The term “rock 'n' roll hero” has been overused in the past, and seldom with much apprehension of what heroes really are or what they go through. “Hero” encourages blind worship, an assumption of divine ordination -- but rock stars are as mortal as the next person, and often more fallible. And one hesitates to apply the mantle of heroism to a person who pursues, through personal choice and at small personal risk, what they hope will be a fantastically lucrative career offering creative fulfillment and sensual pleasure.
But sometimes such rhetoric holds up. A hero is by common definition someone who evidences “courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Arthur Lee, who died August 3 after a long battle with leukemia, showed ample amounts of the first two components -- and it wouldn't be difficult to argue that the third came in through the side door.
Sometimes being a rock star of a certain kind, or to a certain degree of innovation and intensity, can be an act of heroic fortitude. Lee -- born in Memphis in 1945, raised in Los Angeles from an early age -- always pushed against the grain of cliché, of what would have been expected of an artist who looked like him: that is to say, black. He was a deep experimenter in mostly white-defined, not to mention white-controlled, musical styles: from the start, working with and through a series of aspiring singers and nowhere L.A. bands, he eschewed soul or R&B and wrote dance novelties, surf songs, folk rock, proto-punk.
Lee formed the band that became Love in 1965 and quickly made them a draw in the clubs along the Sunset Strip. He wrote their songs and fronted their strange mix of hippie reveries (“She Comes in Colours”), harsh threats (“7 + 7 Is”), and suicidal despair (“Signed D.C.”). He had stage charisma, and a talent for prophetic connections: Among his earliest collaborators were Jimi Hendrix, then an unknown session guitarist, and Bobby Beausoleil, soon to become one of Charles Manson's most trusted lieutenants. He was a friend of Jim Morrison, and many say Lee outshone the nascent Lizard King when they were competing in the clubs. Not hard to believe.
Could someone like Arthur Lee have left his mark at any time but the late 1960s? Certainly there's no stretch of pop history when artists of demonstrably dubious sanity made so sharp a mark on the assumptions of the mainstream. Lee was in that rarefied class of musical mentals -- Brian Wilson, Roky Erikson, Syd Barrett, Skip Spence -- whose derangements, compounded by hallucinogenic intake, placed them on the very edge of musical and cognitive reality, enabling them to snatch the rarest, strangest birds of inspiration along with fistfuls of dead, pretentious air. For a moment, each was able to not just catch the bird but coax out its songs.
Love's third album, 1967's Forever Changes, was Lee's great moment of visionary clarity. The America one met in these songs was gray and red, full of beauty and doom. There was a lot of wit, but it was more surreal than straight (“The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This,” “A House is Not a Motel”). The instrumentation was of the utmost delicacy and loveliness -- acoustic guitars, horns, string sections were manipulated as if by angels' hands -- but the lyrical text was damnation, squalor, apocalypse. Lee's Everyman character woke to find snot on his trousers and blood running from his faucets. He journeyed from Beaver Cleaver's suburb to Eldridge Cleaver's ghetto and back, and saw that both were collapsing into the same concentration camp. There was a growing desperation in the album, the sense that the world was mad and its days were running out. “This is the time and this is the time,” Lee shouted to close out the album, scared, excited, dreading the end, welcoming the end. “Time! Time! Time! Time! Time!”
Feebly acclaimed and virtually unbought upon its release, Forever Changes has beguiled and mystified its listeners for nearly 40 years. It will always be around; it will never cease to find new listeners. It's too beautiful to disappear, too disquieting, too perfectly, precariously poised in a zone of musical impossibility.
Then the moment passed. The 1970s happened. The brilliant wackos, to a man, took it hard. Arthur Lee held on, struggling to sustain an identity that could hook itself on no genre, rely on no commercial base. Working solo or periodically reforming Love with new musicians, he produced hard rock, space rock, wastoid rock. Heroically, perhaps, he was still working against both white and black mainstreams; if anything, his later persona might liken him to a less jazz-oriented, lighter-souled Captain Beefheart. But increasingly in Lee's music you heard only madness talking, not method: His music spun away from the disciplined absurdity and focused melancholy of his peak work.
He had many hard, dark years then -- years when people thought he was dead, and he may have wished he was. Mental problems dug in. Drugs ate away. Lee's tendency to violent outbursts ended in a 1996 gun-waving incident; following two earlier arrests for drugs and assault, it was his third strike and won him a 12-year vacation in the California state penal system.
Paroled in late 2001, Lee had to have known no one was expecting anything further of him. The status of Forever Changes as a Great Rock Album had been consolidated by a Rhino re-release earlier in the year, and people certainly knew his name, but the Arthur Lee spotted here and there was a mere specter of the past. Expectations did not soar like the beautiful bird of yore when he announced his Forever Changes Tour in 2002: a lengthy jaunt across Europe and North America, playing two hours' worth of Love and solo favorites, including Forever Changes in its entirety.
So it was out of respect for past achievements alone that we bought tickets for his performance at New York's Town Hall in the summer of 2003. It looked at first like those memories might have to carry us through the evening: Lee came out weak, skinny, hobbling, head wrapped in Stetson and sunglasses, looking like a hip, mummified cowboy. Propped on a cane, he explained that he'd taken a tumble a few days before and couldn't quite walk. He avoided the guitar someone had put out for him; he could barely shake the tambourine that hung from his hand.
For the first several songs his voice was weak: soft, straining, always just behind the beat. Lee's heart was in it, but his body clearly wasn't, and as for his mind … well, this was a veteran of the drug wars. The tight young band, augmented by a tight young string section, held the music together; but overall the event had the gathering scent of an embarrassment.
About a third of the way in, though, all momentum shifted. There was no pinpointing the moment, let alone the factor. Anyone who has been to more than a few concerts knows that many elements, some as arbitrary and unpredictable as weather, can steer a show toward energy or entropy. It might have been when Lee stopped between songs to address a bad review his show had recently gotten in Rolling Stone. “Fuggem,” Lee grumbled to all his critics, with the gravitas of one who'd earned the right to say it.
Or it might have been a particular song that transformed the night from embarrassment to epic. All that's certain is that a great concert requires its star to shine. And more than any other element -- more than the professionalism of the musicians, more than the audience's desire to convince itself it wasn't cringing -- it was Arthur Lee that turned things his way. His focus returned and he homed it in on the microphone, the music. Drawing energy from the audience, from the event, from his storied past and our collective present, he grew visibly stronger. His voice rose with each song, his lungs expanded through Forever Changes and beyond. He slammed the tambourine against his hip although you knew each strike was agony. By the end of the concert he was not bent, he was straight and tall -- not straining or even singing, but shouting: “Time! Time! Time! Time! Time! Time!”
It was the closest thing I've personally seen to an act of rock 'n' roll heroism. It took guts and a willingness to brave fear and pain. It was an act of sincere and passionate giving. It evidenced noble qualities. And those qualities are what first came to mind upon the announcement that Arthur Lee had died, not in his beloved Los Angeles, but back in Memphis -- city of his birth, final resting place of heroes.
Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard). He blogs on music at www.popwithashotgun.blogspot.com.
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