Willin': a Little Feat bio
Mar 6, 2014
Willin’: The Story Of Little Feat, by Ben Fong-Torrres (Da Capo)
I have wanted to read a decent biography of the late, great Lowell George for so long I had been thinking I might have to write my own, but veteran Rolling Stone scribe Ben Fong-Torrres has saved me the effort. If his prose is workmanlike, his research has been diligent and he has scored fresh interviews with most of the crucial people, resulting in much material never before in print.
I never knew, for example, that Lowell George and Richie Hayward were brothers-in-law, but it helps explain some of the psychic connectedness I always heard in the rhythmically rarefied combination of George’s guitar and Hayward’s drums.
And Lowell’s complicated love life might explain the number of different women that crop up in his songs, from Dallas Alice to Sweet Juanita. He had two marriages, which virtually overlapped, plus flings along the way with a veritable choir of Los Angeles’ songbirds: Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones, among others. He was a famous philanderer, an incorrigible doper and evidently a total charmer as well as a musical genius. Everyone seemed to love him, except perhaps Bill Payne, with whom he co-founded Little Feat and whose frustrations are understandable.
Still, it becomes evident in the last quarter of the book – which deals with the reformed (in more ways than one) post-Lowell Feat – that without George’s unique aesthetic – what friend Van Dyke Parks termed his ‘cartoon consciousness’ – the band was a rudderless ship. Replacement singer Craig Fuller sounded a bit like Lowell but didn’t last long. His replacement was Shaun Murphy; the band couldn’t even agree on whether or not the addition of a female vocalist was a good idea.
What Fong-Torres doesn’t delve into as deeply as it deserves is the music. Old record reviews (mostly from Rolling Stone) are heavily quoted, their glib assessments taken as gospel.
For me, the first five albums – the ones made under Lowell’s firm stewardship – are as sexy as the Stones, funky as the Meters, smart as Dylan and quirky as Monk, and as unique any of them. If few other groups ever adopted their template it was only because it was so individual that it was almost impossible to reproduce.
But the Feat aesthetic was defined as much by what it didn’t contain. While they were clearly monster musos, there were no overblown displays of virtuosity. They didn’t require double concept albums to express themselves. Payne could be more eloquent in a three-minute three-chord song like ‘Dixie Chicken’ than Keith Emerson could in an entire concerto. In an era of pretentious and self-absorbed lyricists, Lowell was concise, witty and universal, with a spectacular vocabulary; his songs were rife with unscrupulous operators, conditional reflex theories and temporarily qualmless protagonists.
In many ways it’s a tragic story. George, for all his genius, had his demons. Like the trucker in the song ‘Willin’’ with his “weed, whites and wine”, his recreational drug use may have started out as a workaholic’s way of maintaining an insane schedule. But, as someone sagely noted, the drugs only keep working until they don’t. And by the time Lowell died at age 34 (just like Charlie Parker) drugs seemed to be making him sicker and fatter, not better.
Still, George packed a lot into his short life. He was a martial artist, an orchestral flutist, a member of the Mothers Of Invention, fanatical fisherman, father… and that is on top of creating his signature slide guitar sound, singing like a cowboy angel, writing a bunch of bona fide roots-rock standards and making a handful of records that will always sound thrilling, as long as there’s still something to play them on.