Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Arthur Lee He Sees Everything Like This: Forever Changes At 50

Love at the time of Forever Changes: (left to right) John Echols, Bryan MacLean, Ken Forssi, Arthur Lee, and Michael Stuart. (Photo: Ronnie Haran)

Love’s Forever Changes (sometimes written as Love Forever Changes – inaccurate, but a nice idea) is as confounding an artifact today as it was, judging from contemporary testimony, 50 years ago. Emerging in November 1967 from the febrile mind of leader and chief singer-songwriter Arthur Lee, it had no real antecedents, not even in that strange and fruitful year. The group’s previous albums, Love (1966) and Da Capo (1967), were full of acid and wit, refining the song structures of proto-punk and the mental derangements of what would, much later, be called “psych.” Forever Changes, by startling contrast, was predicated on orchestral flourishes, rococo melody, and a worldview more pixilated than psychedelic, more desperate than nihilistic. And though reviewers lauded the record at once for its prettiness, it was simply too strange to be seen as much more than an artsy boutique for window-shopping along rock’s main thoroughfare – which at that time led to such surefire world-beaters as Electric Flag and The Incredible String Band.

"Forever Changes features fairly tight, well-arranged tracks,” Jim Bickhart wrote in the February 10, 1968 Rolling Stone. “Its weakest point is in the material. Some of the songs meander and lack real melodic substance. . . . In his quest for originality, Lee sometimes had trouble giving the songs continuity. . . . Despite the album’s flaw of inconsistency, it is nice to listen to.” Even granting that rock criticism, and rock critics, were then just learning to crawl, here’s a clear case of a writer unable to respond imaginatively to something beyond his imagination. Writing in Crawdaddy!, Sandy Pearlman tried to subdue the unfamiliar by covering it with names as if they were Post-It Notes: “[Mick] Jagger has been absolutely mutated and Johnny Mathis is on top. There are continuous studio-band comings and goings which suggest the Tijuana Brass or Xavier Cugat . . . And finally, as must everyone, Love’s come face to face with the spirit of Muzak.” Realizing the insufficiency of this line of description, Pearlman began to do what bold critics must do when confronted with something transfixing and indescribable, something really new: freely invent concepts and vocabulary. Thus he zeroed in on what he called “inordinancy” (strategic exaggeration of stylistic elements) and “interference” (formal disjunctions which “call themselves and their songs as a whole into question”). Pearlman was saying – or I imagine he was saying – that the basic innovative principle of Forever Changes was tranquility through perversity. The combinations were radical, even impossible, yet the achieved forms were pristine, exact. The album managed, through the “sensual recombination” of cognitive dissonance and conventional beauty, to achieve absolute poise.

As a black man fronting a mostly white rock band, Arthur Lee was unusual even for his unusual time and place. On top of which, he was a natural eccentric. Coming up through the Los Angeles rock scene of the early sixties, he led a band whose membership changed with turnstile frequency. (Among his guitarists, briefly, was Bobby Beausoleil, a petty criminal who later became one of Charles Manson’s killers.) He tried surf music and dance music and soul music, finally hitting on a core personnel and rock sound that has been accurately described as The Rolling Stones crossed with The Byrds. “7 + 7 Is” and “My Little Red Book,” minor hits, got Love a popular foothold and the financing for a more elaborate third album – whereupon, with the aid of psychedelics and tons of California sun, Lee set upon exploring his inner world in a set of songs both observational and bluntly surreal, dispatches from drug consciousness which flashed on grotesqueries in the world at large. Except for two songs written and sung by guitarist Bryan MacLean (“Alone Again Or” and “Old Man”), everything on Forever Changes came from Lee’s brain and voice – and even the songs not his were molded by his arranging and production control.

The familiar (but still exciting) Dylanesque folk-rock of “Bummer in the Summer” is the closest Lee comes on the record to accepting a set of musical givens. The prevailing sound is not rock at all, but a wild skew on studio-concocted sunshine pop (think The Fifth Dimension). To that end, the rhythm section, rather than heavy and omnipresent per rock’s then-cutting edge, is mixed far back, a trusty but agitated watch-tick regulating the foreground action of voice, guitar, strings, and horns. (Among the players are Wrecking Crew members Hal Blaine on drums and Carol Kaye on bass.) Lee’s words paint an inverted Wonderland both doomed and enchanted; his irony-free voice delivers corrosive images that linger in the ear like aural scars. “A House is Not a Motel” and “Live and Let Live” unreel their weird visions (blood running from faucets, snot hardening on trousers) over an acoustic guitar as delicate as a harpsichord, before driving out on electric rave-ups. “The Daily Planet” has, like most of the other tracks, a portmanteau structure, as if assembled from disparate fragments – or as if the songs, unitary in themselves, are merely changing their minds in midstream. The most upbeat song, “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale,” has marvelous horns, a manic melody, and lyrics leading at the end of each verse to a “natural” rhyme – which Lee frustrates by not singing the anticipated word. Tranquility through perversity. “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” – the song titles seldom have anything to do with the lyrical content – is bucolic with its pizzicato strings, its hummingbirds and merry-go-rounds in the morning, yet it veers steadily toward a final chord which goes off-key and stutters several times, mimicking a skipping record. (I doubt there was a single listener 50 years ago who, upon hearing this, didn’t snap upright and curse at the turntable.) The seven-minute closer, “You Set the Scene,” is another multi-part construction, with each part diverting the last into a new direction, the entire epic climaxing in combined alarm and triumph as the clock hands spin and time runs out.

It’s very difficult to imagine that Lee could have taken this music any further, even if drugs and troubles hadn’t led him to years of self-imposed obscurity. (In 1996, he was convicted on a firearms charge and spent nearly six years in prison; emerging badly compromised physically and psychically, he managed a triumphant Forever Changes tour before dying in 2006, age 61.) If Lee’s later albums, both solo and with different Love lineups, were mostly crud, that only stresses the extent to which Forever Changes exists apart, neither the culmination nor the beginning of anything. Unlike almost all of the memorable albums of its year, from the obvious (Sgt. Pepper) to the less obvious (The Velvet Underground and Nico), Lee’s masterpiece was never taken into the mainstream sufficiently for it to become a cliché. It had no hit single for Classic Rock Radio to play to death, but more than that, its mélange was too eccentric to be of raw use to younger musicians cobbling their own styles together – unlike, say, the Velvets’ fugues on depravity and feedback. In an art form consecrated to the primacy of moments, Forever Changes is as pristine and unreproducible a moment as we may experience on a stereo: it was a thing of the irretrievable past the second it was put on tape.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared innumerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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