I refrained from posting about Syd Barrett’s death just less than a month ago. I always found his music enjoyable and the only capacity in which I ever liked Pink Floyd involved Syd at the helm. Nonetheless, I held back from posting because I knew five million other bloggers would. I cringed as blog after blog told that “crazy diamond” to “shine on”, as I certainly didn’t see that lyrical reference coming. It’s a curious role that blogs occupy in the online body of news. Often they supply a completely fresh perspective that you don’t hear anywhere else, but just as often they mimic mainstream media and fall prey to its clichés.
This morning, however, I woke up earlier than usual and began to read the news with blearier eyes than usual. I hardly believed it when I learned that a man whose music touched me far more deeply than Syd’s had passed away yesterday: Arthur Lee of the 1960’s Los Angeles psychedelic pop band Love.
Lee’s lyrics, combined with his ability to deliver them either tenderly or ferociously depending on the situation, never failed to leap out of the speakers and linger in my head for days. Sometimes even months after having last listened to a Love album, suddenly a song fragment would appear in my head: “I’d go slip slip, you’d go slip slip, away….” In those moments, I’d almost always fill with an uncontrollable need to spend the next hour or so listening to old Love records.
I think the first Love song I ever heard was their Bacharach and David cover, “My Little Red Book”. At the time I didn’t know it was a cover, so I just assumed it was their original song. No matter though, it may as well have been considering how much they made it their own. This was Lee softly vulnerable while screaming from the center of his broken heart. With each return to the end-of-chorus line “there’s just no getting over you”, you feel yourself getting over all the heartbreak you thought you’d never let slip away.
After my fascination with “My Little Red Book” and its neighbor on Love’s eponymous debut album, “Can’t Explain”, my elder music geek friends at the time told me I had to hear Forever Changes. Widely regarded not only as Love’s best record, but one of the greatest rock albums of all time, this 1967 album deserves every accolade heaped onto it. You can preach to me about Sgt. Pepper and his Pet Sounds all you want, but if I had to take only one late-60’s lysergic pop gem to the proverbial desert island with me, this would be it.
Arthur’s gentle love of life is still here, but it dances with fear and doubt throughout. The optimism and the turmoil of the decade in which these songs were conceived can be heard in almost every one of their lines:
- “And I’m wrapped in my armor, but my things are material. And I’m lost in confusion, ’cause my things are material.”
- “I know the old man would laugh. He spoke of love’s sweeter days, and in his eloquent way, I think he was speaking of you. You are so lovely, you didn’t have to say a thing.”
- “There are people wearing frowns who’ll screw you up, but they would rather screw you down.”
- “By the time that I’m through singing, the bells from the schools of walls will be ringing. More confusions, blood transfusions, the news today will be the movies for tomorrow. And the water’s turned to blood, and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub. And if it’s mixed with mud, you’ll see it turn to gray. And you can call my name. I hear you call my name…”
These are mushroom trips taken in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Acid dreams forming and promising a brighter tomorrow, then slowly melting away. When I first heard the last quote I listed above in “A House is Not a Motel”, its fast delivery, unwavering certainty and sense of being alive all made me question exactly when the song was recorded. Was it really that long ago? Certainly someone made this last week! I will listen to this album as soon as I finish writing, but right now in my mind’s ear I can hear Arthur singing fiercely, “go turn on your tub”. The short stab of the word “tub” is giving me shivers and the record isn’t even playing.
My favorite song on Forever Changes is probably an odd choice, considering it’s not the classic “A House is Not a Motel” or the oft-quoted “The Red Telephone”. And I always forget about my favorite, as it sits nestled just inside the second half of the album. I can’t extract one single quote that can explain why I love “Live and Let Live” so much, because there isn’t one that would do the song justice printed here away from its musical accompaniment. Just go buy this record if you don’t already have it, it’s great, trust me. When you get to this pretty little song, I hope you smile.
In the last few years of his life, Arthur Lee went back out on tour, sometimes playing Forever Changes in its entirety. Although he played in Chicago a few times, I never took the opportunity to see him. I think initially perhaps I was afraid that the gig wouldn’t be very good and that I’d see a master off his game. I’d heard so many reviews to the contrary, however, that I don’t think that was the case when he came through town again.
I think that perhaps my relationship with Arthur Lee’s songs was so personal, it just wasn’t something I could share with strangers in a bar. I’m the anomaly among my music-loving friends because live music doesn’t usually matter to me as much as its recorded counterpart. Arthur’s songs came into my home via vinyl, and they came to live with me there. They moved with me wherever I went and now they are a part of me. I don’t care so much that I never got to see Arthur Lee play live, as I wish there was some way for me to tell him how much his songs meant to someone so far removed from him, someone he’d never meet.
The power of music – art in general, too, really – to form these connections across time and space is amazing, remarkable stuff. But that’s why we love it, right? It’s like life. Thanks, Arthur.
I’ll leave you with more lyrics. Appropriately they come from the closing song on Forever Changes, “You Set the Scene”, and impart some of the life wisdom that Arthur Lee had acquired by the age of 22.
“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
There’ll be time for you to put yourself on
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 everyone who thinks that life is just a game
Do you like the part you’re playing?”