Love hurts

Arthur Lee was the mastermind of one of rock's most influential -- and most forgotten -- bands. Today he's in prison, and for the first time, he's talking.

Something about Arthur Lee invites myth. Lee--the cantankerous, charismatic singer and guitarist of the groundbreaking yet largely forgotten band Love--inspires tales that spring up from the streets, ghostlike and strange as urban legend: A bum shuffles up to someone who's strumming a guitar on a park bench, coughs and says sheepishly that he, too, knows how to play a little. Only after the guy is duly brushed-off and disappears down the street does the strummer realize it was Arthur Lee. In the late '60s, the story went, Lee performed his ragged rock epic, "Revelation," grabbed a gun, and promptly blew his brains out onstage after the final chordal crescendo. Then there's the one about how Lee and his band murdered--hanged--their roadie.

Or how about this story offered by Bruce Botnick, who helped record two of Love's early albums: "I was going to the Whisky [a Go Go] in the '80s," Botnick says, sitting in his home in Pacific Palisades, near Los Angeles, "and this bum stopped me, scared the hell out of me. He said, 'Hey, man, do you have any money?' He was obviously strung out." And then Botnick realized who this person was. "It was Arthur, and he didn't even recognize me." Botnick shakes his head. "It made me feel terrible."

In the 30-some years since Love first performed, Lee has become an enigmatic underground hero whose bouts with anonymity, addiction, and the law have only amplified talk of his genius. Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll calls Lee "the missing link" between the Byrds and the Doors. While the Byrds and early Beach Boys captured the sweet sunniness of the California dream, and the Doors slithered down to dig into its dark underbelly, Love is the band that best represented, in music and in life, the true dichotomies, the real psychic split--the sunshine and the noir--of Los Angeles. The story of the band touches upon the mind-boggling heights and the dull dissipation of its city.

And Lee changed music. Love was the first rock group signed by Jac Holzman to then-folk label Elektra, and most people agree it was the first interracial rock group. Before he formed Love, a teenage Lee gave a young upstart named Jimi Hendrix a studio gig on Rosa Lee Brooks' moony symphonette "My Diary." Some say Hendrix lifted Lee's outrageous "black hippie" fashion shtick. Musically, Love combined everything from garage-punk to soul to psych-rock to mariachi in its songs; at least three of its records are classics. As the leader of L.A.'s--hell, rock and roll's--sexiest, most seductive, relevant, and underappreciated rock band, Lee has had a serious influence on younger musicians and fans. Everyone from the Ramones to Lenny Kravitz to Blondie to Echo and the Bunnymen to Yo La Tengo has been affected by his largely ignored band.

"Look at his body of work. Listen to it," says Botnick, who has aged into a successful soundtrack producer. "It's had a big impact. I turn on the radio, I know what they're listening to."

But though the band's influence is universally acknowledged, and though most people who brushed against the group in the '60s--like Botnick--have profited from that association, the actual members themselves seem cursed.

Arthur Lee languishes in a jail cell at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California, doing 12 years for shooting a gun in the air. (Again, that's 12 years and gun in the air.) He has appealed his conviction two times in state court and lost, and his last chance, a federal appeal, will be either accepted or rejected by early summer. His case has infuriated fans such as Nick Saloman, singer for British group the Bevis Frond, who has collaborated with Lee in the past and who gave an irate speech about Lee's plight when his band played the East Los Angeles club Spaceland in 1996, not long after Lee was locked up.

"I think the Draconian kind of sentence he received is appalling," Saloman says now. "I think it's an absolute travesty that someone like that's shut away. We should be erecting statues for him, not locking him away in prison."

The rest of the band hasn't fared much better.
Guitarist Bryan MacLean and bassist Ken Forssi recently died. Flutist and saxophonist Tjay Cantrelli (real name: John Barberis) is presumed dead, though no one really knows. Drummer Michael Stuart became a professional photographer, but changed his name so he couldn't be tracked down. Drummer-keyboardist Alban "Snoopy" Pfisterer is an inveterate world-wanderer. Johnny Echols' whereabouts remain a mystery, but people seem to imagine him walking off into the desert and never coming back. One thing is certain: He sure doesn't want to talk about his old band. Nor do any of his old bandmates; rather than feeling pride about their accomplishments, they seem terribly anxious to shake off any and all associations with Love.

"As inconsistent as Arthur's been," says Harold Bronson--co-founder of Rhino Records, who made sure that the label's first band retrospective was 1980's Best of Love--"he's much more together than anybody else, when you think about the notorious people in that band." After all, Lee continued to play music, occasionally catching a small wave of fame and then riding it, almost inevitably, into some kind of trouble. Says Bronson, "By comparison, Arthur was very together."

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