pound gorilla in the national portrait. So
often, when it comes to race, people see what they have been conditioned to
see. That’s what prejudice is. It’s not the same as racism and it’s certainly
not the same as bigotry and it’s not necessarily malevolent. If it is, it’s not
always consciously or purposely so. Even people close to each other see things
filtered through their own conditioning. When Elektra engineer Bruce Botnick
(who did a hell of a job co-producing the album with Arthur) says that Lee
“never sounded black” and that Lee never listened to rhythm and blues, he’s off
the mark in several ways. For one thing, what does it mean to “sound black?”
All black people, even all black Americans, don’t speak or sound the same. As for
Lee not listening to rhythm and blues, well that’s a gross inaccuracy. One of
Arthur’s first bands was called the L.A.G’s, after the integrated Booker T. and
the MG’s, and Love was known for doing a spectacular extended version of
Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” at their live shows. What Botnick may
have had trouble with is the notion that an ethnic group in America, any ethnic
group, can have comprehensive, far reaching tastes, tastes that reach outside
of those things commonly associated with their own particular group.
But that type of thinking is not what made Arthur
Lee hesitant to tour the States. There was a very real bigotry that he was
almost certain to encounter on the road. It was a bigotry that would be set off
not just because of his race but because he was in a mixed raced group. In Florida, with a later
incarnation of Love, Arthur would duck down below sight level and tell the
others to pretend he wasn’t there every time the band’s car pulled up next to a
vehicle with a white driver. Drug fueled paranoia? Maybe. But as the old joke
goes: just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean somebody’s not out to get
you. And it could happen anywhere – though it probably wasn’t actual bigotry
behind the fact that after a Love show in New York, an article in Variety,
the “show business bible,” referred to Arthur as Love’s “Negro lead
singer” and to John Echols as a “second Negro.”
Still, Lee didn’t always have to look too far to
find reason to always keep one eye open. While in New York the band was unhappy with their
instruments and equipment, and with an advance on future royalty payments Lee financed
new ones and a van to transport them. The band’s road manager at the time, Neil
Rappaport (a trusted friend handpicked by Arthur for the job) reported the van
stolen with the instruments inside and Lee paid for another set. Years later,
in an effort to clear his conscience before going into surgery, Echols
confessed to Lee that he, Rappaport and the rest of the band had actually sold
the van and the equipment in order to get money to feed their heroin habits.
Einarson tells his tale so well that any music fan
can enjoy it (despite the book’s frustratingly sketchy index), and fans of Lee
and of Love will find their affection undiminished, maybe even increased, by
the clear honest portrait of both.
Arthur Lee was a rock and roll version of a figure
out of an O. Henry or Frank Norris novel who found contentment just out of reach,
maybe even nudged there by his own hand. He was a black man sometimes accused
of not being black enough because he played music that black people were largely
responsible for creating in the first place. He wanted the spotlight of fame but
often pulled the plug on it himself. He craved freedom but did things,
seemingly on purpose, to deflect it. He was a genius who made decisions that
were bafflingly wrong-headed. And despite all the answers and detail Einarson
provides, there are still some ‘whys’ that will never be cleared up.
John York does relate a story, equal parts tragic, comic and surreal that
provides a small clue: When he was living in Laurel Canyon,
Lee had a dog that used to like to go wandering after dark. The dog’s name was
“Self,” and when he ran off, York and other neighbors could hear Arthur as he
walked the canyon calling out the dog’s name – searching for “Self” in the
middle of the night.