Arthur Lee (1945–2006)

Arthur Lee was the frontman/auteur of one of the greatest bands of the 1960s, Love. The first black psychedelic-rock star (just edging out Jimi Hendrix), Lee was a chaotically tortured artist. Love’s music, especially on the brilliant Da Capo and Forever Changes, has a weird, magical sophistication partially due to the advanced harmonic spaces they used on what are essentially basic rock songs—a legacy perhaps somewhat mined from the darkest and archest efforts of the Mamas and the Papas and later questionably tackled by the Doors.

Love contained what was, in hindsight, an aggressively futuristic idea of rock music, but paradoxically also sometimes wielded mockable, lightheaded hippieisms. Furthermore, the lyrical content of Lee’s songs, while sometimes cushioned with more free-roaming psychedelic fixations, primarily consisted of a mode of self-obsessed, self-mythologizing art as both monument to the artist and as a sort of creative psychotherapy. This more explicit and shamelessly poeticizing amplification and illustration of the pop singer’s ego was largely unprecedented at the time of Love’s peak (1966–’68) and suggests the beginning of a substantive shift that would dominate everything from hyper-confessional indie rock to self-extolling hardcore rap.

The most important marker in the story of Love, and seemingly, in the story of Lee, is 1967’s Forever Changes, frequently vaunted (especially since its reverential CD re-release and corresponding media blitz in 2001) as possibly the greatest rock record of all time or, somewhat more humbly, as “better than Sgt. Pepper’s/Pet Sounds.” The music is undeniably beautiful and races with the raw adrenaline of urgent inspiration. The album’s lyrics reveal a fiercely searching but uncollected young mind that feels the tug of universal forces but cannot codify or understand them. The result on Lee’s part is a ton of existential theses and clawing gestures at ultimate truths that are often more emotionally overwhelmed than well thought out, but somehow even his most juvenile musings succeed. The soaring, half-time ending of the record’s final song, “You Set the Scene” is one of the most potent examples in pop-music history of an artist’s sheer conviction and emotional momentum elevating adolescent melodrama into harrowing art. Read on the page, the lyrics skirt the edges of rote poetic cliché, but in the context of the song and on the back of Lee’s clear, keening voice, they become thoroughly moving pop euphoria.

The crushing gravity that this record holds in its primary creator’s life can mostly be understood with regard to what Lee has said about its inspiration in recent years. He’s stated that at the time of the record’s conception and execution he had an obsessive belief that he would soon die, and that Forever Changes would be his funereal headstone and his final, greatest message to the world. As Lee was only 22 when the record was recorded, he exhibited an obscene, even egomaniacal, sense of his own destiny for a young man—and an ultimate faith in his own impending martyrdom and posthumous legacy of genius.

Given all of this, it is easy to imagine that if Lee had, like his friend and occasional collaborator Hendrix, died young and beautiful, he would have been a more contented soul than he was in the living decades that followed his masterpiece. Indeed, after Forever Changes, Lee somewhat lost the plot, immediately dismantling Love’s lineup and thereafter releasing a string of directionless, uninspired records under both the Love moniker and his own name. He had largely receded from cultural awareness when, in 1995 he landed what would end up a six-year prison sentence via California’s severe three strikes law.

Lee’s release from prison dovetailed luckily with the wave of new awareness and critical resurrection of Forever Changes and, soon thereafter, he formed a new Love and performed the record in its entirety at a string of deeply welcomed and heroically lauded concerts. It could be seen either as a triumph over past demons or a heartbreaking statement on the desires of pop-music audiences that Lee, like his contemporary Brian Wilson in recent years, could only fully retake the adoration and relative financial benefits befitting his towering legacy by reliving and re-presenting a work that he made as a young man and that proved a crippling turning point in his life. As Smile did for Wilson, Forever Changes seemed to have wrought terrible psychic damage on the young Lee, yet it proved the all-encompassing presence in his last years.

Arthur Lee died August 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.

editor@thestranger.com