Just weeks after the death of Syd Barrett, we've lost another legendary rock eccentric. Arthur Lee, the leader of the Los Angeles psychedelic folk rockers Love and the self-proclaimed "first black hippie," died of leukemia last Thursday at age 61. He leaves behind a modest discography and an outsized reputation in music-geek circles. Broadly sketched, Lee's story is similar to Barrett's: groundbreaking mid-'60s success, a drug-fueled flameout, enduring cult status. He made his best records in the years 1966 and 1967, when Love was the toast of the Sunset Strip scene. He fired his band mates in 1968, intent on continuing Love as a solo project, but for the next three decades he recorded only sporadically, abused drugs, and earned a reputation as a forbidding and erratic quasi-hermit. He was busted on drug charges sometime in the 1980s, arrested in 1995 (for trying to set fire to a girlfriend's apartment) and in 1996 (on a firearms charge), and sentenced to a prison term under California's three-strikes law. Lee was released in 2001, and began a moderately successful comeback, cashing in on the rediscovery of Love's weird and ambitious third album, Forever Changes (1967), which befuddled listeners on its initial release but grew in stature over the years. Today, it is perennially cited on critics' lists as one of the great rock albums of all time.
Even those who have never heard Lee's records know his music secondhand. Robert Plant has cited Love as a crucial influence on Led Zeppelin, and Lee's musical and, especially, sartorial impact on his friend Jimi Hendrix is a matter of historical record. At Lee's urging, Elektra Records signed the Doors, which worshipped and emulated Love. (Lee was galled when the far less talented Jim Morrison became the bigger star.) Meanwhile, Love's role in paving the way for other interracial bands, from the Jimi Hendrix Experience to War to Sly and the Family Stone, cannot be overstated. It's hard to imagine what a startling impression Lee and company must have made in 1966. Surely the well-groomed kids at a 1966 American Bandstand taping had never seen anything quite like Love: three shaggy white guys, a black man with a double-necked guitar, and Lee, glowering behind a pair of diamond-shaped shades and belting out a gruff garage rock version of Burt Bachrach's "My Little Red Book."
Love was designed to shock. Lee and guitarist Johnny Echols were playing Booker T. & the MG's-style dance music and searching for a way out of the R&B ghetto—"We didn't want to be stuck playing the chitlin' circuit," Echols recalled—when they saw the Byrds and a light bulb went on. In other words, Lee's shift into psychedelic-tinged rock was a self-conscious career move, and this may explain the wry almost-smile you can detect beneath the hippie-dippyisms of "Colored Balls Falling" (1966) and "She Comes in Colors" (1967)—a half-ironic shtick that became less ironic as the drugs kicked in. The Byrds may have been the initial catalysts, but Love was shamelessly Anglophilic, emulating the bristling sound of British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones. The music was propulsive and exciting, and Lee's racial role-playing was something new in trans-Atlantic pop: a Memphis-born black man impersonating an Englishman impersonating a black man from Memphis.
For this listener, the first two releases, Love (1966) and Da Capo (1967), stand out. The best songs from these albums rank with the finest mid-'60s pop: luminous, tough folk-rock anthems like "Can't Explain" with guitar arpeggios ringing over a clattery rhythm; or the roaring "Seven & Seven Is," proto-punk at its catchiest; or "Orange Skies," a willowy love song with a lovely woodwind arrangement that Bachrach would have been proud to have written. With big, string-filled orchestrations and quirky song structures, Forever Changes reeks of ambition. Often, it sounds like a mess—an overreach by a drugged-up and not-quite-mature talent (Lee was 22 at the time)—but Forever Changes has proved irresistible to the kind of critic that likes to champion lost masterpieces and gives bonus points to black performers who have the good taste to play "white" music.
Lee was not, as some would have it, a genius or visionary. But he was an exceptionally charismatic singer and a songwriter whose best work mashed rock, blues, folk, and even Muzak together to make something odd and original. And he was a fine lyricist. Lee's curious little poems, toggling between the surreal, the macabre, and the mundane, are the best part of Forever Changes. In "A House is Not a Motel," he sings: "More confusions, blood transfusions/ The news today will be the movies for tomorrow/ And the water's turned to blood/ And if you don't think so/ Go turn on your tub." That apocalyptic mood pervades the album: Lee later admitted he was convinced he would soon die, that Forever Changes was his "last words to the world." But he had nearly 40 years of hard living ahead of him.