Arthur Lee, the troubled, brilliant leader of the psychedelic rock band Love, died Thursday in a hospital in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Lee, who had been hospitalized for several months due to leukemia, was 61.
A singer-songwriter capable of both extraordinary sensitivity and untamed ferocity, Lee was at the forefront of mid-’60s Los Angeles’ rock & roll revolution. With the vastly influential 1966 single “7&7 Is” (also featured on Love’s ’67 Da Capo album) and the classic 1967 long player Forever Changes, he created unrivaled masterpieces, the former for its ultradynamic, protopunk intensity and the latter for its ambitious, passionate depth.
From the moment he attained majority in Los Angeles in the early ’60s, Lee was searching for a way to express himself, working with everyone from East L.A. big-beat teen queens the Arvizu Sisters to Hollywood bad boy Vince Flaherty. He cut the occasional one-off single and mixed it up in the increasingly wild packs that roamed the Sunset Strip, finally joining guitarist Johnny Echols in the expanded bag that came to be known as Love. One of their first moves was strikingly unorthodox — a freaky cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Little Red Book,” a signal that Lee was not averse to taking on just about anything that held appeal and transforming it into something entirely different.
Subject to bouts of epic self-indulgence — the 18-minute “Revelation” — and known for making some spectacularly wrong-headed choices (he turned down a slot on the Monterey Pop festival that cemented Hendrix and Otis Redding as essential to the white pop audience), Lee didn’t just supply the soundtrack for the lysergic-fueled tribes of ’67, he lived it. His was the Owsley diet, tripping the Strip fantastic at hallucinatory full tilt — a former roommate recalls that Lee once went an entire year without wearing shoes — and it seemed he had little time for the drab limitations of reality. An increasingly strange personal life didn’t much hinder Lee’s art; he always wrote with a delicate, surrealist, stream-of-consciousness approach, bending language any way that suited him. He never took the predictable lyrical route (check Love’s “Singing Cowboy,” an affectionate acknowledgment of childhood heroes Roy Rogers and Gene Autry), and delivered lyrics with fragile, bittersweet understatement.
After Love evaporated, Lee kept faithfully chopping away, gigging and recording, but without the same dramatic impact he had achieved with Love. By the late ’80s, he seemed almost irrevocably damaged, but even when it appeared he’d forgotten the song, Lee always made it back to the mike just in time to keep the show going. He was also tremendously frustrated (“What are y’all doing to my music?” he’d yell at the band. “This is supposed to be legendary congo, with a psychedelic twist!”) until local popsters Baby Lemonade signed up as an ideal backing band. Despite the scars, and some hard time in prison during the 1990s, Lee soldiered on with his characteristic mixture of tender aesthetics and volatile bombast. But few seemed to care. Long story short, he was the riot on the Sunset Strip, and there ought to be a goddamned 25-foot-high statue of him there, right between Clark and Hilldale.