Love with Arthur Lee


June 5, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


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 War paranoia.

"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.