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."
Self-destructive, prickly to fans, slightly disconnected face-to-face--such is Lee's peculiar brand of togetherness. Bronson says that when he met the singer, a real hero of his teenhood, he was surprised by his lackluster personality. "It was difficult to reconcile in my mind that the writer who just wrote really amazing, articulate, literate lyrics was the same person sitting across from you, talking to you."
But Lee's ongoing enigma has gained more attention, and the cult appeal of his band has grown, blossoming into a Love renaissance 30 years after the first incarnation bitterly fell apart.
"The stories are so ridiculous," Lee says over the telephone from prison, granting the first interview since his incarceration. "But when they stop talking about you, that's when you're in trouble. That's why I've got to get out of here. I've got to start stirrin' up more stories."
Arthur Lee has become a conundrum because of his unpredictable character: Many people describe his two sides, the charmer and the rogue. He has written incredibly sensitive love songs (the haunting, bittersweet "A Message to Pretty"), yet he's known for being physically abusive to girlfriends, who seem remarkably loyal to him. He can be ridiculously litigious-minded: His latter-day backup band, L.A.'s Baby Lemonade, claims he wanted to sue the Clash for stealing his punk prototype, the unlaced-combat-boot fashion idea.
But he has repeatedly undermined his own money-making possibilities by trying the patience of people who have attempted to help him, from promoters to record executives. During his shockingly underpublicized trial, when he needed press probably more than at any other time in his life, he shunned every reporter--from the Los Angeles Times to Rolling Stone--who tried to get near him. According to friends who continue to love him, he can be the best friend in the world. Cross him--he'll be your worst enemy.
Lee's now fighting to save his life. "This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me," he says. He denies that he ever shot the gun that landed him in jail, speaking with a subtle drawl that gives away his Tennessee roots. His voice is gentle, light and airy, with a flighty intonation that sounds like someone standing on his tip-toes, ready to amble off at a moment's notice. But he's not going anywhere, at least not at the moment. And he never imagined this is where he'd end up.
Lee was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1945. His father played the cornet, but Arthur rarely saw him. He and his mother, a schoolteacher, moved to Los Angeles when Arthur was five. At South L.A.'s Dorsey High, he became a track and basketball star, but he had played the organ, harmonica (he's a wicked harp blower), drums, and conga before that. He dropped out of school at 17 to pursue music. Rumor has it that seeing Johnny "Guitar" Watson pull up in his gold Cadillac surrounded by bodyguards whetted his appetite for musical fame.
When he was barely out of his teens, Lee was a star, bell-bottomed, beautiful, black; he was a man who even physically captured the kaleidoscopic possibilities of the era. "It's difficult to convey just what a dash Arthur Lee must have cut when he first broke through the Strip in 1966," Barney Hoskyns writes in his book about California rock, Waiting for the Sun. "Arthur was at the centre of it all, a black freak on the white scene, a ghetto punk in beads."
Robert Rozelle, a member of Love in the '70s, remembers the first time he met Lee at the Hollywood club Bido Lito's, just off Hollywood Boulevard. Love held a residency there and built up a strong local following; fans would line up around the block to see the group. "In walks this guy with chandelier droplet glasses; one lens was red and one was blue, like a prism. My goodness, I've never seen anything like him before: He was a freak. Then they started playing, and I'd never heard anything like that in my life."
Lee had already been through one band--Arthur Lee and the LAGs--before he hooked up with Byrds roadie Bryan MacLean, bassist and onetime Surfari Ken Forssi, guitarist-LAG holdover Johnny Echols, and drummer Don Conka. Conka was soon replaced by Alban "Snoopy" Pfisterer, and the band's name was changed from Grassroots (a name that was already taken) to Love. When the band formed in 1965, Los Angeles had been inundated with the Beach Boys' clean, striped-oxford uniform, cars-and-surf version of Southern Californian leisure pop--"Fun, Fun, Fun."
In sharp contrast, Lee was already cultivating his lifelong role: part sonic space traveler, part earthy canyon recluse. San Francisco's brand of counterculture was beginning to trickle down. It was an innocent time, but Los Angeles music was starting to get a little seedy and cynical. More and more, the record industry was moving into town, and even before, L.A. was never known as a place that harbored the purest, or most intellectually utopian, intentions. Even that brief period of innocence was always perched precariously on the edge of experience.
Though hippie culture courses through his music, the element that makes Lee's songwriting feel potent and revealing today is its dark, even sinister, edge. "I never was a 'I love you, I want you, I need you' kind of writer," he says. It separated him from the cooing flower-power pack.
"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.
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.
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."
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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.