Arthur Lee in 1969 during the period when the band LOVE was in transition. Lee was a leading innovator of the music scene during the 1960s.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Arthur Lee is one of the most notorious and enigmatic characters in music. A songwriter cast in the annuals of rock as sitting precariously between a genius pop eccentric like Brian Wilson and genius rock casualty ala Syd Barrett and Skip Spence. When Love was on the rise in the mid-60s Lee was a true original - one of the first LA hippies, part-hustler, part-psychedelic dandy - a black man brought up on R&B but equally inspired by the likes of Roger McGuinn, the Beatles and the Stones.
Love's 1966 debut was clenched fisted, flower punk - the Byrds with balls. The follow up Da Capo was an amazing leap forward. Then in late 1967 they unleashed their masterpiece Forever Changes. Their trademark garagey aggressiveness was dropped for something entirely different - music with a much lighter feel courtesy of prominent acoustic guitar, strings and horns (although a sinister undertow was still very evident). Considered a flop at the time of release, Forever Changes is now a staple for any music fan's diet. Lee is set to tour Australia and perform it in its entirety with a backing band complete with string and horn sections.
But interest in Arthur Lee goes beyond the music. Over the years his eccentricities have fuelled an array of myth and rumour that continue to flourish around him. In 1996, he was convicted on gun charges and sentenced to a prison term due to California's strict three strikes and you're out rule. It's little more than a year since he was released after serving nearly six of a 12-year sentence.
How many times have you been to the crossroads?
Of life? How many times? I think that should've been my last name - Arthur Crossroads.
There's some pretty crazy stories out there about you. What's the best rumour you've heard about yourself?
That I blew my brains out at the end of 'Seven and Seven Is' in San Francisco. That's really something and that we hung our road manager. (Laughs) I mean Jesus Christ. There's a magazine called 'The Castle' and whatever anybody writes this guy publishes and it's phenomenal to me. Not only is it absurd but … I don't know all publicity is good publicity but there's so many untruths about the band members. I just want to set the record straight because I was there and I'm the one that people are talking about. I'm not trying to correct anybody about what they've built up in the mind about the type of person that I am. But I read this stuff and it's so ridiculous.
Are you surprised that other people view you as an enigmatic character?
I guess it would pretty mysterious if you did an album like Forever Changes and you didn't promote it. That's either strange or stupid. But the thing about that was when I made the switch from my original band to the fourth album I did, 'For Sail', those guys that I got to play on that album they couldn't stand Forever Changes. They didn't want to play anything like that. So I had to write according to the people I had acquired. For me it was a challenge. Everybody doesn't like Forever Changes - some people like 'Vindicator' (Lee's wild 1972 solo album. But my thing is to play the best of all kinds of music and to not be categorised as a rock musician. I mean I am but I can play different things - I can play the blues, I can play jazz, I can play classical music.
What's the biggest misconception about you?
There's too many to name and that's why I've written a book. It explains a lot of the rumours and a lot of the things that are untrue. I just lay it down exactly like it was in my eyes.
What myths and untruths are you hoping to dispel in your book?
Well you read it and you'll see. I've got a space for rumours, I've got a space for interviews, I've got a space for forgiveness. I've written the way I saw it. Who thought up the name Love? I did. That's why I'm able to carry on the name because it's my name to begin with. I just explain the way that I feel about the people who played on the records, on the shows from high school to today.
Have you read Michael Stuart's (former Love drummer) book 'Pegasus Carousel'?
No. You know it's a funny thing about Michael Stuart. I don't know what he's talking about because I never hung around with that guy. I don't know what in the world he could possibly say? I could count the times I hung around with Michael Stuart. I mean he was like a gift from God as far as being a drummer and playing on that Forever Changes album. I couldn't ask for a better person to play that's what I have to say about him. But as far as my personal life? I don't have a personal thing with Michael Stuart. I might read what he has put down. I'm glad that I inspired him or had something for him to write a book but I don't even know the guy. He was a musician that I picked up. Don Conka was the drummer for the Love band but he just never got it together to show up at the dates that I did. We were the Grass Roots, we were the original Grass Roots. That's how I thought up the name. Instead of fighting City Hall because I hadn't registered my name it became Love.
And what about the Barney Hoskyns' book 'Alone Again Or'?
Who? Oh, I think it's Brian Hoskyns. I think those books about me are disasters. I think they're people who are trying to make a fast buck. Jesus Christ all the guy did was put down different things that he'd read in interviews. That's the Mojo guy, right?
Yeah. There are a couple of horrible books out about me. This is what I think about it - I think I might've read maybe three pages and it was so ridiculous I didn't go any further. That's what I think about Brian Hoskyns. I can't go any further than about four pages. I wish I had it as easy as these people do to compile rumours. That's all that was. There's no facts except for things that are in black and white by the law. They're kind of hard up guys. If they'd come to me and asked me I could've helped them out. But I'm glad they didn't and I'm glad I've finally got a chance to write my book. It should be out in about six months.
Why do you think records you wrote as a young man have proved so timeless?
I planned on retiring when I was 21 so I wanted something to last. I needed something to pay the bills you know what I mean. But looking at life the way I looked at life with the war and different things that I write about it seems to be the same thing that is happening today. Exactly the same y'know so that's why it's timeless because the same thing is occurring all the time.
You sound very wizened at 21, 22 years old?
I thought I was going to die when I was 22. I had to cram everything in. That was like my last … You know when you're young, man, you think of foolish things like death and stuff like that. All of a sudden you're not at home with anymore, you're out on your own, experimenting with different things and I always wanted to know why my heart's beating. (Laughs) Is it going to stop now or what? At the time I thought Forever Changes was going to be my last words. My last words to this world would be forever changes because this world forever changes. If someone asked me if I was on my way to another planet or another incarnation or whatever and they asked me how I feel about earth I'd say 'forever changes'.
What's the song off Forever Changes that means the most to you?
I don't know. I like them all. I don't have a favourite off the Forever Changes album. I think each song is different. I especially like 'Alone Again Or' which wasn't written by me. It was written by Bryan Maclean. I like that, I like 'The Red Telephone', 'You Set the Scene' that's pretty good stuff. I don't get tired of hearing it, I don't get tired of singing it I know that. But I really don't want to become a Little Richard character and play the same songs I played thirty five, forty years ago. I don't want to be that kind of musician.
Why do you think Love were able to move seemly easily from being a garage band to incorporating strings and horns?
That's a rumour too. Garage band? What do you mean by that. That's a fuckin' insult - a garage band! Jesus Christ, how did I go from the greatest album of all times to a garage band? In fact it was a garage band (laughs). We rehearsed the whole first album in my garage at my mother's house. As far as the label's go I've been labelled folk rock, rock, psychedelic, alternative. The same songs have been labelled twenty different ways since I wrote them.
Obviously the original Love had a bitter break up and there's been a lot said between you over the years. How do you feel about your former band mates like the late Bryan Maclean and Johnny Echols now?
As far as musicians? Again I couldn't have asked for better musicians as far as what I wrote and they played. I'm sorry about the death of Bryan Maclean but to me he's not even dead. The same feeling I had for him when he was alive is the same feeling I have for him now. I had a strong feeling about Bryan Maclean and I can't wait for you to read it. It'll probably trip you out.
It was said that your indifference to touring in the 60s kept the band from reaching a national audience...
Well, the band was strung out on heroin, man. And I've got the heroin jacket but I detest heroin. I hate what it does to people. I mean whatever floats your boat but I wasn't the one but I got the label. I didn't like heroin. I went a different way. You have to have a band to go on tour and you can't go with a band that's asleep. Dragging around dead luggage, man, what would I want to do that for? But I'm fortunate now. I mean there's a time and a place and my time is now.
Do you think it's ironic you're now touring the world and beyond?
I just think it's all God's plan. There's a time to go and a time to stay and now it's my time to go. Thirty-five years later the music sounds as fresh as a daisy.
Can you tell us about the new song 'My Anthem' with its bagpipes etc?
Oh, that one? That was a song that people didn't like but I didn't think they were going to be that serious, these journalists. Man, they're really putting my songs down (laughs). Like I was in Manchester and I don't care. It's just a different song, just another song. But 'My Anthem' is definitely my song, things that have happened to me and things that I feel strongly about in life. But that's just one song. There isn't another song like that on the whole album that I'm working on. I like the song myself I don't care what anybody else says. I like it and intend to improve it before the final mixing. It was something that came off the top of my head in England although I'd written the song many years ago.
So you're recording a new Love album?
I'm working on trying to do one of the better albums of my life. It won't be Forever Changes. These guys who ask can you write something like Forever Changes. I mean how many Mona Lisa's have you seen? There's one Mona Lisa, there's one Forever Changes.