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.