By Jim Schutze
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"He described things that were very menacing," says writer-producer Harvey Kubernik. "We're coming out of the Summer of Love, and he's singing 'Bummer in the Summer.' He's talking about racial tensions, tensions between men and women." It was almost as if he could see the other side of the blinding freedom. "He was talking about these things as the very threads of the country were being blown apart. Arthur Lee was giving everybody a good reality sandwich. And that's why the music holds up today--even more."
Love's tough edge promptly seduced New Yorker Jac Holzman when he trolled L.A. clubs, scouting the burgeoning scene for his label, Elektra. In his book Follow the Music, he describes what he encountered at Bido Lito's the first time he saw them play.
"It was a scene from one of the amiable rings of Dante's Inferno," Holzman remembered. "Bodies crushing into each other, silken-clad girls with ironed blonde hair moving the kind of shapes you didn't see in New York, to a cadence part musical and all sexual. The band was cranking out 'Hey Joe' and 'My Little Red Book.' Inwardly, I smiled. 'My Little Red Book' was by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and featured in the Woody Allen movie What's New, Pussycat? Hip but straight. And here were Arthur Lee and Love going at it with manic intensity. Five guys of all colors: black, white and psychedelic...My heart skipped a beat."
Lee obviously took his cues from the Byrds and others--such as the highbrow Britpop of Manfred Mann and the Kinks and the nasty blues hoodoo of the Stones. But he drove it further into his own streetwise musical no-man's-land, forging a new psychedelic shagginess. He dove into the rock-star swagger of Elvis Presley; the flashy guitar action of surf music; the blue notes of jazz; the upstart folk of Dylan; the sensual soul of Jackie Wilson, Johnny Mathis, and Nat King Cole, the crooners of Lee's youth. Paired with Bryan MacLean's childhood love for musicals, it was a bizarre compendium of original American music, from creaky Southern back porches all the way up to slick Broadway. That's what Holzman saw that night. And he fell for it immediately.
Holzman offered the band a deal on the spot that night at Bido Lito's, and the group signed their contract and promptly whipped out its eponymous debut in four days. The band lived together at the time, in a house once owned by Bela Lugosi they had dubbed "The Castle." Even back then, though, the dynamic of the band was carefully controlled, with Arthur Lee the creative genius and feudal tyrant. When asked about the role of the others in the band--besides MacLean, Lee's right-hand man--Botnick, without a second's hesitation, shoots out, "Sidemen. It was Arthur. It wasn't a democracy."
Lee's stubborn side came out early on, when Elektra tried to get the band to tour, and he simply refused to leave Los Angeles. And, though he always reacted to Elektra and Holzman with a certain amount of suspicion, Lee craftily worked out a new contract with the label by stating that his signature on the original contract wasn't legal since he was a minor when he signed that three-record deal.
"He treated the label as if we were trying to scam him," Holzman says in Follow the Music. "He scammed us first!"
The band's second album, Da Capo, floats up from the first record's visceral club grooves into the stratosphere. It's far more psychedelic, jazzy, and lyrically strange: "If I don't start crying it's because I've got no eyes," Lee spills out in a talky sing-rap on "7 and 7 Is." (Released as a single the previous year, the song was Love's only national chart hit, reaching number 33 in September 1966.) Da Capo also included the long-player "Revelation," a side-long epic that one-upped Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from the previous year by taking up half an album instead of a mere quarter. It was a provocative warm-up for the rock masterpiece that was to follow.
Forever Changes, released in 1967, frequently lands at the top of best-of lists as one of the finest rock records ever made, but it's a wonder it even exists. By late 1966, the effects of minor-league fame--the money, the groupies, the drugs, the distractions--were beginning to suck the life out of the band. By the time recording started on its classic album the band was a wreck, strung out, either emotionally or physically (it's said that Echols was battling a heroin addiction), and 26-year-old Lee thought the Grim Reaper was right around the corner.
"I thought they might be my last words to this world-life," he says. "They were droppin' all around me."
Bronson thinks that hanging-by-a-thread feeling fueled the twisted insights and profound strangeness of the record--"That's one of the reasons why it turned out so spectacular"--as did Botnick, who co-produced the record.
"Arthur was talkin' about stuff people hadn't thought about," he says. "But we went into the studio, and the band couldn't play. Bryan, Snoopy, and everyone else were sitting on a couch in the control room, crying their eyes out." The album was only completed because the Wrecking Crew--a famous group of local session musicians--were brought in to play. Soon after the record was cut, Lee broke up the band.
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