A Conversation With Arthur Lee
In February 1981, Arthur Lee was living in Los Angeles and very little of his work with Love was still available to the public. Rhino Records had recently released an excellent compilation of the band’s music, and—after a few calls here and there—I managed to snag this somewhat all-over-the-map phone conversation with Lee and turn it into a CREEM feature. Two memories: The wife of our publisher then coming into the editorial office and saying, “Great—what’s next, a profile of David Blue?” A few months later, the NME ran a similar article in which Lee referred to my CREEM piece and said something to the effect of “He was a nice guy, but why in the hell did he print all my curse words? My mama read that!” The “new” Love album of which Lee speaks was actually issued as the Arthur Lee disc pictured above.
Here’s the raw transcript.
So I understand there’s going to be a new Love album soon.
Right. I got together with Harold Bronson–um, you know him?–we put an album together. I had some things that I had been recording, and he dug it, so we’re gonna put it out. As a follow-up to that other album they put out last year.
How did you feel about that album?
It was all right for old stuff, man. It was all right. But I’d like to do some more up-to-date stuff. Like the stuff that’s going to be coming out, that’s the stuff I’ve been doing the last couple of years. I have about three or four piles of music, albums’ worth of music, that hasn’t been released yet. I’ve been doing it, I’ve been out there recording, waiting for the right time, the right…This is just a one-album deal I’ve got with these guys, you know? Just to get the feet wet with the trip and see what’s happening, man. So what I want to do is… (emphatic pause)… I want to get another deal. I’m working on getting a major deal and a major recording contract.
You certainly deserve one.
(Laughs) That’s what I’m hoping to hear. Because I’ve finally decided to come back out and play, you know?
So what exactly have you been doing recently?
I’ve been playing the last year–playing in LA, basically.
Who’s in your band now?
Let’s see–I’ve been working with John Stirling and Melvin Wonder on guitars, Joe Blocker on drums, and this guy Sherwood Akuna on bass.
These guys will be on the new album Rhino Records is putting out?
Right. Some of the tracks will have them on them.
Are you going to get a good deal royalty-wise with that new Rhino hits repackage?
Well, you know. Rhino licensed that record from (pause) Elektra Records, and that did pretty good. Hey, man, I mean I just got into it. I could care less about the whole trip myself, I’m just involved in staying alive out here…
I can imagine it’s pretty hectic out there.
Yeah, it’s a trip, man. Like, I can remember sketches of recordings and recording contracts like when I was in my teens, man.
How old are you now?
How old am I?
(Laughs uproariously) I know those pictures look a little old, but see, I was always ahead of my time. I just grew up early. I grew up before the rest of the kids.
Sounds good to me. I was wondering if you’d heard the Rumour’s new version of “Little Red Book”?
No, I sure haven’t. I’d like to hear it, though.
It sounds like they listened to you a little more than they should have, but it’s a good version.
Really? Oh, I was listening to a record I just heard the other night–that song “Talk Talk”?
By the Music Machine?
Yeah. That guy really tried to rip me off. Just on that one song, that one style of singing. I never sang like that again, man. I never sang like that, you know? That was just a one-time-arounder. People must have dug that, I guess. Man, I was just kidding when I used that voice.
Oh yeah? What’s your real voice?
(in obnoxious Joe Friday/Dragnet voice) Well , just between you and me…
[A knock on Lee’s door, he answers, it’s the landlord]
Want me to let you go?
No, go ahead, my friend; I can do two things at once when it comes to this.
Fine. Overall, do you think you’ve been screwed over in your past dealings with the record business?
Well, that’s a pretty personal question, and I really don’t want to talk about that. No, that’s too personal, I really don’t want to implicate any names. (pause) Of course I’ve been fucked, everybody in music’s been fucked, unless you have somebody out there. I mean, I’m sure that all the records that got sold I got paid for, each little record since 1965, you know? That doesn’t make too much sense to me. (pause) I wish it would make sense to me.
[Landlord prepares to leave, Lee says to him, “Take care of yourself, friend. You feeling any better? See you later, so long…(door apparently closes)… you asshole.”]
Hey, that’s no way to talk.
What, to my landlord? This guy’s a trip, man. You know, I was away for a couple of months, and my mother–I left the bills and stuff to her, she paid everybody on time, I said, man. So when I came back, he calls me up the day on the day of rent, right? (laughs) I mean, on the day, man. I said, “Hey man, what’s up.” He said, “Well, you know, today is the First.” I said, “Well shit, man, I just got out of the hospital, you know? He said, “Oh yeah, what’s wrong with you?” I said, “I had open-heart surgery, man!” (laughs) I said, “I’m going to be a little late on the rent.” You know, that fucker didn’t even say, “Well I hope you feel better,” or something, you know? I said I’m gonna be a little late on the rent…Shit. I’d hate to pay all the bills for the rest of my life on time, you know what I mean? It’s a trip. But I like being paid on time.
Speaking of time–I think all the music you’ve done sounds better with time.
You know what? I think that’s a pretty opinionated…I mean, a couple of people I wish I could talk to…Let me see, who would be the people to talk to? Maybe the people that handle the Grammys. I have never gotten one of those, man. I mean, I’ve never known how many records Forever Changes has sold.
That’s still in print, isn’t it?
It sure is. But I never got a gold record or anything.
It should be gold.
I think it should, too, man. I’d just like to have a gold record, it’d be a trip. A few of them, a few of those records were gold, man, but I’ll tell you what happened–I think I forgot to go down and buy them or pick them up or something. You know, they told me stuff like that and I said, “Well, shit, I’m not gonna pay for my own gold record.” I know “Seven And Seven Is” and “Little Red Book” were gold. But man…I don’t even listen to the radio, man. I was so far ahead of my time. (breaks off and starts to laugh) I just had to take a long nap and let everybody catch up, man. Like you know, yesterday I heard “7 And 7 Is” on the radio. I listened to one of those stations, one of those rock stations. I heard it on there and it blew me off.
It sounds just like it belongs here now.
Isn’t that something? Yeah, I like that.
Of all your material, is Forever Changes your favorite?
Forever Changes were my last words of love, you see. Forever Changes was….Like, this John Lennon trip? The only thing different between “Starting Over” and Forever Changes was that he got shot and I didn’t. Can you understand? Those were my last words. When was that, ’60-what?…Those were my last words to the world, and I’ve been here ever since. Just like a guy saying goodbye, you know, and you look out your front door and he’s still there. Man–15 years later. Those were my last words, I thought for sure I was…Well, I know I was real young, but I had just thought that that would be the year for me to exit. You know, it just made sense. I don’t know, I sure am glad I didn’t, because I’ve learned so much since…
The crazy ’60s days–the days of knowledge they were, as far as I was concerned, and making gobs of money, man, that was really where it was at. (laughs) I liked that part, man. But you know, when you think you’ve got everything all figured out that this was the way things were going to be–I mean, who would have ever thought that there wouldn’t be no more hippies? You know? And who would’ve ever thought that that whole Love Generation, that whole Love Crowd, would have went the way it did? Jesus, I never did. I still love those days, man. I don’t mean to…I was a dedicated person, dedicated to what I believe in. I still live my life in pretty much the same way, you know? I try to live pretty free. I mean time is really important, man, this is really an important thing we’re doing here–this is our lives, right?
That’s why a lot of people want to know what you’re doing now.
Yeah, well I am glad, and fortunate, that I’m around to do this trip. Because a lot of my friends are gone, bless their souls. And it’s just the way you look at things. (laughs) Like you really don’t have a choice, other than to have a good time. That’s what I want to do, Dave–that’s the most important thing, to have a good time in your life, because it’s so short.
It’s great you’ve been
able to have a good time and still be around to talk about it. A lot of people like you haven’t.
Well, that’s because they thought they were having a good time but they weren’t, tripping out so hard, that ain’t a good time…that’s good and scary, that’s what that is, isn’t it? It’s too scary–paranoia and getting all crazy and scared, that’s not a good time, that’s what they thought was a good time. And we’ve all passed that era, I hope. Seriously.
I was wondering: Whatever happened to that album you once recorded for Buffalo Records?
Good question, man, and I’ll give you a great answer: I’m looking for the tapes right now. My guitar player Melvin Wonder has a copy. I’m gonna call Paul Rothchild in a couple of days and see what goes with that, because I did a whole album for Michael Butler on Buffalo Records and they never put that stuff out. So I’m gonna see if I can buy it and put it out there, man, or what have you. Hey, I still have that long jam and a couple of songs I did for an album with Jimi Hendrix.
Who owns that stuff?
I do, man. But every time I go to, uh, the person that, uh, I let use them, he was a guy that I trusted, I just never went back there to pick it up. Can you imagine that, man? I’m like that–I left a fucking record with him in, uh, ’70 I think it was–no, ’69, it had to be because Jimi was still alive–and that fool’s had them ever since. So I guess I’m going to go over there and experiment with that, put my vocals on this jam we did, I had the whole thing mapped out really nice, but I think I’m gonna change that. So I’m going to be putting that out pretty soon, that thing with Jimi Hendrix, and I’m going to be putting that thing out with Michael Butler. If possible, you know?
What’s up with that new English EP that just came out?
Someone ripped me off and put that out, man. Four of the songs that were on there are going to be included on this album. Those were some things I recorded with a couple of different groups. But the quality of the music is there, and it’s definitely now. We’re going to put it out under the right fucking name this time.
You still own the rights to the name?
Yeah, of course. (pause) I heard that there’s some group in Jamaica called Love, but because I’m such a LOVEing guy, I haven’t recouped any of their royalties. But I did see that, and that is something to think about, you know–just quietly go down there and tell them to quit it. And I know that whoever’s behind that trip knows about my band, I just know they do, know what I mean? And they’re getting away with it for as long as they can. That’s all there is to that.
“Be Thankful For What You Got” was an interesting song for you to cover. What do you listen to now?
You know what, man? I’m constantly writing music. I really like reggae music, I really like that. Matter of fact, we’re going to have a few tunes on this next album that are going to be reggae tunes. I first started listening to reggae in about ’75, although I heard it all my life, but I never knew that was reggae–you know, the title, I don’t even know when that title came up for that music. But I really like that, and I like that up music, ska, or whatever it is. I heard a group called the Specials, and the Busboys and what have you–I like the up type things. It’s a trip.
Did Love reform ever?
Maybe a couple of gigs. Bryan MacLean and I did a couple of gigs together a couple of years ago, and we had the original two members of the group together at that time, but there hasn’t been an all-out effort to put the whole band together. I wouldn’t mind doing that, though–it’d be a gas.
So it didn’t work out with Bryan?
Bryan? No…well, it worked out with Bryan–I’m not going to say it didn’t work out with Bryan–but (hesitates) but like if he’d like something to do with his life, man, it’s his free will to do whatever he wants. He’s a very good writer, the way I feel about music, I like his style of writing, and I like him as a person. But some things he has to go out and do for himself. People have to go through their trips, their changes, and find out what they really want to do, and he chose–from what I understood–that he didn’t want to do his trip with me. But if he changes his mind, well you know, you never can tell. And I really don’t need Bryan to pay my bills. It would be nice, instead of thinking for yourself so much, but for people that grew up in the same era, grooved on those people. Like if we could get some money out of the way sometime, you know, the loyalty of bands that were definitely loyal to us, they still are pretty loyal to me. I was listening to these guys the other day that are supposed to be getting back together–the Association…
Yeah, they just put a single out on Elektra.
They put a single out on Elektra?
Just came out this week.
Is that right? (pause)
On your old label.
Right. That’s a gas, man. I was talking to someone over there and…when I get out of the studio here, I’m going to add some new stuff on this album to add a little freshness, you know–I’m gonna go to Elektra after that and see what’s happening there. In fact, I had an invitation to go over there and pick up some stuff that I had, and this guy there said he’d put a word in for me as far as who I was before, on the label. Maybe we can work some kind of deal out.
Do you like talking about all this older stuff, or are you sick of it?
Oh, it really doesn’t matter, man, as long as people are talking, it doesn’t really matter as long as they don’t kill anybody (laughs). Know what I mean? Though I really don’t like this bit about people writing everything–not everything, but–I’m seeing some write-ups I’ve been getting, even on this album, and I tell the guys don’t be putting the fucking drugs things in on me, man–people don’t want to hear this shit about how high this guy gets, man. I’m serious, I really don’t like that. I mean, everybody got high, man. I guess. I don’t know if they did or not–a lot of people were really into God the whole time, great for them. I’m really into God. I do my thing the way I want to do it and that’s my business. And all this publicity, this drug business, I definitely don’t need that shit, man. I don’t know if they’re trying to sell records with that bullshit or what. But shit, man, that’s state’s evidence stuff. I mean a snitch is a snitch. Hell no–what’s that stuff got to do with a G string, man?
When was the last time you heard the first Love album?
I haven’t heard that album, to tell you the honest to God truth, in years. I haven’t had a record player in years. (laughs) You know what I found out, man? Not to elaborate too much on this particular question but…(pause) what was the question?
You’re a pretty funny guy.
Shit! Oh, OK, the first LP–haven’t you got any better questions that that?
No, I liked that question, I was just going to say something and I forget what it was. But I get off–this is what it was–I get off playing with people for a long time. I can create, man. It’s like different than it was in the earlier days of trying to survive that world than it is now. It’s more like a student compared to teacher, do you know what I’m saying? The writing and stuff I did at that time, people liked. And I’m a pretty good judge–as far as I’m concerned, anyway–of music. And when I strike a chord that’s hot, I mean, I know it’s hot, know what I mean? And that’s the way I do my writing now. I write a lot of songs, but only a few songs I’ve put down, you know? But at that time it was more of a fad, and getting back to that first album–folk rock, that was in at that particular time, and that’s what I played, that’s why I wrote, and made good money doing it, man. On the second album I got a chance to more or less do my own thing, experimenting with music, and people dug that. And then came the masterpiece Forever Changes, you know? And that was my own particular style of writing and doing things, I got away from that first album.
How did the arrangements come about for that album?
I’d either play them or hum them, and this guy David Angel, who was helping me at that time, would just take it from there.
Did you play that material live then?
Sure did. We used to do the whole thing. We didn’t have any strings. And I still do a lot of those songs now in my sets that we do.
I hope you don’t mind discussing this older stuff, but I am interested.
It isn’t bothering me one bit. I’m the fortunate one–that somebody wants to know what I’m doing.
So how’d the band that did Four Sail come about?
Well, we had come to the end, Johnny Echols and Bryan MacLean–I mean, enough was enough, and that time was over. And I had to put a band together, that’s the way I felt about it, and keep the trend going, keep the name out there happening, and it’s a shame, the way I feel about it, that the stagnancy because of “personal problems” or whatever had to be this long. Because I really always wanted to go out there and do it, but because of bad business and bad management and bad this-and-that bullshit here and there, I just said, hey, maybe I should just sit down for a while. I always had my eye on music, man–that’s why I’m still doing it.
I’d heard you recorded Four Sail and Out Here during the same sessions.
I did Four Sail and Out Here at the same session, and Bob Krasnow, the one who’s got my Hendrix tapes…
He’s the one?
Yeah, he’s got my fuckin’ tapes, but he says he don’t know where they are, man, never returns my phone calls–but don’t print that man, I’m serious about going back and getting my tapes, man. I don’t know what the story there is–maybe he thought I was going to croak like the rest of ’em did, but I’ve had other plans, my friend. I just got to get my tape before he croaks.
Tell me about the Reel To Real album on RSO Records.
A guy I was working with at the time, that got me the deal, Skip Taylor, he fucked that up, he was good at fucking up things. Then I went into the studios myself in ’75, to release some stuff but that didn’t materialize. I had about an album a year, man, up until ’76. So from ’66 to ’76, I had a good decade of albums.
So what are you plans right now? What do you want to be?
Oh, you mean other than be King Of Rock? Other than the King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, nothing. I’d just as soon be the King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll myself. But I just want to do it my way. These people were just so outdated with their living in a mansion, al
l that bullshit, man, and exploiting their bands like they did. I just had always grooved with the people man–I mean I’m no fool as far as having bodyguards and all that shit, but I’ve always been right here with the crowd. I like to go through the front door and pay for the ticket to my own show, and then walk onstage. That’s the way I like to do things, I don’t like the secrecy and all that bullshit. Because, like my friends and I, man–the friends I have left that is (laughs)–the ones that haven’t gotten shot yet (laughs)…Oh shit! I stay home a lot.
And you don’t get shot.
I don’t even give a good fuck, and I guess that’s why good things like that don’t happen around here too much. I’m just out there with the people. Jeez, can you imagine someone getting getting a thrill out of walking down the street? That’s too much. I read something that John Lennon said: “Can you believe it? I went through the park.” Can you imagine that someone would have so much money they’d pass up the most important thing? Jesus Christ! Can you imagine having that much fame or that much money? I wouldn’t want that. I have too much fun in my life just living, visiting my friends and carrying on, playing records and carrying on, I like it. I wouldn’t give that up for anything in the world. If I was as superstar, I wouldn’t want to stop seeing people I’ve grown up with. Life’s too important, man. People putting labels, little God jackets on people, thinking that they’re something that heaven sent, like the Beatles or something like that. They better think again. Whenever you put anything before God or yourself, you’re going to get in trouble. You know what I’m saying? You’ve got to believe in something–if you believe in God, that’s really super-great, and believing in yourself is believing in God, too. Anytime you put a group–or an idol, or a woman or a man, or whatever–before God or yourself, you’re going to come up with the short stick every fucking time. I mean, I knew that all the time, but sometimes you have a tendency to forget, know what I’m saying?
Any LA bands out there know that you particularly like?
When I go out and see bands play now, it reminds me of something I played 10 years ago. Not even 10–to be exact, about 15 years ago. (laughs) I’m serious, man. I mean, different hairstyle, same guitar, different makeup, same amplifier, different style of clothes, same guy.