In 1965, Lee's folk-rock group, the Grass Roots, was forced to change its name because of a pre-existing band with the same name. The name Love came as a result of an audience vote at a club. In the wrong hands -- anyone's but Lee's -- the band would have come off as a parody of hippie-dippieness. However, there was a hard-bitten quality to Lee's songwriting and performance that lent Love some gravity and helped distinguish them from the stereotypical psychedelic bands of the time who trafficked in treacly arrangements and wispy lyrics about toffee castles and lemonade lakes.
Love's pre-punk swagger was sometimes out of place in the summery scene of late-'60s L.A. Big Brother and the Holding Co. bassist Peter Albin once said of the band that "their name should be Hate rather than Love." That may be a bit of an overstatement. Songs like "Seven and Seven Is," a salvo of lysergic rock, and "Signed D.C.," a moving cautionary tale about heroin, were as gritty as any California rock song, but Forever Changes, Love's ornate orchestral pop masterpiece, was one of the downright prettiest American responses to Sgt. Pepper's.
These somewhat contradictory traits are ultimately what have made Love such a unique band of their era. The mélange of stylistic influences kept listeners guessing -- from the mariachi blasts of "A House Is Not a Motel" to the gospel accents of "I'll Pray for You" to the never-ending blues beat of "Revelation," a sidelong track that wouldn't have sounded out of place being played some beery night at Junior Kimbrough's juke joint.
Lee was still shattering expectations in his final years. Performances by nostalgia acts can often be sad jokes, more reminders of what has been lost than of the enduring power of song. In 2003, Lee teamed with an L.A. band, Baby Lemonade, on the Forever Changes tour. They performed the entirety of the classic album, complete with strings and brass. I was initially reluctant to attend, worried that it would be as disappointing as seeing an aging Willie Mays during his time with the Mets. I saw Lee at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. Most of his bandmates, as well as everyone in the crowd, were seated. He strode out confidently after everyone had gotten settled and took command. He seemed tireless that night, perhaps just happy to be out and on the road. He enthusiastically tore through the songs and seemed to have more energy than anyone else on stage. There was nothing pathetic or sad about it.
It was such a surprising and positive experience that I jumped at the chance to see him in concert the following year. This time it was a double-bill with the Zombies. Though the Zombies were great, it was clear that the night belonged to Lee & Co. He was reunited onstage with Johnny Echols, whom he'd known since childhood. At one point, Echols did a perfect lead solo while holding the guitar behind his head. Lee grabbed the mic with authority and fed off the excitement of the crowd. He sang with a young man's fury.
Lee was always a walking contradiction. Sometimes a peacenik, other times a gangster. On one hand, his impact on rock was indelible, yet on the other, he had the relative anonymity of a cult figure. I've seen obituaries and memorials in papers from Japan, Turkey, Holland, and England. I've seen words of respect paid on conservative Web sites and on record-collector forums. He didn't always get his due from the critics or the fans. He may not always have known it, but he was loved and he left a lot of love scattered all over the world. Regarding his troubled life and recent comeback and acclaim, perhaps one of his own song titles says it best: "Love Is More Than Words (or Better Late Than Never)."