Freed from jail and roaming stages, an old rock legend is coming to town

Several months after being released from prison, having served almost six years of an 11-year sentence, Arthur Lee, the prime architect of the cult LA 1960s folk-rock psychedelic band Love, is now a free man roaming stages and selling out shows to delighted fans – both young and old. The 57-year-old Lee, an unsung American musical hero whose widespread, enduring critical acclaim and influence on other acts never quite translated into sturdy album sales, embarked on this tour – of Europe only – in May from Denmark. To date, there have been no indications of shows planned at home in the USA. The tour’s itinerary includes a performance in Athens this Thursday (Foundation of the Hellenic World, 254 Pireos Street) as part of a double bill that will also feature the popular neo-psychedelic British band Porcupine Tree, a regular visitor here in recent years. Lee, who ranks as one of the most erratic and enigmatic rock acts of the 1960s whose heyday was relatively brief but extraordinarily potent before the artist faded out the following decade, was arrested and handed his hefty 11-year sentence in 1996 after being caught breaking Californian law for a third – and unlucky – time in 1996. Lee was arrested after shooting a gun into the air during an argument with a neighbor and convicted on a charge of illegally possessing a firearm. A year earlier, he had spent a brief period behind bars for breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s flat and trying to set fire to it. But he was bailed out by the record label Rhino Records, which had just released a compilation album of Lee’s work, «Love Story.» His first of three strikes, a drug offense, stretches back to the 1980s. However, it remains unclear whether Lee will need to face another trial. For the time being, at least, he is facing crowds, capacities of them, and reportedly in high spirits. In comments made to the media at the time of the musician’s release last December, Lee’s attorney had described him as being «anxious to get back out on the road again and see all of his fans and play music,» while adding that «mentally and emotionally, he’s in good shape.» Doubtful concertgoers should consider the news of press reports of Lee’s sold-out shows in recent weeks, which have been rapturous. Though widely unknown and lacking notable new work since the late 1960s, Lee’s golden-era work continues to intrigue critics, a following of all ages, as well as younger colleagues, to a phenomenal degree. Acclaimed material released with the original Love band members between 1965 and 1968, most of which was written by Lee with some contributions from guitarist Bryan Maclean, figures highly and frequently on today’s polls that chronicle the all-time best rock albums. Love’s third release, 1967’s elaborately arranged «Forever Changes,» is a fixture. Sampling just a fraction of recent UK polls, the album was ranked sixth on an NME poll, it hit position 20 in The Times, and eight in Q magazine. It’s not just the critics, however, who refuse to let go of this short-lived and obscure act from the past. Countless contemporaries of various styles – from the abrasive punk-rock of The Ramones to the serene folk-psychedelia of Mazzy Star – have all found reasons to dig up old numbers penned by Lee to redeliver. Lee’s magic of the past has certainly endured rock ‘n’ roll’s changing faces to emerge aged but still relevant. However, while the songwriting muse was still with him, Lee and his partners, it seems, could not have done more to try to shake it off. By mid-1967, the band was in such terrible shape, as their drug-intake began taking its toll, that Electra, the band’s label, planned to record Love’s third album with session musicians backing Lee on his compositions, and those of Maclean. This had actually begun taking place but, two songs into the session, the group pulled itself together when shocked to see outsiders performing their work. Quite remarkably, the result was the «Forever Changes» album, Love’s signature album, and one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time favorites. The renaissance was short-lived, though. Soon after making this album, at a time when the band seemed poised to bolster its presence, Love began crumbling, as did Lee’s career. Lee sacked Love’s original – and most creative – lineup during this prime period to bring in less accomplished replacements for several mediocre albums released between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Marking a shift from Lee’s intriguing folk-rock hybrid, these latter albums – which were released as Love but in reality were Arthur Lee records with backing – moved on to uninspired hard-rock territory, despite a helping hand from Jimi Hendrix. Lee managed to release a solo album in the early 1970s, and then made another attempt to assemble another Love outfit in 1974. It has been mostly silence – musical, that is – and jail since then, which makes this highly rated comeback tour worth considering.