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Backstage Pass: A conversation with Love's Arthur Lee, Part I

In Part I of this 1975 interview, Arthur Lee talks about the origins of the 1960s psych-rock outfit Love and his relationship with Jimi Hendrix.

STAY TUNED: Part II will appear in the May 9, 2008, edition of Goldmine.

Arthur Lee, gangster of love, came bopping through the conference room doors of RSO Records. His head was shaved and his clothes were mildly unkempt. A moustache adorned his upper lip, facial hair suggesting something between a felon and a pimp.

Verbally, his thoughts came out in staccato bursts. He is part hustler, part hipster. The eyes were narrowed and a faux smile, a sneer, played upon his face. It was the beginning of 1975, and the Memphis-born musician was back with Real To Reel, the first Love album in four years and what would be the final Love album for nearly two decades.

As he lowered his thin, but muscled, frame into a chair, his gaze took in the room around him. Arthur was not high, but he acted like it. His head darted back and forth, and he tended to mumble beneath his breath. Lee’s body coiled and uncoiled as if preparing itself to strike. Apropos of nothing, he addresses the tape player on the table before him: “I don’t like violence, but I love to fight.”

For the next hour and a half, he did wage a sort of personal battle. As he called up all the old demons — former bandmates, publishing companies, managers and record labels — he tried in vain to exorcise them. By turns, Lee revealed anger, disillusion and a type of hard-earned pride.

By the time of this interview, Arthur Porter Taylor (his birth name) had been bounced around from label to label and had lost virtually all of his music publishing to conniving manipulators. Maybe there was good reason for the anger.

Finally seated, he emits a mad cackle, the first of many. It is startling in its intensity and will serve as a warning sign for areas he won’t talk about. When Arthur laughs, there is nothing funny about it. The room is hushed, save for the strains of his new album playing from monitors. He nods in time to the music.

“It’s an R&B-type thing and pretty funky. I’ve got to see if people are going to dig my trip.”

The stage set, Arthur Lee attempts to unravel himself.

Would you mind going back and talking about how you first got into music and the Los Angeles scene?

Arthur Lee: No, I don’t mind going back at all, man. My aunt used to take me around the beer gardens, man, when I was about 4 or 5 years old. That ain’t how I got into it, but that’s one of the things that had to do with it. F**k, man, I dug music from as far back as “The Hucklebuck” (this was an instrumental song from 1949 that made it to #1 in the R&B charts). Man, doing the “Hucklebuck!” “The Hucklebuck,” “The Sh-Boom,” you know? It just rang bells in my head. I said, “Wow, man, I think I can do that!” But I didn’t know how to go about it.

You know, if you’ve got a talent, it’s one thing, but you’ve got to know the person to put you on the stage to perform your talent. And that’s been my problem ever since I’ve started. What, am I gonna go and tell some other dude that I can sing better or good as what I hear on the radio? You know what I mean? It’s just listening to the f**kin’ radio, man — listening to all kinds of music, all kinds of music.

What was your first band?

My first band started at Dorsey High School. I had a school basketball record while I was there. Arthur Lee! I like sports, man. I like livin’, ya know, good trip.

My first band was [wit