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.

The album delivered a minor hit, the flamenco-guitar-laced, MacLean-penned "Alone Again Or" (which also became a low-level hit in 1987 for the U.K.'s The Damned). The record encapsulated the disenfranchised feeling of many rebel youths: "If you want to count me," Lee sang on "The Red Telephone," "count me out." Couched within the symphonic strings of that same song is an eerie premonition: As the song surges into a nursery-rhyme-like rap, Lee chants, "They're locking them up today, they're throwing away the key. I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me?"

Lee's dark prediction of his own early demise never came to fruition, and many speculate that's precisely why his legacy isn't greater. "Think of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison," says 23-year-old Kevin Delaney, a fervent connoisseur of Love factoids who moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles solely to write a book about the band. "Arthur lived."

Imagine Arthur Lee as a less privileged Brian Wilson: a tremendously talented artist and an operating drug-era casualty, without the big money and the controlling psychiatrists. If no one took an interest--however cynical or self-interested--in Wilson's preservation, it's possible that he could be in some kind of institutional holding tank, like Lee. Wilson, however, is the introspective, wounded '60s casualty; Lee, if you believe the police reports, acts out.

After the original band broke up, they dispersed. Forssi and Echols were arrested and jailed for heroin possession, prompting another chapter in the Love myth. According to legend, the pair had been robbing donut stands, prompting their nicknames "The Donut Robbers." Eventually, Forssi became an artist, forging decorative house sculptures. MacLean attempted a solo record, but it was never released. He later went on to pen songs for half-sister Maria McKee's band Lone Justice, one of which, "Don't Toss Us Away," became a hit tune for Patty Loveless. Pfisterer hit the road, and Echols dropped out.

Lee kept plugging away at music, turning away from the white rock world he'd been immersed in for years. Changing his tune drastically, he reached out for the Black Power movement, soul, and metal-tinged R&B. He made a never-released record with Jimi Hendrix, and put out spotty records, most under the name Love, including one more for Elektra (Four Sail) that was accepted with lukewarm respect by critics. Occasionally, he hit the rare songwriting high, but they were few and far between.

Like his music, Lee hasn't weathered the times well. Though he continued to tour and record, assembling a different pick-up group of musicians as "Love" through the '70s and '90s (with a hiatus in the '80s), he is reported to have fallen into bouts of drug abuse and alcoholism. Former bandmate Rozelle claims that he once saw Lee shoot quantities of cocaine that "would have killed a normal person. He had a constitution like a horse." (Lee denies or deflects all drug-related questions; he even denies at one point that he ever took LSD--period--something contradicted by most people who knew him in the '60s.)

In the '80s, Lee pleaded no contest to a felony charge of attempted arson when he apparently tried to ignite a stack of bullets next to a woman's home. "It never happened," says Lee. After violating probation, he went to jail for two years. Then, in 1995, just as Rhino was releasing the beautifully compiled (if free of rarities) and comprehensive two-CD set, Love Story, everything started to go horribly wrong.

It all happened in May and June of 1995. First, Lee and his girlfriend, Susan Levine, were at a supermarket near their Van Nuys apartment when a fellow shopper made a rude remark about Lee and Levine being a racially mixed couple. Lee, according to the witness, pulled a gun.

"There was no gun," Levine says. "There wasn't even a water pistol. We just left. I don't understand how that even got into the court. It was absurd."

On June 29, police came to the couple's apartment after Levine's parents heard a yell and something that sounded like a tussle at the other end of a long-distance call. When police got there, Levine looked battered. Though she didn't want to file charges--and later said that she had been drinking and fell and hit her chest on a coffee table--the police had a different idea of what happened (based largely on what they say was Levine's drastically different explanation at the time). They made an assessment of spousal battery and pressed charges against Lee, since she wouldn't.

He was never actually tried for abuse, though, because a previous incident landed him in jail first. Two weeks before the alleged abuse incident, on June 10, Lee's neighbor said he heard a shot and spotted Lee standing on the terrace with a gun in his hand. When the neighbor yelled to Lee that he was going to call the police, he says that Lee aimed the gun at him. Lee denies that he ever even fired the gun, instead claiming a visiting fan from New Zealand, Doug Thomas, found the gun, yelled out "Arriba!" and pulled the trigger. When Lee heard the shot, he says, he ran to the balcony and grabbed the gun.

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