Thursday, August 10, 2006

Arthur Lee died the other day. That won't matter to very many people, but it will certainly be noticed by those who knew who he was.

About ... gee ... was it 20 years ago? More or less. Anyway, I was at a college reunion and my buddy Charlie came by, even though it wasn't his year, and we played a little guitar music together. We played "Signed DC" and "A House Is Not A Motel" and then were piddling around with a kind of funny one called "Live and Let Live."

I mentioned that, since I'd left school, I hadn't run into very many people who had even heard of Love, much less knew any of their songs. And Charlie off-handedly remarked, "Well, they were a musicians' band." And I realized it was true -- the people who I associated with the group were almost all musicians, or very close to the music scene.

The thing that was different with Love was that a lot of the bands that are "musicians' bands" are so esoteric that nobody would want to listen to them except to marvel over (and steal) certain licks. But Love was incredibly listenable music, with nice, accessible instrumentation (easier to listen to than to play) and a kind of baroque lyrical sense that Jim Morrison could have learned from. And apparently did.

Funny thing: One of the obits I read quoted a line from "The Red Telephone" as an example of Arthur Lee's genius. The line -- "They're locking them up today. They're throwing away the key. I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me? (We're all normal and we want our freedom!)" -- was often quoted back then. But the line was taken from "Marat/Sade." (The lyrics linked here attribute the song to Bryan Maclean, but it's by Lee. Except, y'know, for the line everybody quotes.)

And speaking of locking people up and throwing away the key, for awhile back in those days, I lived next door to a guy who was on a "perma-trip." Steve had dropped acid one time and never really came down again. It had been awhile and, though he was from Washington, DC, he was in South Bend at the moment because his buddies took turns watching out for him, and a couple of them were living out there. He wasn't at all trippy or goofy -- actually, he was very quiet and very nice, but you couldn't really hold a conversation with him. I don't think he was hallucinating. He'd just completely lost his ability to focus. He'd get various shelf-stocking sorts of jobs but he couldn't hold it together and he'd just kind of not work, and either he'd get fired or he'd stop showing up.

But one thing he could still do was play guitar, and he could play every song Love recorded, really well. He was a human jukebox, and there are several Love songs that still remind me of Steve, sitting up in his room playing. He went back to DC after a couple of months and I have no idea what happened to him. I kind of hope someone a little more grounded than his buddies eventually took over his care and feeding.

For that matter, I wish someone more grounded had been able to take over Arthur Lee's care and feeding, because he certainly put himself through some unnecessary things. One of those obits where you're sorry he's dead, but you're also kind of surprised he was still alive.

Anyway, lots of memories and associations, some sublime, some ridiculous. I don't know why this band wasn't more popular. But if you read the obit linked to Lee's name at the beginning, you'll see that a lot of later-to-be-popular bands were listening to him.

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