It's cruelly poetic that Lowell George, one of the great obscure rock 'n' rollers of the past decade, died yesterday morning in his room at the Twin Bridges Marriott, a mile outside the only city that ever really embraced him as a superstar performer.
Lowell George was here for a concert - an odd concert for his thousands of local fans, because it was his first solo outing apart from the group Little Feat, which he founded eight years ago. Commercially, Little Feat never made the big time: no hit singles, no Madison Square Garden concerts, no recognition in Peoria or Chicago or even in the band's hometown, L.A.
But in Washington, Little Feat was arguably the most popular band in town. "I may have gone to Hollywood High," George once said, "but I feel like I've been accepted here much more than back home." The group's seven albums were snapped up faster than LPs by the Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead. They could easily sell out 20,000 seats in a few days, and their songs - even from seven-year-old albums - were eternally on the air.
Part of that appeal was Little Feat's raucous, syncopated, good-timey rhythm: it was Southern party music, blending all those elements that combine strangely in this town - emotionalism and reason, flair and flash, virtuosity and excess, urgency and despair.
But equally, appealing may have been Lowell George's anti-charismatic image: in a milieu of insipid, mundane pop lyrics, his were witty and urbane, in songs like "Dixie Chicken" and "Rocket in My Pocket"; in a field almost totally occupied by repetitious melodies, his were at once alluringly simple and sophisticated; in a form dominated by instrumental excess, George was a master of the understated slide guitar solo.
Lowell George did not look like a pop star: At 34, he was grossly overweight, always dressed in white overalls that made him look more like an unhappy TV repairman. Several years ago he had back surgery, and then became very fond of pain killers and eating. "Marion Brando's fat, too," he once said, eating Twinkies backstage at the Warner Theater.
He would often talk with friends about how hard it had been to stop taking morphine, even as he popped Quaaludes into his mouth and eagerly snorted cocaine.
But beyond all the crazines, Lowell George was an intensely warm character. He could denounce his record company publicly from the stage, and then dedicate a sweetly sentimental song to that same company's local promotion man for all he had done to help his group.
He used to tell local audiences, "I love you guys, you're unbelievable- and you're crazy."
He could become obsessed with talk about politics or the minutiae of recording-studio technology, and cut it off instantly when he sensed that someone in the group was finding the topic boring.
Once a critic lambasted a performance and a new album by Little Feat, and George responded with a thank-you note appreciative of the honesty of the sentiment and the judgment.
"The one thing any artist must really fear," he typed, "is that a friendship will dilute a sense of critical honesty. And what the hell, you were right, the show was very low."
He adored puns, old jokes and wild tales. He could deftly bend cliches, taking a blues form, calling it "The Apolitical Blues" and writing:
My telephone is ringing
They told me it was Chairman Mao
I just don't want to talk to him now . . .
He could sing tales about barroom girls and melodies and memories that come winging back in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel. He could get Tucumcari to rhyme in a song, create the truckstop character Dallas Alice and write some of the most lyrically sentimental ballads in contemporary pop music, like the "Willin" crooned by Linda Ronstadt:
I've been washed by the rain
Driven by the snow
I'm drunk and dirty don't you know
But I'm still . . .
George was one of those catalytic personalities whose real visibility came by association. He performed with Ronstadt ad Bonnie Raitt and Valerie Carter ad Nicolette Larsen, and was singing Rickie Lee Jones tunes before anybody really knew them. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin called Little Feat their favorite band. And plenty of musicians recorded George's songs.
But not enough people bought the band's albums and, after several brief separations, the group finally split a few months ago, with a final album, "Duck Lips," in the can. George released his first solo album, "Thanks I'll Eat Here," in April. It's a bouncy showcase of rich singing and wonderful songwriting (mostly other people's material) and thick, supple production. The cover painting displays characteristic Lowell George wit: The singer picnicking with Bob Dylan, Marlene Dietrich, Fidel Castro and the White Rock Girl.
Lowell George was out on the road to promote that record with a new band. When he walked on stage at Lisner Auditorium Wednesday night, his followers were ready, particularly when he began to beat out a rhythm on a cowbell for Little Feat's traditional opening song. "Fat Man in the Bathtub."
The sold-out crowd was jumping and screaming, but by mid-concert the group was sounding a little thin and plenty of folks in the hall were beginning to realize that this wasn't Little Feat, that Little Feat might not be back anymore.
And although George gave his usual 90 minutes of music, and a very long encore, by the end the crowd was chanting: "FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT!" as they always used to.
But it wasn't the same. And there was no second encore. CAPTION: Picture, Lowell George