I first became familiar with the band Love when drummer and songwriter Colin Brooks, suggested I listen to Forever Changes, which he considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time. I had not heard of it, which was surprising to me then, since I often read lists of famous albums, rankings, end-of-year summaries, et cetera. The first moments of listening felt odd, as I had expected a band more in line with what I then believed to be the mood of 1967—something like the Rolling Stones. I remember being perturbed by the first track, “Alone Again Or.” The baroque constellation of strings seemed strangely detached from reality, as did the lyrics, in which occasional Love songwriter Bryan MacLean politely apologized to the object of his affection for having more love to give than she was willing to accept that night. Then I heard the second track.
What struck me first about “A House is Not a Motel” was how Arthur Lee, Love’s leader and primary songwriter, pronounced the word “Look.” He breaks the word in two, leaving silence before the plosive “K,” then enunciating it hard, so the consonant hits like an arrow striking home. It’s a moment of self-awareness so unusual in American pop music, it fairly breaks the fourth wall fifteen seconds into the song. That first line is, At my house I’ve got no shackles/You can come and look—if you want to. There’s another pause there, after “look,” to let you know that Lee is looking at you, too. And that while the songwriter is inviting you to check out his inner world, he does not give a damn whether you show up or not.
“A House Is Not a Motel” describes a tour through a castle, mysterious halls of ornate mantels where the light shines dim all around you. In Los Angeles in 1964, as Arthur Lee began to write the songs which would appear on the album Forever Changes, the streets really did seem paved with gold, as Lee sings. By age 19, Lee had already collaborated with—and inspired—the guitarist who would go on to become Jimi Hendrix; now, signed before his twenty-first birthday, Lee was under contract with Elektra Records and living in an actual castle just east of Laurel Canyon, where he often roller skated through the halls, and the luminaries of the 60s came to hang out and do acid.
This was the true heyday of rock and roll, and it is impossible to overestimate what a big deal Lee’s band was: the first racially integrated rock band in America. And Lee himself, a Black songwriter leading the psychedelic revolution, was hailed as king of the West Coast’s burgeoning rock scene. “He cut an imposing figure,” explained Jimmy Greenspoon of the band Three Dog Night, who played around Los Angeles at the same time as Love. “He had a mesmerizing presence, a Pied Piper who would lead Love’s members to a different form of consciousness.” Now Jim Morrison was following Lee around, begging for a record deal.
Lee seemed to absorb and transform the entire spectrum of American popular music—he was inspired equally by Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach, by Motown soul and by the British folk music of the Byrds. Even as he arranged strings and horns into Baroque pop hits, he also compared himself to Mick Jagger: Lee deemed himself a “A Black American imitating a white Englishman imitating a Black American,” explaining that pop music on both sides of the Atlantic was rooted in the art and innovation of Black Americans.
You can hear Lee’s artistic freedom in “A House is Not a Motel,” which escapes categorization entirely, merging echoes of Spanish guitar (courtesy of lead guitarist Johnny Echols) with a psychedelic riff that would make George Harrison weep. A stately vocal delivery bleeds into disaffected screams that foreshadow the birth of punk. For its full three minutes and twenty-two seconds, the song seamlessly resists genre, in the process creating a genre of the future, just as Lee resists being followed. If someone asks you, you can call my name, the hook goes.
What I heard when I listened to this song in my twenties was introversion—and pride. I felt that I needed to be alone, or risk—what? I didn’t know back then. I pictured myself wandering a labyrinth like Lee’s castle, and anyone trying to understand me becoming hopelessly lost as I chose which way to go. My interior castle felt safe. People could call my name all they wanted, but I had no obligation to answer them. I think what I also heard in this song in my twenties was rage: the noise freakout, the searing, ecstatic guitars, Lee screaming “Come on!” with the spirit of Fugazi twenty years too soon, or like James Brown making me want to get up and dance.
There was a sense of barely contained chaos in Lee’s imagery—“confusion,” “blood,” bells ringing out from the “schools of wars,” and a muddy grey liquid—a mixture of black and white?—pouring directly into the listener’s home. There was also a foreboding warning: The news today will be the movies for tomorrow that seemed to presage the entire collapse of the Hippie movement into an advertising campaign. What did we get after the Summer of Love? more of the Vietnam War. And what did we get after the Vietnam War? American Empire. And what did we get after the Hippies and their student protests? The Baby Boomers, and the rise of a violent inequality.
The band Love, I felt, was punk before punk—political commentary mixed with rallying cries of guitar—and although the melody of “A House Is Not a Motel” seemed uncanny, a minor mode that could almost have been a Hebrew prayer, I felt I understood what the song was about—for the most part, at least. I moved on, eager to learn more about Arthur Lee’s influence on punk. Love’s highest-charting single, “7 and 7 Is” had a beat so fast and loud that Lee and his drummer had to take turns trying to lay it down, and the Head of Elektra Records said he lost part of his hearing that day in the studio. Lee muses surreal poetry about ice cream cones and cracks of light, losing his father and losing his eyes. Lee’s ecstatic mood exists somewhere between losing control and entering a higher dimension. The lyrics describe feeling trapped, then escaping, and the song, with its pummeling guitars and drums, breathes catharsis.
I took a break from listening to Love in between 2014 and 2020—with the exception of “A House Is Not a Motel,” which I’d play on repeat. In those intervening years, a lot happened: bad breakups, band breakups, getting money and losing it, bad and good jobs, several failed records, new relationships, and the beginnings of coming to terms with my own pain. In short, I began to grow up, to understand that I had been naïve, and vulnerable, perhaps most so when I had not accepted that I was. And by the time I really started listening to Love again, we were in the middle of a global pandemic, a crisis of American democracy, and the sickness of late-stage capitalism.
I turned on Love again this summer, the summer of global protests following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more Black Americans who have lost their lives to the violence of white supremacy. As I listened through the complete discography, Love sounded completely different than when I was younger—and Arthur Lee sounded right.
There was a whole song on Forever Changes about incarceration—They’re locking him up today. They’re throwing away the key/I wonder who it will be tomorrow—you or me? Why hadn’t I connected this song, “The Red Telephone,” to the fact that Lee himself was later incarcerated—and spent five and a half years in prison for a crime he did not commit? In 1996, the court system made an example of Lee, who had refused to plead guilty to a charge of negligent discharge of a firearm. A test conducted a year after the trial confirmed that Lee did not have gunpowder on him. Lee called the entire experience “humiliating” and refused visits and interviews. Lee finally made it out of prison in 2001, but by that time, two members of Love had passed away, making the prospect of a band reunion impossible. Lee died five years later of cancer. The struggles of his later years embody the racism of America’s criminal justice system, which he began to critique early.
And there were many more testaments to how hard it was for Lee to exist in America. I don’t know if I’m living, or if I’m supposed to be, he sings over tense, altered chords in the “The Red Telephone.” Lee leaves the listener in a constant state of suspense. In one of the song’s most uncanny moments, he slows down the song, then brings in the whole band to say the words “Black, white, and yellow” at the same time. The listener is not only confused, but confronted with their assumptions about Lee’s identity: And if you think I’m happy, paint me—then a jumble of colors, heard all at once.
Only this summer, while listening to an ethnomusicology conference with the hip hop scholars Warrick Moses and Jason Ng did I come to realize that, in Ng’s words, “Dissonances show what’s not quite right with Western rationalism and binaries.” There is, indeed, in all of Arthur Lee’s work, a desire not to be classified—in “The Red Telephone,” Lee sings quite pointedly, If you want to count me, count me out.
As a white woman, as I listened to Black activists and scholars, I began to understand the work of Arthur Lee more deeply. The world is fragile, and the future uncertain. A bluebird sitting on a branch is slang for a police officer in the song “Live and Let Live.” Even mundane encounters with police drip with the pain of history: I’ve seen you sitting on your couch /I recognize your artillery/I have seen you many times before/Once when I was an Indian/And I was on my land. (Lee’s mother had Native American, as well as African American heritage.) In the song, Lee decides to carry a pistol to defend himself—and then the story ends: You know it oh so well, muses Lee sarcastically. Lee repeats the word “end” eight times, like police bullets striking his body, or like eight years in jail, like a scene from history caught on loop—before he breathes mysteriously, as if from beyond that story, a single word: “And…”
Perhaps the choice that Lee makes in his psychedelia is a choice to speak from outside the confines of history. His mode of psychedelia differs from that of the Beatles in that Lee cannot believe in the salvation that the (largely white) hippies believed their movement offered them—liberation through drugs, or concerts, or even free love. Love’s point of view consisted of looking incisively at the present, scrutinizing it with a keen cynicism, and refusing to be confined by its boundaries or limitations on perception. In “You Set the Scene,” Lee realizes that under close observation, that while young men sacrifice their lives to war, the military private wears a false costume, loosely held together with pins instead of buttons; under close observation, most people in power are simply putting [themselves] on, playing a part that seems to collapse under Lee’s deconstructing gaze.
Love, for Lee, was a way of truly knowing who you are, as he sings in “A House is Not a Motel,” and knowing who you are meant to touch, to smell, to feel what was real. If the hippies sought to hypnotize themselves into a vision of optimism wherein America still held the possibility of redemption at the hands of young white people, then Lee’s goal was to un-hypnotize himself, and the people around him through music. I don’t need power when I’m hypnotized, muses Lee in “The Red Telephone,” cynically, playing the part of an average Joe who can’t even remember if his name is Phil or Bill. If the hippies sought to hypnotize themselves, then Lee’s form of psychedelia involved freeing himself—and others—from the limitations of their time.
Lee’s vision of the future seemed to come true this summer in the Black Lives Matter protests, as millions called for a moral shift in America and demanded that we begin to heal the violence that white Americans have inflicted on Black people, and other marginalized groups, since the dawn of our country. His vision of love involved making a moral choice to see people as they are.
And implicit in that vision was a question for white Americans: can we expand our definition of love to encompass the people whom we might want to project upon, fear, hate, or distrust. Lee was a master of turning the gaze back upon the listener: Do you like the part you’re playing? he asks in “You Set the Scene.” The song ends with Lee triumphantly shouting the word “Time” ten times in a row. This is the time! Lee shouts, reminding listeners that we have the freedom to make a different history by changing it ourselves. Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging, sings Lee. Love, for Lee, is not simply a feeling, but a creative act—a choice to see the world differently, and to build a new one. In this way, his music aligns with the experimental approach of Afrofuturist artists such as Sun Ra and today’s Moor Mother.
As I watched the brave protesters march by, “A House Is Not a Motel” stayed stuck in my head for weeks. I couldn’t help but feel the surreal precariousness of this country founded on violence against its most vulnerable people—and yet that violence remained entirely real. I saw the state of confusion I was in with a new perspective—would I detach myself, and let “the news today” fade into “the movies for tomorrow?” Or would I make a choice to do something about the problems I was becoming more and more aware of? One night, I began to grieve, feeling pain deep in my body. Was that burning sensation empathy? Or love for people I had never met? Then the privilege of never having felt this pain before struck me, as I wondered what it might feel like to have to live with pain every day.
One summer night, I found a YouTube video of Lee performing live on Danish TV in 1970. The performance is almost overwhelming in its loneliness. I’ve pierced my skin again, Lord, he sings. No one cares for me. It’s a blues song called “Signed D.C.” with the psychedelic mood of Pink Floyd, but falling apart at the seams. A collage appears on the TV screen, paper explosions pasted on top of a grey landscape of American highways, apartment buildings overlayed with dots, then empty sand dunes. A man lies down at the center of an explosion, and then explosions strike a city. We hear the vibrato of guitars crying, and Lee lets loose a harmonica solo that vibrates with intention. Look out, Joe! I’m falling, sings Lee. I can’t unfold my arms. Watching this performance fifty years later, as Lee confesses that his soul belongs to the dealer, we might hear echoes of the struggles that have taken so many young artists from us, but also a warning of the coming War on Drugs that would lead to the mass incarceration of Black Americans from the 1980’s through today.
But in that same live session, there’s also a recording of “August,” an upbeat number where Lee seems to sing to music itself—It’s with me wherever I go—as if music to him were a perpetual summer. There is Lee fingerpicking an acoustic guitar, leading a full band noise jam with sublime confidence. It’s with me when I need a friend, he sings. August is all that I know.
Love’s time in the spotlight was brief. Lee was reluctant to tour, and Elektra records soon began investing the resources they would have invested in Love in the young upstarts the Doors, whom Lee had convinced the label to sign. By 1970, the original members of Love had parted ways, as Elektra’s neglect of the band caused tensions to flare among the group. Lee continued to play with other musicians throughout his life, but never quite earned the recognition that Forever Changes merited. Indeed, while it contained all of the breakthroughs in songwriting, arrangements, and subject matter that rendered the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a hit, and while it was released only four months after Sgt. Pepper, Forever Changes failed to kindle similar enthusiasm among audiences of its time.
Perhaps this was because among its sweeping strings, triumphant horns, and expressions of loneliness, Forever Changes also contained a confrontational lyricism that made listening more challenging than pleasant. Where the Beatles would involve the suburban characters of “Penny Lane,” or even “She’s Leaving Home,” Lee features an “iceman” and a “plastic Nancy.” Lee’s “Daily Planet,” while viewed at a distance and with considerable perspective, is marked by “sirens and accidents.” Psychedelia for the Beatles may have been acquired, even abstract, a form of self-hypnosis. But for Lee, psychedelia was a lived state—or rather, a struggle to live in a state of constant emergency. The sense of dissociation, of distance from the real, that marks Love’s lyrics can be viewed as a response to the ongoing trauma of racism, and Love’s music, which strives towards an authentic, fully embodied life, reflects Lee’s power to create his own reality.
This is not an album you can let wash over you, although you may be tempted to during songs like “Alone Again Or” or “You Set the Scene,” where neo-classical rhapsodies mix with Tijuana brass bands and stately fanfares to the point of ecstasy. This is an album you sit and think about. Indeed, it is an album whose influence has only grown over time—and many critics now rank Forever Changes not only as a masterpiece of the sixties, but among the masterpieces of American music as a whole. Indeed, no band better expresses both the promises and failures of America, our unresolved contradictions, and the rise and fall of the so-called American dream over a mere fifty years than Arthur Lee’s Love. Yet what Love also offers, in its innovation—its blend of Motown soul, mariachi horns, and British reticence—is a music of cultural acceptance and inclusion, and a testament to the cultural value that these principles can offer America.
Now when I listen to “A House Is Not A Motel,” I hear both freedom and pain, both melancholy and joy—the perspective of a man who feels at home with himself, even when he seems to speak from a place of in-betweenness, or a place beyond death. Did I ever realize what home meant to Lee, or how much he wanted one? The original Burt Bacharach tune is called “A House Is Not a Home.” But Lee is singing about something different—about how transitory it all can be, about how time passes, and about feeling like he might belong here, even as violence threatens to sweep him away. And when he sings, If someone asks you, you can call my name, he is not only distant, he seems to also feel that he is alone. Maybe he already suspects that listeners will not hear him the way he wants to be heard, or that we won’t ever truly see him as he is. Again, I remember that critical way he pronounces the word “look”—as if he knows that we will see only our own illusions when we look at him, when what an artist wants most is to be understood.
I believe that all music, and especially the music we call ‘psychedelic,’ carries our desire to both travel within and to transcend the self, our desire to create a home for ourselves in oneness. This desire also expresses itself in many forms of community—in the mutual aid organizations where neighbors share resources with one another, in gardens where city dwellers are growing food together and healing in connection with the earth, and in the movement for Black lives that continues to grow around the world. I continue to listen to Love not just to soothe myself; I am drawn towards a human experience that is much larger than my own.
Arthur Lee gave one last message in 2003 as he stood onstage at Glastonbury, only two years after having been released from prison. That was just after he played a rousing rendition of “You Set the Scene,” a song he opened with the joke, “This next one’s going to be a classic one day.” Indeed, as the camera zooms in on the young violinist from Sweden playing in Lee’s string ensemble, she seems to be losing her mind with joy, as does Lee’s band, members of the next generation Los Angeles band Baby Lemonade. Like Love, the musicians are a multiracial group. And lead guitarist Mike Randle jumps up and down as he rips the solos, as rhythm guitarist Rusty Squeezebox mouths all the lyrics, as if they too have grown up with Forever Changes.
Years after Arthur Lee’s death, as I watch this performance on YouTube, Lee’s final message to the crowd still hangs in the air around me: “Could you do me all a favor?” he asked. “Say yeah!” Then the crowd of 150,000 young people shouted “yeah!” and the old man in his top hat smiled.
“Love one another!” shouted Arthur Lee to everyone, and then he was gone