RIP Arthur Lee
Even though there'd be news of his bad health recently and a benefit to help cover medical costs, it was still something of a shock this morning to hear about the death of Love man Arthur Lee. I had the privilege to attend one of his post-jail performances in 2002 and though his voice couldn't always hit his full vocal range, his spirit was there.
Lord, did that guy have spirit. He was one of the most bizarre interview subjects I've ever spoken to (and I've done hundreds of interviews). Shortly before the 2002 show, I set up a phone conversation with him through his jerky manager. At first, AL was calm and willing to expound on his work and life. Then, he'd get off on tangents about other rockers, race, his philosophy and such. I felt bad for him- like Miles, it was obvious that the guy had been put through a lot of shit and had a lot of bitterness about it. As such, he worked himself into a frenzy and as a crescendo, he slammed down the phone and hung up. I was kind of stunned because I knew that it wasn't anything I said to him. Undeterred, I called him back and he seemed placid and calm as he was at first, like nothing happened. As I asked him a few other innocuous questions about his work, the same thing happened- he worked himself up, got furious and hung up. Again, I was stunned, wondering what the hell happened. I did need a few more quotes for the story so like a masochist, I called him again and the same thing happened. After three times, I had enough. I had my quotes and I was kind of tired of being yanked around.
At the same time, I felt bad for him. Lee obviously had problems that he was still trying to work out in his own mind. It wasn't just the feud with his girlfriend that landed him in jail or the jail time itself (which was a total travesty). He had contributed a lot to the world of music- serving as a hero for Jim Morrison, Robert Plant and helping to drive the L.A. scene in the mid-60's after the Byrds got it going. Forever Changes is rightfully noted as a 60's rock touchstone, capturing the wonderful, bizarre innocence of the time while also not fooling itself about its trappings. And yep, he worked with Hendrix before AND after he broke big. After all of that, if all you had to show for it was a prison record, wouldn't you be pissed? Some black rock pioneers like Little Richard or Chuck Berry also have a ring of bitterness in their egomania, as well-earned as it is- you know, that feeling that if they were white, they'd be lauded so much more. When I spoke to Lee, he had that bitterness also and with good reason.
But what he also had was a full blown comeback. The NY show I caught was just one in a series of shows he did including a wonderful series of "Forever Changes" shows complete with horns and strings. The bloody British Parliament had a resolution to honor the man. He also claimed that he was working on new material (which hopefully will see the light of day some time).
I'm not the first or last person who'll group Lee in the same sentence as Syd Barrett but unlike Syd who also passed away recently, Lee didn't go into hiding. He was forced there for a while but took full advantage of his freedom once he got it.
If you're not already enamored of Lee's genius, I urge you to grab a copy of Rhino's 1995 2-CD collection Love Story. It's got a nice selection from the first Love album, the better half of the 2nd Love record, all of Forever Changes (each side split between the two CD's so you can experience it like the original record) and a generous sampling of his late 60's/early '70s work. It's still in print and it's a great way to honor the man.