February 13, 2019

Love Sets the Scene: Arthur Lee’s Blind Date With Natasha Lyonne

By Stuart Mitchner

I was the first so-called black hippie.

Love’s Arthur Lee

On Valentine’s Day 1969, 50 years ago tomorrow, John and Yoko and Paul and Linda were heading for March marriages and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was still on the Billboard album chart, where it remained until March 1 after 88 consecutive weeks.

Forever Changes (1967), the third album by the L.A. group Love dropped off the Top 200 after 10 weeks, having peaked at No. 154. It did better in the UK at No. 24 and returned to the chart in 2001, a year before admirers in the British Parliament passed a “light-hearted” motion declaring it “the greatest album of all time.” In 2008 Forever Changes was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The title comes from a break-up story recalled by Arthur Lee in which the girl says, “You said you would love me forever,” and is told, “Well, forever changes.” Lee figured that since his band’s name was Love, the album’s title was actually Love Forever Changes.

The Day of the Dead

I passed my prized copy of Forever Changes on to my son, who was with me watching Arthur Lee and a new incarnation of Love perform the album in its entirety at the Bowery Ballroom in August 2002. This music has come back into my life thanks to Netflix’s “universally acclaimed” series Russian Doll, which takes place a few blocks northeast of the Bowery Ballroom in Alphabet City. Among the joys of watching Russian Doll, along with Natasha Lyonne’s no-holds-barred performance as the feisty life-and-death force Nadia, are the location scenes shot in and around Tompkins Square and Charlie Parker Place, an area I’m familiar with because of the siren song of secondhand vinyl that lured my son to long-gone stores like Stooz, the Shrine, and the still-with-us Academy.    

Except for Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up,” which accompanies Nadia’s repeatedly recurring reentry from death to life, the songs in Russian Doll are by groups I’ve never heard of, like Ariel Pink, Weyes Blood, Light Asylum, Pony Sherrell, the Echocentrics, Gang Gang Dance, Vex Ruffin, and Timber Timbre. Walking into Nadia’s noisy 36th birthday party, I feel like an alien from the distant planet of the sixties landing on a strange new world of sounds. Toward the end of the last episode, I’m beginning to doubt that this bizarre death and resurrection saga can be successfully resolved. So far I’ve been carried along by Nadia’s snarky energy, which is what drives the show, holds it all together, and there she is leading the Day of the Dead parade at the end, a vision of East Village mass togetherness, and suddenly I’m no longer questioning anything because the music playing is “Alone Again Or,” the Flamenco-flavored, trumpet-glorious opening track on Forever Changes.

Discussing the musical choices she made in a February 6 interview on decider.com, Lyonne, who co-created the show, says, “Love has always been one of my favorite bands, and there’s that lyric [from ‘Alone Again Or’] — ‘I heard somebody say that I could be in love with almost everyone’ – and I think that idea as a concept is sort of very on-point for
Russian Doll. I mean, the show is very much the opposite of the hippie experience, and yet this concept that we’re sort of comforted by our own separation and otherness from each other… There’s something to be said for starting to realize that we’re all stuck together in this upside-down ship we call a life, so we better read the writing on the wall and start working as a team here, because time’s running out.”

Writing on the Wall

The link between Lyonne’s “upside-down ship” and Forever Changes is about attitude, like the way Nadia’s tough-guy swagger is reflected in Arthur Lee’s brash, stylish, edgy lyrics, which simultaneously celebrated and mocked “the hippie experience” of 1967’s summer of love. As it happens, the love-with-everyone lyric Natasha remembers isn’t by Lee but by bandmate and group co-founder Bryan Maclean. Lee’s darker concept of love, like Lyonne’s, follows the changes to a “writing on the wall/time’s running out” view of life. In a book about the album he calls Lee’s “ode to paranoia,” Andrew Hultkrans finds parallels with everything from Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust to Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. For Hultkrans, Lee was one member of the counter culture “who didn’t buy flower-power wholesale, who intuitively understood that letting the sunshine in wouldn’t instantly vaporize the world’s (or his own) dark stuff.”

Phil Gallo’s liner notes for the 2-CD box set Love Story 1966-1972 introduces Forever Changes as “Lee’s metaphysical opera” with its “Caribbean rhythms, Spanish guitar music, folk rock, free jazz, psychedelia, lounge music, country, ska.” Love, the first multiracial band of the era, “did it all.”

“The Dark Stuff”

In “Live and Let Live,” Lee sings, “There’s a bluebird sitting on a branch/I guess I’ll take my pistol/I’ve got it in my hand/Because he’s on my land.” In “A House Is Not a Motel,” he incorporates something he was told by a Vietnam vet, that blood mixed with mud appears gray (“And the water’s turned to blood, and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub/And if it’s mixed with mud, you’ll see it turn to gray”). Named for the hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, “The Red Telephone” begins, “Sitting on the hillside watching people die.” Another line that connects with the confused metaphysics of Russian Doll is “I don’t know if I am living or if I’m supposed to be.” The song ends with a chanted chorus, repeated three times, “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key/I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me?”

Fresh from five-plus years in prison on an ultimately discredited charge, Lee gave those lines a special turn at the Bowery Ballroom, where his manner throughout the evening was fiercely defiant, with insulting references to Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen (“He’s not my boss! God’s the only boss!”). Lee gave an inspired performance, singing with endgame passion, as if he knew he didn’t have long to live (he died four years later in August 2006). Hultkrans sees Forever Changes not only as Love’s “last stand” (the original lineup would never record another album), but as Lee’s elegy “for himself and for ‘The Sixties,’ “ which was “busy being born just as Lee was busy (in his mind, if not his body) dying.” The fatalistic acceptance of his imagined imminent demise inspires the album’s long bravura closing track, “You Set the Scene,” which ends with soaring trumpet fanfares and Lee singing, “There will be time for you to start all over,” and as the music marches magnificently off, “This is the time and this is the time time time time time time time time time…” The notion of starting over and the incantatory repetition of “time” suggests another link to the life and death dynamic of Russian Doll.

Nadia’s Partner in Death

Although Lyonne doesn’t mention Arthur Lee in the interviews I’ve read, she might have seen a hint of him in Alan, the light-skinned African American (Charlie Barnett) caught up in the same surreal life-death cycle. There they are standing next to each other in a plummeting elevator, Nadia heading for another death; she’s been there often enough by then to take it for granted; seeing that he too seems to be sharing her state of mind, she says something about it and he says, “I die all the time.” The Esquire reviewer thinks they make a “perfect pair,” Lyonne’s “upbeat player” and Barnett’s “sad-faced sad sack.” The problem is that Alan’s something of a bore, as his so-what response to dying suggests. Nadia sees him as a fellow victim who might help her to get the bottom of the bottom of the endless loop, and if he conveyed pathos, if his sadness was Chaplinesque, of if he had some one compelling quality, he might have made an effective complement to Nadia’s manic intensity. But it’s hard to care about Alan’s unhappy love life or whether or not he sorts out what’s happening to him, even though the series wants us to believe they’ve solved it together, which is why he’s smiling right behind her in the parade at the end. What’s needed is an actor with a point of view or a cause, a singer or a poet or a thief. Someone like, well, Arthur Lee. But in a way he is there, in spirit, in the music, as Love arrives just in time to add a touch of sixties L.A. magic to that East Village parade. And if there’s a second season of Russian Doll, maybe Lyonne and her co-producers Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler will find someone worthy of Nadia.

In The Performing Self, which I alluded to last week, Richard Poirier defines performance as “an exercise of power” or “any self-discovering, self-watching, self-pleasuring response” to various “pressures and difficulties,” it’s “energy in motion, an energy which is its own shape.” He could be describing what Lyonne does with Nadia. Or what Arthur Lee does with the emotional peaks and valleys of “You Set the Scene,” a song that’s at once plaintive, fatalistic, heroic, and triumphant. You can see him performing it on YouTube at the 2004 Glastonbury Festival, less than two years before his death.