Of the many lost classics
produced during the creative explosion of the late '60s psychedelic heyday,
the greatest may be the third album by the Los Angeles-based group Love.
In its startling originality, its elaborate use of symphonic
orchestrations and its nods to the vast canon of music that preceded it,
"Forever Changes" is everything that's been claimed of 1967's most heralded
rock release, the Beatles' overrated "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club
Band." But while it has its optimistic moments, its overall vibe is far
bleaker and much less hopeful than the hippie ideal of "All You Need Is
ARTHUR LEE IN LOVE'S
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Phone: (773) 929-5959
1. "Alone Again Or" (MacLean)
2. "A House Is Not a Motel" (Lee)
3. "Andmoreagain" (Lee/MacLean)
4. "The Daily Planet" (Lee)
5. "Old Man" (MacLean)
6. "The Red Telephone" (MacLean)
7. "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or..." (Lee)
8. "Live and Let Live" (Lee)
9. "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like" (Lee)
10. "Bummer in the Summer" (Lee)
11. "You Set the Scene" (Lee)
Arthur Lee, Love's key songwriter, primary singer and driving force, was
an African-American who never subscribed to the flower children's sunny
visions. Ravaged by the tensions of the Cold War, the slaughter in Vietnam
and the riots in the streets of America's biggest cities, the world that he
chronicled was no utopia, but a dark and sinister place where the occasional
ray of light nonetheless managed to penetrate the gloom.
From the beginning, Love thrived on the combination of two mismatched
songwriters. Born in Memphis, Lee was raised in L.A.'s tough Crenshaw
ghetto. Strongly influenced by Mick Jagger, he presented what pioneering
rock critic Lillian Roxon called "an amusing paradox," an African-American
singing like a white Englishman singing like an old African-American.
In contrast, Lee's partner Bryan MacLean was the son of a Hollywood
architect who grew up swimming in his neighbor Elizabeth Taylor's pool. His
first girlfriend was Liza Minnelli, and he was raised on classical music and
Broadway standards. "You hear more of my influence on Arthur than his
influence on me," he told the journalist Alan Vorda in the book
Psychedelic Psounds. "What you have [in Love] is a black guy from
L.A. writing show tunes."
Love also displayed a heaping dose of the Beatles circa "Rubber Soul,"
folk-rock via L.A. compatriots the Byrds (Lee originally linked up with
MacLean because MacLean was a Byrds roadie and Lee thought he was likely to
draw their crowd), and the lush, orchestrated soundscapes of Hollywood film
scores. (The band's use of symphonic flourishes is the most influential
element of its sound, with "Forever Changes" standing second only to the
Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" as the biggest inspiration for the so-called ork-pop
or orchestral-pop movement.)
In 1966, Love bowed with a memorable self-titled album that opens with a
snarling, speed-freak version of "My Little Red Book," a Burt Bacharach-Hal
David tune from the soundtrack to "What's New, Pussycat?"
It became a minor hit and established the band as too-cool hipsters; the
album cover featured the quintet scowling like angry young poets and fashion
models posing before a broken-down chimney in a fire-gutted mansion that was
said to have belonged to Hollywood's Dracula, Bela Lugosi.
The cover of "Da Capo," the group's second album, found an expanded
sextet back at the same site. The sounds were becoming much more expansive
as well, introducing an element of the baroque that would flourish fully on
the band's third and best effort--a departure indicated by a radically
different cover: A colorful drawing of the musicians' huddled heads, it
recalls the similar images on the Beatles' "Revolver."
By 1968, Love was starting to fall apart as some of the band members
turned from the casual use of psychedelics to harder substances such as
heroin. Lee was also becoming increasingly bitter that the group had failed
to hit the heights achieved by labelmate Jim Morrison, and he blamed
prejudice. "I wasn't gonna go eat garbage like the Doors did," he told the
Bob fanzine in 1994. "And then, too, I wasn't white. The cold fact of the
matter is birds of a feather flock together."
Though he was only 22 at the time, the band's leader had become
increasingly fatalistic, convinced that he was going to die and that Love's
next album would be his final testament. (The back cover shows the singer
standing with a cracked vase full of dead flowers.) Knowing that he couldn't
compete with the searing electronic sounds of his friend, Jimi Hendrix, who
had begun his ascent to superstardom, Lee decided to pare down for a
quieter, more introspective sound.
The group recorded acoustically, sitting in a circle as if jamming in the
living room. The tracks were augmented later with tasteful orchestrations
evoking the varied sounds of life in L.A., from spicy mariachi horns to
lulling strings to dissonant guitars that bring to mind the strangling and
"The funny thing about [recording] that album--there's a full orchestra
[when] I walk in," Lee says in the liner notes to Rhino's 1997 reissue.
"With the way I looked [and] the way I dressed, I was sitting there for
about an hour before they figured out who I was! It was quite amusing,
'cause I wasn't going to tell them anything."
As singers and songwriters, Lee and MacLean could more than hold their
own in the company of musicians from the L.A. Philharmonic, and session
greats such as Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye, who started out playing on some of
the tracks before Love bassist Ken Forssi and drummer Michael Stuart pulled
themselves together to finish the disc.
MacLean contributes only two songs, "Old Man" and "Alone Again Or," but
they are integral to the album. The latter, which opens the record, is a
tribute to his mother's flamenco dancing, punctuated by a trumpet solo that
brings to mind the Tijuana Brass (producer Bruce Botnick was also working
with Herb Alpert at the time). At first blush, the driving and catchy number
seems to be a love song, but the narrator scoffs at the hippie notion that
he "could be in love with almost everyone." In the end he remains "alone
again tonight, my dear."
Lee is even more cynical. He lampoons the psychedelic culture by
chronicling its ugly realities ("Live and Let Live" opens with the line,
"Oh, the snot has caked against my pants," which Lee wrote about waking up
after a night zonked out on drugs). "The Red Telephone" takes its title from
the nuclear hotline allegedly set up between Moscow and Washington, D.C.;
the propulsive "A House Is Not a Motel" contemplates an unspecified
holocaust ("And the water's turned to blood/And if you don't think so,
go turn on your tub"), while another track is unambiguously
titled "Bummer in the Summer."
"While the music of 'Forever Changes' flows with an almost narcotic
consistency and deceptive prettiness, the words can be like an itch that you
can never quite put your finger on," critic Ben Edmonds wrote. "The
combination is thoroughly captivating and slightly unsettling--psychedelic
in the truest sense."
Witness "The Red Telephone," the album's centerpiece and most striking
studio creation. The tune builds from a quiet ballad to an otherworldly and
somewhat paranoid nursery rhyme about an Orwellian world where unnamed
forces stamp out any trace of individualism. "They're locking him up
today/They're throwing away the key/I wonder who it will be tomorrow/You or
me?" Lee chants as the song builds to its climax.
"We're all normal and we want our freedom," another voice responds, but
it's never quite clear who prevails.
MacLean quit Love after "Forever Changes," which was a commercial
disappointment upon its release (though in the decades that followed, it
would eventually reach gold-record status). Lee made several more albums
with a new version of the band, including "False Start" (1970), noteworthy
primarily for a guest appearance by Hendrix. He dropped out of the music
scene for much of the '70s and '80s, while MacLean went on to write songs
for the likes of Debby Boone, Patty Loveless and his sister, Maria McKee,
until he died of an apparent heart attack in 1998.
Lee's failure to produce much worthwhile music after 1968 has prompted
some critics to put him in a class with cracked psychedelic geniuses Syd
Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson. In the mid-'90s, he was sentenced
to 12 years in federal prison, thanks to California's "three strikes you're
out" legislation, which qualified a string of relatively minor incidents as
Freed in 2002 after six years behind bars, he returned to the music world
with the backing of a younger group of psychedelic-popsters called Baby
Lemonade. (With the help of a 15-piece orchestra, Lee and the band will
perform "Forever Changes" in its entirety Tuesday at the Park West.)
While Lee is talking about recording new material, it's likely that
Love's third album will remain his crowning achievement--the enduring
testament that he envisioned 35 years ago.
"'Forever Changes' were my last words of Love," he told Creem magazine in
1981. "My last words to the world, only I've been here ever since. Just like
a guy saying goodbye, and you look out your front door, and he's still there
15 years later."
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