Winter of Love

Music - Ted Kessler on the troubled life of LA's first hippie and his long journey to freedom

Many outrageous claims have been made on Arthur Lee's behalf - but most of them are true. He made three epoch-defining albums with his band, Love, by his 22nd birthday in 1967. He discovered both Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, strongly influencing both artists along the way. And he was as gifted a songwriter as those other cracked heroes from that era - Brian Wilson, John Lennon, David Crosby.

Reputed to have been the first black hippie in LA, his claim to Mojo magazine that "I was maybe the first hippie: I like freedom" is ironic in light of the many years he spent locked up.

In June 1995, he was arrested for a reported shooting in his LA apartment. Although Lee denied that he'd fired the gun (his then manager testified that he was responsible for the shooting), an all-white jury found Lee guilty of firearms offences. With two other convictions for a minor drugs bust and an assault charge dating back to the 1980s, he was sentenced to 12 years.

He refuses to discuss his experiences in Pleasant Valley State Prison, but snapshots emerge of his time there. He was badly beaten up, but for the first time in his life refused to fight back. He wrote his autobiography. He scored the strings to a host of unrecorded songs, memorising the parts to sing to his arranger on the outside. And he made plans to fulfil other ambitions - to assemble an orchestra and tour Love's most important album, Forever Changes, for the first time.

He'd never got round to it at the time of its release in November 1967. Having released two albums (Love and Da Capo) in quick succession, Love retreated to The Castle, Bela Lugosi's old mansion in the Hollywood Hills, to work on a follow-up. The band immediately imploded. Girlfriends were swapped. Huge quantities of acid and cocaine were taken. All band members, with the exception of Lee, cultivated heroin habits. As a result, Lee banished guitarists Bryan MacLean and Johnny Echols, along with bassist Ken Forssi, and brought in session players. Echols and Forssi reacted badly to this - and robbed a doughnut stall at gunpoint.

The session musicians fared little better and the band returned, high but contrite. After a fist fight, they reclaimed their instruments and completed the album in little more than four months. The mixing took place in one gruelling, 17-hour marathon. Love left The Castle, all vowing to stay away from one another for as long as possible.

Yet somehow, out of this mess emerged one of the Sixties' most magical, enigmatic albums. The sound of Forever Changes is both claustrophobic and warm; the mood malevolent and joyous. It weaves bittersweet pop melodies and heavy folk-rock into gentle Latin and R&B flavours, painting a picture of LA low-life enjoying high times, just as the whole scene was exploding. Although Love never played Forever Changes live, this didn't stop it influencing future generations of musicians.

Lee was released in 2001, after six years inside, when the state finally recognised his original conviction was dubious. Last summer, he played to tearful audiences across the US and Europe for the first time in a decade.

Arthur Lee and Love (most of the original band are dead - this version includes members of the LA band Baby Lemonade) are touring the UK with an orchestra, performing "The Forever Changes Concerts", culminating at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It's a similar concept to last autumn's Brian Wilson shows, when he performed all of Pet Sounds in one sitting in the same venue. Lee, however, thinks it'll be better than that: "I want to make Love a household name. Like Band-Aid. Or the Beatles," he told Uncut magazine. "But I want it to blow your mind. I don't want it to be like going to see Brian Wilson. Why would anyone want to do that now? Out of courtesy?"

Love's "The Forever Changes Concerts" are touring the UK (call 9PR on 020 7833 9303) and will be at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020 7960 4203) on 3 February

Ted Kessler writes for NME and the Observer

This article first appeared in the 20 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can he be stopped?