Forever Never Changes, Arthur Lee R.I.P.
It’s a small club that hopefully is about to get bigger: those whose lives have been indelibly affected by Love’s ‘Forever Changes’.
Arthur Lee’s recent–and somewhat sudden–passing prompted me to attempt to articulate some of what he, and his music, meant to me. PopMatters was kind enough to publish it. The link is below, and the unedited version is below that.
The American Dream Redux or, Arthur Lee’s Forever Changes
Contrary to popular opinion, the great American novel has, in fact, already been written. The problem is, it is not a book; it’s an album. More problematic is that, unfortunately, many people have never heard of it. The author? Arthur Lee. The album? Forever Changes.
It is equal parts ironic and appropriate that the two primary avatars of what we recall—mostly with fondness—as the Summer Of Love (or, at least it’s sound), Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee, have gone on to that great gig in the sky within a month of each other, in the summer of 2006. Perhaps even the timing has an unintended symmetry, since we can now properly acknowledge and celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their singular achievements, next year.
Any discussion of 1967 must begin and end with The Beatles: their shadow loomed large, then, as it does now. By breaking all the rules, they created the new rules; they not only changed music, they changed the way we listen to music. Already the biggest band in the world, they decided in the mid-60’s to cease touring so they could stay in the studio and capitalize on a streak of productivity that remains original and unrivaled. As has been well documented, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a watershed moment in rock music, as it moved the avant garde to the mainstream at a time when our culture was perhaps most open to receiving it. All of a sudden, albums could—and quickly did—become statements, and rock music was elevated to the status of art (with a lowercase A) seemingly overnight. So, while Sgt. Pepper is the alpha and omega, it is possibly as significant for its symbolic import and the possibilities it created for others. Meanwhile, as is always the case, the most interesting and enduring creations occur in the margins.
Pink Floyd, the darlings of the burgeoning London underground, arrived at Abbey Road studios in early 1967 and began recording their seminal debut Piper At The Gates Of Dawn at the same time the Fab Four were assembling the pieces of a sonic puzzle that, with the ever overlooked George Martin’s guidance, would become Sgt. Pepper. Both masterpieces arrived in time to describe and define the Summer Of Love, or at least its distinctly British component. Across the pond, another debut album rightly gets credit for helping capture the sounds of that time: The Doors were to Los Angeles what Pink Floyd was to London, a lean and hungry band that had taken the time to cultivate a cult following that, with the help of a breakthrough single (“See Emily Play” and “Light My Fire”, respectively), shot them into the stratosphere, where they remain, undimmed today. Interestingly, the band that Jim Morrison hoped to emulate was, at the time, the heavyweight champion of theL.A. scene: Love, led by Arthur Lee, who was also mentor to a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.
For a variety of reasons, some typical, some inexplicable, Love seemed to implode just as their ship was set to sail, and they never quite fulfilled what seemed their limitless and possibly unparalleled potential. Nevertheless, while other bands made history during the Summer of Love, Love was busy living through those times and the album that resulted, Forever Changes, was recorded during those incendiary months. Hence, in hindsight (and hindsight tends to reveal history in its fairest, if not most flattering light), Arthur Lee documented the daily planet of the Hippie Scene in real time, or at least its underbelly—and perhaps they are the same thing—as it unfolded in living color. Or, in other words, his stands as the most accurate American version, postMonterey and Haight Ashbury. Speaking of hindsight, as time passes darkly through the wine glass, that dazed and confused fever dream of free love seems increasingly to encapsulate a triumph of style over substance.
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, Forever Changes failed to connect. It was not a hit record, and the band disintegrated shortly after its completion, while Lee soldiered on in unwarranted obscurity, his moment come and gone. How then, has his magnum opus, so insufficiently received, managed to inspire such loyalty and enchantment over the decades? For starters, it is worthy of repeated listens, managing to deliver what so few artistic statements achieve: it deepens and intensifies well after you’ve made the initial connection. (Quick: when is the last time you listened to Sgt. Pepper all the way through?) Although none of the songs on Forever Changes crept onto the paisley playground of their time, it is impossible to quibble with the confident brilliance of miniature gems like “Alone Again Or”, “Andmoreagain”, or “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”, all of which showcase Lee’s immutable gift: his voice had an almost extraordinary sensitivity and authority. Sound like a contradiction? That is the genius of Arthur Lee, plainly put. Listen to the demo version of “The Good Humor Man” and compare the sparse acoustic take with what the song would become, with understated brass and strings, and the longing in Lee’s delivery: if you don’t get it, Forever Changes will never speak to you, and you won’t be the first person who, even after making the effort, fails to comprehend the hype.
It’s not enough, nor should it be, to discuss the ineffable qualities of a particular work of art, so with both feet on terra firma, what is it, exactly, that makes Forever Changes indelible? First and foremost, it is honest. The setting, Los Angeles, and the streets that broiled with heat and inspiration also contained the seeds of a severity largely unreported, if entirely absent, from the rose-colored commentary ofSan Francisco. A less kind way of putting this would be to suggest that there is more soul and sly elan in any one song from Forever Changes than anything The Grateful Dead conjured up in that entire era. Arthur Lee was looking around him and describing what he saw, and while his deceptively simple lyrics seem disarmingly straightforward, they inexorably reveal the mind of the man inside, who—and the significance of this cannot be overstated—felt always like an outsider. Lee, a black man, recognized the same thing Chris Rock also articulated, to well-earned acclaim, more than thirty years later: no matter how many people profess to admire and envy you, you are still an individual who, if push came to shove, exceedingly few, if any, white folks would choose to trade places with. Which means, among other things, that at the end of the day, the distance between what could be, or should be, and what is, ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And no amount of applause or plaudits can compensate for that disparity.
How did he do it? The music is by no means morose, although there is a merciful scarcity of saccharine free-love fantasia, which certainly augments its staying power. Part of the album’s perverse charm, which requires some careful listening to capture, lies in its dichotomies. For instance, some of the songs that sound the most assured, or even ebullient, are belied by Lee’s lyrics. On this album, Lee—like Syd Barrett on Piper—displays an uncanny facility for concision; by not quite saying it, he captures a larger truth. Perhaps most important, and unique, is Lee’s audacity to employ non sequitors with conviction, creating a more unfiltered vision. That this speaks to a lack of cynicism and trust in his abilities—and those of his listeners—is to Lee’s substantial credit considering he was all of twenty-two. This in turn tends to illuminate why a particular album might resonate and cause people across generations to get excited enough to attempt a discussion of why it means so much to them.
And I’m wrapped in my armorBut my things are material.
Some of the lines may not make immediate sense, but just as we generally prefer to hear stories or war from the soldiers who have actually fought in them, or listen to commentary from former athletes who actually played on the professional level, Forever Changes is, in virtually every regard, a treatise from the trenches. It captures the dodgy promise that Anything Is Possible: Summer Of Love, after all, was the American Dream redux, or the Horatio Alger story that conveniently cut out the middle man of humble beginnings, hard work and redemption, replacing it with a strategically ingested tab of acid, which could render all those boring parts about progress passé. The musical narrative of 1967—at least the one that gets recycled in sentimental movie soundtracks—got the Tune In and Turn On part pegged, but the Drop Out tended to get short shrift. The subsequent account, then, is not only incomplete, but myopic—analogous to the early flush of an infatuation: it’s easy, exciting, even liberating. And yet one must, eventually, come down to earth and answer to The Man in order to accomplish slightly less radical things like paying bills and participating in the rat race, however reluctantly. Like the LSD trip, the fantasy ends. And then, after a few hours that seem to exist outside time, the trick is to exploit one’s unshackled awareness in order to navigate the often unfair reality of the unreal world. Some became baby booming yuppies; some sought solace and a steady paycheck inside the ivory tower, where they could come as close to being a rock star as the rules allow, inculcating the lessons learned to wide-eyed and impressionable apprentices. Others sought to stay perpetually outside the charade, either lazily or earnestly joining communes, or disappearing into oblivion. The sorcerer himself, Syd Barrett, changed his name back to Roger and reinvented himself, retreating to the eternal care of his Mum, tending to his garden and turning his back on the Promised Land that had splintered into a billion bad trips. The other high profile acid casualties, like Brian Wilson or Rocky Erickson, and the scores of anonymous acolytes, never quite came back from the dark side of the moon—the place that seemed like Xanadu in the summer of ’67.
And so: Lee captured that less sexy banality of the next morning, before most hippies even knew what was about to hit them. Even after, or during, the ecstasies of your altered state, you might awaken from your reverie with snot caked against your pants. Lee depicts the Big High and the lesser lows, or what the more pragmatic amongst us might call actual life. And it is this gray middle ground between compromise and revolution that provides Forever Changes its irrefutable and magnetic appeal. The moral of this story? If it’s hot, or you’re hungry, or you have the rest of your life to sort out, then a concert or a hit record or the sudden insight to see through the charade may not be enough to get you safely to the other side.
All you need is love; love is all you need.
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow.
Stop and think about that, even if your name is not Oliver Stone. That could well be the most succinct—not to mention prophetic—articulation of the so-called counterculture, circa 1967. Exhibit A:Vietnam. Exhibit B: RFK. Exhibit C: see any made for TV melodrama sprung from the money-making minds of Madison Avenue, and it’s pretty safe to conclude that the times aren’t a changin’.
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game:Do you like the part you’re playing?
Back in the days when albums ended and began, the last song on a side meant something. That said, there is arguably no better one-two punch of side-closing statements than “The Red Telephone” and “You Set The Scene”. In fact, the full orchestral freak-out that concludes the album—and ushers it into immortality—has a classic literary flourish, bringing full circle the motifs introduced with the innovative trumpet stylings that accompany the opening track, “Alone Again Or”. Whether you’re partial to beginnings or endings, it’s hard to find a better model than Forever Changes for how to create a mood, and a message. In that regard, it is the album’s centerpiece, the brooding, apocalyptic imagery of “The Red Telephone” that actually does the improbable: it ensnares that three-month moment of 1967 and remains possibly more applicable to the here-and-now.
They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key,I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?
If there is a certain lack of subtlety there, the creepy way those lines are chanted amply illustrate how—and why—rock music supplanted poetry as the medium for the postmodern masses, just as films, or even music videos, became the new books most quoted by precocious teenagers. And considering Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid-90’s, a result of his own recklessness as well asCalifornia’s controversial third-strike laws, these lyrics proved to be more than a little prognostic. But, like the larger canvass that all our greatest art is created upon, Lee’s lyrics anticipate the less savory aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples—those that ingested, much less distributed, the chemical vehicle to Valhalla. That these mostly innocuous civilians would pull harder time than our white collar charlatans face for fleecing employees—and the country—out of millions of dollars is fodder for a book that need not be written. Naturally, there is less than a little new under the sun, especially if you are not a fortunate son standing in its silver-spoon-fed glow. Or, how about those lines as a commentary of Americans acting Un-American—pointing twenty-plus years backward to the internments of Japanese citizens, or thirty-plus years forward to the speciously labeled enemy combatants, most of them still rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy.
Sometimes I deal with numbers,And if you want to count me: Count me out.
The fact that Forever Changes didn’t—and doesn’t—sell big numbers is no new story; but this isn’t merely a commentary on its dirty authenticity being too elusive for the average American (after all, the only thing more lame than a cliché is the uncelebrated artist claiming that the idiot masses don’t “get” their vision, even when it happens to be the case). Listen: if you hear mellotrons and see kaleidoscopes when you think about 1967, you are, in fact, responding to some of what created that ephemeral feeling. Look: if you study the cover of Sgt. Pepper, or once again play Piper, that is the zeitgeist being created; look at or listen to The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; that is the zeitgeist being recreated. Copy cat opportunism is the unassailable acumen of the agents and the more successful artists they represent. Or, it’s what we talk about when we talk about the lack of love and the fact that forever never changes.
If Arthur Lee had been savvy enough to pull the businesslike burn out or the fortuitous fade away or— cleverest career move of all—die in some spectacular fashion in, say, early ’68, it’s safe to bet that Forever Changes would have become a more central part of the collective consciousness. That is the only rite of passage we ask of our best artists: you simply need to die so we can wake up and get around to appreciating what you accomplished. Hopefully, Arthur and his very American dream now have that chance, for all the right reasons.