Digging into the last Arthur Lee classic on Elektra
Just like any other religion, rock and roll has its shibboleths. Things like, “Elvis died when he went in the Army.” Such a perfect soundbite from John Lennon but no truer than the idea that Yoko broke up The Beatles – and at least as damaging.
It’s much easier to fall into these well-worn grooves than to confront the complexities and artistic triumphs of Elvis’s later career or contemplate the multitude of forces that cast the Fabs to the four winds. I even had a friend celebrating the anniversary of “Disco Demolition Night” without understanding the racism and homophobia behind it, not to mention the misapprehension about the art and craft of disco, which emphatically did not “suck.”
Another one of these shibboleths is that it was all downhill for Arthur Lee, leader of the band Love, after their third album, the 1967 masterpiece Forever Changes. On the 50th anniversary of their fourth album, punningly called Four Sail, I’m here to tell you Forever Changes is not Arthur Lee’s greatest achievement. I would even argue that the candy-colored acid-folk of that marvelous collection is actually the detour in Lee’s career, not the culmination. And if by the end of this article you don’t wholeheartedly agree, at least I hope you will have listened to Four Sail with a more open mind than you had previously.
The road to Four Sail began before Love even existed and is rocky with misinformation. For example, the influence of Jimi Hendrix became ever more prevalent in Lee’s music after Forever Changes. Their relationship, which was as much a rivalry as it was a brotherhood, began in 1964 or 65, when Hendrix played on “My Diary” by Rosa Lee Brooks. The story Lee told about hiring Jimi for his first session (it wasn’t) because he could play like Curtis Mayfield (he could) is also contradicted by Brooks’ own recollection, which has her and Hendrix writing the song together and then, on the way to the session, picking up her friend Lee to sing background vocals. Their first meeting did not go well: “When Jimi saw him he became very jealous,” Brooks recounted in the liner notes for West Coast Seattle Boy, “Jimi hardly spoke to Arthur, thinking he and I had something more than a friendship going on.” It’s hard to reconcile that picture with the idea Lee spread that he mentored the future guitar god. Lee also claimed to have produced the session, but it was actually Billy Revis, who released the song on his own Revis Records in 1965. Brooks never explained how Lee got songwriting credit.
It seems that fraught session, rife with masculine posturing, led to a kind of fixation on Hendrix and his ascendant career, especially when you consider comments like this one from a later interview with Lee: “Jimi’s brother told me Hendrix took a look at my first album and said: ‘I think I’ll try it this way’. He stole my dress attire, and I don’t appreciate that shit. But then I can’t play the guitar like him at all.” Umm…couple things about this that don’t ring quite true. On the first Love album, Lee is certainly stylish in plaid pants and a windbreaker, but he also wouldn’t look entirely out of place on a public golf course. Hendrix, on the other hand, took many of his cues from Carnaby Street and added his own twist of Chitlin’ Circuit showbiz eccentricity. He looked wildly out of place nearly everywhere – except on stage. Just speculating here, but is it possible that Lee, whose style grew ever more flamboyant, wanted to look more like Hendrix?
AUDIO: Love/Hendrix London Sessions 1970
It’s incontrovertible, however, that Lee had to break up the original version of Love after Forever Changes, mostly due to heroin addiction and other dissolute behaviors on the part of his former band mates. This was not an easy decision, as Lee, noted in another interview referenced in the booklet for Love Story: 1966-1972: “The first Love was a family thing. There was a magic, and you could hear it in the music. That was the only band I ever hung around with. I’m sorry I’m not still with those guys.” But, as we came to hear on Four Sail, he was also somewhat under the yoke of Bryan Maclean, the other songwriter in the band, and his rose-colored vision of the world. “Why are you always writing about ice cream?” Lee once asked him.
Since Lee couldn’t play guitar like Hendrix it’s not entirely unsurprising that when it came time to find a new guitarist, he settled on Jay Donnellan, a fiery player with technique to spare. While not at Jimi’s level, Donnellan was at least competing in the same arena. Donnellan was joined by Frank Fayad (bass), and George Suranovich (drums), but where Lee met them is somewhat in doubt. The Love Story booklet reports that Lee played with the latter two musicians in one of his “earliest bands, The VIPs,” along with guitarist Gary Rowles (who joined Love later) and a blue-eyed soul singer and guitarist named Nooney Rickett. BUT…in a 2010 email to a message board for Love fans, Rowles himself claimed that The VIPs never existed and that Fayad and Suranovich were scooped up after Rickett’s band folded. Rickett had been a minor success in the early 60’s, singing his cover of James Brown’s “Maybe The Last Time” on Shindig!, and also writing and recording the Northern Soul Classic, “Player Play On.” One can see his career grinding to a halt on the shoals of 1968’s changing music business – just at the same time Lee was looking for some new musicians. Fayad is also mentioned as a “longtime friend” of Lee’s but it’s hard to know what to believe and information is spotty about these men, most of whom have passed on.
However they all met, Lee, Donnellan, Fayad and Suranovich entered a makeshift studio in early 1969 and laid down 27 songs over a period of weeks. Ten of the songs were selected for Four Sail, the band’s last Elektra release, with the remainder coming out a few months later on Out Here, released by Blue Thumb. The songs they played were often harder-edged than the Forever Changes tracks, if no less psychedelic. It may have been the Hendrix influence or the natural continuation of what Lee was trying to do with the earlier version of Love on their sneering take on Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book” on the debut album, or “Seven and Seven Is” from their second album, Da Capo. As great as those songs are, there’s a sense of musicians playing beyond their limits, which you never feel on their softer material. With Love Mark II, Lee was free to rock as hard as anyone else in 1969 and the results were astounding, especially on the songs that wound up on Four Sail.
The increased dynamics of the new band are immediately apparent from “August,” which kicks off the album. A dense thicket of acoustic and electric guitars, buzzing, distorted bass brooding underneath, opens the song before an intense stopped-time phrase eventually leads into the pastoral verse: “Said August is all that I know,” sings Lee in his high tenor, “It’s with me wherever I go/It’s with me when I need a friend/It brings me good weather/It keeps me together/It picks me up when I’m…down.” Like Tim Buckley around the same time, Lee was employing a simpler and more emotionally direct language than he had in the past. After the second verse (there is no chorus), the full power of the band is unleashed when Donnellan, Fayad and Suranovich take off for nearly two and half minutes of furious collective soloing. Lee’s rhythm guitar keeps things anchored, but not too tightly, for what is a thrilling ride. One more iteration of the introductory phrase and the song ends, leaving me breathless every single time.
“Your Friend And Mine – Neil’s Song” is Lee in ironic “olde tyme” country mode, a strange choice with which to eulogize a former Love roadie who ripped off the band and later died of an overdose. The band displays its restraint in a tight arrangement and Donnellan’s lyrical side is highlighted in two solos. Even in a slightly tongue-in-cheek song like this, the band gets deeper into a groove than previous iterations could. “I’m With You” is pure pop as sweet as anything on Da Capo or Forever Changes, with a sped up bossa nova rhythm and a wordless bridge so heavenly Lee sings it twice.
Jazzy verses alternate with a howling chorus in “Good Times,” a loud-quiet-loud structure Donnellan takes full advantage of in two lacerating solos. That the band was impressively drilled is proven once again when Donnellan stops in mid-flight and everyone shifts gears to reiterate the opening phrase before ending the song. It’s worth pointing out that Drachen Theaker, who drummed in the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown and either turned down or showed up late to an audition with Hendrix, sits in on “Your Friend And Mine” and “Good Times.” But because Lee is so certain about the sound he wants, it’s hardly noticeable.
“Singing Cowboy,” co-written by Lee and Donnellan, launches with a grandiose fanfare, its rather prosaic verse outshone by a guitar-led bridge. The “end” of the song takes up a full two minutes with Donnellan becoming ever more unhinged, only exceeded by Lee’s vocals, which have him nearly speaking in tongues around the line “Gotta keep on rolling” in a hypnotic performance that has a lysergic power all its own.
Side two opens with “Dream,” a baroque-pop miniature with some beautifully detailed work by Donnellan. It’s followed by “Robert Montgomery,” which has Lee rather daringly borrowing part of the melody from “Eleanor Rigby,” but the effect, when combined with Donnellan’s over-driven guitar, is quite different. Lee’s melodic gifts are once again in full flight on “Nothing,” one of those songs where the chord changes are as ambiguous as the emotional states described in the lyrics, happiness and sadness forever linked – just like life. Suranovich’s performance, from splashy to spare, is one of his finest on the album, and Lee’s pure vocals are sublime.
“Talking In My Sleep” is the one song on Four Sail where Elektra might have gotten the short end of the stick, with an unconvincing performance by Lee and a wayward structure. Fayad and Donnellan save it with some inspired jamming during two instrumental interludes. The album ends on a high note, though, with “Always See Your Face,” another Lee classic, with lyrics that make a simple plea for love and understanding.
And how did the world respond to this new, stripped down, harder rocking, emotionally direct version of Love? Hard to say as I could not find one contemporaneous review of the album online. It does behoove us to remember that Forever Changes was a bit of a bust itself, peaking at 154 on the Billboard 200 despite nearly universally positive reviews. Even though Four Sail was as much of a product of its times as Forever Changes, fitting right in with what Hendrix or the MC5 were doing, or even the post-Pepper’s Beatles, it appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps if Lee had been more willing to tour he could have worked his way into more success with this sound. A bootleg from the Fillmore West about six months later (with Rowles on guitar) finds Lee and the band journeying through the deep heat in a funky, impassioned performance.
But Lee was known for his unwillingness to travel, famously turning down Woodstock because he didn’t want to fly to New York for “one gig.” I can’t help wondering what might have been, with Lee and Hendrix competing for the attention of the same audience. When you think about what the film and soundtrack album did for the careers of Sly & The Family Stone and Santana, to name just two bands, it’s hard not to imagine a higher profile for Love and a very different trajectory for Lee’s next decade. Then again, when Lee did bring the band to London, his vocals were sometimes strained, the band sounded tentative, and some audiences responded poorly, expecting Forever Changes, which had been more successful there. Sometimes the phrase “you can’t win” sometimes seems tailor-made for the star-crossed Arthur Lee.
But if you accept the man in full, it’s easy to hear in Four Sail as much of a complete expression of Lee’s talents as anything that came before. And if nothing had come before, if Four Sail had been Love’s first album, I think it would more than hold its own among the great rock records of 1969. Give it at least that chance next time you listen and you may find yourself climbing aboard Four Sail for the whole voyage.
AUDIO: Four Sail (full album)