Friday, August 04, 2006

R.I.P. Arthur Lee

I know that writers nowadays want to be rock stars but I've never wanted to be anybody but Arthur Lee. Given his bouts of suicidal depression, mental illness, imprisonment, and his best friends Hendrix and Jim Morrison dying on him, it sounds crazy to want to be someone like Lee, but there is one thing Arthur had more than anybody else: fearlessness.

Like all truly fearless people he never thought twice (or once) about it. He wasn't the first of the black rockers but he was the first truly self-styled genius. A man so beyond the easy definition of black or rocker that he had no precedent and no real successor either. Not Prince who tried too hard to be R&B, Lenny who tried too hard to be everybody and Living Colour who tried too hard to be funky rockers. Arthur didn't try be anything or anyone seen before. Love was his vehicle and that band left behind Forever Changes, one of the most staggeringly beautiful masterpieces ever made, a record whose commercial failure has not diminished its status one bit. Perhaps the only real American challenge to Sgt Pepper, the record's gorgeous psychedelic swirl provided stark contrast to some seriously foreboding lyrics: "they're locking them up today/they're throwing away the key/I wonder who it will be tomorrow/You or me." Forever Changes was one of those records that would make a classical music snob prick of his ears the way Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain made him dig jazz . The record even now manages to swing between unparalled sophistication and rock and roll chaos like no other record before it. Plus it's the best use of horns and strings in rock. Ever.

Arthur lee was a stubborn bastard. He held on to his right to be everything and nothing that was expected of him and paved the way for like-minded stubborn geniuses everywhere. He simply sung "we're all normal and we want our freedom" and that was his last word on the matter. There was a price to be paid for this. Nobody stood in the way of Love's success more than Lee himself, who refused to tour, hated interviews and always seemed to get himself in trouble. Trouble always followed him. Death as well. That dread permeated Forever Changes, a record made during a summer Lee was convinced he was going to die.

And now he's dead. Always plagued with health issues and just plain bad luck, Lee always seemed like a man not quite there in body, mind or spirit. Maybe it was a miracle that we had him for as long as we did.