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Goodbye, Arthur Lee (Love)

15 August 2006

I go away for a few weeks on a vacation with my wife, and what happens—ARTHUR LEE of LOVE dies?!!! I didn’t hear about it until today, which just goes to show you that if you willfully do without emails and the internet for a while (and it really isn’t a real vacation for me unless I leave the computer at home), you’ll never hear anything, no matter how newsworthy, about unpopular and semi-popular artists unless they kill a dozen people or something. And if you are where I was for part of the trip, in Jarbidge, Nevada (in the mountains in the Humboldt National Forest near the Idaho border, it is only accessible by two perilous but beautiful dirt/rock roads), you can’t even get a newspaper, and when you do, it’s something like the one from Twin Falls, Idaho, or Elko, Nevada, that would never cover the deaths of musicians unless they were nationally famous. As a result, I feel like I’m the last to know this bad piece of news, but it hits me pretty hard just the same.

Elsewhere on this site, you’ll see a rather eloquent and well-considered eulogy for Lee by GREG BARTALOS, in which I was honored to be mentioned. So no need for me to tell the story of why Lee was special or replicate Greg’s biography, other than to say how lucky we all were that the shows that Lee did the last five years of his life with BABY LEMONADE backing him, especially the ones he did with full orchestra playing the whole of 1967’s immortal Forever Changes, were so extraordinary. Perhaps the one thing Greg omits, since he didn’t get a chance to see Lee in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is how bad so many of Lee’s much older shows were, before he was sent off to jail.

It is, I think, a testament to just how great the body of Lee’s early work is (best place to head is the one-CD best-of, or his first four Elektra records from the late 1960s), that we kept going to see him live, and more interestingly, continued to utterly revere him, no matter how poorly he delivered on stage—with either truly inferior and often unprepared backing bands, or worse, the genuinely unfocused, unpredictable, and unreliable performances he served up, from someone who often seemed so mentally unstable. (His walking off the stage for 15 minutes during a Maxwell’s show backed by a game DAS DAMEN—because he was mad at a guy with a video camera—was just the tip of the Lee iceberg for this period, and actually, a window to his behavior in general the last 20 years, as Greg unflinchingly touches on a little.) No matter how bad he acted, or how crazy he came off (I have a really amusing interview from the NME from a few years back that I’ve kept on my coffee table for laughs, where this lifelong Beatles fan Lee actually refers, seriously to “Paul McCarthy”—I kid you not—while ripping another early influence, MICK JAGGER for not sweating down to his underwear!!!), he would always be the creator and/or singer of so many indelible classics that have not only influenced all the bands Greg mentions, and more, but made him a permanent cult legend among all that appreciate remarkable pop music.

In short, he was a giant. A flawed giant, sure, with flaws so gaping, he couldn’t even keep this last lineup of the adoring, just perfect, totally skillful and soulful Baby Lemonade guys together, though they’d have jumped through circles of fire for him. He was so volatile, even they had to walk out on him, for failure to honor touring commitments, the ultimate sin of any working entertainer. But having endured so many poor shows (the worst: when he admitted he was on mushrooms and his drummer didn’t even bother to show, at a debacle of debacles at The Coconut Teaser on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood in 1989, a “refund requested”-show if I’ve ever seen one. If you see THURSTON MOORE and KIM GORDON, ask them about that show, as they also just happened to be in town and turned up that night, agog at the sorry, if vaguely amusing as a result, spectacle.), it just made the majestic nights of “Maybe the People Would be the Times or Between Clark and Hillsdale,” the absolutely triumphant “You Set the Scene.” and BRYAN MACLEAN’s unforgettable “Alone Again Or” that much more remarkable, with Lee restored to all his glory, all his power, and all his pop grandeur and energy. Had he died in prison instead of mounting this revival, as most of us expected, those of us who weren’t old enough to see the original Love in its ‘60s heyday would have been deprived at experiencing a true master at the top of his singing game, carried away like the audience by the force of the music. I’m telling you, it was like night and day, the difference.

I wouldn’t want to have been his merchandise seller (who we saw being caned by a wobbling Lee after a Town Hall show a few years ago, for transgressions unknown! [That was my brother Hesh, who was totally innocent of any wrongdoing!!! -ed.], or for that matter his drummer or even his towel boy or bartender or banker or drug buddy, but man, being his fan on these last few years’ concert nights felt better than anything. And I stand behind the quote that Greg attributes to me. These were among the best live shows I’ve seen this whole decade, a total shock at that, and when he had the orchestra too, there were none better. (Did you miss them? Or want to relive them? Try The Forever Changes Concert DVD—see what the fuss is all about.)

Shine on you crazy diamond, Arthur, you and the one that song was written about, SYD BARRETT. Neither of you were the picture of sanity, exactly, but before the drugs and odd behavior got to you, you both sure gave us music we can’t get out of our head, 40 years later, and never will. And in your case, Arthur, thanks for the shows, they were plain awesome and I really don’t have a better word for it. And man, it was good having them both as long as we did. I/We wouldn’t have bet the “over” circa 1975, now would I/we?

P.S. Before you ask what I was doing in Jarbidge, here’s a small blurb in the Twin Falls Times-News about my wife MARY GREENFIELD’s work there that will answer all your questions, and maybe entice you to go there yourself some day: