In 1966-1967 Los Angeles was Arthur Lee’s dark kingdom. Brian Wilson owned the sun, Jim Morrison traveled the other side, and while the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield gave L.A. its folkie hippie face, Lee’s band Love fashioned a punk muzak masquerade that fifty years on will still not relent. Their capstone album, 1967’s Forever Changes, is one of the handful of perfect rock records, but it is a difficult masterpiece, borne of a drug-addled band falling apart on the heels of some minor pop success (thanks to their cover of Bacharach/David’s “My Little Red Book” and the blazing protopunk of “7 and 7 Is”), as their chief admirers and competitors the Doors were surpassing them in popularity, commercially beating them at their own game. Forever Changes is not instantly recognizable for what it is, and its easy melodic beauty — indebted to the Tijuana Brass, smooth jazz, and surf instrumentals — supports a poetry far more complex and subtle than anyone else in rock was writing at the time, save perhaps Van Morrison.
Forever Changes really began with Love’s second album, Da Capo (1966), its first side moving away from the Byrds influence so evident on their first LP (as good as that record is), towards a baroque fusion of Spanish-inflected pop jazz mixed with fierce punk aggression. By the time they came to record Forever Changes in the summer of 1967, Lee had refined this sound to create, with the band’s other songwriter, Bryan MacLean, a seamless set of 11 songs beginning with the plaintive loneliness of “Alone Again Or” and concluding with a rumination on the album’s title in “You Set the Scene.” Engineer and co-producer Bruce Botnick (known primarily for his work with the Doors, labelmates on Jac Holzman’s groundbreaking Elektra Records), who had produced the band’s two previous records, has been credited with motivating the band to record, and in creating the album’s sonic consistency. The airy breeziness of the tunes and Lee’s at times affected vocal approach are often in stark contrast, and yet ultimately work with, the grim lyrical themes — mortality, war, racial division (Lee and guitarist Johnny Echols were black men in a very white rock scene), broken love — and the words are so deftly written and rendered that there is no belaboring the evident point: the Summer of Love is bullshit. These kind of dynamics create a layered masterwork that sustains prolonged discovery. Forever Changes is a slow grower, it reveals itself over time, but once its hooks are in it will not let go. I think it’s interesting that while the album tanked in America it hit #24 in Great Britain in 1968, and can be seen as being influential on both British progressive and punk rock. It’s no mistake that it was in London that Lee so successfully revived the album as a live performance in 2003, the recordings from which demonstrate the undiminished power of the songs (and, surprisingly given his rough life, Lee’s chops).
“Maybe the people would be the times or between Clark and Hilldale” opens side two of Forever Changes and contains in its three and a half minutes a snappy, bass-and-brass driven portrait of the transience of life — the comings and the goings and the intersections — surrounding the Whiskey a Go Go and the Sunset Strip, the heart of Love’s Los Angeles. Others feel more confident in their interpretations of the song, but it makes me feel good because wrapped inside this sunny tune, where at one glorious moment in the break Lee doubles the trumpet as if he’s Tony Bennett, there is room for thought and contemplation, and even if I can’t say for certain what was going through Arthur Lee’s mind when he wrote the words, perhaps that’s what makes this and other of Love’s songs feel so universal.
*Above image: Love, the Forever Changes lineup, in 1967. (l-r) Michael Stuart-Ware, Ken Forssi, Arthur Lee, Bryan MacLean, and Johnny Echols.