"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."