Let’s talk greatest Los Angeles bands for a second. Depending how you’re wired, there are roughly a dozen candidates for the throne. If you tend to spend a small but significant minority of your time swallowing spoonfuls of liquid acid on Venice rooftops, the Doors, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield/CSNY and maybe even Sublime make your shortlist. If you’ve rocked a green Mohawk and/or owned a Henry Rollins spoken-word record, you’d probably lean toward Black Flag, X, the Minutemen or the Germs. If your personal hairspray use has emitted enough CO2 to wreak serious havoc on the ozone layer, there’s Van Halen or Guns N’ Roses; if you’re inclined toward Latin music, Los Lobos looms, and if you’re into being wrong, there’s always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
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Love accurately rendered everything that makes L.A. wonderful and everything that makes it warped.
Then there’s Love, the least commercially successful and arguably the greatest of the bunch, a band whose reputation rests largely on the strength of one perfect document: 1967’s Forever Changes, perhaps the most quintessentially Los Angeles record there is, a seamless summation of the town’s fun-house angles and myriad complexities. Unlike the aforementioned groups, whose masterpieces tended to be manifestations of particular Angeleno subcultures, Love’s picture of Los Angelesis very much a native vision. Frontman Arthur Lee divines dark prophecies that pull from the pulse of L.A.’s noirish underworld; its Hispanic heritage emerges in plangent pinpoint trumpet blasts from a Tijuana brass band. The sepia tones of the old Sunset Strip spring to life: California blonds in sundresses and flatironed hair, hippies in Day-Globeads and kaleidoscopic color, flailing in long-forgotten nightclubs, starkly contrasting with images of the riots in the streets and the flatfooted fury of the crewcut, pug-nosed Parker police force.
Love’s third effort contained multitudes precisely because the band’s geographically scattered and racially diverse composition mirrored the city of a million scenes. Lee and lead guitarist Johnny Echols grew up in South L.A., attended Dorsey High, developed a Booker T. & the MGs fixation and were well-known in the local club scene by the time they formed Love in their early 20s. Rhythm guitarist-vocalist Bryan MacLean, the author of “Alone Again Or” and “Old Man,” grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of an architect to the stars. He liked show tunes and counted Liza Minnelli as his first girlfriend (apparently, the two of them used to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” together while sunning themselves poolside). Meanwhile, despite a Sarasota upbringing, Love bassist Ken Forssi had already played on the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” the seminal West Coast surf-guitar song. With such inherent tension built in, the only possible outcome was disaster, particularly considering the ravages of heroin addiction, Lee’s megalomaniacal genius and an ill-fated idea to cohabitate a hilltop Los Feliz mansion nicknamed “the Castle,” previously owned by Bela Lugosi.
Sure enough, the initial June ’67 sessions for Forever Changes infamously flamed out when the band’s disarray forced Elektra to recruit session men to record “Andmoreagain” and the Neil Young–arranged “The Daily Planet.” But when they regrouped that September, something changed. According to legend, stirred by the realization of their own expendability, Love played with a newfound sense of urgency and hunger. The quote most frequently cited about Forever Changes is that Lee thought he’d die immediately upon its completion; it’s difficult not to interpret it as an early requiem for the troubled singer-songwriter, who passed away last year from leukemia. Just 22 years old, Lee seemed spooked by revelation. On “A House Is Not a Motel,” he foresees “the news of today [being] the movies of tomorrow.” On “The Red Telephone,” he blithely croons about “sitting on a hillside watching all the people die,” before finishing with a flourish about getting locked up with the key thrown away, foreshadowing the legal struggles that would haunt his future.
But other than the winking homage to the strip of land adjacent to the Whisky a GoGo on “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale,” Love veered away from any concrete evocation of Los Angeles. Instead, Forever Changes captures the way the city feels,the cadences of its sunny, stuttering locomotion, the halcyon sand-and-surf California of the imagination clashing with smog, stripped resources and stark realities. The undercurrent of fear and alienation sluicing through a city where the stakes seem so high and the odds so stacked. Its timelessness stems from the notion that as much as L.A. changes, it will always retain certain immutable qualities that Love’s music captures: the baroque excess evidenced in the airy strings that buoy Lee’s celestial wail, the furious fusion of styles and sounds, the laidback folk-rock melodies and the latent, orchestral anger.
That’s why Rhino can reissue Forever Changes for the second time this decade, with the only new material on this latest edition a few unreleased acoustic demos, a half-assed cover of “Wooly Bully” and a much-vaunted alternate mix practically indistinguishable from the original. It really doesn’t matter. What does is the accuracy with which Love rendered everything that makes this city wonderful and everything that makes it warped. So that even today, with their Los Angeles a faded memory, few greater joys exist than slipping Forever Changes into your CD player on a bright spring morning after a cold, clean rain, when Los Angeles glows with a gold and green tint.
Start at the intersection of Sunset and César Chávez, let the rich metal rain of “Alone Again Or” dazzle you, horns scattering in synchronicity with the Mariachi strains buzzing off of Olvera Street; angle past the band’s old stomping grounds in Los Feliz. Let the album loop through Beverly Hills, the platinum light flooding your car, careening past the salmon-colored walls of the Beverly Hills Hotel, only blocks away from MacLean’s childhood home. Ride this strange bullet out all the way to the beach, where if you’ve looped it just right and the traffic gods have smiled on you, you might just hear the fragile fatalism of “You Set the Scene” slap up against the roaring waves of Sunset Beach — with the tacit understanding that not everything changes.