Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Forever Changes - My Take

Guy's post on Forever Changes got me thinking about my own history with the album, so much so that I decided to write my own post on it. I was a junior in High School when I first learned about Forever Changes from a well-worn copy of The New Rolling Stone Record Guide. In his five-star review of the album, Dave Marsh described Forever Changes as an "indescribably essential…soundtrack to an LSD movie." That sounded like something I should hear.

Unlike Guy, I didn't feel let down when I initially heard the album, but that could be because I was predisposed to like it by all the positive press I had read in advance. Also, I was already a fan of neo-psychedelic acts like Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Robyn Hitchcock, and others on whom Forever Changes had been a catalyzing influence, so I had some context in which to understand the album.

That is not to say that everything about Forever Changes went down easily for me. I had been at least partly indoctrinated into the ideology of punk rock, and had developed a healthy distrust of anything that came out of the sixties. It struck me as vaguely pathetic that so many of my peers listened to nothing but "classic rock" while ignoring the indie rock bands I was devoted to. But I reserved my most severe judgments for those 60s rock acts that had the audacity to stick around into the 80s in order to tell the kids how much cooler everything was back in the 60s. I vividly remember once wiping a giant booger on a Starship CD at a record store, and justifying my obnoxious behavior by saying "anyone who buys that crap gets what they deserve." I was quite the young charmer.

Tracking down a copy of Forever Changes wasn't as easy as it should have been. None of the record stores in my area stocked it. I found a copy of Rhino's Best Of Love compilation at Tower Records in Washington D.C., and later an Elektra repressing of Forever Changes by special order. The first two Love albums were much harder to track down, but eventually I found servicable used copies of them as well.

Forever Changes had a huge effect on me. I spent hours transcribing the lyrics, then studying and attempting to interpret them much in the way I was being taught to interpret poems in my English Literature classes. The novel construction of the songs floored me. I was especially impressed with the way Lee used the anticipated but absent last word of a rhyming couplet to begin a subsequent line in "Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale" and the double tracking of contradictory lyrics on the "The Red Telephone." Despite lyrics like "the snot has caked against my pants, it has turned into crystal," it was clear to me that there was more than a bunch of drugged out, hippy nonsense going on here.

The syrupy strings and the mariachi flavored horns that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Whipped Cream and Other Delights didn't phase me (although it did freak me out a little bit when I heard Johnny Mathis on the radio and thought it was a lost Forever Changes outtake). I probably figured the easy-listening influence was subversive or ironic, or something. The thought that maybe Herb Alpert's music was cooler than I was willing to admit didn't cross my mind at the time.

I eagerly re-purchased the album when it was first released on CD in the late 80s. I looked forward to hearing the album's lush string arrangements in "master-tape quality" on a medium that would provide "perfect sound forever." Now that was a disappointment! The CD had a loud 10 kHz "buzz" throughout the entire program that made it unlistenable. When I asked the record store owner what was wrong with the CD he told me that the buzz was a flaw on the master tapes, only you couldn't hear it on LP because the medium wasn't "resolving" enough. Even at 18 I wasn't going to fall for that. Fortunately Rhino did a much better job with their recent expanded, remastered edition, and the Sundazed vinyl re-issue is nearly the equal of an original LP pressing. Either is a very good way to experience the album.

Forever Changes is the quintessential "lost classic," never mind that it has been rediscovered enough times that it probably should be awarded gold record status. Its musical influence has been huge, even if no one ever created anything quite like it again.

But setting aside questions of musical influence, Lee's career would have a profound effect on future generations of musicians in a way that is rarely acknowledged. Elektra president Jac Holzman once famously said of Lee:
"Arthur was, and perhaps still is, one of the smartest, most intelligent, and finest musicians I have ever met in my entire career of making records. As large as his talent, however, was his penchant for isolation and not doing what was necessary to bring his music to the audience. His isolation cost him a career. Which was a shame, because he was one of the few geniuses I have met—in all of rock 'n' rolldom."

Thus, Lee's career became the model for any number of indie-rockers who mistakenly believe that sabotaging one's career and reluctance (or inability) to cultivate a mass audience is proof of musical genius. Fortunately, Lee left behind some great music as legacy.


Peter Hennig said...

Great post Pete -- that first CD edition of Forever Changes is probably responsible for my distrust of digital formats at the time(and for a long time afterward). How any label could release an album, much less one with such stature as Forever Changes, with such an obvious lack of regard toward quality control was, and still is beyond me. The world of CD and reissues has come a long way.

BTW -- I no longer have Reel to Real and from what I recall the Cover was the most interesting part of the lp - kind of a 2001:A Space Odyssey take off depicting a baby attached to a recording reel via magnetic umbilical tape. I do have the Rhino 'Love Live' and the Blue Thumb 'Out Here' which was the essentially the outtakes from 'Four Sail'. The Love Live disc has Arthur and Bryan reunited in front of a rapid audience in 1978, I believe.

Pete Bilderback said...

Yeah, that initial Forever Changes CD sounded amazingly bad. I remember listening to it and thinking that it wasn't possible that anyone actually listened to it before it got pressed. My guess is that something in their equipment chain wasn't properly grounded when they did the A to D conversion, but who knows. No one at Elektra gave a crap I guess. It's good that Warners does most of their reissues through Rhino now, because they actually care about the music.

It was around the time that CD was issued that I decided I was going to start buying a lot of LPs. It was a good time to do it to because a lot of people were selling off their entire collections to switch over to "perfect sound forever." You could find a lot of good stuff for cheap back then. It's much harder now.

It's too bad you don't have 'Reel to Real' anymore. From what I remember it was not good, but it would be interesting to hear. The cover was pretty weird. I've sold a lot of stuff I regret now, including a mono pressing of 'Da Capo!'

'Out Here' has a pretty cool cover too. Most of the stuff worth hearing from that (six songs worth) is on the Rhino 2 CD set, 'Love Story.' Although they edited out the groovy 10 minute drum solo from "Doggone."

It would be interesting to hear something from 'Love Live.' I don't remember that being so great, but it is impossible to find these days.

BTW, what do you think of my 'alternate' covers for Forever Changes? I'm teaching myself Photoshop.