Love were poised to be bigger than their Elektra label mates—and friendly Sunset Strip rivals—the Doors, but trouble and darkness followed them by the end of the decade. Anthony Mostrom recalls how, at age 9, he stood awestruck upon encountering Love at their absolute peak
Some rare amateur film footage has been showing up lately online that gives you a glimpse into the colorful and good-natured vibe of L.A.’s hippies-in-Griffith-Park events from around 1966 to 1970. (For those of you under 60, these events were called Love-Ins.) You’ll see lots of hippie girls there in face paint with flowers in their hair, dancing in a twisting, serpentine, flame-like way (heavy on the headbands), all blissed-out and gyrating insanely enough to transfix some anonymous dude who thought to bring along an 8-millimeter movie camera…you know, like the Zapruder film. It’s all groovy peace ‘n love, man.
On the downside, the Sunset Strip “curfew riots” of the Summer of 1967, when police and Sheriff’s deputies excessively, literally cracked down on local teenagers’ heads with billy clubs, caused many a lily-white teenager to suddenly resent and fear the law. These riots were a fresh memory when a local musical genius from South Los Angeles named Arthur Lee, with his band Love, recorded a song called “The Red Telephone”:
Sitting on a hillside,
watching all the people die.
I’ll feel much better on the other side.
I’ll thumb a ride…
The song ended with Lee issuing a dire warning in the form of a chant:
They’re locking them up today,
they’re throwing away the key!
I wonder who it will be tomorrow,
you or me?
That November, Love would release their third album Forever Changes, on Elektra Records. Despite getting plenty of nationwide airplay on AM stations like 93-KHJ in Los Angeles (whose frantic DJ voices from that era you can now hear in Quentin Tarantino’s recent “Manson movie”), the album would barely make the Top 200 on the national charts. Since then, however, Forever Changes has steadily risen to the top in the music world’s esteem, until being officially ranked as the “40th greatest” rock album of all time by Rolling Stone.
This was not just some snobby or contrarian opinion on the part of the magazine. Forever Changes, popular in its day but never a chart-topper, stands so high among listeners and critics partly thanks to its timelessness: the music, as Lee’s biographer John Einarson comments, “stands at one remove from the time and place of its conception and presents few, if any, of the hallmarks of contemporaneous hit albums.” Far from being a mere time capsule of the late ‘60s L.A. music scene, Forever Changes is a classic slab of music that remains fresh on its own terms, with its unusual mix of musical styles that include lush flamenco guitar breaks, Burt Bacharach-style horn sections and at least one memorable musical climax that, in its own way, has to be considered a nerve-shattering American equal to the Beatles’ A Day in the Life. The song is called “You Set the Scene”:
Somewhat like Frank Zappa’s perverse mixing of gorgeous orchestral music with ridiculous jokes and noises, Forever Changes’ lush, pastoral beauty is accompanied by some jarringly dark and at times silly lyrics; what other major album by a major artist can you think of that talks about snot, “caked against my pants?”
It’s one of those records that offers up a lifetime’s worth of intensely sweet melodies, gut-level dude rock and plenty of lyrical obscurity to chew on:
And if you see Andmoreagain
Then you will know Andmoreagain,
For you can see you in her eyes…
Andmoreagain? What the heck is that? Was there a woman in Arthur Lee’s life named…Ann Morgan? (And if there was, here’s another little theory of mine: and f-u-c Ann Morgan…just a thought.) Since this was the ‘60s and Arthur liked to indulge, some commentators have chalked this all up to drugs, which Arthur sang about on the first, eponymous Love album (1966), in the song “Signed DC” [Lee’s lament about Don Conks, former Love drummer who battled heroin addiction]:
Sometimes I feel so lonely
My comedown I’m scared to face.
I’ve pierced my skin again, Lord.
No one cares for me.
My soul belongs to the dealer
He keeps my mind as well.
I play the part of the leecher.
No one cares for me.
While the youthquake-nation’s soundtrack during the late ‘60s was dominated by such stellar L.A. bands as the Byrds and the Mamas and The Papas (presided over by the magisterial Beatles, of course, whose Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album had just hit the universe like a musical bomb and drenched the entire world in its syrupy colors), Love was largely a regional favorite, though Forever Changes reportedly reached Number 24 on the British charts.
Besides being a top attraction at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, the band appeared on many of L.A.’s music-dance TV shows of the era: American Bandstand, Hullaballoo, Where the Action Is! On Youtube, you can see Arthur wearing his signature triangular-diamond-shaped green glasses and belting out Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book” on Bandstand. (Reportedly, the composer didn’t dig it.).
Love on American Bandstand:
This hot L.A. group, whose signature logo was splashed across so many Sunset Strip billboards to advertise a string of albums released on Elektra, clearly were going places. In Hollywood, in West Hollywood, and on local TV, it must have seemed as if they’d already made it big. Both Jimi Hendrix and the up-and-coming L.A. group The Doors were huge fans of Love.
I was 9 in 1967. We lived in West Hollywood. My elementary school was one block south of the Sunset Strip. One fine afternoon that summer, my brother and I were walking along the south end of West Hollywood Park, when a small, scrawny kid with dusky dark skin and straight hair ran up to us and said “You guys! Another band is rehearsing in the auditorium! Right now! The Love Souls!”
As it turned out, the little kid got the name wrong, slightly.
We started running and went down the stairs, right down to the auditorium, and we carefully opened the door and walked in. It felt like we had walked into a huge wall or tunnel of sound, and you could feel the floor rumbling. Those guys up on the stage looked like a real “rock group.” The entire floor was empty. We walked over and stood right underneath the stage. The “Love Souls,” of course, were Arthur Lee and Love.
For the next couple of hours we kids (all four or five of us) stood there, taking it all in, our necks craned looking up at these tall, grown-up dudes with their pinstriped shirts and amazingly colorful clothes and neckerchiefs. I was standing very close, eye-to-toe, with one guy’s crinkly brown leather boots. (This was the singer, whose face was dark and “Spanish” looking to my larval young mind: it was Arthur Lee himself.) I also remember looking at green corduroy bell-bottom pants. One guy was holding and playing this beautiful, shiny white electric guitar with red pickups, and there were curly electric guitar cords hanging everywhere, connected to the amps.
The music was bluesy, hard and “tough,” like the best Beatles songs or the best 93-KHJ “hits” we’d been hearing that year, fading in and out of our transistor radios.
This was groovy, like the teenagers said. It was bitchin’, like kids said. It was freakin’ loud. Do I remember the songs? Only one: that exotic-looking lead singer with his copper-colored skin and straight black hair belted out a song that I would always remember, just barely, for the rest of my youth: it ended with, “Boof-biff-biff, boof-biff-biff, yeah!” That was a thrill I never forgot. I’m sure all of us kids were tapping our toes all the way through, on the wooden floor standing underneath these guys, silently, innocently overwhelmed. (And I never knew who that band was until I was over 30 years old.)
One interesting detail I remember is that they never looked at us little pipsqueaks; they were either looking down or over our heads, as if there was a real audience out there in the empty auditorium.
“There are at least ten different ways to tell this story.” – Arthur Lee.
To read biographer John Einarson’s book Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love, is to be alternately elated and depressed by the up-and-down trajectory of Lee’s difficult and wayward zig-zag through life, one marked by blown chances, success, arrogance, failure and spectacular musical comebacks. More than once, Lee gave in to criminality and spent a few hitches in jail. He was a troubled soul.
Since any talk of “dark L.A.” in the ‘60s always seems to suck in the name Charles Manson, it’s not too surprising that yes, there was a connection between Love and the Manson Family. And that connection’s name was Bobby Beausoleil.
Known in town as “Cupid” by many adoring young hippy girls, Bobby, a native of Santa Barbara, Bobby was a talented guitarist and musician. Earlier in 1965, Beausoleil was a member of an L.A. group called The Grass Roots (whose name was co-opted and made famous by another band), which was led by Arthur Lee, along with his childhood friend, Johnny Echols. Bobby was eventually ousted from Love by Bryan MacLean, a roadie for the Byrds.
In 1968, Bobby met Charles Manson, becoming a friend and musical associate of the Family. in 1969 Bobby was arrested for the murder of Gary Hinman, a buddhist musician living in Topanga Canyon, who was a friend of the “family.”
It’s depressing to think that several decades had to crawl by before Arthur Lee and his masterpiece Forever Changes finally got their due. But Lee didn’t remain musically idle. (Is it true that Jimi Hendrix once claimed his biggest musical influence was his friend Arthur Lee, with whom he’d jammed more than once?) To some fans the poignancy of Love’s music, even those songs written by Lee’s talented bandmate Bryan MacLean, feels intensified by the bittersweet trajectory of Lee’s life, his ridiculously early death at age 61. (MacLean also died tragically young, at 52, in 1998).
Though the ultra-ambitious Doors eventually overtook Love as Elektra Records’ most successful L.A. music “act,” there is a sense that in the end, Arthur Lee may have had the last laugh.
After an early release from his own prison sentence (for the “negligent discharge of a firearm” in which no one was hurt) Lee felt rejuvenated, and within months he was in Stockholm with new musicians, rehearsing what would become the hugely successful, worldwide Forever Changes Tour: a swan song to beat the band.
On May 22, 2002, while Lee’s new group-with-orchestra were touring England, the British House of Commons issued an extraordinary official declaration:
That this House pays tribute to the legendary Arthur Lee, also known as Arthurly, frontman and inspiration of Love, the world’s greatest rock band and creators of Forever Changes, the greatest album of all time; notes that following his release from jail he is currently touring Europe; and urges honourable…members to consider the potential benefit to their constituents if they were…to lighten up and tune in to one of his forthcoming British gigs.
The opening of the Forever Changes concert at Royal Festival Hall in London:
Arthur showed up at the House of Commons later that day, to shake hands and have his picture taken with the small group of enthusiastic MPs that had tabled this “honourable” motion. Thank God he lived to see that day.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Arthur Lee once said years earlier, in a filmed interview. “And my group is a part of nothing, I guess, ‘cause it didn’t last!” Then he laughed.