Younger Than Yesterday: Forever Changes
Words: Ben Edmonds, Illustration: Craig Carry
The following piece by Ben Edmonds is taken directly from the liner notes of the album ‘Forever Changes’ by Love (1987 & 2001 Elektra Entertainment Group) ‘Forever Changes’ was originally released in 1967, on Elektra.
June 1967. Peace and love wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and nowhere was seen this more clearly than under the smog-orange skies of Los Angeles. The captains of the Hollywood dream industry mass-manufactured images for a living, and there was no cultural concept they couldn’t appropriate, neuter, and gold-plate. Consequently, serious artists who lived and worked in the shadow of that dream-making machinery tended to be wary of any cultural images that were too easily available. So while the media was dancing around San Francisco’s psychedelic maypole, the response of Los Angeles artists to the summer of 1967 was markedly different. Change the industry’s cynicism to a healthy scepticism and couple it with a willingness to seize every bit of the artistic freedom that image offered, and you get words like The Doors’ ‘Strange Days’, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trust Us’, Tim Buckley’s ‘Goodbye and Hello’ and Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention classic ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’. But none caught the strangeness of those days, or captured their combination of beauty and dread, quite like Love’s ‘Forever Changes.’
Arthur Lee could paint this picture from a unique perspective. A black man leading the hottest band in the white rock underground was only the most obvious among the multitudes of contradictions he embodied. Love had ruled the Sunset Strip rock ‘n’ roll scene for the previous two years, yet the streetwise Lee was seldom to be found on the streets himself. An outsider by birth and temperament, he was as removed from his subjects as Brian Wilson was from the beach. He’d used the spoils of his success to seclude himself in a fenced-in compound high in the hills above Hollywood, from which he gazed down upon his kingdom and wrote ‘Sitting on a hillside/Watching all the people die/I’ll feel much better on the other side.’ (‘The Red Telephone’ (Lee) 1968)
Arthur Lee: ‘By ‘Forever Changes’-when I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words. I was 26. I’d always had this thing about when I was going to die, man, or physically deteriorate, and I thought it would be about 26…something like that. I just had a funny feeling.’
Lee was really only 22 at the time, and his mind should have been on anything but death. His group’s punk-like streamlined take on Bacharach-David’s ‘My Little Red Book’ helped their debut album, ‘Love’ (recorded in 1965), sell over 100,000 copies and turned folk label Elektra Records into a rock ‘n’ roll player. The follow-up, 1967’s ‘Da Capo’, was similarly successful and attracted a substantial underground following in England. ‘7 And 7 Is’ was their highest Top 40 chart, placing at #33, and many consider its 2 minutes and 15 seconds of non-stop rush to be the group’s zenith. Despite Arthur’s obstinate refusal to perform too far outside Los Angeles, Love’s fortunes seemed solidly on the ascent as the group prepared for album three.
In truth, Lee’s kingdom was slipping away. Love had been the hippest thing on the Strip for the previous couple of years, but that was due in no small part to the absence of The Byrds, who were always jetting off somewhere to be the international rock stars Arthur’s crew would never quite become. This created a vacuum that Love happily filled, but the local gains made in the short-term by not touring were more than offset in the long run by stunted career growth. Worse still, without the focus of touring, which keeps the blood flowing and a band focused on something outside itself, Arthur felt his gang becoming complacent, sluggish, and, in at least a couple of cases, way too stoned. Meanwhile, The Doors-whom Arthur had strenuously recommended to Elektra president Jac Holzman-were positioning themselves for a turn on the national stage, and when ‘Light My Fire’ was released as a single in July, they’d vault ahead of Love altogether and forever.
Jac Holzman: ‘Arthur was, and perhaps still is, one of the smartest, most intelligent, and finest musicians I have ever met in my entire career of making records. As large as his talent, however, was his penchant for isolation and not doing what was necessary to bring his music to the audience. His isolation cost him a career. Which was a shame, because he was one of the few geniuses I have met-in all of rock ‘n’ rolldom.’
Despite the isolation, Arthur Lee had obviously been blessed with a hothouse imagination. Each of the first three Love albums shows advancement in thought and execution, and (not coincidentally) each involved personnel changes. the first album, a knifepoint marriage of Byrds jangle and Stones aggro, featured singer/songwriter/guitarist Lee, lead guitarist Johnny Echols, rhythm guitarist (and sublimely gifted composer/vocalist) Bryan MacLean, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummer Alban ‘Snoopy’ Pfisterer. To get the artier jazz, Latin, and classical tinges that coloured ‘Da Capo’, Arthur added sax/flutist Tjay Cantrelli and drummer Michael Stuart, moving Snoopy to harpsichord. For the album that would be called ‘Forever Changes’, the sound was pared down by the subtraction of Cantrelli and Pfisterer. Further simplifying things, the music was basically no electric. The orchestrated final product might have seemed designed for classical concert halls, but at its heart the album could be performed in your living room on a couple of acoustic guitars.
Bryan MacLean: ‘Arthur and I hung out every day. We lived near each other, and I would walk up the hill and over a vacant llot and down a little road. Me and my dog, and he and his dog. We would sit in the window of his house, which overlooked the city from Lookout Mountain. There would be an acoustic guitar, and he would be teaching me and showing me what he had in mind. So I figured I knew everything, but actually he had some ideas that he needed to work out with us, and I didnít realize it. I just thought we were rehearsing because he there’s an album to be made, and Arthur wants to rehearse because he thinks it’s the thing to do, but I knew all the parts to my songs.’
The sessions for Love’s third album took place the same summer that the debut of Arthur’s old pal Jimi Hendrix was taking electric guitar noise into another dimension entirely-a dimension that Love anticipated in its own way with ‘7 And 7 Is.’ Variety reporter Phil Gallo, who annotated Rhino’s 1995 Love Story anthology, remembers Arthur saying that he knew he couldn’t compete in that arena with Hendrix, so he went the other way. He’d always known that his band didn’t have an instrumentalist who could compete at the level of the emerging guitar gods, so Love had been about the song, the arrangement, and pumping maximum energy into minimal frameworks. Which is why, though Love couldn’t claim a drummer with the explosive drive of Keith Moon or a guitarist with the firepower of Pete Townsend, ‘7 And 7 Is’ has every it of energy The Who marshalled a year later in ‘I Can See For Miles’. By then, Arthur and crew were headed in the opposite direction.
Though ‘Forever Changes’ is perceived as expansive because of its orchestration, it is actually the most stripped-down of Love albums. Everything boils down to acoustic guitars accompanied by bass and drums,a format they’d employed to great effect on ‘Que Vida!’ from Da Capo. Electric guitar and keyboard overdubs were applied sparingly and strategically. But if the sound Arthur was aiming for was Love simplified (though a deceptive simplicity it would prove to be),that didn’t mean it would come easily.
Bruce Botnick: ‘Forever Changes started out as a project that Neil Young and I were going to produce. The Buffalo Springfield were a bit shaky, and I thought Neil could use a new direction and perhaps play some guitar on the LP. When the time came to start, Neil was unable to fulfill his role because of his obligation to the Springfield. He was going through some changes, and he wasn’t physically well at the time. So he dropped out, and it was me. [The final credit reads ‘Produced by Arthur Lee with Bruce Botnick.’] Love was going through a terrible time. There were lots of personal problems, and the band hadn’t played live for a while. The band was so untogether and playing so badly that I thought it would be a good idea to get in good rock studio musicians-Hal Blaine, Don Randi, and Billy Strannge (and most likely Carol Kaye). I was prepared to record the album with Arthur singing and playing on his songs, with backing by studio musicians. Arthur played the guitar, and we worked out the guitar parts and the arrangements there and recorded two songs in three hours, ‘The Daily Planet’ and ‘Andmoreagain’. The group was present too. I remember them physically crying at this session. The band was so shocked, so put out, so hurt that it caused them to forget about their problems and become a band again. We kept the two tracks because they’re good, but we did some overdubs to make it sound more like the band. It was a psychological ploy that worked.’
Arthur Lee: ‘We used to work every night. After we started making money, the more we made, the less we worked, the less we were a unit, and Love deteriorated. People’s personal habits started to come before the music. Initially they would listen to me, because I wrote 90% of the songs. After we became successful, they got big heads-everybody had a house, a car, a flash Cadillac. They didnít need me. Money spoiled them-it spoiled me too. It was a strange time. I thought I was gonna kick the bucket. But you still gotta keep on.’
Ken Forssi: ‘I distinctly remember on ‘The Daily Planet’ this girl was trying to get a bass part down and couldn’t do it, because the song had so many changes. So I said, ‘Here, I’ll do it’ and took over from her on bass. This happened with a couple of other songs too, because they just didn’t write the song and didn’t know how it felt. You know, these people are used to reading charts, and you can’t put some of the stuff we played on a chart. Period. So, the ‘wake-up call’ was it scared all of us half to death that the group was not gonna be around much longer. We decided, ‘Alright, let’s straighten out here and pull together’. We suddenly realized what we’d had and were going to lose if we didn’t wake up. So we got together, finally. The first couple of tracks, I don’t know which ones, got us that old feeling back again. It took a lot out of us, but like I said, we were really happy with the way it was starting to come back, and we were almost on the track to going back like we were at first. We had that magic again, and we had that feeling we had as a group when we first started.’
After that disastrous June session, the band didn’t reconvene at the Sunset Sound studios until August 11. The weeks had obviously been well spent, as there was no further talk of studio musicians. And though this acoustic music bore little resemblance, at least superficially, to the rock ’em sock ’em Love that had lorded over the L.A. club scene, the tracks on ‘Forever Changes’ nevertheless represent some of their finest performances as a band. With more breathing room, it’s easier to appreciate the contribution of the rhythm section. Ken Forssi’s supple bass playing had always been key to the group’s flexibility. But it is Michael Stuart, whose drumming had been criticized in some quarters as too stiff and martial, who truly rises to the occasion. He’s not the least bit flashy, driving these tracks in a way that never overpowers the acoustic guitars yet gives no ground to the onslaught if the orchestration. His use of cymbals as punctuation is superb.
The album seems of a piece but was actually recorded piecemeal. They’d come in for a day or two, work on two or three songs, then disappear. There were only a handful of sessions-at a total cost of $2,257 by Bruce Botnick’s reckoning-but they were spread out over four months. Two orchestral sweetening sessions at the end of September completed the sonic concept David Anderle later termed “punk with strings”.
Arthur Lee: “And as far as even conducting…those classical musicians on ‘Forever Changes’. The funny thing about that album-there’s a full orchestra [when] I walk in. With the way I looked [and] the way I dressed, I was sitting there for about an hour before they figured out who I was! It was quite amusing, ‘cos I wasn’t going to tell them anything. They said, ‘Ah, we’re going to have to leave because the guy didn’t show up.’ And the next five minutes: ‘Hey, I’m here!’ Oh, they couldn’t believe that one, you know. Part of it is, being the nationality that I am, I was the only kid in my neighborhood that liked The Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones-those were my heroes! And Love was different, we were the first racially mixed rock group.”
The employment of strings in rock ‘n’ roll was hardly a novelty. Most bands on either side of the Beatles/Stones divide had featured the occasional orchestrated ballad, and the Beatles famously used an orchestra to frame their ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ album. New York band The Left Banke were being promoted as “baroque pop”. But where rock could often sound subjected to strings, Arthur the master synthesist made the concept reflective of his uniquely cloudy vision. David Angel, an arranger with considerable experience in both “serious” and pop music, met with Arthur and Bryan to get input on their songs, with Lee singing his basic ideas to the orchestrator.
Arthur Lee: “David Angel’s great-he’s on the whole record! I told him what to do; I helped orchestrate. There was part of the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra on there, with those horns. We tried everything on that album. We had so many different musicians on there. At that time symphony types did only symphony music. I told him what to do, but he ad-libbed on what I told him to do. Except for Bryan; he did what he had to do with ‘Alone Again Or’. But there was an eeriness to the rest of it. The album ‘Forever Changes’ was to be my last words to this life. And it’s like death is in there, so it’s definitely forever changes.”
The finished album was quite unlike anything Love had done before, even for those who recognized its musical antecedents on ‘Da Capo’. In fact, it was quite unlike anything any rock band had done before, for its blanket deployment of acoustic guitars and orchestration. Either would have been noteworthy, but put them together and you have, to use a clichÈ that for once the music fully justifies, a timeless classic. It announces all of this in the very first track, ‘Alone Again Or.’
Bryan MacLean: “‘Alone Again Or’ was a milestone. I still believe that song has yet to be recognized to the extent that it is going to be. It’s still an underground song. I still believe that somebody is going to do that song right, and it’s going to come out the way that I’ve heard it. One thing about the ‘Forever Changes’ album: Arthur wasn’t confident in my singing. So the harmony is actually the melody you’re hearing. You’re not really hearing the song the way it was written. You’re hearing the harmony part from Arthur, but I singing lead. They mixed Arthur’s harmony over my lead vocals. So what you hear, after it bleeds in on the mix, is actually Arthur’s harmony, which is mistaken for the lead vocal. . . I understand why he did it, because I knew I wasn’t that great of a singer at that point. I think it would bother me now, because now I can hit the notes. He probably did it out of necessity, and I probably knew that in my heart.”
MacLean’s song-which has its origins as a tribute to his mother’s flamenco dancing and predates the band-is the perfect album opener. ‘Alone Again Or’ gives Arthur a come-on with which to lure the suckers in off the sidewalk that is both forceful and light: “I think that people are the greatest fun”, backed by a folk melodic, flamenco-swinging sweetness. Bruce Botnick has somewhat sheepishly admitted responsibility for the Tijuana Brass influence in the trumpet solo-he was also working with Herb Alpert at the time-but its warm familiarity works beautifully. The musical surface is so beguiling that you don’t really notice that the protagonist and the person “who could be in love with almost everyone” are not the same, and that the singer’s contemplation is occasioned by the frustrating absence of this free-loving spirit: “And I will be alone again tonight my dear.” Not exactly a walk in Elysian Park, is it?
Following the album’s superficially brightest song, ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ takes us straight into the heart of Arthur’s darkness. This time it’s the words that seem reassuring-“the streets are paved with gold/and if someone asks you, you can call my name”-yet they’re set to folk-rock of the most ominous sort, the impatient drums itching to make some point the lyric has only danced around. Lee finally gets to it in the third verse: “By the time that I’m through singing/the bells from the school of war will be ringing/more confusions, blood transfusions/the news today will be the movies for tomorrow/and the water’s turned to blood and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub.”
Arthur had contemplated holocaust on the first two Love albums, but here it was on his doorstep. Whether the war is taking place in Southeast Asia, down on the Sunset Strip, or between his ears is something Mr. Lee chooses not to get terribly specific about. The larger point is that it ain’t gold the streets are paved with; it’s rotting meat. At the end of this verse the drums finally get their way in an unadorned break, followed by double-tracked lead guitar that splits and dissolves in a furious firefight. One of the few songs that does not feature orchestration, and one of only two that feature electric lead guitar, this is about as blunt as ‘Forever Changes’ gets. The rest will be more subtle, and insidious.
‘Andmoreagain’ one of the loveliest melodies Arthur ever conceived, appears to offer reassurance after the onslaught of the previous track. But he’s not saying that it will be all right; only that there will be more and more after that. In ‘The Daily Planet’ (the arrangement for which is said to bear only traces of Neil Young’s brief involvement) we’re shown the everyday consequences of ‘Andmoreagain’ repetition, tedium, stasis, plastic, all made somehow sinister by the song’s shifting musical setting. Into this void tiptoes Bryan Maclean’s gentle ‘Old Man’ (based on the “Troika” movement from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite) to act as romantic relief. But then ‘Red Telephone’ opens with an image so darkly powerful-“Sitting on a hillside watching all the die”-that it renders romance trivial.
This is the strange beauty of ‘Forever Changes’. Though its stylistic consistency creates an aural flow, each song contains something that clouds and confuses what preceeded it and will itself be clouded by what follows. Arthur Lee reveled in duality and contradiction; it was natural territory for a mulatto who couldn’t fit fully into any of his assigned skins. Here the angle shifts slightly with each song, sometimes within a song, other times within a line. In ‘The Daily Planet’ he even records the contradictory words directly on top of each other. So while the music of ‘Forever Changes’ flows with an almost narcotic consistency and deceptive prettiness, the words can be like an itch that you can never quite put your finger on. The combination is thoroughly captivating and slightly unsettling-psychedelic in the truest sense.
Bryan MacLean: You have to understand that Arthur’s lyrics and music were all stream-of-consciousness. I worked on my songs, I constructed them, but he didn’t write that way. “The snot has caked against my pants” came out…and stayed! [laughs] He had a brilliant mind, but his biggest problem was trying to be hip. He was too hip for words. He talked like a 1940s jazz musician.”
One suspects that Lee labored over his lyrics more than MacLean allows. If these were to be Arthur’s last words, he clearly wanted us to linger over them. With only a couple of exeptions, for example, the song titles don’t appear anywhere in the songs, causing us to find-or assign-meaning on our own. Lee’s approach to how these words were presented vocally was also distinctive. Many rock singers routinely double-track their lead vocals for extra presence, but here Arthur tracked strategically, for dramatic emphasis, to highlight-or distort-aspects of meaning. Sometimes he’ll be duetting with himself, at other times commenting on the lead vocal. His voices interact in ways that wouldn’t be more fully explored until Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.
By ‘Red Telephone’ the simmering alienation and dislocation are in full roil. This track, which closed side one of the original vinyl, is a masterpiece of the macabre, a bit of Edgar Allan Poe under the palms. (The title refers to the Cold War crisis hotline between the American president and Soviet premier.) The harpsichord and strings, normally vessels of warmth in California pop music, instead carry an undertow of menace. “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key,” goes the deadpan chant in the tag, “I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” This may read like standard-issue hippie paranoia, but it’s only making blatant the seed planted by the track itself. The voice repeating the 60’s mantra “freedom” makes the concept sound sound like the babbling of a fool.
“What is happening and how have you been?” the singer inquires in ‘Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark and Hilldale’ at the beginning of side two, as if the visions of ‘The Red Telephone’ had been but a bad dream he’d awakened from. “Between Clark and Hilldale” refers to the block of Sunset Boulevard containing the Whisky A Go Go and serves as Arthur’s microcosmic Los Angeles, the place where “they always play my songs”. It’s a breezy evocation of life on the Strip, yet the very first line of the next song, “Live And Let Live”-“oh the snot has caked against my pants”-shoots us back through the mirror to that airless room with the red telephone. “We were in the studio,” Arthur told Phil Gallo about this shocking (at least for a pop song) image. “I passed out, slobbered on my pants, and woke up. It had crystallized. I wrote about it.”
“The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” bounces us back again, to a place where images of pigtails and flowers are so normal they now seem positively creepy. By “Bummer In The Summer” he seems to ready to wash his hands of the whole game. The album culminates with “You Set The Scene”, a large canvas apparently stitched together from orphaned song fragments. The agitated unease of the first section, with its ominous bass line and low strings, makes it seem like Lee is sailing over the edge. But with the entrance of the horns, the tide turns yet again, and this time for good. “This is the time and life that I am living/and I’ll face each day with a smile/for the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while/and the things that I must do consist of more than style.”
This is Arthur Lee’s skywritten statement of redemption. But despite its triumph in the face of all that’s come before, and the anthemic conviction of the horns and strings it rides out on, its deliverance was purely personal. Facing what he thought was his demise (wrongly, it turned out), he resolved to seize whatever time was left him. The rest of us were on our own. Arthur’s vindication was issued like a challenge, tossed back over his shoulder as he headed for parts unknown. The simple message of this complex album was the most valuable thing we could have heard in the aftermath of that summer’s psychedelic cattle call: Think for yourself.
Heralded by a billboard on the Sunset Strip proclaiming “the third coming of Love,” ‘Forever Changes’ was released in November 1967. The album artwork by Bob Pepper-who’d designed many covers for Nonesuch, Elektra’s classical label rendered the quintet’s faces in colours that, like the album itself, are bright and bold without succumbing to psychedelic cliché.
The album was not a hit, peaking at a disappointing #154 on the album chart. The single ‘Alone Again Or’ bubbled under the “Hot 100”, never cracking the main list. (It would make the lower reaches of the chart in 1970 when Elektra issued the ‘Love Revisited’ compilation.) It sold a respectable number of copies, but the bottom line was that, without a group out there aggressively making its case, each successive Love album had sold a few less copies. Over the years ‘Forever Changes’ has surpassed the first two, largely because it was the only one that stayed consistently in print. It has even been suggested that the accumulated sales might qualify it for a gold record.
The one place Arthur’s reluctance worked to Love’s advantage was England, where distance and unavailability conspired to create the desired aura of mystery. In a direct reversal of the American situation, each Love album did better than the last, an underground momentum that culminated in ‘Forever Changes’ climbing to #24. Some overseas appearances might have spread this success to Europe and then through the back door to America, as Jimi had done, but this too was not to be. Back in L.A. the idle band quickly slid back into the lethargy that had gripped it before the album’s wake-up call. There was a recording session on January 30, 1968, for a new single, but by the time of its release in June the band existed only on plastic. MacLean was the first to float off, and Arthur soon encouraged the others to follow. there would continue to be bands called Love fronted by Lee, but it was never the same.
Arthur Lee had been haunted by premonitions that he would die that year, but it was Love that did not survive. The high placing of ‘Forever Changes’ on all-time best lists of such publications as Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q reflects the critical regard in which the album has always been held. A few discerning members of each successive generation have found their way to the music of ‘Forever Changes’ and have in turn shared it with enough like-minded souls to keep its legacy alive. Rhino founders Harold Bronson and Richard Foos were two such people along before the label was founded, as was your present note scribbler.Now you’re part of the chain. Pass it along.
The above piece by Ben Edmonds is taken directly from the liner notes of the album ‘Forever Changes’ by Love (1987 & 2001 Elektra Entertainment Group) ‘Forever Changes’ was originally released in 1967, on Elektra.