REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT
by Stuart Goldman
The man sitting in front of me had the biggest head of anyone I'd seen in my entire life.
I kept staring at it, getting madder and madder. Still, there was something familiar about that head... especially the neck. I'd seen it before.
I craned my head forward to get a closer look.
Oh my God -- it's Marlon Brando!
Besides having a gigantic head, Brando had pushed himself way up in his seat. He had a scowl on his face, and was sitting erect, his arms folded across his chest like some great tribunal judge.
Meanwhile onstage, a skinny little guy in a ridiculous suit that looked as if it'd been made from a leopard-skin couch, stumbled around the stage as if he were drunk.
"Hey," he yelled to the audience. "Has anybody out there got an E harmonica?"
Immediately a shower of harmonicas hit the stage.
"Uhhhh, thanks....thanks a lot," the man mumbled.
It was 1965, and I was sitting in the Santa Monica civic auditorium. Approximately an hour earlier, I'd gotten a call from a friend who said excitedly, "Hey, man...I've got seats for the Bob Dylan gig at the Civic. You wanna go?"
Did I want to go!?
"Get your ass over here," I yelped.
So there I sat, my whole body tingling with excitement. For a moment, I couldn't figure out if I wanted to watch Dylan or Brando, who was also one of my boyhood heroes.
By the end of Dylan's third song, which he'd announced as "Freeze Out" (it later became "Visions Of Johanna") Brando was slumped down in his set. His arms were no longer crossed in judgment. In fact he was ... yeah ... the guy was actually laughing, his big head shaking from side to side. At the end of the tune, he applauded mightily. He kept clapping after the rest of the crowd had stopped.
Walking out to the parking lot after the concert, my feet barely touched the ground. I was so high (and no, I hadn't taken any drugs) that I was literally floating on air.
I'd seen a lot of great concerts in my life, but I'd never seen a man totally mesmerize a crowd like Bob Dylan did on that summer night in 1965.
As we made our way to the car, my friend turned to me. "Hey," he said, "there's this really great band playing over at Bido Lito's. Ya wanna check 'em out?"
"Who are they?" I asked.
"I think they're called the Grass Roots. Everybody says they're amazing."
I had never heard of the Grass Roots, but I was so high from Dylan's performance there was no way I was going to go home and go to sleep.
"Let's go," I said.
Bido Lito's turned out to be a tiny club located in Cosmo's Alley - a short cul-de-sac which ran between Ivar and Cahuenga.
There was a huge crowd squished into the tiny waiting area in front of the club. Bell bottoms, fringe jackets, and girls with hearts painted on their faces were everywhere. Bells jingled. The air was thick with the smell of marijuana.
When we finally made it inside, I was hit by a wall of sound so loud that it literally almost knocked me over.
Onstage was a five-piece band who were midway through a tune
called "Smokestack Lightnin'." The group were sort of your standard hippie fare - with the exception of the front man -- a long, lanky black dude, who for some reason conjured up images in my head of Muhammad Ali on acid.
After the first set was over, the band members went into the audience to schmooze with friends. With the exception of the lead singer, who sat at the bar alone, nursing his whiskey.
"Who is he? " I asked a girl sitting nearby.
"That's Arthur," she said. "Arthur Lee."
At some point during the night, -- which went by in a blur - I learned that the band weren't actually called The Grass Roots. They were called Love - a perfect name for a group in that flower-powered period in history.
After having seen Bob Dylan, I didn't see how anything could have fazed me. But - and I say this in utter earnest - Love totally blew Dylan right out of the water.
I was smitten from the first. I became a bonafide Love groupie. I followed the band as they played the round of clubs on the Strip ... the Brave New World, the Hullabaloo, the Trip, Ciro's, the Whiskey. It didn't matter -- I was there.
Often, I would spot various "stars," at the Love gigs. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Jack Nicholson, Eric Burdon, Sal Mineo, Richie Furay, Buddy Miles, Gram Parsons - to name just a few - came to see the band.
What was clear from the getgo was that Arthur Lee was Love. Guitarist Bryan McLean had a rock star face, a genuine presence, and he wrote some great songs. But he simply didn't occupy the same stratospheric space as Lee did.
In 1966 I left home to go to school at UCSB. A month or so after I arrived, the first Love album came out on Elektra Records. The cover sported a picture of the band ... all decked out in state-of-the art 60's attire. The photo was taken against the backdrop of a legendary Laurel Canyon ruin that had once been the home of Harry Houdini.
I played that first Love album until it wouldn't play anymore. I went out and bought another copy, then another. I still own one of the original first pressings of that album, and amazingly, it still plays great.
Whenever I could, I drove down from Santa Barbara to see the band. Fortunately, Lee didn't like to travel, so in those days the band rarely ventured outside L.A.
Sometimes they were on ... sometimes they weren't. But even when Lee was out of it (by now rumors of heroin use by various band members abounded) Love still had the magic.
In 1968, I quit school to go on the road as a pedal steel guitar player. Over the next six years I traveled the U.S. and Europe, playing with a host of different groups. Some were name artists, like Doug Kershaw, Bonnie Bramlett, John Stewart (formerly of the Kingston Trio), and Jerry Jeff Walker. Others were run-of-the mill (or sometimes just plain crappy) bands stuck on the club circuit. I didn't care. It was all one grand adventure.
But one night in 1974 I found myself in some rathole in Reno, playing to an audience which consisted of approximately six drunken Indians. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't shut off the voice in my head which said, "Time to pack it in, son."
When I returned to the real world, I had absolutely no idea what to do.
On a whim, I wrote a review of an album by Jean Luc Ponty for Billboard magazine. In no time, I found myself working as a regular pop music critic for virtually all of the papers in L.A. I appeared regularly in the L.A. Times , I had a weekly country music column in the Daily News, and I became the first music critic at the L.A. Weekly.
In 1978, I pitched a piece on Arthur Lee to the L.A. Times. It wasn't particularly good timing. Love had long ago disbanded, though Lee would continue to play - putting different groups together under the Love moniker. Nevertheless, their star had faded.
Despite that, after I'd nailed down an interview with Lee, I was surprised to feel goosebumps at the thought of meeting one of my heroes.
When we got together at a downtown coffee shop, Lee was still wearing the ever-present shades (no more granny glasses, thankfully). Happily, the years hadn't changed him much.
During the course of the interview, it was apparent that Lee had become bitter. He'd been the one to introduce the Doors to Elektra Records head Jac Holzman. Now the Doors were major stars, while Love had fallen off the map. In addition to expressing ire against Jim Morrison, Arthur claimed that The Rolling Stones, had ripped off one of Love's ideas -- filling the entire B-side of an LP with one 20 minute-long song ("Revelation"). On their next LP, the Stones did the very same thing.
It also became clear that Arthur Lee was a man who was somehow haunted. To say he was superstitious is putting it mildly. "I work off instinct," he told me. "It's like ... the Monterey Pop Festival. I was invited to play that. I didn't play. Now do you realize that at that festival, that kid from Canned Heat, uh - Al Wilson, right? He was there, and now he's dead. Janis Joplin is dead. Cass Eliot is dead. Jimmy's dead. Otis is dead. Brian Jones - who was hanging out in the audience -- is dead. All gone, man.
Now the words came out haltingly. "Now I'm not saying that because I didn't play at that festival I'm alive, but ... it's just something. Some feeling. Like, I went to Chicago three times, and I never got off the plane. I don't know why. Like I said, I just feel things."
I interviewed Lee two more times, and I wrote my story. It got a full page in the Sunday Calendar section of the L.A. Times , which took me up another notch on the journalism circuit.
I don't exactly know how it happened, but over the years Arthur and I became friends. Not bosom buddies or anything, but whenever he was in town, he'd call me. Usually when Arthur called, he wanted something. In my case it was usually a write up in some magazine.
I didn't mind. Journalists are users too ... they tell people what they want them to hear, then they go out and write whatever the hell they want.
I hadn't heard from Arthur in years when my phone rang one day in 1986. Arthur wasted no time in getting to the point. Would I be interested in writing a book on him?
We met at a Mexican Restaurant in North Hollywood. When I arrived, Arthur was already there. He'd consumed several whiskeys (the glasses were lined up on the table) and he was pretty well soused. During lunch, he went on and on about everything that was happening for him. He was effusive. He'd just cut a bunch of new tracks in at Wally Heider's in Hollywood. He'd signed with a new manager. And he was dead-on sure that he was making a comeback.
"It's my time," man, Arthur grinned.
I'd heard the story a million times. Frankly, it didn't matter to me whether Arthur made a comeback or not. Thirty years had elapsed since that magical night in Bido Lito's and the cat was still alive and kicking.
The next day I phoned my agent and pitched a book idea. He told me to go for it.
Over the coming weeks, Arthur and I would meet regularly, always at the same restaurant. Usually I paid the bill. It was obvious by his disheveled look that Arthur was down on his luck. I didn't mind. I could write it off on my book advance.
But Arthur wanted something more. Every time we met, he'd hit me up for a few bucks. At first it was twenty, then fifty. A month later it was two hundred. I hoped he wasn't using to by dope, but inside I knew better.
One day I entered the restaurant and saw Arthur sitting at his table, accompanied by another guy. As I sat down, Arthur introduced his companion.
"I want you to meet Don Conka," he said.
My jaw dropped. No way --
Don Conka had been Love's original drummer, pre-Bido Lito's. Reportedly, he had died of a heroin overdose before Love attained cult status. Arthur had penned a beautiful song - a slow, eerie ballad called "Signed D.C." -- as an epitaph to the fallen drummer. It was one of their most requested songs.
Conka looked awful. His face was a mass of lines and wrinkles. He looked like an old man next to Arthur, whose smooth face seemed somehow ageless. All during the lunch meeting, I kept looking at Conka's hands. The guy had absolutely huge hands!
After we'd eaten, Lee edged his face a little closer to mine. "Have you got that book advance yet?" he whispered.
For a moment I was taken aback. "Well, not yet - my agent is still shopping the idea," I replied.
"Listen," he continued, after a moment's hesitation, "you're gonna be getting the money pretty soon, right? So I was wondering if you could - y'know - set me up for a little bit?
"How much do you need?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "I could use a grand ... maybe fifteen hundred."
I felt a knot in my stomach. I had tried to avoid feeling used by Arthur, but suddenly I felt like a total chump.
"Look Arthur," I said, " I really can't do it."
The next second, I found myself looking down the barrel of a .38 Police revolver. I had no idea where it came from. He'd probably had it in his lap during the entire meal.
Oddly, instead of being immobilized by fear, the bubble of anger that'd been building inside me suddenly burst. I stood up, knocking my drink off the table, reached into my pocket, and threw down some bills to cover the meal.
"Screw you, man. " I said before storming out of the restaurant.
When I got home my phone was ringing. I knew who it was. For the next fifteen minutes, Arthur - sounding like a hurt little boy - apologized to me. "Look, I'm sorry man. It wasn't really for me ... it was for Conka. The cat is strung out, man. He needs help."
Over the next week Arthur called umpteen times. His mood changed with each call. Sometimes, he was the apologetic little boy, other times he was threatening.
"Look," he hissed during one call, "I know where you live, man."
I hung up the phone. I noticed that my hands were shaking.
The next day I changed my number.
I don't tell this story to say that Arthur was a bad guy. He wasn't a bad guy. He was fighting his demons - just like the rest of us. Still, I told my agent not to continue shopping the book. Arthur was still one of my heroes, but there was no possible way I could spend the months it would take to complete the project with somebody in Lee's shape.
I kept track of Lee over the following years. He never made that big comeback that he'd always talked about. At the same time, he'd never fallen off the map. Apparently, he had taken up residence in England, where he'd developed a huge following. He now called Liverpool "home." He was l honored by the British government, and a year later he received the NME Legendary Artists award.
Arthur wasn't back. He'd never left.
Occasionally Lee would pop up at some little club in the States. He was backed by an excellent band called "Baby Lemonade." Still, the bookings were always made under the name "Arthur Lee and Love."
One day I saw in the paper that Arthur was playing at one of his old haunts - the Whiskey.
I wasn't on the press list anymore, so I paid my ten bucks and went inside. At about midnight (two hours late. as usual) Arthur and the band hit the stage. He was wearing a beautiful white, fringed cowboy shirt,. The ever-present shades hid his eyes, and his head was wrapped in a blue bandana.
I stood there holding my breath as Arthur fiddled with the tuning on his guitar.
"One, two, three , four!" Arthur yelped. Then the band launched into "7 & 7 Is." It was like a rocket ship taking off.
Over the next ninety minutes, I stood there absolutely transfixed. I was transported back to 1965 - but it wasn't like listening to an "oldies" show or anything like that. The songs I was hearing held up in the present.
Not only had Lee survived all the years - unlike the majority of his cohorts - he still had the magic. That was more than you could say of almost any artist - from The Beatles, to Elvis to Dylan (who was still playing, but had clearly shot his wad).
I didn't speak to Arthur that night, but I drove home over Laurel Canyon. I made a quick left, then a right on Jewett Drive. I drove by The Castle, where Arthur and the band had lived for a time. I parked my car on Sky Hill Drive, and got out. I looked down at the twinkling lights of L.A.
I was on Cloud Nine.
One day in 1996, I opened up the Metro section of the Times. There was a small article, which said that Arthur had been sentenced to twelve years in prison for threatening a neighbor with a gun. Normally, the charge wouldn't have been so stiff, but Arthur - who had two prior arrests - got nailed on the Three Strikes Law.
I won't lie. Inside my mind, I heard a voice saying "serves him right." But that thought quickly evaporated, and I felt numbed by a hollow, all-pervading sense of sorrow.
I'd been in Arthur's shoes. In 1990, I'd been arrested on seven felony counts of computer hacking. I was sentenced to three years probation, and fined $90,000 in restitution. I'd never done jail time (the DA had wanted to put me away for 42 years!) but I could imagine what it was like to inhabit the dark place that Arthur was no doubt in.
Fortunately in 2001, Arthur was released, when it was found that the prosecutor had committed misconduct. Still, any way you cut it, six years is a long time. (During his time inside, Arthur had refused all requests for interviews).
Rather than being forgotten, Arthur's status grew while he was in the joint. Several new Love LP's were released, along with innumerable bootlegs. Fans had published a regular Arthur newsletter called The Castle , and his mystique continued to grow. Famed musicians like Robert Plant, Garland Jeffries Nils Lofgren, Syd Barret, and Jack White, stated in press that Arthur had been a major influence on their careers.
The question was, would Arthur jump back into the ring, or would he become a total recluse? It was only weeks before we had the answer.
Lee's website ( http://love.torbenskott.dk/ ) announced a host of new gigs - all of them in Europe. I was so stoked I considered flying over there to see him.
Arthur Lee was 57 years old. He was still skinny as a rail. But something about him was different. He now had a sense of - how to put it? - royalty about him. Onstage the man looked absolutely regal. Better than that, the beautiful, delicate voice was still there. Lee could still hit all the high notes without effort. And when it came time to scream .... Arthur wailed like a man possessed.
I remember the day Elvis died. I locked myself in my room and didn't get out of bed for a week.
When I read that Arthur had died on Aug 3, after a long bout with leukemia, the same thing happened. I didn't leave my house for days. I sat around playing my old Love albums and checking out the web for anything and everything by Arthur that I could find.
I found some incredible videos of Arthur at http://dailydocket.blogspot.com/2006/08/loves-rthur-lee-passes-on.html
The very first clip on the page - obviously a transfer from an old super-8 home movie - shows a 20-year old Arthur somewhere up in the canyons, fooling around with old bandmates Johnny Echols, Ken Forssi and Bryan McLean. The next two clips feature Arthur in two absolutely mind-boggling performances ...one of "Alone Again, Or," the other "7 & 7 Is."
When I finished watching the last clip, I suddenly felt old. Something had ended. What was it?
Then I saw what it was. A part of me had literally been hacked away. I could almost feel the blood dripping from the open wound.
Arthur's words echoed in my brain. "Janis is dead, Jimi's dead, Otis is dead, Brian Jones is dead..."
And now Arthur...
Musicians are like old boxers. They don't know when to quit. Eventually they become punch drunk - sad, ridiculous caricatures of their old selves.
Not Arthur Lee.
Arthur Lee is a survivor. He had the crap kicked out of him a million times. He had to go back to his corner, wobbly-kneed and bloodied. His corner men begged him to throw in the towel, but he refused. He got right back into the ring, and came out slugging. That , my friends, is nothing short of a miracle.
Forty years has passed since I first saw Love. But you know what? It doesn't mean a thing. Because for me at least, that magical Saturday Night at Bido Lito's will last forever.
For more information on Love, go to http://www.myspace.com/lovewitharthurlee.