By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
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Though Thomas denied involvement when the police arrived, he later claimed he was the shooter. He and his wife flew to Los Angeles twice to testify, and Thomas wrote a letter to Lee's current lawyer, William Genego, when he heard that a petition to consider Lee's case was going to be submitted to federal court. "I have been ill for over 12 months because of my actions that have caused Arthur Lee much suffering," Thomas wrote. "I was the one that did fire the shot. There was only one shot fired and it was me." He also says that as a result of his guilt, he was subsequently diagnosed with a serious bipolar disorder, which even caused him to be hospitalized.
Genego says that the results of a gun-powder residue test taken on Lee that night turned up negative when it was finally analyzed a year later. He also says that his then-lawyer's representation in court was a travesty. Lee says he didn't even know that there was a gun. He also claims ignorance about Teflon-coated "cop-killer" bullets that the police found in his Van Nuys apartment.
Lee would have been sentenced to nine months in jail if he had pleaded guilty. Instead, he fought the case and lost. With enhancements attached to the charge because of his prior felony conviction and the other events of that month, the court threw the book at him: 12 years, 85 percent of time served--nine-plus years in jail.
"I think that Arthur had an incredibly unfair trial," Genego says. "It's almost not accurate to describe it as a trial. What happened was he was not willing to admit that he did it, and he wanted to go to trial, and people who go to trial get punished for it."
Asked why he has refused to talk with any reporters since his arrest, Lee explains, "I thought I would beat this case, so why would I want to broadcast it? This has been so humiliating to me."
Ironically, his incarceration arrived at a time when Lee's profile was at its highest since the '60s. In 1992, France's New Rose label put out Arthur Lee and Love, probably his best record since Forever Changes. "Five String Serenade," later downplayed into a low-key blues pop song by Mazzy Star, is on the album; so is "Somebody's Watching You," a song that has caused a little earthquake in England's pop world, since a song that Paul Weller released last year called "Brand New Start" sounds like a wholesale ripoff of the tune.
That was just the beginning of Lee and Love's resurgence. In 1994, Alias Records released a misbegotten mess of a tribute album featuring Teenage Fanclub and other alternative bands called We're All Normal and We Want Our Freedom. The Los Angeles indie band Baby Lemonade toured with Lee in the early to mid-'90s as Love. The High Llamas backed him in England, where the Love cult is probably most fervent. Two years ago, Sundazed Records, the hip, history-minded East Coast indie, put out ifyoubelievein, a collection of Love-era demos by Bryan MacLean.
But by 1995, when Rhino Records held its Love Story record-release party, Lee couldn't make it. The spotlight was once again on Love's leader. And he was in jail.
"He was healthy for the whole tour and didn't mess with anything," says Baby Lemonade's guitarist Mike Randle. "And as a matter of fact, people were trying to give it to him, and he was saying no. He didn't have any babysitters there. He could've done anything he wanted to. The sad thing is, at this one point in his life, he was getting a lot of problems off his back. Right when he was turning everything around, they throw him in the slammer. I have no idea how a judge could say the abusive things he said to Arthur. Said he was a danger to society. Said he'd done things like driving without insurance since 1963. It's like, name me one other rock star that hasn't."
Part of the reason why Lee could write about Los Angeles so well is that he embodies both the dark and light side of the city--its danger and rugged beauty. Most people who know him say that when he's not drinking, he's incredibly sweet and gentle. But, in the end, a man who was a psychedelic-rock pioneer and a garage-punk trailblazer gets little of the credit he's due. As much as fans root for him, though, they're also disappointed in him.
"If you look at Arthur and what he's done musically and how literate and inspired his lyrics are, despite how he comes across, you have to think that inside there, there's an intelligent person," Bronson says. "Someone who's less could not have done what he's done. But from time to time I've just heard of him doing the stupidest things."
These days, Lee spends his time reading the Bible and exercising a lot. He has six more years to do, unless his appeal is successful, and he just spent his 54th birthday on March 7 behind bars.
"It's a drag," he says about prison life, but he's hopeful about the slim chances of his upcoming federal appeal. He's also writing songs. "I've got some real good songs." he says. "I'm arranging an orchestra in my head.