The wreck of the Arthur Lee will never return again, never return again.
--From “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee,” by Robyn Hitchcock.
Arthur Lee leans over a plate of tacos and beans and starts to wave his arms angrily, taking care not to disturb the great pink concoction in front of him that could be the Lake Superior of mixed drinks.
The grin marks have vanished from Lee’s long, dimpled face. He doesn’t know Robyn Hitchcock from Alfred Hitchcock, but he knows that he doesn’t at all like the song verse an interviewer just quoted for him. Until now, a late-afternoon lunch in this deserted North Hollywood restaurant has been a placid, rather sunny affair, notwithstanding the black decor and the dim lighting.
“I’ll wreck him! I’ll wreck him! " Lee booms, his voice a mixture of high dudgeon and amusement at the theatricality of his own outburst.
Lee, however, is willing to be mollified. He harrumphs and settles back into the booth as it’s explained who Hitchcock is (a ‘60s-influenced British rocker highly regarded in college-radio circles) and how he came to take liberties with Lee’s name.
“The Wreck of the Arthur Lee,” Hitchcock said in an interview last year, is intended as “a lament in general,” and not a comment on the condition of its namesake. The lyric talks about a sinking ship, which Hitchcock named in Lee’s honor because the song also incorporates a swelling orchestral arrangement clearly inspired by “Forever Changes,” the 1967 album that established Arthur Lee and his band, Love, as an enduring, if overlooked, rock treasure.
Whatever Hitchcock’s explanation, the image of Arthur Lee as a lost vessel hits uncomfortably close to home, given the long downward arc of his musical career. For most of the past 20 years, Lee seems to have foundered on the rocks.
The ‘60s held some great high-water marks. When the band debuted in 1966, Love succeeded the Byrds and preceded the Doors as the ruling band on the Sunset Strip. Love’s music, like that of most great ‘60s bands, can’t be labeled with a handy tag, like today’s “punk” or “grunge.”
Love played gritty, blitzing speed-rock (notably on “7 And 7 Is,” the band’s only Top 40 hit) that helped lay the foundation for latter-day punk. It also played jangling folk-rock and gorgeous, cottony ballads that showed jazz and classical influences. Lee’s lyrics were sometimes full of hippie idealism and lovelorn wistfulness; but they also could capture the Vietnam War-shadowed defiance and paranoia that pervaded the era.
“Forever Changes,” with its combination of plaintive innocence and deep foreboding, came out at the end of 1967 and captured the moment as that love fest year slipped into 1968, a dark year of assassinations and street-fighting. But the strange, shimmering, still-haunting beauty of “Forever Changes” transcends any sociological moment and earns it a place high on the list of rock’s all-time greatest albums.
On his ‘60s recordings, Lee’s singing voice was remarkably diverse and instantly identifiable, whether he was barking out a tough-rocking song or crooning in a pure, tremulous tenor that could have made him an idol in any Irish saloon (Lee is one of the few rock singers who cites Johnny Mathis as an important influence).
He wasn’t Irish, though. He was a black man, born in Memphis and raised in South Los Angeles. Love was the first racially integrated band in post-Beatles rock, and it is likely that Jimi Hendrix (whose maiden recording session as a sideman Lee produced in 1963) took a few ideas from him, both musical and sartorial.
Love never enjoyed commercial success equal to its artistic achievement, partly because the original lineup, wracked by dissension and, reportedly, drug abuse, failed to tour. Lee kept Love going with new musicians, but his songwriting faltered in the ‘70s, and by the middle of the decade he had joined the where-are-they-now brigade of former contenders who slip quietly out of the public eye.
When Lee reappeared early in 1989 on a “Psychedelic Summer of Love” oldies package tour that played a string of Southern California dates, his performance at the Coach House was pallid. He was grim and withdrawn as he fronted a lifeless band, giving only fleeting glimpses of his old vocal glory. In an interview at the time, Lee came off as a man who felt slighted of his due, brimming with egotism and with resentment for a music business establishment that he felt had raided his wallet and pulled his rightful pedestal out from under him. Wreck or not, Lee’s career was in need of a major salvage job.
Five years on, a salvage job appears to be well underway. The Arthur Lee who pulls up to the appointed restaurant in a long, black Lincoln Town Car proves to be an upbeat, accommodating figure. Under long frizzy sideburns and a helmet of curly, tied-back hair, he looks a little weathered but not worse for the wear. He still seems youthful for his 49 years, and with his slender frame draped in an all-black get-up that includes tight jeans and tan suede boots with chains around the ankles, Lee, who stands over 6 feet tall, looks every inch a rocker.
He chats in a voice that has hues both smokey and sweetly mild and breaks every so often into a wheezy laugh. Lee still has plenty of ego, and his wariness of the music business remains, like Van Morrison’s, an apparently ingrained part of his makeup. But Lee’s boastfulness no longer seems so much the self-massaging of a bruised ego. Instead, it can be construed as the Ali-style self-proclaiming of a man who is trying to bolster himself for another bout in the heavyweight ring.
The tools for Lee’s attempt to climb back on the contender’s list are in the Lincoln’s trunk--the guitar and amplifier he will later carry to a North Hollywood studio where he has been working on demo tapes that he hopes will win him a new recording deal. The evidence that he has a chance is in a large, black briefcase in his front seat. After rummaging through its clutter of cassette tapes, Lee turns off an oldies station that has been playing the Supremes. (Lee jokes about how out-of-date he is when it comes to the contemporary rock scene: “The last name I remember in music is James Brown, I think.”)
He slips in tapes from recent studio sessions and live shows. There’s an old Love song, “Your Mind and We Belong Together,” powerfully redone with a hard edge supplied by Baby Lemonade, a band of young Los Angeles players he has been working with over the past year. A new composition, “That’s the Way It Goes,” is a lovely folk-rock ballad with an insinuating lilt. As it plays, Lee leans back in the driver’s seat, eyes closed, head bobbing, a pleased look on his face.
He was born Arthur Porter Taylor in Memphis. His mother, Agnes, now 91, was a school-teacher who brought him up with traditional Southern respect for manners and politeness. Lee says he saw little of his natural father, Chester Taylor, who was a cornet player in Memphis. Lee says he can remember listening while an aunt spent mornings there playing blues records and listening to Nat King Cole.
When Lee was 5, his mother moved her only child to Los Angeles. Six years later, his mother married Clinton Lee, a tradesman who did carpentry, plumbing and construction. By then, Lee says, musical fascination had already arrived for him--on four legs.
“This guy would come by with a pony, advertising his (music) studio. That pony was his gimmick.” Little Arthur ran out to see the pony; his mother signed him up for accordion lessons. By his mid-teens, he was playing keyboards in Los Angeles clubs.
Lee says his mother backed his music but his stepfather couldn’t see the point.
“My father believed in a hard day’s work. If you didn’t sweat and all that stuff, you weren’t a man. He said I’d never be nothin.’ He said, ‘Listen to this guy playing on “Lawrence Welk.” You can’t do that.’ The more he said it, the more I was convinced I had to do it.”
Besides music, Lee was keen on athletics, including running track and playing basketball in high school and junior high. (He also liked to raise pigeons and still keeps pigeons at his home in Sherman Oaks.)
With friends from Dorsey High School, he started an instrumental R&B; band called Arthur Lee and the LAG’s (for Los Angeles Group). It was patterned after Booker T and the MG’s (for Memphis Group), and like their model, the LAG’s were a racially integrated band.
By 1964, Lee was a Beatlemaniac and a Stones freak--one of the few teen-agers in his predominantly black neighborhood who got excited when the Beatles made their landmark U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Soon, Lee was hanging out at the Los Angeles club, Ciro’s, watching the indigenous response to the British Invasion.
“I saw the Byrds and my head spinned around like Linda Blair,” Lee said. “I heard ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ and I didn’t have to hear any more. I’d been writing things like that for a long time, but it didn’t fit the show (on the R&B; stages he was then playing). It wasn’t dance music; it was folk rock.”
Lee saw being black not as a barrier to playing the white kids’ rock, but as an opportunity.
“There were no black people singing Beatles records or the Byrds. I chose that because it was the opposite, just to see if it would work. My thing was to sound Caucasian, instead of the run of the mill. Johnny Mathis, I picked up a lot of stuff from him. God gave me this gift, to use a lot of different voices in this style I do.”
Lee, who was developing a mod look that featured bandannas, leather jackets and thin, diamond-shaped sunglasses, recruited a lineup that included Brian Mac- Lean, a Byrds roadie who had the flash, Carnaby Street image he wanted for his band. MacLean would earn his keep in the early Love as a strong second-chair singer and songwriter behind Lee, who was the dominant musical force.
Love soon became the hottest band in L.A. Lee fondly remembers selling out the Whisky and other local clubs for nights on end.
Love didn’t tour, Lee said, because “we had the West Coast sewn up,” and because “I didn’t trust nobody. I wasn’t going on the road and play for $20 when I could play at the Fillmore for thousands. I had it made in one place, and I was kind of leery of going to a place I’d never been. I think I definitely made a few wrong decisions.”
As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, Lee admits, “I kind of got lost. The failure of his 1974 album, “Reel to Reel,” ushered in what Lee refers to as his period “on the couch"--years when he didn’t record and performed only sporadically.
“I felt, ‘I’m tired of the music business, wondering where my money is.’ I quit doing music. I was hanging out with the guys on the corner, back in the ‘hood again, in the house my father built.”
Lee says he was needed at home because his stepfather was ailing with terminal cancer, and he wanted to help his aging mother care for him.
Did Lee ever feel his career was finished?
“Never that. Just that I needed a rest. But I didn’t choose the (long) rest I got, I’ll tell you that.”
Lee played sporadically in Los Angeles clubs during the late ‘70s and ‘80s, “but it wasn’t really serious. It was just to sustain and keep jamming.”
During that period, Lee had trouble sustaining a decent show, according to Robert Leslie Dean, a Love admirer who watched the band’s rise in the 1960s and befriended Lee in the 1970s.
“I’ve seen him where I basically gave up on him. Terrible, very embarrassing concerts in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Probably a series of factors was involved. Take a pick whether it’s substance abuse, personnel changes in the band or trying to outdo himself and come up with something hipper than ‘Forever Changes.’ ”
After Lee emerged again in 1989, Mark Linn, a young, novice booking agent with a deep affection for Lee’s music, contacted him and started trying to revive his career.
“He was just kind of his own worst enemy for a while,” Linn said from his Chicago office. “He was feeling kind of defeated, feeling like he should have had more success than he did. He was getting up, maybe drinking a bit, watching TV, not accomplishing much.”
But Linn liked some of the new songs Lee would sing him over the phone and began making contacts with independent record companies on his behalf. There was interest, Linn said, but there were a lot of negative perceptions to overcome.
“Most people hear these wild stories and think he’s an acid casualty. I’ve been on tours with him where he has been completely straight and people in the audience say, ‘He’s got to be so high right now.’ People expect it of him.”
Lee doesn’t like to dwell on that aspect of his life.
“Drugs are a bad write-up for people that read the newspapers,” he said simply.
Linn helped Lee get back on the road for East Coast tours, hooking him up with good, young musicians (Lee’s East Coast band features members of Das Damen and Cell). A French label, New Rose, heard Lee’s new songs, and in 1992 issued “Arthur Lee and Love.”
Playing primarily with musicians he had first worked with in the 1970s, Lee came up with a respectable album that proved his voice was intact. The leadoff track, “Five String Serenade,” proved that his muse hadn’t deserted him, either: It’s one of the most gorgeous ballads of his career (the Los Angeles band, Mazzy Star did a fine version on its excellent 1993 album, “So Tonight That I Might See”).
Lee got a hero’s welcome on a 1992 tour of England. Linn thinks it gave him an important boost.
“The reception completely blew his mind. All the shows were sold out and packed with 16- and 17-year-old kids with homemade Love T-shirts who sang along with every word. Although he acted pretty cool, I think he was emotionally knocked out.”
The toughest task, Linn said, was rehabilitating Lee’s reputation in his hometown.
“I came up against incredible resistance in L.A. Nobody wanted to book him. He’d just about worn out his welcome everywhere. Every single club had a horror story about him.”
That problem was solved by Tom Sweeney, a Los Angeles booking agent and old-line Love fan. Sweeney saw Lee playing a small-club gig in Santa Monica 18 months ago and approached him with ideas for bigger shows. One idea was that Lee should team up with a younger, more energetic set of players.
Sweeney said he put Lee in touch with Baby Lemonade, a racially diverse Los Angeles band of four rockers in their mid-20s who all were great Love fans. The band became Lee’s regular backup unit for West Coast dates. With promoters unwilling to take a risk on Lee, Sweeney rented out clubs himself to showcase his ability.
“Once the bigger (clubs) saw that Arthur was not only showing up at the gigs, but the performances were getting good reviews, everybody felt much more comfortable working with him,” said Sweeney, who now handles Lee’s West Coast bookings.
Dean, the Love fan and Lee associate who had given up on his shows in the early ‘80s, became curious when he saw that Lee had been booked last year to play the Troubadour.
“I took a chance on seeing what his latest folly would be, and he blew me away,” Dean said of that April, 1993 concert. “Every successive gig has been fantastic. It amazes me that Arthur has picked himself up by the bootstraps and gotten back into it with a real fire to reclaim his place.”
Good things continue to happen for Lee in 1994. A tiny Pennsylvania label, Dimensions Records, issued “Girl on Fire,” a vinyl 45 he cut with Baby Lemonade, and it found the veteran and the youngsters wailing together with punk-rock intensity. A 10-show East Coast tour during the winter climaxed with a New York City club date that won rave reviews from Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Both critics concluded that Lee was singing better than he had on his classic ‘60s recordings.
Lee also is the object of veneration on a new album, “We’re All Normal and We Want Our Freedom: A Tribute to Arthur Lee and Love.” The Alias Records release is a heartfelt but uneven effort, mostly by bands from the deep indie underground. Love fanatics may want it; others (meaning anyone with an affinity for ‘60s rock) should start with “Forever Changes” and Rhino’s “Best of Love.”
Last month, Lee was back in England, playing at the Royal Albert Hall on a bill celebrating the 10th anniversary of Creation Records, the independent label that launched such contemporary rock acts as the Jesus And Mary Chain, Ride, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine.
“I didn’t see one hole. It’s the first thing I looked for,” laughs Lee, Beatles fan to the core, referring to “A Day in the Life” and its cryptic vision of holes filling the Albert Hall. “It’s the most beautiful place I ever played.”
Having been hailed as an icon on his trips to England, Lee says he is thinking about moving there.
“The glamour and praise would be good for my ego. To know that people are in my corner would make we want to do what I’m doing.”
One problem that booking agent Linn sees is Lee’s difficulty believing that a business team--something vital to furthering a musical career--will ever be in his corner.
“It’s incredible. He doesn’t trust anybody at all,” Linn said. “There are some young people out there now who are really trying to help him, and he’ll think they’re trying to rip him off. We’ve had our ups and downs where he’s accused me of ripping him off, where I really haven’t. I think he knows deep down that I’m (working with him) because I love him as a great musician, and most of the time as a person, too. I think the problem is he’s getting older and he’d like things to move a little faster.”
While it’s still in doubt whether Lee can fashion a business vehicle to carry his career as far as his talent might allow, he certainly has high hopes when it comes to setting a destination.
“I plan to have a No. 1 record and to be the No. 1 entertainer in the world,” Lee says matter-of-factly when asked about his goals. “You people don’t have a king, and I don’t have a throne.”
As his friend, Dean, points out, Lee will have accomplished a great deal simply by sustaining the level of musical quality and personal renewal he already has achieved.
“I’ve seen Arthur ugly, ugly inside and out,” Dean said, referring to bad times in the 1970s. “But I went over Arthur’s place last year, and I couldn’t believe I was sitting with the same person. He was generous and kind. It’s a new day, a new beginning, and he ain’t like that. As long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, and not doing what he’s not doing, I think some amazing, long-overdue recognition will be accorded him. He was down for the count, and he is better than ever. If Arthur can come back the way he is, there’s hope for everybody. “
* Who: Arthur Lee and Love.
* When: Sunday, July 24, at 8 p.m., with Spirit and the Tourquays.
* Where: Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is on the right, in the Esplanade Plaza.
* Wherewithal: $15.
* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.
IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: TONI CHILDS
The Los Angeles-based Childs has one of the biggest voices on the pop circuit, and she applies it to some big, cycle-of-life ideas on her latest album, “The Woman’s Boat.” Childs and her band play two shows at the Coach House on Friday, July 22. (714) 496-8930.
IN LONG BEACH: THE PALADINS
This long-running roots-rock band from Encinitas draws upon blues and rockabilly, but also plays anthemic, mainstream rock songs on its current release, “Ticket Home.” The Paladins play Friday, July 22, at the Foothill in Signal Hill. (310) 984-8349.
IN SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO: NINA HAGEN
This German singer is considered one of New Wave rock’s eccentric originals, with her penchant for role playing, stylistic grab-bagging and wide-ranging vocal palette. She plays at the Coach House on Wednesday, July 27. (714) 496-8930.