A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Arthur Lee, RIP

First Syd, now Arthur.

I was lucky enough to catch a handful of "Arthur Lee with Love" shows in NYC over the last couple of years, and I won't forget the glee and energy with which Arthur performed those songs.

Here are the last few paragraphs from Andrew Hultkrans' book about Forever Changes - written in early 2003.

***

Arthur Lee, as he predicted in 1967, would ultimately have to "serve his time and serve it well" – for a trumped-up 1996 firearms offense of which a witness from the scene testified in court twice that he, not Arthur, had fired the gun. A victim of California’s recently enacted "three strikes" policy for felonies of any sort, Lee was sentenced to eleven years and did nearly six at Pleasant Valley prison in Coalinga, California (a foul-smelling tundra known and feared by drivers of Highway 5 as the site of the biggest beef cattle feedlot/slaughterhouse in the state).

Fortunately, he endured this hellish experience with his well-honed tolerance for solitude and by composing songs in his head, songs that he would now like to bring to the world. He has a crack band in LA’s Baby Lemonade, who play Love classics with more musical grace and facility than the original lineup, and he has been touring the world playing a flawless setlist from the four Elektra Love albums. The show I witnessed at the Bowery Ballroom, New York City, in the summer of 2002 was a peak concert experience even for this veteran punter. From the rattlesnake tambourine signaling Love’s punk Bacharach nugget "My Little Red Book" on through all the songs the most hardened Love devotee would want to hear, this is no nostalgia act. The man is on fire. Not preaching, inciting to riot. More recently, he and his band have staged complete run-throughs of Forever Changes across Britain, backed by a chamber orchestra, receiving standing ovations and glowing reviews. He was honored by Parliament. He met the Prime Minister. He alternately wears bandanas and cowboy hats, sometimes both at once. He plays the tambourine with conviction and without a hint of irony. He sings like a man half his age. His songs are better than those of most bands currently operating. And whatever their original sense, they all sound like redemption songs today; the "haunting" lyrics of Forever Changes, with hindsight, seem more prophetic than ever. How does Arthur account for their timelessness? In April 2003, to Murray Engleheart for Australia’s Beat magazine, he put it this way:

It was just the way I felt at the time about the situation around me, and I was fortunate enough to put it in music. I saw something and I wrote about it—and it’s happening exactly right now. It keeps repeating itself, the wars and things, you know?…It’s like an everlasting thing, it’s like it’s always going to be. And my last words to this planet if I had passed on in that time period were Forever Changes, meaning that’s what’s happening on this earth, that’s what I saw happening.

And why is this 58-year-old crazed genius not back in LA, eatin’ chicken like a motherfucker and rollin’ in his Caddy – ordinary, noble pursuits he is more than entitled to indulge till his dying day? Because, as he claims, God came to him back in 1995, before he was sentenced to prison, and said (enunciating, as Arthur does, very clearly): "Love On Earth Must Be." Apparently, this directive was reiterated several times during Arthur’s imprisonment. Back in the ’60s, Arthur’s songs came to him in dreams, and he knew then as he knows now that when you get the call, you pick up the phone — red or otherwise. And if the call says go out and tell the people, well, then, you go out and tell the people—but quick. As Charley Patton said in "Oh Death," "Lord, I know my time ain’t long," so Arthur Lee says, of his song "Nothing": "This song to me means life is short. It’s sort of like Ecclesiastes in the Bible—meaningless….I’ve studied the Bible a lot. I know a man’s words are as deep as the water," adding, with equal depth, "Even though our lives are so short, we’ve got time to get involved….We shall perish, you know? The thing about me…the soul goes on.…I’m doing what I’m doing because I have a lot more work and I choose to do it."

***

2 comments:

J. said...

Great book, really one of my favorites in the series.

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