Remembering Lowell George
If his imprint on America’s rock n’ roll landscape measures this rocker’s worth, Lowell George was priceless. His contribution was deep and lasting. Lowell’s legend lives on in the band named after his little feet, through other musicians who continue covering his songs and emulate his slide play, and in the myriad fans who still love Little Feat for who they were, who they are and what they play. Lowell George wasn’t just the Rock n’ Roll Doctor; he was one of rock n’ roll’s best-loved slide guitarists and all-around charming characters.
Born in Hollywood, California, on April 13, 1945, as the door swung closed on World War II, Lowell grew up in a town that made stars. But Lowell was never really discovered, despite the convenience of his homeground. He worked for what he got and paid his dues while improving and perfecting his technique and instruments, and exploring music’s vast universe. His life in music began when his brother joined the Army and Lowell grabbed the flamenco guitar he left behind. Lowell was 11, but he soon became mesmerized by the instrument. The rest of his teenage years were spent cultivating his craft and passion, during which he developed a fondness for Strats.
Although he missed being a Baby Boomer officially by less than a year, Lowell sure shared many of the concerns near and dear to their hearts. He had problems with government, structure and traditional values. He emerged on the American music scene during the country’s cultural revolution and soon distinguished himself as a budding songwriter and guitarist. Although he knew Paul Barrere from his high school days, the first future Little Feat member Lowell would play with professionally was Richie Hayward in the band, The Factory. After that band broke up, Lowell eventually hooked up with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Through the Mothers, Lowell met the other two founding members of Little Feat: bassist Roy Estrada (a founding member of the Mothers), and eventually Bill Payne, who was also trying to hook up with the Mothers, but was directed to see Lowell instead. The nucleus of Little Feat had formed.
Lowell and Bill bonded immediately and began to collaborate. Lowell was still with the Mothers, so Bill hung with the fine crowd of young musicians – Jackson Browne, Fred Tackett, Martin Kibbee, Ray Collins, Richie Hayward – drawn to Lowell’s pad. In those early sessions, Lowell and Bill churned out deep and diverse songs: Truck-Stop Girl, Strawberry Flats, Brides of Jesus, Gunboat Willy. Lowell soon left the Mothers, which busted up – for the first time, but surely not the last – shortly after he left. Soon thereafter, Lowell, Bill, Roy, and Richie, then drumming for the Fraternity of Man, formed Little Feat. For a few live performances before their first, self-titled album, they played under the name of Country Zeke and the Freaks. Thankfully, Lowell had little feet!
The critics loved the complexities and originality of the first album. The band’s next album, Sailin’ Shoes, also was well received. But it was the last album in which Little Feat would be a rootsy four-piece band. After the album was released, Roy Estrada left, and Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton and Kenny Gradney entered. This funkier Feat line-up percolated and poured it on through Dixie Chicken, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, Time Loves a Hero and Last Record Album.
Lowell suggested in a 1976 Dan Kening interview that he always tempered his opinion of his success and skills. “I don't read my press clippings, but there are a couple of people I have read because they took the group and put in their sense of humor about what the band was really about. And being in the music field can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a heartbreak. From the time I was 21, when I first started playing professionally, I thought I was hot stuff. From the time I was 23 until I was 28, I was completely under the impression that I wasn't any good. Just recently I started not caring about it at all - I just play! A big stumbling block is one's own attitude or vision of himself as a musician. I've known guys that are great guitar players, but they've got such high standards of themselves that they're complete jerks, and nobody will play with them. And then there are those guys that are so scared! There's a guy, Elliot Ingber…,” also known as The Winged Eel Fingerling, “…who is such an amazing guitar player but thinks he's terrible. He played guitar on the Mother's Freak Out album, and with Captain Beefheart. One time I was jamming with Elliot and Jimi Hendrix, and Hendrix stopped playing to listen to the guy! But in front of an audience, nothing – the guy's scared stiff!”
Lowell was known for his slide guitar work. He was a pioneer on the slide – given his distinctive style – and his contributions to rock n’ roll remain as recognized today as they were in his day. Well-known cats such as Elmore James and Muddy Waters played plenty of slide guitar before him, but Lowell’s bellowing syncopation style was his and his piercing, delectable work resonated on the American music scene as well as anything Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons or Johnny Winter played in the ‘70s. Martin Kibbee, who helped Lowell write Dixie Chicken, referred to Lowell as “pre-eminent of the mellow mafia slide life,” in a 1995 Scott Cooper article. Lowell’s slide device of choice was a Craftsman 11/16th-inch deep-well socket. When touring in Europe, he bought 13-millimeter deep-well sockets. Apparently he had a hard time keeping a socket in his pocket. He had the same problem with cigarette lighters. He lost or misplaced them all the time.
Lowell also seemed to have at least some difficulty hanging on to his guitars. In his 1976 Kening interview he said they were stolen regularly. “Just turn your back for a second, and they're gone! If you play in bar bands in a town like Los Angeles, one wrong move, and it's all over. One time we were playing some place north of San Francisco, and we had a trailer. We put all our equipment in it, and parked the thing in front of our apartment. I was saying to myself at the time, "I'll sleep by the window, and when they try to steal it, I'll wake up and get them." I didn't hear a thing, nor did anyone else, and it was gone the next morning. I lost a real nice Strat.”
Those early days, rough as they could be, were important to Lowell and his future success. In a 1979 Michael Cregar interview, when asked if he had paid his dues as a musician, Lowell said, “It was all fun, so I don't know about dues. I mean eighteen weeks of spaghetti dinners. Calling up some chicks to come over and do the dishes because they were stacked nine inches high on all fronts. And then we'd get a lot of flack about that. I mean I still run into those ladies that did the dishes, and I can't live it down. It was all fun. It was a difficult period, but it was all and all a kind of wellspring from which a lot of material was written.”
When Lowell wrote, the lyrics of his powerful songs pulled you in, often by paralleling experiences you had been through or were dying to go through. In many of his best-loved songs – Crack in the Door, Fatman in the Bathtub, Two Trains, Spanish Moon and Rocket in my Pocket – there was always a story, usually with some sort of dilemma and plenty of suffering. Those songs – stories, if you will – have transcended generations and are as exciting today as when they were first heard on vinyl albums decades ago. Shit happened to Lowell – and he was a good bullshitter, too – and he had a powerfully unique way of conveying that in his lyrics.
Who doesn’t want to hear more after listen to the opening of Crack in the Door, “I don’t even know what I did wrong, but her old man said if I didn’t get out of town, I might not live too long…” You instantly want more. And if you had heard it already, you want to hear the whole story again. Lowell’s lyrics captured that excitement we all crave, and his slide work accentuated that smooth rhythmic assault Little Feat wove tightly into its music. The result – especially when seen live – was mind numbing.
Waiting for Columbus, released in 1978, was the product of seven 1977 concerts in Washington, D.C., and London. Decades later, it remains one of the best live rock recordings ever. If you’re looking for a capsule of Lowell-era Feat at its finest, this is it. Waiting for Columbus was the band’s masterpiece and everyone shined in this collection of songs. Lowell’s distinctively ornery voice and scorching slide work are unmistakable throughout and fit harmoniously with every voice and instrument in the band. Waiting for Columbus is a crowning, unforgettable achievement. It not only represents what six incredibly gifted musicians can do together, but it also illustrates how the talent and sophistication of each musician can be marveled at for his own distinctive contributions to all the songs. Just listen. It’s all there.
Lowell had a passion for the spontaneity of live performances over studio work. In his 1979 Michael Cregar interview, he said, “I hate recording sessions. I'd rather play to a live audience. It's a lot easier and a lot more fun. Recording sessions are mental exercises. They get real tough and they're real, real boring.”
Lowell also admitted in the Cregar interview he liked to experiment on stage regularly. “My idea of the band is not that we should stay within restricted limits. You know like shows should be a little different every night, that we should never get too terribly bored with anything. So that every night's a little bit... I mean we have a piece of music and we all put our feelings into it. Some nights it's a complete disaster, and other nights it comes out really, really great. The great nights make up for those disasters that happen occasionally. I mean everybody has good days, and other days don't turn out so well.”
Despite Lowell’s incredible talents, he was also as human as the rest of us. He had his vices and he spread himself thin regularly and probably didn’t help his health with his lifestyle. During the recording of 1979’s Down On The Farm, and while on tour in support of his own solo album, Thanks, I’ll Eat Here, Lowell met a tragic and untimely passing. He was gone at age 34.
Lowell’s contributions to rock n’ roll will live on because of the passion his guitar work and singing exude. For those who were close to him, his presence was something pretty special, too. He truly was a one-of-a-kind young American who found his calling and his way into the hearts of countless music lovers worldwide. Thankfully, Little Feat plays on and carries Lowell’s torch with it everywhere it goes. Rest in peace Lowell. The world misses you. Man do we miss you!
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