Arthur Lee Has Died

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Love leader Arthur Lee died yesterday in Memphis from the leukemia he has been fighting all year. He was 61.

Growing up in Los Angeles, one heard many strange stories about Arthur, who was already pretty far gone by the time I discovered Forever Changes and realized all the astonishing things that this homegrown black psychedelicist had done with the genre. Paired with Bryan MacLean, a beautiful blonde Beverly Hills boy with a jones for Broadway show tunes, this smart, weird, twitchy kid transformed pop with an aggressive ease that made it all look effortless. Black people didn’t look or act or sing like that in the sixties; Arthur Lee was so original, he might as well have been an alien.

And if that was all in the misty past, while the guy who wrote the songs was reported smashing into parked cars in front of the Whiskey while racing away from a gig he’d decided not to play, well, misty pasts sound fine on thick Elektra vinyl from the Goodwill store.

But writing about Love always risks sounding flat and dry (Andrew Hultkrans did good work in his 33 1/3 book, though). They were lyrical and powerful and surprising and exploding with stunning melodies.  Arthur’s Love was beautiful, but unreliable. I’ve seen the Baby Lemonade version of Love bring crusty old record collectors to sobs, and I’ve seen Arthur blow his UCLA homecoming gig so resoundingly that you just wanted to grab his shoulders and shake him and yell "don’t you know how much better you are than this?" (Word was, later, he was scared and popped too many valium hoping he’d calm down.)

Well, there won’t be any more stunning returns or frustrating failures, now illness has taken Arthur home. 

The first time I saw Arthur play, at the old Raji’s on the south side of Sunset in the early 90s, I talked with him in the parking lot after the show. A grizzled old groupie was trying to drag him home, and it was obvious he’d rather talk with nice people than go off with her, but life and shyness called and I walked away. Immediately regretted it, and still do. What’s the point of loving someone’s music if you don’t give something back when they need it?

So be kind to your heroes when you meet them, even if–especially if–they end up disappointing you as people. Notice their aches and pains, since they might not. Decades of pushing themselves past reasonable limits can leave them unaware of signs of serious illness. Killer Kane’s leukemia crept up and practically ate him before he did anything about it. I don’t know about Arthur’s illness, but it seems to have been quick.

It’s a sad day for psychedelia and for the arts in California. Arthur Lee, Rest in Peace.

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