By Paula Yoo
Growing up, all I wanted to be was a writer. But on Aug. 19, 2003, at around 9 p.m., standing on a stage in Los Angeles, anxiously waiting for the rise of the curtain, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t supposed to be a 34-year-old struggling writer. My true destiny? ROCK STAR!
I clutched my violin, plucking quietly at the strings to make sure they were still in tune. I could hear the restless audience on the other side of the curtain. Normally, I never felt nervous before a gig. As a semi-professional freelance musician, I had already performed dozens of times with other rock bands. But they were mostly local bands at sparsely attended gigs in either hipster coffeehouses in Hollywood or grungy post-midnight anonymous clubs in Silver Lake.
This time, I was at the world-famous House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard, waiting to perform with the headlining act. My hands trembled. I was about to play with a “real” rock star. And not just any rock star. He was a personal idol of mine — Arthur Lee of Love.
Born in 1945 in Memphis, Tenn., before relocating to Los Angeles, Arthur was a fiercely talented songwriter who formed the 1960s psychedelic rock band Love. He was one of the very few African American rock musicians involved in the famous West Coast psychedelic movement of the late ’60s. Arthur often referred to himself as “the black hippie.” Love’s seminal and critically acclaimed album, 1967’s “Forever Changes,” featured a luminous mix of swirling violins, edgy guitars, intricate melodies and complicated tempo changes. It would become their most famous album and an instant cult classic, ranking at No. 40 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums.
But Arthur never became the next Jimi Hendrix. Bands like the Doors eclipsed his rising star. Instead of becoming famous, Arthur became the “musician’s musician” because many of his fans were also famous rockers, including Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd.
Despite his musical genius, the volatile Arthur had many personal demons, including health issues and rumors of drug problems. He claimed to have tried heroin once but denied any addiction. During the 1980s, however, he was convicted of two drug charges. He continued to pursue his music, constantly changing the Love lineup and even attempting a failed solo career. He soon seemed destined to fade away into obscurity. But Arthur refused to disappear. In 1992, he asked the popular Los Angeles psychedelic alternative rock band Baby Lemonade to be his new Love lineup. For the next four years, Arthur and Baby Lemonade worked hard at his comeback and called themselves “Love With Arthur Lee.” But in 1996, Arthur’s personal demons surfaced again. He was charged with illegal possession of a firearm. Given his two previous drug charges and California’s three-strikes law, Arthur was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Fortunately, a federal appeals court in California reversed the decision because of prosecutor misconduct. Arthur was released early in 2001.
Arthur decided it was now or never — this was his second chance to make a comeback. An entire new generation of young people had embraced “Forever Changes,” and his influence was apparent in the sound of modern alternative bands being played on the radio. Love with Arthur Lee toured again, this time selling out clubs across the country and in Europe.
“Forever Changes” was a favorite album in my household. We listened to it all the time. So it was such a thrill when I was asked to play with Arthur for his show at the House of Blues. My friend, violinist Carrie Bartsch, had a schedule conflict and was unable to make the show, so she had recommended me as a substitute. I nearly screamed when Love guitarist Mike Randle called and asked, “Would you like to play with Arthur Lee?”
What I didn’t know at the time was that I wouldn’t see much of Arthur until the night of the show. So for two weeks, I rehearsed with the other members of the band — lead guitarist Mike, guitarist Rusty Squeezebox, bassist Dave Chapple and drummer David “Daddyo” Green. I was the violinist in the mini-orchestra that included violist Heather Lockie, cellist Ana Vale Lenchantin, trumpet player Probyn Gregory, and horn/flautist Dan Clucas.
We rehearsed late at night in Dave’s windowless, cramped rehearsal space in a downtown L.A. loft, where Heather got trapped in the freight elevator for 40 minutes. She calmly read a book while Dave frantically pried the doors open. Afterwards, we celebrated by drinking slightly warm Budweiser that the guys had bought at a nearby convenience store. In that moment, we were destined to be much more than professional musical colleagues … we would become good friends.
I met Arthur for the first time during our dress rehearsal. He smiled and acted cordially, but it was strictly a “Hello, nice to meet you” professional moment. He was there to rehearse and work hard. Judging from his intense stare, I knew this was not the right time to ask for his autograph!
We performed a sold-out show at the House of Blues on that August 2003 night. When the curtainsrose, I gasped as hundreds of people roared and rushed the stage. The spotlight blinded me as Arthur walked on stage and bowed. His stage presence was undeniable — this was a performer who knew how to work the crowd. We launched immediately into Love’s biggest hit, “Alone Again Or” from “Forever Changes.” The minute my bow hit the strings, I stopped feeling nervous. I could have played onstage all night. In fact, I wanted to quit my job at the time and become a full-time rock star! When we played “Andmoreagain,” Arthur walked over to the strings and “conducted” us as we played. This time, when he looked directly at me, his smile was warm and his eyes twinkled. And that’s when it hit me — I was playing with Arthur Lee! My violin lessons had finally paid off!
The concert was such a success that Arthur was asked to do a tour of the East Coast in October of that same year. Our mini-orchestra expanded to include violinists Carrie Bartsch and Julie Carpenter. We also traveled with manager Gene Kraut, sound man Pete Magdaleno and our crew/driver Mike Fornatale. We flew from L.A. to New York in mid-October. During our one-week tour, we practically lived together in a large white van that shuttled us from New York to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and Boston. We managed not to fight during the long hours in the crowded van. I played video games on my Gameboy while our drummer read historical novels, and everyone else either gossiped or listened to their iPods. After every show, everyone gathered in my hotel room to drink beer, eat late-night pizza and bond. My roommate, Ana the cellist, brewed traditional Argentinean yerba matte tea every morning. Despite its pungent smell and taste, I soon learned to like the stuff. We even had time to visit an art museum in Philadelphia, as well as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in D.C. on our days off. (I know, it doesn’t sound very rock and roll, does it? We were quite civilized for rock stars!)
During the tour, Arthur showed me a book he was writing about his life. He knew I was a professional writer and wanted me to read his manuscript. I thought what he had written so far was very honest and moving. We had a wonderful conversation about writing and about his newfound spirituality and love for God, given the difficult times in his life. It was a rare moment where Arthur showed another side to his complex personality — a reflective and solemn side. Later, he revealed a fun-loving, silly sense of humor when he agreed to pose for a photo as “Charlie’s Angels” with Heather, Ana and me before a show in Boston.
After the tour, I played a few more times with Arthur, including shows in San Diego and Santa Ana, Calif., plus a couple song recording gigs. Arthur later moved back to Memphis. Although I did not keep in touch with Arthur himself, I remained in contact with the rest of the musicians from the 2003 lineup.
Arthur passed away on Aug. 3, 2006, of acute myeloid leukemia. That week, Time magazine and newspapers all over the world paid tribute to him. All of a sudden, the memories I had of our time together on tour in 2003 came flooding back. The intensity of my emotions surprised me. Although it was three years ago, the House of Blues concert and the East Coast tour had remained one of my favorite memories. Not only did I get a chance to play “rock star” for a few weeks, but I also made some lifelong friends and had the rare opportunity to learn and grow as a musician under the influence of one of rock’s greatest legends. During one show we played in D.C., I remember Arthur asking the crowd, “Will you do me a favor?”
“Yes!” the audience shouted.
“Love one another,” Arthur said.
Words to live by.