It’s early spring in the Pacific Northwest, and residents are riding a whirlpool between hope and confusion.
We have more daylight and the temperature is rising, but the rain persists. We’re perched on the edge of the next phase; hovering between the soul’s potential and winter’s shadow.
That’s exactly how it feels within the music of Arthur Lee’s 1960’s band, Love. These songs are the perfect companion to early spring.
Last night I rolled down the freeway, car windows down, fresh air blasting in, rain streaking the windshield as the acoustic strains of “The Castle” danced from my speakers. It was a satisfying moment – the music matched both mood and weather.
The rhythm of “The Castle” recalls a moving train, while the harpsichord and guitar chatter with traveler excitement; the thrill that makes a passenger secretly want to jump out of the window and run among green hills.
Love were The Smashing Pumpkins of the 1960’s – their music is idiosyncratic, at times bizarre, but always melodic and captivating. The shifting musical movements arrest a listener’s attention, pulling the mind into an ever-evolving tapestry of sound. Love’s best two albums, Da Capo and Forever Changes, are often described as Baroque Pop, tinged with a Classical spanish flavor. Arthur Lee’s background was in R&B, but he decided to tread new waters into his unique brand of folk-rock after seeing a live performance of The Byrds.
I discovered Love a few years after my first wave of 60’s music discovery. I thought I had already unearthed all the best 60’s music at that point. One day, someone brought me a coffee table book about the 60’s. In yet another instance of being hypnotized by a photograph, I was inspired to investigate Love’s music after I saw this picture:
That picture of Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean playing guitar hooked me. Their faces reflect the essence of musical concentration, and Lee’s face is at once poetic and beautiful. The band are in action, and it’s clear that whatever they happen to be playing, they are playing the hell out of it. I had no idea what they sounded like, but I wanted to hear this band.
I was surprised the first time I popped Da Capo into the player. I was expecting the typical Big Brother and The Holding Company blues arrangement. I heard something else instead.
I heard “Stephanie Knows Who” with its skipping carnival clowns and choppiness. I was delighted. A jazz breakdown drops in out of nowhere half way through the song, and it sounds just like midnight dropping into the bright sun of high noon.
After this madness, the album slides into the summery “Orange Skies”. This song is a lovely portrayal of how infatuation paints the world into shades of desire. She’s a delicate nightingale to his eyes, and the flute makes butterflies flit around her head. You can see her long eyelashes, and you can picture Lee smiling on a grassy hill, dizzy and silly, drunk on her.
After I heard Da Capo, I started listening to the album constantly. I remember picking up a friend to give him a ride while “Que Vida!” was playing. He hesitated and listened. A moment passed, and finally he said, “Dude, this is some weird shit you’re listening to.” I smiled broadly and let out a cackle. His reaction validated my belief that I’d stumbled onto a work of genius.
“Que Vida!” is an odd song. I still have no idea what this song is about. It’s too weird to pay attention to the lyrics, which are illogical and scattered in the first place. The listener is drawn into Lee’s bizarre vocal phrasing to the point where it’s impossible to focus on anything else. In the meantime, the music swirls around his voice. Lee sounds exactly like the cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat. I cannot hear this song without picturing the pink Cheshire cat singing it.
Around the same time, another friend was riding in my car while I listened to “The Castle”. Amused, she remarked wryly that it sounded like Tori Amos. I was floored because she was right. “The Castle” does sound a hell of a lot like a Tori Amos song.
There’s a similarity between the two artists – much like Tori Amos, Lee occasionally sings lyrics that are non-sensical to the audience. You get a flash of ice cream cones, hypnotized dogs and eyeless boys.
“But you can throw me if you wanna because I’m a bone and I go oop-ip-ip, oop-ip-ip Yeah!”
Forever Changes is Love’s magnum opus. Throughout the album, Lee’s Spanish guitar quietly accompanies lush string arrangements; complex orchestration lends a dramatic edge to the songs.
“A House is Not a Motel” and “The Red Telephone” are widely recognized as classics. The two songs strike a balance between Love’s arcane weirdness and their talent for straightforward electric folk-rock.
The album themes reflect the concerns of the era mingled with Lee’s personal reflections. Lee’s intimate delivery is the secret sauce here. Throughout the album, Lee’s voice sounds like a movie voiceover that only you can hear. He’s minding his own business, having private thoughts, and you’re a secret party to those thoughts. It’s a mirror of your own private concerns and fears. It’s the clouds battling sunshine in the spring, the sound of struggle quietly straining toward rebirth.
“The Daily Planet” is another personal favorite. The intro starts over again several times to support the idea of routine. The intro comes on strong like morning freshness, energized motivation, the will to try again, but it quickly slides out into the street and confronts an onslaught of daily stress.
Forever Changes has the feel of a concept album. It portrays a character going through a journey, if only a journey of different moods and reflections. Isolation is present throughout. He looks around at society and makes observations about struggle, war, society, and impermanence. There’s an atmosphere of calm melancholy punctuated at times by a distinct will to action. The rhythm guitar and percussion rush around underneath, the constant heartbeat, a spirit trying to break through and rise above it all. This is the floral soundtrack to depression, as experienced by a creative aesthete who requires nature and beauty to get by.
My other favorite is “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark And Hilldale.” Lee’s singing bursts in with a windswept symbol crash; the song is set outdoors with festive horns. This song conjures up summer music festivals in Alaska in my memory. People mill around in crowds having a good time. It’s the one overtly joyous song on the album.
“You Set The Scene” is a fitting last song for the album. The character comes to terms with his many observations. We find him deciding to persevere despite everything. This is the best song in Love’s catalog, poignant and full of grace.
“This is the time of 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 must do consist of more than style
There are places that I am going
There’ll be time for you to start all over
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 goodbye
There’ll be time for you to put yourself on”
Love’s various members struggled with the typical drug problems that plague rock bands. Lee’s refusal to tour compounded matters further. He apparently didn’t like going on the road and had no interest in performing outside of LA. In some ways, that vision of Lee is endearing and fitting to the atmosphere of Forever Changes – the aloof folk icon, grassroots to the core, hanging out in his own world. There’s no indication that Lee was upset that his albums didn’t chart and sell widely at the time. He wasn’t greedy enough to put up with life on the road for the sake of chasing the diamond. It didn’t make a difference to him. All he needed was a room and an acoustic guitar.
Forever Changes was also buried under a tidal wave of heavier albums released in 1967 by popular artists; Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, Cream, The Doors, the list goes on. Due to the super-charged psychedelic atmosphere in music that year, the album was quaint and quiet by comparison. Years later, Forever Changes has been recognized by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Arthur Lee and Love ultimately joined a small club of underground cult heroes who have a dedicated following, along with Tim Buckley and The 13th Floor Elevators. Love endured through the years by word-of-mouth, purely on the strength of the music.
And Arthur Lee was all right with that.
“Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging
And for anyone who thinks it’s strange
Then you should be the first to want to make this change
And for anyone who thinks that life is just a game – do you like the part you’re playing?”
-Love, “You Set The Scene”