Friday, August 04, 2006

Bummer in the Summer

August is all that I know
It's with me wherever I go
It's with me when I need a friend
It brings me good weather
It keeps me together
It picks me up when I'm down

-- Arthur Lee, "August"

Arthur Lee, the man behind the LA-based psychedelic rock band LOVE (a name always rendered in caps, and in red on their album covers), wrote those lyrics for a 1969 album. Yesterday, he was picked up by the month of August for the last time: he died of leukemia in his hometown of Memphis at the age of 61. You can read the story here.

Guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Lee's place in musical history is cemented by LOVE's third album, FOREVER CHANGES, released in 1967. A mournful, elegiac but tuneful response to the Summer of Love, the album (which included the song "Bummer in the Summer" -- and the closing "You Set the Scene," which ranks with John Lennon's "God" as one of the most poignant songs in the annals of pop music) is now regarded as one of rock's masterpieces, but it was largely overlooked at the time of its release on Elektra Records. It was too much of an album statement to yield a hit single and, to make its fortunes worse, the musicians that recorded the album had disbanded by the time of its release. Lee later claimed that LOVE's replacement line-up (who recorded the FOUR SAIL album of which "August" was a part) disliked FOREVER CHANGES and refused to play in support of it -- but it also seems likely that Lee was simply too progressive, too mercurial a talent to look back for long, least of all at an unhappy band association. (It always amazes me to learn that the most accomplished works of some groups -- like The Zombies' ODESSEY AND ORACLE, Mott the Hoople's BRAIN CAPERS, or Public Image Ltd's METAL BOX -- were recorded as the bands themselves were falling apart, or not speaking to one another. You'd think the glory of the music alone would pull them back together.)

As time went on, LOVE's recorded work began to fracture and Lee began recording solo albums. This later work was intermittently as inspired as anything he'd ever done, like the song "Five String Serenade" (later covered by Mazzy Star), but even his most dedicated fans lost patience under a barrage of poorly recorded live albums issued on small labels, presumably issued to support him through his lean years. Always an eccentric recluse who refused to kow-tow to the music industry, Lee was commonly branded an "acid casualty." (Indeed, in case you've ever wondered who really lived in that crazy, psychedelic pad up in the Hollywood hills where Roger Corman's THE TRIP was filmed in 1967, it was Arthur Lee -- who had moved there after leaving "The Castle," reputed to be the former home of Bela Lugosi, areas of which are pictured on the covers of their first two albums.) As Lee's fortunes went into steep decline, his productivity ebbed and his public behavior turned more erratic.

Firing a gun into the air in the 1990s got Lee sentenced to a dozen years in prison, six of which he served. Upon regaining his freedom, Lee formed a new LOVE lineup consisting of the members of a band called Baby Lemonade, young fans who -- very much like The Wondermints, who support Brian Wilson on record and on tour -- had studied his music and could recreate his orchestral pop masterpieces live onstage. After spending a year getting his live chops back together, Lee and the new LOVE toured the world in 2003 with a concert that presented the FOREVER CHANGES album in its entirety.

As it happens, the spirit and message of that album were more pertinent than ever in 2003, sounding remarkably at home in the contemporaneous context of bands like The Arcade Fire and The Flaming Lips. Furthermore, Lee's live performances (one is preserved on DVD as the must-have THE FOREVER CHANGES CONCERT) miraculously seemed to bring the heyday of the 1960s almost within reach. His shows always closed with an encore of the group's original hit single, the Burt Bacharach-penned "My Little Red Book." Our recovery of the 1960s through the power of Arthur Lee was not to be, but with his final tour given new meaning by the news of his death, perhaps it's most important that he recovered those years personally by finally celebrating, and bringing back to new and old generations, the one unquestionably great thing he created. It was his act of contrition for misspent years, his redemption, and heartening proof that nothing of enduring quality can be overlooked forever.

Arthur Lee spoke of FOREVER CHANGES as his "Mona Lisa," but it would be a mistake to limit his achievements to a single album. He and LOVE started out as a jangly Byrds-like combo with a harder edge, but they were also responsible for introducing outside musical influences to pop and rock, like flamenco, jazz and samba; they are said to have been Jim Morrison's favorite group. They were also influential: their song "She Comes in Colors" prompted The Rolling Stones' "She's Like a Rainbow," the derelict in "Live and Let Live" (whose snot has caked upon his pants and turned to crystal) presages Jethro Tull's "Aqualung," and "Signed D.C." sounds uncannily like The Moody Blues' later "Nights in White Satin" with different lyrics. LOVE were also the first group to cut a track that lasted an entire B-side of an album; "Revelation" (produced by an uncredited Neil Young) wasn't quite what its title promised musically, but its true revelation lay in the fact of showing what could be done. It took that giant stride from the edge of the vinyl to the inner groove first.

For Arthur Lee's death to occur so soon after Syd Barrett's passing gives his loss a doubled resonance, because those of us who loved their music will miss them both for very similar reasons. They were not only musicians, but painters, interpreters, surrealists, and adventurers. We didn't know them as well as they seemed to know us, and there was something a bit scary and forbidding about their kind of genius. Unlike Syd, Arthur gave us (and more importantly, himself) the happy ending of coming back one last time -- as a humbled and ennobled ambassador of the incense-scented music which had been given him to express and share.

Needless to say, it will live on.

This is the time and life that I am living
And I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
And the things that I do must consist of more than style

This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that's all that lives is gonna die
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye

-- Arthur Lee, "You Set the Scene"

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