Considering Arthur Lee's deep impact on modern music — he fronted one of the first multiracial rock bands, recorded with Jimi Hendrix, was a prime influence on the Doors, had lyrics lifted by the Rolling Stones, and inspired stellar fans ranging from Robert Plant and Eric Clapton to Syd Barrett, the Bangles, Alice Cooper, the Damned, the New Christs and Mazzy Star — it's frustrating that there hasn't been an in-depth, authoritative account of the life of the late leader of Love.
Journeyman journalist Barney Hoskyns' slim 2001 biography Arthur Lee was little more than a slapdash, error-filled essay blown up into book form, while Chris Hall and Mike Kerry's relatively insightful and otherwise essential 2007 DVD documentary, Love Story, suffered from a narrow focus, barely acknowledging the mercurial singer's final four decades.
Canadian scribe John Einarson's new book, Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love (Jawbone Press), isn't perfect, but it's the closest thing to a definitive history yet.
The tome doesn't have the firsthand perspective of early Love drummer Michael Stuart-Ware's worthwhile 2003 memoir, Behind the Scenes on the Pegasus Carousel With the Legendary Rock Group Love, but it tries to cover a much wider period of Lee's life.
Unfortunately, Einarson tends to give short shrift to the often-brilliant albums Lee recorded after Love's sublimely eccentric 1967 masterpiece, Forever Changes, perpetrating the prevailing (and inaccurate) myth that the singer never did anything worthwhile after leaving Elektra Records. Much of that mythmaking comes straight from Elektra Records' Jac Holzman, whose opinions are rarely challenged by Einarson.
As with Hoskyns' and Hall & Kerry's earlier efforts, the writer makes the mistake of looking at Love's impact primarily through a Brit-centric prism. Einarson seemingly can detect Love's influence only on British musicians, and makes the fatal (and well-traveled) assumption that the English were the first and only people brilliant enough to recognize Lee's genius.
This is a serious flaw when you consider how much the culture of Los Angeles profoundly shaped Love's music (and vice versa). Los Angeles should be a major character in this tale, but the author is at perhaps too much of a literal and metaphorical distance to understand the milieu.
Despite some other gaps and nagging errors, Einarson at least attempts to sort out some of the singer's 40-year-long lost weekend of drugs and legal problems, quoting extensively from Lee's unpublished autobiography (which provides many of the book's highlights). This is no easy task, given Lee's own mythmaking, and it's to Einarson's credit that he had the insight to include crucial historical perspective and commentary from longtime Angeleno Love fans like former Sheiks of Shake drummer Paul Body to counterbalance less-compelling reminiscences from members of the U.K. band Shack, who briefly served as one of Lee's fill-in backup groups.
Much of what Einarson uncovers is new or not widely reported, and the cumulative details and generally impressive research about the chameleonic Lee's life (lives?) make for a damn fascinating read.