If you believe the accounting ledgers, yellowing newspaper praise and surviving band members, Love’s Forever Changes was released exactly 50 years ago this month. But no carbon dating or nostalgic recollection can shake my belief in its agelessness. It’s the rare, unblemished masterpiece worth constant reconsideration, a deathless meditation on mortality, a psychedelic symphony immune to the paisley trappings of the Aquarian age.
Despite Forever Changes’ frequent inclusion on all-time-greatest lists, it’s easy to be unfamiliar with arguably the greatest album ever made in Los Angeles, from the city’s emblematic band. Overshadowed by marquee records from more marketable names, the Elektra release slipped through the cracks as the summer of love failed to successfully merge into the fall. Radio shunned it, both then and now.
Forever Changes stalled at No. 154 on the Billboard album chart. Its lead single, the Bryan MacLean–penned “Alone Again Or,” couldn’t pierce the Hot 100; to date, its biggest exposure remains its inclusion in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. (In the U.K., the album fared better, debuting to critical raves and rising to No. 24.)
Even at the time, Love was the proverbial favorite rock band’s favorite rock band. Robert Plant called Forever Changes one of his all-time favorite albums. Neil Young was an admirer brought in to do the arrangements for “The Daily Planet.”
Jimi Hendrix collaborated with frontman and chief songwriter Arthur Lee and undoubtedly swiped some stylistic flourishes. Eric Clapton tapped Lee as an opening act. The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” is just a ripoff of Love’s “She Comes in Colors.”
As for The Doors, Lee bore responsibility for convincing Elektra boss Jac Holzman to check them out. The admiration was mutual.
“You know Ray, if we could be as big as Love, man, my life would be complete,” Ray Manzarek remembers Jim Morrison telling him during the early years of The Doors. “Love was one of the hottest things I ever saw,” Manzarek adds. “The most influential band in L.A. at the time, and we all thought it was just a matter of time before Love conquered America.”
You can point to any number of reasons why Love didn’t blow up: Lee refused to tour or ingratiate himself within the industry; their drug use became debilitating; and, inevitably, prejudicial elements might have been in play. Lee and lead guitarist Johnny Echols grew up in West Adams and, in the latter half of the ’60s, were two of the few black people in an almost entirely all-white scene.
But it’s possible that Love’s prophetic brilliance afforded it a timelessness that took decades to slip into focus. Lee’s lyrics are inscrutable enough for almost any interpretation yet specific to his experiences wandering the Sunset Strip, writing in his hillside aerie and listening to Vietnam vets harangue him about how, in the obliterating tropical rain, blood mixed with mud becomes gray.
“I thought this might be the last album I’d ever make,” Lee once wrote about the creation of Forever Changes. “The words represented the last words I would say about this planet. I made it after I thought there was no hope left in the world. I thought I was going to die.”
Forever Changes sounds as visionary now as the day of its release. It’s ideally suited for all times of crisis, lyrically poetic and orchestral in its arrangements. It’s both a personal requiem and one for a period about to vanish.
Arthur Lee wrote these songs at 22, already aware that flux is the only constant and art is the only hope for something eternal. He has rested underneath the turf at Forest Lawn for over a decade but somewhere right now, someone receives these revelations and falls in love for the first time.
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