In my early thirties (that dynamic tail end of the 1970s when Creem Magazine and my writing therein were really thriving), I developed a consuming interest in the books and life of novelist Henry Miller. I noted Miller’s comment that he had once been similarly obsessed with the life of poet Arthur Rimbaud, to the point that he would gladly have studied Rimbaud’s laundry lists if he could have gotten hold of them. I duly read Rimbaud on Miller’s recommendation, and found him interesting but not so compelling as Miller himself (sorry, Patti, you lost me on that, too.)
My interest in Miller gradually faded over the years, only to be replaced by an Arthurian-legend obsession worthy of Miller himself, not for lost-adolescent Rimbaud but for my own American & virtual contemporary, Love’s Arthur Lee. And now my long-time desire to study Lee’s figurative laundry lists has been answered in John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love, the most intimate book yet of Lee’s life. This is the official Arthurian biography, authorized by his widow, Diane Lee. It follows the format of Einarson’s bios of Gene Clark and other musicians, with heavy reliance on long quotes from many of the people who knew and worked with the subject, organized into a chronological analysis of that life. But Einarson’s bio of Lee also has the bonus of passages from Arthur’s uncompleted autobiography, dictated to a friend in the years just prior to Lee’s 2006 death from leukemia. Arthur’s own words appear in italics in the text.
Reading Einarson’s biography had me thinking so deeply again about Arthur Lee’s amazing mind and creativity that as soon as I finished it, I had to have more, so I re-read our own Barney Hoskyns’ “Mojo Heroes” volume on Arthur. I don’t need to spend any time here relating Einarson’s, Hoskyns’, and their many interviewees’ comments on Arthur’s absolute musical genius; we already have a consensus there, but reading these bios reminded me once more of his comparable abilities as a wordsmith. I’m not a musician myself, I’m a mere writer, and from that perspective, I can tell you authoritatively, Arthur Lee was THE REAL THING.
The last few years of my day-job “career” with the Ohio Department of Human Services (i.e., state welfare department), I nursed a low-level anger at that system, as Bill Clinton had just handed over the entire US welfare program to Newt Gingrich and the neocons on a silver platter, in the name of “reform,” and the Reaganite then heading Ohio’s department was initiating all sorts of anti-recipient right-wing-fetish regulations. We’d just been issued personal computers to do our own paperwork, and we discovered the DIY screensaver program installed thereon, which I soon used for my own bit of passive resistance. On a bright blue background, I placed white letters endlessly scanning two of my alltime-favorite quotes from the world of rock’n'roll across my screen: Bob Dylan’s “To live outside the law you must be honest,” and Arthur Lee’s “The good humor man he sees everything like this.”
I took Dylan’s line (from “Absolutely Sweet Marie”) as a basic admonition to maintain existentialism; I wasn’t an “outlaw” (especially not in the sense of Arthur Lee, then sitting in a California prison on that trumped-up “Three Strikes” conviction), but I certainly wasn’t a part of the capitalist-evangelical coalition trying to take over my America. And the Lee quote (actually a stand-alone song title from Forever Changes rather than a sung lyric, in his perverse don’t-understand-me-too-quickly tradition) struck me as a sarcastic warning always to keep my eyes open, however low my profile. And, as a writer, I loved the rhythm Arthur’s optional “he” gave to the line. I doubt that my surly screensaver slogans had any effect on ODHS management; in fact, a bunch of us received generous retirement buyouts in 1998 as another aspect of “welfare reform.” I took mine, all the while cynically assuming it was at least in part a move to clean house of us liberals who’d joined the system during its Great Society assertiveness. After all, I was a good humor man, I could see everything like this.
What I love so much about Arthur Lee’s verbal compositions is not just the absolute precision of his word choices and metrical scans, but the way he often injects so much (intentionally) sarcastic humor into his most intense observations, as with the song title above. Every time I play Arthur’s Vindicator solo album, I laugh my head off again at two of the greatest song titles in the history of r’n'r: “You Can Save up to 50% but You’re Still a Long Ways from Home”, and “You Want Change for Your Re-Run”. The former’s virtually a throwaway in the Lee canon as a song, not much longer than the title itself, but Oh the existential (and, in my polarized mind, anti-conservative) sarcasm of that title! And is Arthur talking about Forever-type Changes in “You Want Change for Your Re-Run”? Probably, you can’t hold on to anything, even your greatest album, forever. But the title also gives me a droll picture of some dooboid hippie cluck receiving coins in change after he’s blindly purchased yet another soundalike album at ye old record store, and as soon as I think of that I’m howling with mirth again. Yes, Arthur, yes!
I guess I feel a need to assert my belief in Arthur Lee as a master of language now both because of the wonderful examples cited above, and to answer his late Love bandmate Bryan MacLean, who’s quoted in Barney Hoskyns’ Lee book, “You have to understand that Arthur’s lyrics and music were all stream-of-consciousness. I worked on my songs, I constructed them, but he didn’t write that way. ‘The snot has caked against my pants’ came out . . . and stayed! [Laughs.] He had a brilliant mind, but his biggest problem was trying to be hip. He was too hip for words. He talked like a 1940s jazz musician.” Well, Bryan, as it happens, Arthur’s biological father, Chester Taylor, was a 1940s jazz musician, so maybe there was something organic at work there.
And Elektra’s Jac Holzman has said he always witnessed Arthur working hard on his lyrics and wanting them to be good, but maybe Arthur’s method of lyrical composition involved more stream-of-consciousness inspiration (the one you quote, from “Live and Let Live”, is another of my turns-into-crystal Arthurian gems) than your laborious constructions. His lines have so many perfectly inevitable word choices and rhythms that they must have formed deep in his commanding mind. Arthur himself cites his verbal priorities in one of his passages in Einarson’s book: “The only thing I got out of school that did me any good in my career was learning to spell and read, so I could write these songs.” Yes! once more, Arthur. And Bryan, I’m eternally glad your “Orange Skies” and “Alone Again Or” and your showtunes influence all made their way into the Love canon, but all the listening I’ve done to your and to Arthur’s songs over the years has me convinced that on balance, he had the edge on you both as a musician and as a lyricist.
I could probably go on with thousands more words on this topic, but I’ll get out of here with a nod to Arthur Lee’s verbal facility in everyday conversation. I’ve always been amused by the Lee quote in Hoskyns’ book about his first experience hearing his pal Nooney Rickett’s band (which Arthur characteristically soon appropriated as his own) in 1968: “And here this four-piece group was. They were as loud as fuck.” I’ve chuckled over Arthur’s simile for years; how do you quantify that? But when I finally caught Love live for the first (and only) time in my life, at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom in October 2004, they were without their European tours’ strings and horns, so they were playing hard garage rock much like they must have sounded at Bido Lito’s back in 1965, and when Arthur Lee, Johnny Echols, Mike Randle, and Rusty Squeezebox were all wailing away on their guitars at the same time, they were LOUD AS FUCK! You’d given us the perfect word one more time, Arthur!