The wreck of the Arthur Lee will never return again, never return again.
--From "The Wreck of the Arthur Lee," by Robyn Hitchcock.
Arthur Lee leans over a plate of tacos and beans and starts to wave his arms angrily, taking care not to disturb the great pink concoction in front of him that could be the Lake Superior of mixed drinks.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 28, 1994 Orange County Edition OC Live! Page 26 OC Live Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Record label--In last week's cover story on Arthur Lee and Love, the record company that put out Lee's "Girl on Fire" vinyl 45 was incorrectly identified. The label is Distortions Records.
The grin marks have vanished from Lee's long, dimpled face. He doesn't know Robyn Hitchcock from Alfred Hitchcock, but he knows that he doesn't at all like the song verse an interviewer just quoted for him. Until now, a late-afternoon lunch in this deserted North Hollywood restaurant has been a placid, rather sunny affair, notwithstanding the black decor and the dim lighting.
"I'll wreck him! I'll wreck him! " Lee booms, his voice a mixture of high dudgeon and amusement at the theatricality of his own outburst.
Lee, however, is willing to be mollified. He harrumphs and settles back into the booth as it's explained who Hitchcock is (a '60s-influenced British rocker highly regarded in college-radio circles) and how he came to take liberties with Lee's name.
"The Wreck of the Arthur Lee," Hitchcock said in an interview last year, is intended as "a lament in general," and not a comment on the condition of its namesake. The lyric talks about a sinking ship, which Hitchcock named in Lee's honor because the song also incorporates a swelling orchestral arrangement clearly inspired by "Forever Changes," the 1967 album that established Arthur Lee and his band, Love, as an enduring, if overlooked, rock treasure.
Whatever Hitchcock's explanation, the image of Arthur Lee as a lost vessel hits uncomfortably close to home, given the long downward arc of his musical career. For most of the past 20 years, Lee seems to have foundered on the rocks.
The '60s held some great high-water marks. When the band debuted in 1966, Love succeeded the Byrds and preceded the Doors as the ruling band on the Sunset Strip. Love's music, like that of most great '60s bands, can't be labeled with a handy tag, like today's "punk" or "grunge."
Love played gritty, blitzing speed-rock (notably on "7 And 7 Is," the band's only Top 40 hit) that helped lay the foundation for latter-day punk. It also played jangling folk-rock and gorgeous, cottony ballads that showed jazz and classical influences. Lee's lyrics were sometimes full of hippie idealism and lovelorn wistfulness; but they also could capture the Vietnam War-shadowed defiance and paranoia that pervaded the era.
"Forever Changes," with its combination of plaintive innocence and deep foreboding, came out at the end of 1967 and captured the moment as that love fest year slipped into 1968, a dark year of assassinations and street-fighting. But the strange, shimmering, still-haunting beauty of "Forever Changes" transcends any sociological moment and earns it a place high on the list of rock's all-time greatest albums.
On his '60s recordings, Lee's singing voice was remarkably diverse and instantly identifiable, whether he was barking out a tough-rocking song or crooning in a pure, tremulous tenor that could have made him an idol in any Irish saloon (Lee is one of the few rock singers who cites Johnny Mathis as an important influence).
He wasn't Irish, though. He was a black man, born in Memphis and raised in South Los Angeles. Love was the first racially integrated band in post-Beatles rock, and it is likely that Jimi Hendrix (whose maiden recording session as a sideman Lee produced in 1963) took a few ideas from him, both musical and sartorial.
Love never enjoyed commercial success equal to its artistic achievement, partly because the original lineup, wracked by dissension and, reportedly, drug abuse, failed to tour. Lee kept Love going with new musicians, but his songwriting faltered in the '70s, and by the middle of the decade he had joined the where-are-they-now brigade of former contenders who slip quietly out of the public eye.
When Lee reappeared early in 1989 on a "Psychedelic Summer of Love" oldies package tour that played a string of Southern California dates, his performance at the Coach House was pallid. He was grim and withdrawn as he fronted a lifeless band, giving only fleeting glimpses of his old vocal glory. In an interview at the time, Lee came off as a man who felt slighted of his due, brimming with egotism and with resentment for a music business establishment that he felt had raided his wallet and pulled his rightful pedestal out from under him. Wreck or not, Lee's career was in need of a major salvage job.