Obituary: Bryan MacLean
Friday 01 January 1999
Born in Los Angeles in 1947, MacLean drifted towards the music scene and became a roadie for the Byrds. In the mid-Sixties, the tall blond musician would hang out at Ben Frank's, a 24-hour diner on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. As he recalled on television, "Bobby Jameson, a friend of mine, told me about the audition for the Monkees. He said: `You ought to go down there, you're what they're looking for. You'll make $750 a week.' That was an enormous amount. But he didn't tell me that it was comedy," explained MacLean. "So I went down there being the hip, street- wise guy, gravelling my voice, and it was wrong. Thank God it was the wrong approach. They got the impression I was a seriously drugged- out guy. "
In retrospect, MacLean didn't dwell too much on his failure to edge out Peter Tork or Mike Nesmith and take part in American television's manufactured answer to the Fab Four. Disparagingly, he claimed: "The Monkees were extremely square. They just jumped on the bandwagon. It had nothing to do with what was really going on. It was the Keystone Cops of rock. I didn't belong in the Monkees or, if I did, I'm still in denial about it." He joked somewhat nervously: "If I ever find out that I belonged in the Monkees, then I will probably have a legitimate nervous breakdown," and went on, "I think that I really belonged in something that involved pioneering music, something that wasn't popular yet. My goal for my music was always timelessness."
MacLean more than succeeded in this aim with Love, a band who rank alongside the Velvet Underground and the Ramones when it comes to influencing successive generations of musicians (REM, House of Love, the Stone Roses).
Again, MacLean met Arthur Lee at Ben Frank's. The Memphis-born musician had already cut a single with the LAGs before moving on to the American Four with the guitarist Johnny Echols. The three joined forces and, adding the rhythm section of Johnny Fleckenstein and Don Conka (soon replaced by the bassist Ken Forssi and drummer Alban "Snoopy" Pfisterer), became the Grass Roots.
Having made their live debut at Brave New World in LA in April 1965, the group changed its name to avoid confusion with another Grass Roots (of "Let's Live For Today" fame). Given the flower-power movement emerging on the West Coast, the five musicians opted for Love and attracted the attention of Jac Holzman in early 1966. The entrepreneur had already established Elektra Records on the East Coast as the natural home of the folk scene with artists like Judy Collins but he wanted to move the label towards the rock underground. Love's unique brand of folk and demented psychedelia more than fitted the bill. "Thirty seconds into their version of `Hey Joe', I knew this was the group I was looking for," claimed Holzman, who would later sign the Doors at Lee's instigation.
Love became the first rock band on Elektra and released a stunning version of Burt Bacharah and Hal David's "My Little Red Book" (from What's New Pussycat?) in April 1966. Following their appearance on American Bandstand, the single and ensuing debut album (simply entitled Love) both made the US Top 60 and the following 45, the frantic "Seven and Seven Is", did even better, reaching No 33 in September. "Love was what is lovingly referred to as an underground, a garage band. We had a following but it was underground. It wasn't meant to appeal to as many people as the Monkees' music was," reflected MacLean, who wrote the lovely "Softly To Me" on the first album.
Wearing ribbons in his hair, the more introspective MacLean was the ideal foil to Arthur Lee's frenzied genius and Love became darlings of the hippie scene. Living in their communal Los Angeles "Castle" (actually a decaying mansion previously used as a horror movie set), they recruited Tjay Cantrelli on flute and Michael Stuart on drums while "Snoopy" Pfisterer moved to keyboards to flesh out the group's richer sound on Da Capo, their second album (February 1967). MacLean's jazzy "Orange Skies" was the B-side of "She Comes in Colours" but neither this nor "Que Vida" could match their previous success, especially as the group hardly ever toured away from their California base.
Following Pfisterer and Cantrelli's departure, Love set to work on the ambitious Forever Changes, their third album issued in November 1967, just as their cult status was reaching British shores. Hailed a masterpiece and still namechecked as one of the best-ever albums, Forever Changes reached the Top 30 album chart in the UK while "Alone Again Or", the eerie, evanescent MacLean composition, entered the US Hot 100. Covered by the Damned in 1986, "Alone Again Or" proved the swansong of the original Love as the idiosyncratic Lee kept playing mind games with MacLean.
During a very strange interview in 1992, Lee told me: "We were competing a bit like Lennon and McCartney to see who would come up with the better song. It was part of our charm. Everybody had different behaviour patterns. Eventually, the others couldn't cut it." Lee sacked the rest of the band and assumed the Love mantle from mid-1968. He briefly worked with Jimi Hendrix and nearly died of a drug overdose in 1970.
MacLean also fell from grace. "I don't think I could cope with even the minimal amount of fame that I experienced. It was difficult to stay balanced. To be honest, it almost killed me just to have the notoriety that I had. To have my face more well-known would have been pathogenic. I don't know if I could have lived through it," he later admitted.
"I've had a lot of experiences that would have killed most people: drug overdoses, felony arrests. I was invited to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski's house the night that the Mansons showed up. I had a penchant for putting myself 100 per cent in whatever I was doing, wrong or right. And there are consequences. If you have the greatest drug and what you feel is the most euphoric experience and it ends, then you're in trouble. You think you're getting on to the train and you're gonna get off at the next stop. But before you realise it, you're strapped to the front of a runaway train until it crashes. And when it crashes, you don't even know if you're gonna come out. I just simply didn't have another runaway train experience left in me."
A proposed solo deal fell through when Jac Holzman pronounced the MacLean demos "too fragmented". MacLean bounced back for a while but, before completing an album for Capitol Records, he quit the business in 1970. Seven years later, his old nemesis Arthur Lee tempted him out of retirement for a Love tour with the future Knack drummer Bruce Gary. MacLean enlisted for a further Southern California reunion outing (immortalised on Rhino's Love Live album) and got religion.
"I wasn't doing well. My mother had been converted watching Bill Graham on television, she was praying for me. One night, in a hotel room in New York, I just prayed, cried out to the Lord and said: if you're real, I'm gonna give my life to you because I'm afraid I'm gonna destroy myself. I ended up walking away from the business at that point," confessed MacLean, who became a sepulchral presence, not unlike the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.
By the Nineties, the erratic Arthur Lee was displaying paranoid tendencies and symptoms of Parkinson's disease. In 1996, following several arrests and convictions, he was jailed for 12 years for threatening behaviour with a firearm.
Bryan MacLean crawled back from the wreckage. His half-sister, Maria McKee, made several records with Lone Justice, including a song by MacLean, "Don't Toss Us Away", in 1985, which three years later became a Top 10 country music hit for Patty Loveless. In 1997, the Sundazed label released IfYouBelieveIn, a collection of solo acoustic MacLean demos culled from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. His odd quavering vocals remained as compelling as ever and also came to the fore in his born-again incarnation.
"I started making music again when I felt comfortable to move back into writing without violating my stand for Christ," Bryan MacLean told Ian MacMillan. "Love grows in me when I proclaim all that my Lord has done. I'm now writing worship music that's presented in an ethereal genre. Celtic, spacy, no guitars. I call it spooky Christian music, spooky worship music.
"If a person is a Satanist or a Buddhist or a Hindu, they will be able to listen to this music and not be put off by it because it's the universal longing to be in the spirit realm that's being expressed."
Bryan MacLean, guitarist, singer and songwriter: born Los Angeles 25 September 1946; died Los Angeles 25 December 1998.
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