I usually don’t give a shit about pop-culture lists and polls, but I can’t help but be a bit annoyed whenever there’s a list online celebrating African-American musicianship, and I notice that there’s one name that’s always absent.
Where’s Arthur Lee?
“Who’s Arthur Lee?” some of you might think, in which case you should give yourself a solid gut-punch and go back to hipster school.
The short answer to your dumb question is this: Arthur Lee was a genius and a complete fuckup.
The long answer is this:
Lee started out in the early sixties in an instrumental band called The LAGs while also writing songs for other artists. His song “My Diary” was recorded by Rosa Lee Brooks and featured a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar, the first paying gig Hendrix ever got. Lee and Hendrix were friends and regulars on the LA scene. According to Lee, Hendrix stole his flamboyant look.
Eventually, Lee would start the band Love and grab hippie-era Los Angeles by the balls with psychedelic and innovative folk music mixed with garage rock. Soon they became the first band to be signed by Elektra Records. Lee then persuaded Elektra to sign a groovy new band called The Doors. You might’ve heard of them.
Love’s eponymous first album opens with a punkish cover of Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book,” and it’s also the album’s first single with the haunting “Message to Pretty” as a B-side, a bizarre way to start a recording career. “My Little Red Book” wouldn’t be the last time Love seemed to point the way towards punk rock. On their second album, 1967s Da Capo, there’s a song called “7 and 7 Is,” that some nerds see as the protopunk song. Both Alice Cooper and Ramones later covered it.
Then came Love’s most glorious moment, the monumental third album Forever Changes, widely seen as both Love and Lee’s best work. Unfortunately, it didn’t really make much of an impact on its release, as the odd cocktail of garage-folk mixed with mariachi horns and lush strings was simply too hard to digest, even at the height of the psychedelic revolution. Only over the following years would the album be seen as an insanely ambitious masterpiece.
The slightly megalomaniacal Arthur would then get rid of his all his bandmates, hire some new ones, and make several other records over the next decades, either only as Arthur Lee or with different incarnations of Love. Lee spent the last part of the 90s in prison on a firearms charge.
Musically, Love was always slightly too weird to propel them to the heights of acts such as The Doors or Jimi Hendrix. Unorthodox compositions, cryptic lyrics, and nonsensical song titles (my favorite song, for example, is called “Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale”) confused people even more than Jim Morrison’s nonsense poetry. And is that a black dude singing folk rock?!
The darkness surrounding them didn’t really help. Despite the innocent band name, Love had an air of danger and death surrounding them. Back in The Grass Roots, a young guy called Bobby Beausoleil would occasionally play guitar. Beausoleil would later befriend a charismatic weirdo called Charlie and kill someone.
The members of Love weren’t strangers to antisocial behavior themselves. They rented Bela Lugosi’s former mansion and stashed it with heroin and guns. Two band members, Johnny Echols and Ken Forssi, started robbing donut stands with water pistols to finance their heroin habits.
There is of course a pattern to the story of Arthur Lee:
…Jimi Hendrix went on to become a superstar and is widely regarded as history’s most influential guitarist.
…The Doors and Jim Morrison became psychedelic demigods worshipped by rebellious brats in every following generation.
…Bobby Beausoleil and the Manson Family stabbed hippie culture to death, while 70s punk rock buried the corpse.
Arthur Lee had, to various degrees, a hand in setting all these things in motion but was never able to go along for the ride himself, both because of his uncompromising personality, his erratic behavior, as well as the fact that he was simply one unlucky bastard.
With the release of the documentary Love Story in 2008 and their songs being covered by everyone from The Damned to Hellacopters, Love is perhaps more renowned and revered today than they ever were when they existed. They even got a shout-out in the British Parliament. Arthur Lee wasn’t able to enjoy it for long, though, because he died of acute myeloid leukemia in 2006. It’s typical of Lee to prematurely leave his moment in the sun.
A label named High Moon Records will soon release Black Beauty, an album recorded in 1973 that had been shelved when Lee’s own label went bankrupt. The release was set to June this year, but since this is a project involving Arthur Lee we’re talking about, it has of course been delayed to God knows when. I’m waiting impatiently.
BONUS: Here’s a fun interview with Arthur Lee after he was released from prison and was touring in England. Lee spends large parts of the interview trying to convince the journalist to come and see his show, and at one time pauses to down some NyQuil for his sore throat.
“I’m sorry to say I’m a little hoarse. I did something kind of stupid, I can tell you and you’re not going to print this, of course. I did something I don’t know anything about in Eugene, Ore. I ate some pussy, and my voice ain’t been the same since. I hope this bitch didn’t have nothin’ man. I don’t mean to advertise NyQuil, but as long as I take this stuff, it clears it up.”