Arthur Lee didn't expect to see 1968, much less 2003. When the twenty-two-year-old Love frontman retreated in 1967 to his Hollywood Hills home -- purchased after his band became the first rock act to sign with Elektra Records -- to write the Forever Changes album, he thought he was writing his epitaph.
Despite contentious recording sessions -- Lee would soon be the only original Love member standing -- the band emerged with one of rock's most exquisite blends of guitars, drums, strings and horns, rivaled only by the more heralded Pet Sounds (the Beach Boys) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the Beatles). But despite its oft-sunny orchestral arrangements, Forever Changes explored the same gloomy depths of the human psyche as did the band Love discovered: the Doors. Among Lee's not-so-lovely enduring couplets are "The water's turned to blood/And if you don't think so go turn on your tub" (from "A House Is Not a Motel"), "There's a bluebird sitting on a branch/I guess I'll take my pistol" ("Live and Let Live"), and "Sitting on a hillside watching all the people die/I'll feel much better on the other side" ("The Red Telephone"). The album was a commercial disaster, and began Lee's descent into obscurity and isolation.
Thirty-six years since the album's release and after a world of trouble (last year, Lee finished serving six years for discharging a firearm during a dispute with a neighbor), the once-reclusive, doomsaying Lee was at New York City's Town Hall to perform his reawakened masterwork. Full of smiles and flanked by the new Love, featuring Baby Lemonade guitarists Rusty Squeezebox and Mike Randle -- generation-younger, fellow black Los Angelenos also inspired by the sounds of the British Invasion -- the fifty-eight-year-old Lee, hobbled by a recent leg injury, took the stage aided by a cane. Lee and Co. ran through "My Little Red Book," Love's 1966 garage-y take on the Bacharach/David song, the soul-leaning ballad "Orange Skies" and the post-Forever Changes single "Your Mind and We Belong Together."
Clad in a cowboy hat, a tasseled shirt and dark sunglasses, Lee joked often (about everyone from Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder to George W. Bush) and preceded his rambling introductions with "This song needs no introduction." If he wasn't always in fine voice -- his strained falsetto warbled during the loftier numbers -- he was always in fine spirits, and that was enough to draw the grizzled faithful out of their seats to shout, "We love you, Arthur!"
An eight-piece string and horn section (its members looking a decade younger than even the Baby Lemonade guys), joined the band to announce the New York stage debut of Forever Changes.
Beginning with the flamenco-seasoned "Alone Again Or," now familiar to football fans across the country thanks to a beer commercial, Lee and Co. delivered a faithful rendition of the album. Randle nailed the occasional guitar leads ferociously and Squeezebox handled the acoustic guitar picking and Bryan MacLean's harmony parts. Before the MacLean-penned ballad "Old Man," Lee got the crowd to rise in the late guitarist's honor, saying "I'm glad I'm still around to sing this song."
Lee announced that he was going to bypass the rousing tenth track, "Bummer in the Summer," because "my leg can't take it." But he made the most of his limited mobility, windmilling his tambourine and maracas, conducting the makeshift orchestra, and, perhaps ill-advisedly, punctuating his lyrical deliveries with machinegun and handgun gestures.
Some of those lyrics -- from "Served my time/Served it well" and "We're all normal and we want our freedom" -- seemed downright prophetic and predictably drew applause. But the evening's climax, like the album's, was the stunning "You Set the Scene," wherein, after a swirl of horns, our troubled, lonesome protagonist vows to "face each day with a smile."
After their splendid crescendo, Lee and the band would come out to face the crowd again to run through some more Love chestnuts, including the proto-punk anthem "Seven and Seven Is," the attire-appropriate "Singing Cowboy" and, surprise, "Bummer in the Summer."
Before Lee exited the stage for good he demanded of the crowd one favor, "Love one another," and then grinned his devilish grin. The Summer of Love wasn't so simple after all. Arthur Lee knows ... he survived it.
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