183: Love, ‘Alone Again Or’ (Bryan MacLean)

Love, ‘Alone Again Or’

Bryan MacLean, ‘Alone Again Or’

Bryan MacLeanIt’s our pleasure this week to shine a little light into an obscure but legendary corner of the rock pantheon.

That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? A legend can’t be obscure – it has to be out and about to become a legend, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not.

Bryan MacLean grew up a Beverly Hills brat. Liza Minelli was his first girlfriend, he learned to swim in Liz Taylor’s pool, doodled on Frederick Loewe’s piano, began playing music with buddies Kenny Edwards (Stone Poneys), Ry Cooder, and David Crosby, Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn before they were Byrds.

Often brilliant, always annoying Arthur Lee was an irascible, autocratic black organist playing white versions of black music, a la Beatles/Stones. We’re talking 1966, and Lee’s group Love was one of the very first LA-based garage bands. The prototypical Byrds had just left LA for their first 8 Mile High tour of the UK. Arthur wanted his band to fill the void, so he hired Bryan, their pretty-boy ex-road manager as singer/guitarist, figuring the girls would follow.

They became close friends. Any delusion Bryan had of an equal partnership with Arthur was dispelled when the latter beat the crap out of him over some minor dispute, establishing forever the nature of their relationship.

Bryan’s contributions to Love’s rich, raunchy eponymous first album (1966) were the minor ‘Softly to Me’ and his cover of the Byrd’s version of the Bacharach/David ‘Little Red Book’. Their second, brilliantly flawed album, “Da Capo” (1967), was an Arthur Lee trip, like all Love albums. “We got derailed. We put that huge long song [‘Revalation’] on the second side, which was a shame, because there was a lot of other stuff we could have done that would have been a lot better.” The highlight of the trailblazing first side is Bryan’s lovely ‘Orange Skies’, written when he was 17. Here’s his original.

Then came “Forever Changes” (1967), by all accounts one of rock’s great achievements, #40 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the top albums of all time, #11 on the Virgin list, #6 on the New Music Express list. It still sells well 50 years later, universally considered a masterpiece of that memorable era.

“Forever Changes” is a consistently inspired amalgam of acoustic rock with stunning string and mariachi (or, as one reader informs me, pasodoble) brass arrangements by David Angel and brilliant acidic Lee lyrics. Lee wrote and sang nine of the album’s eleven songs. But the two standout cuts are the haunting ‘Old Man’ and the album’s opener, ‘Alone Again Or’, both written and sung by the abused, cowed Bryan MacLean.

Bryan MacLean and Mother

Bryan MacLean and Mother

Then MacLean left the band, frustrated with Arthur’s high-handed domination of the band and its members. Love made several more boring, Lee-trip albums before disbanding. Bryan found Jesus. Lee spent 5 years in jail for shooting at a neighbor who’d protested at the noise from his stereo. MacLean died in 1998, Lee in 2006.

During the Love years, Bryan was writing prolifically. Years later, his mother was cleaning the family garage and discovered her little boy’s demo tapes. Like a good mother, she organized them, catalogued them, and actually got them released on two CDs, ‘ifyoubelievein’ and ‘Candy’s Waltz’.  They’ve probably sold a good 50 copies each.

Bryan MacLean obscured by the ever-tasteful Arthur Lee

From the liner notes of the former: “The way you’re hearing it now is the way Arthur originally heard everything. And he would always say ‘That’s great!’ But it would never end up on the record. There was never room.”

As a boy, Bryan would hold his mother’s castanets at her flamenco lessons, and dress up and sing Broadway songs. “Arthur would take my ideas and kind of do his own versions.”

Let’s listen to a few of Bryan’s non-Love songs, which I’m guessing it’s safe to say you’ve never heard before. They’re really quite beautiful, in the soft, elusive David Crosby mode (a comparison MacLean himself makes; check out ‘Special Joy’). Here are a few more cuts to show you just what a fine talent Bryan was: ‘Farmer John‘, ‘Kathleen‘, ‘Fresh Hope‘, and ‘People‘. His small voice is fragile, vulnerable. Together with that pretty face of his, I’m guessing if I were a girl I’d have wanted to go right up to him and hug him.

What I find most noteworthy is his emphatic, percussive acoustic guitar playing – it’s sophisticated, substantial, original and memorable. I think it displays a hard-edged but expressive, personal acoustic-rock style that Paul Simon, Van Morrison, John Martyn, Stephen Stills and others later developed into one of the most expressive modes of second generation singer-songwriter rock.

His best songs, or at least so they seem in retrospect, did thankfully make the Arthur cut.

‘Old Man’, here in the Love version, here in Bryan’s demo, is a memorable, evocative, wistful gem. “There was no old man. But I think I wanted there to be one. I wanted a mentor or a guide. Maybe it’s because my father left; I had the dad-that-left syndrome, the kind of dad who picked me up on weekends. Maybe I was thinking of that type of person. But really, what the old man is saying in the song is, until you actually love someone, you don’t understand many of the things in life. And in the song, I have the old man giving the guy a book. I’m sure I was thinking of the Bible, even back then.”

To tell you the truth, Bryan? I think I’ll stick with the song.

Bryan MacLean (center), Arthur Lee (right)

And our SoTW, that indelible opening cut from that landmark album, “Forever Change”’s ‘Alone Again Or’. MacLean admitted that not all the lyrics make much sense. “’I think people are the greatest fun’. Friends of mine would give me a lot of ribbing about that. No, they are not stop-the-world lyrics.” Here’s his very beautiful demo, a gift that justifies all the mothers of the world cleaning out their garages and discovering their little boys’ lost treasures.

Well, that may be true, Bryan, but people are still singing those words (cover versions by Calexico, The Damned, and UFO, all painfully inferior to the original).

“I made reference to [string arranger David Angel about] Rimsky-Korsakov and Capriccio Espagnol. He was one of the great orchestrators. And I said that if you could get the baroque-like strings of Franz Josef Hayden going on under that trumpet… I didn’t give David the actual notes. Those trumpet notes were his. But that was my contribution, blending those two concepts. And that was the happiest I ever was with anything we ever did as a band – the orchestral arrangement of that song.”

The Spanish guitar, the mariachi trumpets, the inscrutable lyric, the unforgettable lift of the strings, all contribute to this time-tried, gravity-defying wonder. #436 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest songs, this obscure legend.

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