Burning Love: Cult ‘60s psychedelic band returns

By Mark Guarino

Arthur Lee, of the ‘60s cult band Love, sells the current incarnation of his band this way: “burn all the albums I made and don’t listen to any more of my music.”   

So convinced he is playing with a band that surpasses the group he recorded three albums with between 1966 and 1967, Lee said his recent performances make fans — not even born when Love released its greatest album, “Forever Changes” — weep in astonishment. In conversation, he also makes it clear his “genius” was overlooked after his peak and, buoyed by a successful European tour and the recent re-release of his past albums, he is relishing the fact he is “finally getting recognized after 35 years.”    

If Lee sounds like on a campaign to win back his integrity and insure his place in the history books, it’s because he is. Love was both a product and casualty of late ‘60s hedonism. As bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were nourished by West Coast drug culture, their contemporaries like Moby Grape, Love and others burned out on it. Stunting their careers at their peaks, the bands slipped from the public eye and into the cult notoriety cherished by record collectors, diehard fans and bands that decades later paid debt to their influence.   

Love never cemented its legacy because its heyday was so brief. Although Lee continued to tour and record under the band name through different periods from the ‘70s to today, the band’s first three albums were since rediscovered as visionary classics, all three culminating in “Forever Changes” (Elektra), the band’s 1967 masterpiece of ornate pop. It combined intricate horn and string arrangements, a variety of styles (punk, flamenco, Broadway, psychedelic rock) with Lee’s metaphysical and often ironic lyrics. Lee had just turned 22 and considered it would be the last album he would ever make.    

“I planned on retiring,” he said recently from his home in L.A. “I wanted to do something so I could get paid for the rest of my life. The things I wrote about were things I saw around me, which I thought would always happen on this planet. To my first original band, it was a party to them. They didn’t know exactly what was going on. It was good times, have fun, go pick up chicks, get high and this and that. But I was thinking ahead.”   

Today, “Forever Changes” is a touchstone for serious pop fanatics and bands ranging from Mazzy Star to Urge Overkill to The Damned to Siouxsie and the Banshees recorded its songs. But “Forever Changes” was largely ignored when it was originally released and although Lee says Elektra shares in the blame for not publicizing it enough, he and his bandmates were guilty as well. In its time, the band’s original line-up was always on the verge of collapse and while heroin preoccupied his bandmates, Lee was consumed with a stubborn will. By 1967, Love was the most popular band in L.A. and that sufficed. Lee refused most invitations to tour outside the city, most famously turning down a spot on the Monterey Pop festival which ended up making Jimi Hendrix a superstar. By backing into a corner, Love could only implode.   

Despite its name, Love well represented the dark side of the ‘60s, the same culture that borne Charles Manson, the Hell’s Angels and LSD. The band not only lived in a mansion formerly owned by movie ghoul Bela Lugosi, the music it made there was dark, intense and apocalyptic, in many ways much more challenging than the other two masterworks of that time period, “Pet Sounds” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”    

By the end, Lee’s bandmates were so strung out, they skipped recording sessions and he ended up hiring outside musicians, including Neil Young who ended up working on some arrangements. “I wasn’t going to stop,” Lee said. “I told them, “I’m serious about what I’m doing and I’m going to do it no matter what’.”   

Besides his music, Lee was a groundbreaker in the race-conscious ‘60s. Love was the first integrated rock band, he and guitarist Johnny Echols were black while guitarist Bryan Maclean, bassist Ken Forssi and drummer Don Conka were white. As Lee explains it, “the name ‘Love’ represents God. I think if you’re going to have a group and call the group ‘Love’, it shouldn’t very well look like the Temptations or the Beatles.”   

Love crossed over to a white audience, but never found a black audience, a point of contention that still angers him. “I get no respect from black people at all and I don’t understand it,” he said. “They recognize Martin Luther King Jr. … but when he was walking in the street and holding hands, I was doing the dream, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t have time to wait around.”   

Lee was also was the first black hippie, his early fashion tastes influencing Jimi Hendrix and Bootsy Collins. Hendrix’s headbands, striped pants and moccasins was a look Hendrix directly borrowed from Lee. Lee hired Hendrix as a session player, the guitarist’s first studio gig. Hendrix later repaid the favor and played on a later Lee album in 1970. When Hendrix died of an overdose the same year, Lee was scared straight. “I thought I was next,” he said.   

Since Love dissolved, Lee experienced his own share of ups and downs. He released a few solo albums following “Forever Changes,” but in the ‘80s was reportedly found nearly homeless on the streets of L.A. He had a string of run-ins with the police involving guns and spousal abuse and when he was caught pointing a pistol at a neighbor he was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1996. He was released late last year.   

This year he toured Europe, some dates accompanied by a full orchestra that helped him perform “Forever Changes” in its entirety. Backing him up in this new version of Love is the L.A. indie rock band Baby Lemonade.  

“I realize this is a ‘proving it’ tour,” said Lee, who is 57. “I’m glad to be able to be around.”

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