By Dave Gebroe
A while ago, I came across a description of the quandary Arthur Lee found himself in after releasing his undisputed masterwork, 1967’s “Forever Changes.” Although I can’t recall the source, it’s since come to stand as my lasting image of the man. In 1968, Lee walked out the door, stepped onto the lawn, and turned to wave goodbye. Many years after shutting the door, we took a peek outside and there he was, still on the lawn, still waving good-bye.
“Forever Changes” is a curious case. Above and beyond the truly remarkable music, it came to represent the dangers inherent in an artist creating a definitive statement. Lee was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he was going to die after he completed the record, so he made sure he said everything he needed to say, and communicated it all with striking urgency. To top it all off, he somehow found a way to sum up everything and its mother with the brilliant closer, “You Set The Scene.”
But Lee didn’t die. (Not for a while, anyway). So, instead, he killed the band, erecting in its place a new version of Love. The new band had more testicles than the older, more classic incarnation, keeping Lee’s unmistakably skewed poetic perversity intact but opting to follow the Cream/Hendrix template (Lee was old buds with Jimi, having been behind the boards the first time he set foot in a recording studio). Gone was the orchestrated, almost show tune-like influence of Bryan Maclean’s songwriting, which leant a mesmerizing tension to the greatness of those first three records. Without Maclean around to keep things freakishly diverse, Love progressively became a progressive concern.
This may be the very reason the Love story with their fan base ended here. Along with the death of the classic line-up came the disappearance from their music of so many of the unique signifiers their fans had come to love. The baroque, jazzy arrangements, delicate Spanish accents, and touches of MOR sensibility that brought out the depth in their approach — all of it, gone. Instead, along with old friends and previous bandmates Jay Donnellan (lead guitar), Frank Fayad (bass), and George Suranovich (drums, with Drachen Theaker guest-whacking on three tracks), the subtlety of their previous sound is smashed to smithereens with a powerhouse, virtuoso approach that greets the idea of space and restraint with utter contempt, cramming solos and drum fills into every last inch of tape. Suranovich, especially, is all over the damn place, sounding every bit like a musician with everything to prove.
So conclusive was “Forever Changes” in the Lee canon that most see it as the last stop on the Love train. That’s simply not the case. Although it is indisputably their best record, and their days as a great band were certainly numbered, the flashes of inspiration to come were enough to see them through to the end of the decade. However, “Four Sail” is the last time it all came together full-throttle for Arthur. This thoroughly overlooked gem stands as their final release before the magic of their early days had been fully shaken off.
After Lee had assembled the new band, they entered a makeshift studio in a Los Angeles warehouse and recorded three LPs worth of material. Elektra Records were owed one more record before the expiration of their contract, and “Four Sail” contains the ten tracks that Elektra hand-picked. (The remainder came out on the Blue Thumb label four months later as the intermittently brilliant double-LP “Out Here.”) The album’s title is a cynical double entendre, referring both to their jumping ship from Elektra and the product-minded mentality of the music industry.
There are many words one could use to describe Lee’s new direction, but “product” definitely isn’t one of them. There isn’t a bad song here. Kicking off the proceedings with sledgehammer ferocity is lead-off track “August,” which in a way is a kitchen-sink template for everything late-era Love had to offer. A mysterious Spanish-style guitar intro leads in to an almost laughably bombastic power-trio assault; delicate, folk-style verses; and a crazy jam-out middle section that features drumming so busily fill-intensive that Neil Peart himself would beg for it to be taken down a notch. “August” is one of Love’s best songs, and proof positive that they hadn’t said it all with “Forever Changes.” If anything, they now had an entirely new vocabulary in which to articulate their life and times and overdriven Marshall stacks were certainly more era-appropriate by this point than flutes, horns, and strings.
Next up is “Your Friend And Mine – Neil’s Song,” a jaunty, almost Lovin’ Spoonful-like ditty about Love roadie Neil Rappaport, who, as legend had it, sold a bunch of the band’s equipment for drugs, on which he then overdosed. Lee gets in a sly nose-thumbing at him here, revealing both compassion and an “I told you so” schoolyard cruelty. The brilliant disparity between the song’s whistle-worthy melodic sprightliness and dark subject matter is a perfect example of Lee’s inimitability.
Elsewhere, we’re still on solid turf, not at all the work of a songwriter on the way down. “I’m With You” and “Nothing” are gorgeous quasi-throwbacks to earlier Love, melodically wistful and with a more folk-rock lean than the other songs on the record. “Singing Cowboy,” with its passionate drum-fills and finger-picked intro, thrusts you headlong into Lee’s vision of himself as an old-time gunslinger. “Good Times” is just that, another Lee classic. “Robert Montgomery” is a hard-rock re-imagining of “Eleanor Rigby.” And “Dream” is an awesome bit of Arthurly free-association, replete with the classic lyric, “I just stepped in from New York at 10 a.m. / International Airport / and now I’m here with all my friends again / Wonder if there’s a God?”
And then along comes “Always See Your Face,” a “Forever Changes”-style throwback with French horn backing. In its own inscrutable way, it serves as a fitting elegy for Lee’s ride into the sunset. Over a lazily urgent, galloping rhythm, Lee waxes eloquent about obsession, depression, and the necessity of unmasking oneself. It’s a little-known masterpiece in Lee’s canon, one that says goodbye to the old Love in its own understated way, without the lyrical grandiosity of “You Set The Scene”‘s “get it all in before the fade” approach. It’s a mysterious fare-thee-well with a question mark hanging over it, simultaneously managing to be quite moving and a truly tough nut to crack.
Lee wound up shooting his load in that warehouse studio with this incarnation of Love. After “Out Here” was released, he assembled a new Love, and went on to smaller and lesser things. Although there were scraps of greatness to be found on his way out, “Four Sail” was Lee’s final hurrah. With his stubbornness over never touring outside LA, compounded with his drug problems and inability to keep a single line-up together for more than the blink of an eye, Lee set himself up for both long-term failure and one hell of an interesting career. Unfortunately, he was too mesmerized by the pendulum-like swing of his waving hand to notice that the world had already shut the door on him.