Listen – Love – The Red Telephone – MP3
I hope everyone dug last weeks edition of the Iron Leg Digital Trip. I’ll be posting the second chapter in that series (NYC) in the coming weeks, with many more (US, UK, World) to follow.
The other day I happened upon a mention that one of my all time favorite albums, Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ was being reissued yet again, this time with a remix of the album as well as other unreleased material.
No matter that this should only be of interest to the most die-hard Love completists (and even then probably overkill for most, myself included), if you don’t have any version of the album it is definitely worth picking it up so that you can experience one of the greatest albums of the 60’s (or for that matter the latter half of the 20th century).
Two years ago, upon the unfortunate death of the great Arthur Lee, I was invited to write an appreciation for the mod site Uppers. Today, along with my favorite cut from that album ‘The Red Telephone’, I’m reprinting that piece, mainly because I can’t imagine I have anything to say about Lee, Love or ‘Forever Changes’ that I didn’t already say in that piece.
I hope you dig it, and I’ll be back later in the week.
Forever Changed – Arthur Lee 1945 –
.”Through a crack of light I was unable to find my way
Trapped inside a night but I’m a day”
– Love ‘7 and 7 Is’
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the music of Arthur Lee and Love. I certainly knew who they were at a fairly early age. Growing up in the 70’s, obsessed with rock’n’roll, and reading mags like Rolling Stone and Creem (when they still meant something), it was hard to miss the almost universal rock crit reverence for the LP ‘Forever Changes’.
The interval between when I first heard about that album, and actually heard it (and grew to love it like almost no other record) is probably something like 10 years. The first Love record I actually owned was a Rhino ‘Best Of’ that came out in 1980. Though that record contained the song that would become my favorite – ‘Your Mind and We Belong Together’ – the tune that blew my mind wide open from the first listen was ‘7 and 7 Is’.
Though Love had (and has) been unfairly lumped in with the Nuggets crowd, due to the ‘one hit wonder’-ism of ‘My Little Red Book’, their punkiest record met, and transcended the greasy teenage swagger of 6T’s punk in a way that even today is hard to comprehend.
Packing more energy into its two minutes and nineteen seconds than some bands are able to produce in entire careers, ‘7 and 7 Is’ is as raw and savage a statement (if perhaps lyrically obtuse in a way not at all atypical for its time) as rock music has ever seen, and ending it with a sound-effects record explosion – a notion that might have damned a lesser record to an oblivion of novelty – seems today not only acceptable, but an absolutely necessary bit of punctuation.
Needless to say, that album quickly fell into heavy rotation, and it wasn’t long before I sought out, and absorbed the entire Love catalogue.
Having seen Arthur Lee perform live in the early 90’s, and followed his descent into incarceration, and eventually his brief resurrection – culminating in the live performances of ‘Forever Changes’ in the UK a few years ago, it’s safe to say that he remained one of rocks great enigmas until his recent, untimely death. He had a long history of what can charitably be described as unpredictable behavior, and the diminished nature of his later recordings, in concert with his actions have the unpleasant effect of clouding what should be a mighty legacy.
Love rose to artistic prominence – if not a commensurate financial
success – with the cream of the Sunset Strip bands in the mid 60’s.
Alongside the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield (a similarly deep, and misunderstood band) and the Doors, they made albums that started out rooted firmly in the general folk rock cum garage punk vibe of the day, and grew into major artistic statements that captured the darkening spirit of the late 60’s like none other.
This is not to say that the roots of ‘Forever Changes’ were not apparent on their first LP ‘Love’. Next to patented pageboy jangle like ‘Can’t Explain’ and ‘No Matter What You Do’, and raw fuzz like ‘My Flash On You’, lay sublime, poetic detours like ‘Softly To Me’, ‘Colored Balls Falling’ and ‘Mushroom Clouds’ (introducing the apocalyptic imagery that would return in ‘The Red Telephone’). While ‘Love’ may have lacked the conceptual breadth that the band would reach on ‘Forever Changes’,it’s still a hell of a debut album, and can stand proudly beside just about any of its contemporaries.
When their second LP ‘Da Capo’ came out in late 1966, Love had – despite the execrable side-long track ‘Revelations’ (which revealed nothing but their self-indulgence) – reached a plateau of artistic achievement and experimentation that set them apart from their peers. The post-modern bizarro waltz of ‘Stephanie Knows Who’ (later covered by the Move), the showtune candy floss of ‘Orange Skies’ and the timely psyche-pop of ‘She Comes In Colors’ all take divergent paths, yet are clearly the work of the same twisted brain trust.
It’s important to note that despite the fact that Arthur Lee was
clearly the leader of the band, and its dominant composer, the music of Love would not have reached the pinnacles that it did without the contributions of Bryan Maclean, the mellow, wistful Yin to Lee’s dark, introspective Yang. While it’s fortunate for everyone involved (especially the listeners) that Maclean never became the dominant creative force in Love, he was still an indispensable part of their formula (as it was).
For me, the defining moment of ‘Da Capo’ was ‘The Castle’. In many ways it’s the dark heart of the album. Built on a rambling, folky acoustic guitar line, soon joined by a rumbling bass and the obligatory baroque harpsichord, its lyrics are spare and impenetrable, but like many Love songs, ‘The Castle’ is ultimately less about words and more about the mood. Whether or not the few words convey it, ‘The Castle’ is a study in desolation. Though the flamenco-esque breakdown toward the end verges on the pretentious, the shambling dissipation that closes out the song, defuses that quickly.
When Love entered the studio in 1967 to record the album that would become ‘Forever Changes’, no one, Lee and Maclean included could have known that it would turn into something of a touchstone for a coming generation of musicians, writers and listeners. From the acoustic stream running underneath the entire record, Lee, producer Bruce Botnick and arranger David Angel created one of the few utterly perfect albums ever recorded, and one that transcends its era completely.
There’s no doubt that ‘Forever Changes’ is psychedelic, but not in any normal way. It is absolutely free of the kind of dated clichés that mark so much of what is considered “traditionally” psychedelic, redolent more of sophisticated pop than acid-drenched whimsy (or psychosis). All of the hallmarks of the Love sound that had been scattered here and there on their two previous albums suddenly converge in unexpected ways. The album is deeply sophisticated, yet never slick, personal to the point of confessional yet often inscrutable.
The songs are all amazing in their own right, yet run together so seamlessly as to make listening to them individually seem like a kind of betrayal. I don’t recall ever hearing Lee or Maclean say that ‘Forever Changes’ was assembled as a traditional “concept” album, yet when you listen to the album it seems impossible that it wasn’t. This is due in large part to the fact that it captures the zeitgeist of that era so well. Forever Changes’ is “about” California in the late 60’s the way Nathaniel West’s ‘Day of the Locust’ was “about” that same place almost 30 years earlier, in that they both use the experiences of that time and place to say something larger about life.
It is within the confines of ‘Forever Changes’ that Lee, a self-proclaimed “black hippy” addresses broad themes of race, the generation gap, the coming nuclear apocalypse, as well as micro-issues like daily life on the Sunset Strip and in the nearby canyons.
If you look at the pieces that Bryan Maclean contributed to ‘Forever Changes’, ‘Alone Again Or’, ‘Andmoreagain’ and ‘Old Man’, they – all ostensibly love (and Love) songs – lack the kind of abstraction, irony and even anger that can be found in the songs composed by Lee. That they are also three of the albums finest songs says a lot about the ways Lee and Maclean’s approaches complemented each other, and despite coming from two different points of view, are bound together in the larger “band” identity, as it was (the group Love was by this point little more than Lee and Maclean, the other members were not initially involved in its recording, having been supplanted by studio players like Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye).
The songs that Lee brought to ‘Forever Changes’ are the finest he would ever write. I have read that when Lee was working on ‘Forever Changes’ he was convinced that he was not long for this world, and started working accordingly, as if the album would be his last.
While Lee didn’t abandon love/relationship themes in his songs, he cast them as part of the world at large, as if he realized that all of the romance meant little when held up to the grim realities of the world of 1967.
The 1960’s is an era that is idealized both by those that experienced it first-hand, and those that wish they had. The songs that Arthur Lee wrote for ‘Forever Changes’ are a bracing antidote to that nostalgia.
They take into account the fact that race relations had barely been addressed, let alone resolved. He took the rose-colored hippy outlook and exposed it to the harsh light of day, describing the world that so many of his contemporaries were making believe didn’t exist. This is one of the reasons that ‘Forever Changes’ seems so fresh today, continuing to work its magic on new generations of listeners all the time.
Arguably, what Lee was presenting was partly the dark reality of psychedelic experience, in which the “traveler” comes to the end of the journey, not dancing with multi-colored gnomes in a field of licorice, but instead aware of their place in the distressed continuum that is the modern world, with all of the dangers displayed side by side with the joys, removed completely from self-delusion. While those that have been there, and are willing to make an honest appraisal of the situation will tell you that it was a journey worth taking, they’ll also say that it was not an easy one to take. When,in ‘The Red Telephone’ he sings “Sometimes my life is so eerie…” it is a moment of stark introspection that the boatload of singer/songwriter navel gazing in the coming years would never be able to match.
That may be the lesson inside of ‘Forever Changes’, but each listener has to make that determination for themselves. I can’t say that everyone who has heard the album has embraced it so wholeheartedly, because like Lee himself it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Many drawn in by its often gentle beauty may not be prepared for the sharp edges underneath, but those that have absorbed ‘Forever Changes’ in all its facets swear by the album. It is one of the few records that I own – along with Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme’ that I can honestly say I have listened to hundreds of times.
‘Forever Changes’ is Arthur Lee’s legacy, and in it he will find his immortality. Despite the fact that following ‘Forever Changes’ the band, and some will say Lee himself splintered forever. Though in the few albums that came after 1968 there are occasional flashes of greatness, no honest observer can say that they are anything but minor aftershocks.
Maybe Lee was right in that an end was coming, not to his life, but to the idea of Love, and his ability to capture the pieces of truth he saw around him and translate them into song. If you listen to the recordings, or watch the video of the 2003 recreations of ‘Forever Changes’, while they put the 30 year creative drought that preceded them into stark perspective, they also show that Lee remained a dynamic performer who was still able to deliver his songs with conviction. It’s impossible to say whether Lee would have ever again produced anything like ‘Forever Changes’, but in the end, he didn’t have to.