On this date in 2006, Arthur Lee passed away. Lee was the lead figure of Los Angeles band Love, and Love was responsible for one of the best LPs of the 1960s, Forever Changes. I say this though I didn’t hear the album—a CD reissue—until a few years before Lee’s death. In other words, it’s not a Sixties album that I’ve lived with since the Sixties or Seventies.
And maybe that’s why I’m even more impressed by the record—which I’ve had in a vinyl reissue from Rhino for the last few years (a purchase I strongly advise making if you give a shit about rock of this era at all). The brilliance of the arrangements of Forever Changes have to do with Love’s ability to mix psychedelic changes and techniques with elements a bit more abrasive or experimental—I mean, some parts of it remind me of Wire, for instance. Lee’s compositional sense seems to be coming out of an acid-inflected grasp of what horns and strings were capable of adding to the rock palette, to a degree that beggars a like attempt, two years later, by fellow LA band The Doors. Lee’s approach is closer to the sounds of psychedelic Easy Listening, a genre that’s hard to describe but it comes as no surprise that Lee Hazlewood’s main man Billy Strange was involved in the initial session for Forever Changes. Strange is the guy who figured out how to warp the mainstream pop sensibility so that a general trippiness seeped into everything.
There are songs here like “Bummer in the Summer” that owes something to the sneer-era of Dylan (c. 1966) but makes it harsher than Dylan ever did, much more inner-city oriented. Meanwhile songs like “Red Telephone” go somewhere no one else went at the time, and check out how Lee and company fracture the flower-power sensibility of “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” (and, wow, that’s a fairly Mothers of Invention-like title). So, yes, this is hipper-than-hippy music; it’s thoroughly down with its time and is edging toward the Outer Limits.
But all of that—plus the jangly, Byrds-get-surly single/lead-off song “Alone Again Or”—has to step aside for today’s song. “You Set the Scene” threw me when I first heard it because I was convinced I’d heard it before. If that’s so, it’s so deeply buried as to be unexcavatable by my memory. But that horn passage that introduces the “This is the time and life that I am living” segment gave me some palpable déjà vu. Who knows if I had some brain cells still present from some unnoticed moment in the Summer of Love when my ears met with that unusual time change and the horns from outta nowhere. It’s even hard now for me to remember hearing “You Set the Scene” for that first time—in 2001—but I know I was certainly shaken by the feeling of a veil being rent aside. “That’s that sound,” or something like that, my inner voice was babbling.
Ah well, we’re all bozos on this bus, Keem-o-Sabe. Arthur Lee’s little magnum opus is even more jaundiced than most of the rest of the album, I suppose, but I’m not the kind to be put off by a tuneful memento mori:
This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that's all that lives is gonna die
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be goodbye
There'll be time for you to put yourself on
Lee is able to deliver lines like this with both urgency and a kind of supreme cool. You can sometimes hear overtones of what The Beatles or The Byrds or even lesser mortals would do with this kind of thing, but Lee doesn’t go for falsetto, and he never drops the bounciness with which he delivers his epiphanies, “for the time that I’ve been giv-en’s such a lit-tle while.” And it should be noted that the opening of the song, before the shift to the bubbling horns that arrive like some mystical spring gushing into space (and, yes, remind me a bit of Blood, Sweat and Tears or even early Chicago), is rather tendentious, using a kind of lock-step rhythm that reaches its epitome with: “You think you are happy / And you are happy / That’s what you’re happy for.” Thus the song begins with some of that “Bummer in the Summer” energy and then manages to transform itself into a “think positive” credo without getting all San Franciscan about it. Lee maintains his edge and even his tongue-in-cheek posture.
By the end, after Lee signs off saying “This is the time . . . time . . . time,” the horns and strings sound a bit Sgt. Peppery but with more soul and more sting. It’s related to what you might hear elsewhere but it’s not the familiar druggy-reverie sound at all. It’s more about Blue Meanie bashing.
There’ll be time for you to start all over