Midway through a
performance at the Park West on Tuesday of Love's "Forever Changes," the
1967 classic of orchestral pop, Arthur Lee came alive.
Taking off his dark shades and setting aside the cane he used to hobble
onstage, the 59-year-old bandleader and legend of the psychedelic era shook
off the hoarse rasp that marred some of the evening's vocals and invested a
poignant emotion in the key lines of "The Red Telephone," his epic of Cold
"They're locking him up today/They're throwing away the key/I wonder who
it will be tomorrow/You or me?" he chanted as the song built to its climax.
Then came the exclamation: "We're all normal and we want our freedom!"
These lines took on extra meaning for Lee, who was freed in 2002 after
nearly six years in prison thanks to California's "three-strikes"
legislation (which turned the third in a series of relatively minor offenses
into a felony with mandatory jail time).
As with Brian Wilson performing "Pet Sounds," the opportunity to hear Lee
render "Forever Changes" onstage was something that fans never thought
they'd witness. And while the Love that performed here was undeniably a
group of ringers and an oldies act, it had far more artistic credibility and
a better claim to legitimacy than the reconstituted version of Lee's old
friends, contemporaries and label mates who will take the stage at the
Chicago Theatre as the Doors on June 24.
Ably abetted by a group of young Los Angeles acolytes in the band Baby
Lemonade, plus an eight-piece horn and string section imported from Europe,
Lee performed "Forever Changes" in order and in its entirety, along with a
healthy sampling from the rest of Love's catalog that preceded and followed
the great album as the opening and encore for the sold-out concert.
Lee seemed to think that the show was a disaster: He made several
typically cryptic comments about his health, remarking that he'd fallen out
of a bathtub and was headed for the hospital immediately after the show.
But while his formerly supple and wispy voice showed the signs of stress
and aging, Lee's spirit seemed to be undamaged by the trials of prison and
decades spent in relative obscurity as one of the '60s most infamous
psychedelic casualties (a position he holds alongside Wilson, Pink Floyd
founder Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson).
As the band progressed from the opening salvo of "My Little Red Book" and
"Orange Skies," through "Forever Changes" tunes such as "Alone Again Or," "A
House Is Not a Motel" and "You Set the Scene," to a celebratory closer of
"The Singing Cowboy," Lee drew strength and encouragement from the young
believers onstage. He enthusiastically conducted the blond and blue-eyed
members of his mini-orchestra (who beamed incongruously even during the
darkest and most cynical numbers), and he gave generous solo turns to the
talented members of his backing band.
Like the Wondermints, the L.A. combo that forms the core of Wilson's
current touring group, the young musicians in Baby Lemonade are all
impressive virtuosos who bring their hero's music to life with considerable
passion and subtlety. Guitarists Rusty Squeezebox and Mike Randle thrilled
with the fiery psychedelic leads and quiet acoustic passages of "Forever
Changes," while bassist Dave Chapple and drummer David "Daddy-O" Green
deftly navigated the complex rhythmic shifts and dramatic dynamics.
Like many of the songs on "Forever Changes," the night's finale of "The
Singing Cowboy" (a tune from Love's 1969 album "Four Sail") played with one
of Lee's favorite lyrical themes: Live for today, for tomorrow ye shall die.
Viciously disdaining hippie idealism, the dark and menacing undercurrent
of Lee's lyrics always contrasted with the beauty of Love's music, and that
juxtaposition was the source of the band's power. Given the sad life Lee has
lived, it would be easy to overemphasize the negative. But seeing the man
thrive onstage, it's clear that the adversity he's endured has only made him
appreciate the good things in life more.
There wasn't a hint of cynicism in Lee's voice when he ended the night
with the words "Love one another," then limped offstage, basking in the
adoring glow of his fans.