Sunday, October 9, 2011

Travels With My Camera: Arthur Lee and Love

Travels With My Camera:
Arthur Lee & Love
by Daniel Coston

Sometimes, you find the music you love. And sometimes, the music finds you. I knew about the legend of Arthur Lee and Love before I ever heard a note of their music. In the late 1990s, Lee was serving a twelve-year term for firing a gun on his front porch, thanks to California’s “three strikes you’re out” law. During his time in prison, support for his plight grew, and I began to hear about Love’s third and best-known record, 1968’s Forever Changes.

In 2002, California let Lee go after a six-year sentence, and Arthur Lee began his comeback. By the summer of 2003, Lee had taken his current lineup of Love all over the world, playing Forever Changes in its entirety. A chance look on Pollstar’s website showed that Arthur & Love were booked to play the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA on September 21st, 2003. I lined up a photo pass, and made plans to go.

The Birchmere is a fabled theater near Washington, DC, and brings in top acts to play in intimate settings. It’s a tough place to shoot, as there are no areas around the stage to shoot. You wedge yourself against people’s tables, or on the side of the stage, and hope that the patrons don’t yell at you. But Arthur was there, and that’s all that mattered.

It had been a busy summer for me. I had photographed Johnny Cash’s final public appearances, and spent two days photographing Les Paul in Nashville. However, even with all of that, the best show I saw all of that year was Arthur Lee and Love performing Forever Changes. Lee was a powerful, enigmatic frontman. He drew you in a with a tough grace that was both thrilling and slightly fearsome. Throw in a well-rehearsed band, with strings and horns, and that record hit me in a way it had never done before. By the time he encored with “Little Red Book” and “7 and 7 Is,” I was in awe. Lee finished the show, waved goodbye, and left through the back.

Several months later, Arthur and Love went out on a package tour with the current version of the Zombies. I had just seen the Zombies in Charlotte, and loved the show, so a double-bill? No brainer on that one, as I drove to another suburb of Washington, to the State Theater in Falls Church, VA. After spending way too long to find parking, I finally made it in to see most of Love’s set.

For much of the tour, Arthur and the band “opened” for the Zombies by playing first, which didn’t sit well with Arthur. He was always going to let you know that this was a LOVE show, no matter who or what was on the bill. On top of playing a fantastic set, I noticed that there was an guitarist on this tour, an older man that was nailing all of original guitarist Johnny Echols’ intricate guitar parts. But he hasn’t played live in forty years. It couldn’t be him, but when Arthur introduced to the crowd his “original guitar player,” I realized it was Johnny Echols, adding extra excitement to the audience.

Arthur was also notorious for shying away from fans, and not really having a public persona. Ten minutes before the Zombies went on stage, I noticed a rush of fans clamoring to the merch area. Unbelievably, it was Arthur and Johnny, signing autographs. Fans went nuts, and the Zombies’ merch guy looked on in astonishment.

I got some separate candids of Arthur and Johnny, and at some point, a girl asked to have her photo taken with both Arthur and Johnny. I realized what was going to happen, and moved into an open space. As soon as the girl walked away, I said in a loud voice, “Hey guys, let me get a photo of you two,” and got two quick photos. I was so excited, I didn’t notice that I was slightly out of focus, which I spent some time later fixing it in Photoshop. But I got it. Soon after, Arthur said to no one in particular, “Okay, that’s enough,” and you could feel the colors of the room change. His will, his aura, if you will, told you that he was leaving, and to back off, and most of us did. I said thank you and safe travels, Arthur turned and said “Thank you” to me, and he was gone.

Soon after, I sent one of the photos to Mojo Magazine on a whim, and they proudly ran it in their next issue, later telling me it was the first published photo of them together in 37 years. Arthur stopped performing within the next year, as the band claimed that he was having emotional issues. However, it was later learned that Arthur was badly ill, and eventually died in Memphis in the summer of 2006.

Somewhere around that time, I sent some of my photos to a Love fansite in Denmark. They already had heard of me because of the Mojo pic, and I was happy to have the photos posted on his site. Soon after, Johnny Echols sent an email. He had been trying to find me since the Mojo publication, and found me through the fansite. Could I send him photos? I sent copies as soon as I could.

Soon after, I got another email. “Hello,” it began, “I’m Diane Lee, and you photographed my husband Arthur.” I hadn’t even known that Arthur had married his longtime love Diane in the last year of his life. “I love your photos, and Arthur really liked the photo of him and Johnny that ran in Mojo. Is there any way that I could get copies? I’d like to use them for some future projects.” I started crying as I read that email, which I still have.

A few of my photos of Arthur and Love have since been used in various places. I’m very proud that the photos I took, taken first and foremost for my own enjoyment, have become something else. Do I wish I’d taken more? Sure, a photographer always wishes he had more pics. But sometimes, it’s what we do get that stays with us, and allows others to find us, too.

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