IT HAD BEEN a tough night for him: walking on stage at Lisner Auditorium without Little Feat, the band he had created, the band Washington revered I like no other, the band everybody called the musician's band, the one Mick Jagger called his favorite.
Little Feat was "America's best unknown band," in the estimation of People magazine. But Lowell George was completely absorbed in it, married to it, obsessed with it. He was the band and when people loved it, they loved him.
And yet tonight the band wasn't with him. He was out there on his own, with a backup group, on the same stage where Little Feat had recorded its only gold album, "Waiting for Columbus."
"He was an enigma," says Linda Ronstadt. "He was convoluted in his speaking, in his thinking. I think he was burdened by his intelligence. His complexity, his demons symbolized the struggle we were all going through."
He was not in good health, probably 100 pounds overweight, the very fat man in the bathtub with the blues he had sung about in one of the group's more popular tunes. And it had not been a great show -- a little off, a little blind. And at the end the fans were chanting FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! the way they always had in the magic days with the band. FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! Now it rang like a mantra gone sour. He loved these fans, but he knew they could kill you, too. FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! They don't notice the great little moments of musicianship, and then they scream for more after you've done a lousy show. They'll fill you up, and then bleed you down. FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! He went back to his $40 room at the Marriott Twin Bridges Hotel and started in on the lines, getting them just right, ever the perfectionist.
But on this night it wasn't the cocaine he sang about in "Sailin' Shoes." Tonight it was the "Sweet China White" -- heroin -- he agonized over in an unreleased tune done, ironically, as a gospel hymn:
Blow away, blow away this cruel reality
And keep me from its storm
Suspicion has crept in and ruined my life
I'm messed up, and hassled, and worn . . .
At 10:20 the morning after, June 29, 1979, two months after his 34th birthday, Lowell George was dead of an overdose.
"He was an enigma," says George Massenburg, echoing Ronstadt and scores of others in the music business whose lives were touched, torn and worn down by this Citizen Kane of rock 'n' roll.
At this very moment Massenburg, who recorded many of the Little Feat albums, is reeling through part of 80 hours of tape, trying to edit old fragments into a portrait of the artist as a young band -- an audio newsreel.
There was one tape in particular Massenburg had sought, a version of a tune called "Rock 'n' Roll Doctor." It had been recorded live during a 1974 Little Feat broadcast on Long Island's WLIR-FM. After the show the rock 'n' roll doctor himself thought that this just might be a great take. He was always looking for the great take. He used to put different versions of the same songs on successive albums in hopes of getting them perfect. And this version of "Rock 'n' Roll Doctor" was pretty close. If only he could re-record the bass line . . .
Several years and $60,000 later, he had re-recorded every instrument and voice, track by track . . .
And then he lost the tape. The Rosemary Woods of rock 'n' roll, in the words of band member Bill Payne.
Sometime after his death the lost masterpiece turned up, along with a number of other missing links to the myth of Lowell George. Some were in a studio vault, others in a brown paper bag in his garage. One of them was sitting in a box that had some studio jargon scrawled across it.
The box announced: NO LEADER NO MASTER.
The Cracked Mosaic
THE NEWSREEL is finished now: "HOY-HOY!," a new and introspective album that reveals more of the how and the why of Little Feat and Lowell George than it does of the what. Somehow this seems to befit a cult band and its reclusive leader, whose influence on other musicians had far more profound an impact than the records they made together.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin called Little Feat the best rock band in the world; the praise must have been drowned out by the heavy metal drone of his Les Paul Gibson. Perhaps tenfold more people have heard Linda Ronstadt's version of "All That You Dream" than the Little Feat original; appropriately, "HOY-HOY!" includes the interface -- a live version of her singing it with the band.
The album is a Little Feat record. It even includes two new songs done by the band since Lowell's death. But . . . NO LEADER NO MASTER: "HOY-HOY!" is above all else an attempt to come to terms with the myth of Lowell George, an electrified Jack Kerouac whose real brilliance became visible through his friends, lovers and colleagues: Ronstadt, Jagger, Browne, Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, The Grateful Dead, The Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, The Byrds, Rickie Lee Jones, Three Dog Night, Valerie Carter, Allen Toussaint, Nicolette Larson, Robert Palmer and Frank Zappa, not to mention some of the great studio players of the era -- The Meters, Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree.
The two discs of the album, for the most part, are flashes of the creative process itself, and quick glimpses of the obsessive, brilliant, ever-unsatisfied mind behind them.
"He was the thinker for us all," says Bonnie Raitt.
"He was the classic artist," says Little Feat keyboardist Payne. "He hated all the records we made. They weren't good enough for him."
Here are snippets of genius: George working on "Rocket In My Pocket" alone, in its early stages, trying to establish the kind of quirky rhythms that, for him, separated Little Feat music from the bilge of rock 'n' roll; the infamous $60,000 track, which sounds awesome, filled with an oddly harmonious blend of ambiance ("Lowell was determined to make 'Rock 'n' Roll Doctor' musically complicated," says co-author Fred Martin in the liner notes. He "used to think in terms of the cracked mosaic . . . and I think the song is a prime example of intentional irregularity."); a frenetic emcee at a show in Germany, attempting to apologize for technical difficulties in fery cherman inklesh; the long-unreleased "Sweet China White"; old rehearsal tracks of a Hank Williams country song and the Leiber/Stoller classic "Framed," done when George was making the transition from member of The Mothers of Invention to leader of Little Feat; a monologue on the beauty of the Sears Craftsman 11/16th-inch socket wrench as applied to playing slide guitar on the Fender Stratocaster; rejected versions of songs that made it onto later albums in altered form:
"Bill had a basic way he wanted it to go," percussionist Sam Clayton says in the notes of keyboardist Payne's "Front Page News." "But when Lowell heard it he said, 'Man, that doesn't cut it. We've got to work on it, a lot of work.' He always knew what he wanted; he would say, 'It's not catchy enough, it makes no impression on me . . . If I heard it, I wouldn't be humming it later.' He would have a definite feel he wanted, and we would try things and try things, just playing until he felt it . . ."
Over and over and over again -- he refused to abandon the diminished chords and offbeat syncopations that made accessibility possible.
"I once told him," says Paul Barerre, the other Little Feat guitarist, "if you keep this up, you're going to be the Thelonius Monk of rock 'n' roll."
"He was the boogie-man," says Van Dyke Parks, a friend and co-author.
When George got miffed at Parks once, his album credit read V.D. Parks. "He had a great sense of cadence that most American kids don't have. I mean, they don't know about Sousa's 60 silver trumpets, but he did. He was a real slice of Americana, and in the face of lemming-like acquiescence, he was always struggling to hold his grip."
Better than the dream-makers 20 miles away in Hollywood, better than the producers scattered around Los Angeles who cut perfectly commercial songs day after day, George understood myth. That alone made him an outsider. The cover of his only solo album, released a few months before his death, portrays him picnicking with Marlene Dietrich, Bob Dylan, Fidel Castro and the White Rock fairy.
"He couldn't understand that rock 'n' roll is disposable music," says Fred Martin. "And that's why he's a legend."
The refusal to accept the norm must have developed early, for he had grown up in the never-never land of Southern California. He appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at age six, playing the harmonica, finishing second to a troupe of Hungarian acrobats. He lived across the street from Errol Flynn, whose pet monkey used to snatch apples from his hands. The house was filled with Hollywood imagery: his father, a furrier to the stars who worked on the costumes for "Gone With the Wind," had his achievements duly recorded in photos that covered the walls. George kept two near him at all times: one of his father dressed to the nines, flanked by an entire line of Ziegfield chorus girls, and another of Wallace Beery and W.C. Fields, decked out in dad's finery, standing in front of a Stutz Bearcat overflowing with 1,000 ducks they had just shot. Myth came easy -- along with a penchant for excess and humor.
He studied flute with the Hollywood High orchestra, so well that he began playing with the scores upside-down, seeing if he could get the notes to mesh with what the orchestra was doing. He became disillusioned when he discovered that the conductor disconnected his hearing aid during performances. Later in college he would study classical music, and received an offer to play with a pop group for $500 a week. His music teacher advised against it, saying he only had a B average.
"How much are you making?" George asked the maestro.
"Take the job," came the reply.
He listened to Charles Ives and Roland Kirk and Howlin' Wolf. He took sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar and learned to play the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. Studied Okinawate, an obscure branch of martial arts. He attended Toshiro Mifune films inveterately, read Kierkegaard, and dreamed of three things: fat recording contracts, with shoe boxes full of cash; a helicopter that would deliver him to sold-out concerts in huge sports arenas; and smuggling drugs over the border in model airplanes -- which he would build, and crash, and build again.
He played with a lot of Los Angeles bands: The Standells, The Seeds, The Mothers of Invention, whose iconoclastic, creative leader Frank Zappa discovered that George was actually writing his own music.
"I'm gonna do you a favor, kid," Zappa told him. "I'm gonna fire you so you'll have to start your own band."
And the guy who wore the size 9 shoes did it: Little Feat.
The Band as Lover
IT WAS an odd band from the outset, partly because the music was so hard to categorize -- certainly rock 'n' roll, but with a strange sense of rhythm and melody and delicacy. Then there was the leader's unusual attention to detail. Not only could he go to a party, overhear someone say of patio furniture, "This chair's been warped by the rain," and then use the phrase in a song . . .
But he also wanted to do everything his way: not just because he believed it was right, but because he believed it was . . . possible. This led to conflicts with producers, conflicts with the other members of the group, conflicts with record company executives, and maniacal energy that couldn't always be contained in the studio.
His relationship with the band so paralleled a marriage that when the union was good, Lowell George was joyous; and when the union was bad, he suffered.
He felt this genuine responsibility for everybody in the band and their families," says Paul Barrere. "Which dragged him down as well as picked him up."
In the beginning it was a slim, trim marriage, although not without the normal craziness of life on the road:
"My first experience of touring with a rock-'n'-roll band," Paul Barrere writes in "HOY-HOY!," about promoting the album "Dixie Chicken," brought "such rude awakenings as finding out there were no records in the stores in cities we were hitting. In Atlanta, we all had to put on busboy outfits and Lowell put on a chicken suit, and we went around to radio stations handing out boxes of chicken that said on them, 'Dixie Chicken -- Finger Pickin' Good.' I couldn't believe that Lowell actually put on the chicken suit . . . He wouldn't wear the head, though. I wore the head and we both wore sunglasses so you couldn't tell. It was strange, funny and degrading . . ."
If the newsreel "HOY-HOY!" came packaged with chronologically arranged pictures, Lowell George would be seen growing fatter and less healthy and more distant as the strains within the band increased. By the time the group moved to Baltimore for six months in 1974, it already seemed that a divorce was imminent. The Baltimore/Washington area had been one of the few places where the band enjoyed a strong following. Perhaps a return to the honeymoon cabin was called for . . .
George wrote a song, "Feats Don't Fail Me Now." Like many of his songs, it was a love song directed not so much at a lover as at the band he loved. They recorded an album of the same name together in Baltimore. In the midst of it all, the barge containing the studio sunk into the Baltimore harbor, destroying much of their work.
It was as if the fates were conspiring against them.
This continued for the next five years. They would become close enough to have a real orgy in a studio, and then the leader would complain that he was too sick to play more than two songs on stage for the next week. He'd capitulate into doing a promotion shot with other band members on The Hollywood Squares, and then not show up. He had a banner made denouncing Little Feat's record company from the stage. The band was together. The band was splitting up. Lowell George was getting fatter. ("Marlon Brando's fat, too," he once replied to a remark critical of his weight.) And he was getting more reclusive and using more drugs.
"Everybody was angry with him but they wouldn't do anything about it," says his widow, Elizabeth.
"Little Feat had become like an old coat in the closet," says Barrere. "You'd take it out and wear it when you needed it."
Finally the band couldn't hold itself together any longer. They parted ways while recording a last album, "Down on the Farm," which again contained a love song with a prophetic lyric:
If you want to be a friend of mine
Be one now . . .
It was only on this last Little Feat album and on his own solo LP that George really defined what he had been developing for so long: the sweetest, most melodic slide guitar in all of rock. And a voice to match.
"One of the finest white voices around," says Danny Hutton, a former singer and songwriter for Three Dog Night, who sang harmony on Little Feat's "Roll 'em Easy." "He had all that soul, but he wasn't trying to imitate a black person."
This is not to say that all along the overall tenor of the music was not squarely on target: Hi-fi pioneer Avery Fisher called the band's "Feats Don't Fail Me Now" the only rock record he could listen to "because it sounds like a rock band should." And the lyrics were usually understated and universal, as in "Trouble," which he'd wail in the studio and then, back at home, sing as a lullaby to put his daughter Inara to sleep:
'Cause your eyes are tired
And your feet are too
And you wish the world was as tired as you
Well I'll write a letter
And I'll send it away
And put all the trouble in it you had today.
LOOKING BACK now, it seems quite clear that the end was coming. "He was terribly depressed after the L band split up," Elizabeth George says. "It was as if a big part of him had just dropped away." He had talked a lot about changing his life: becoming less reclusive and withdrawn, losing weight, moderating drugs . . .
"It's so terribly seductive," says Hutton. "There's this sense of energy from cocaine, and a guy like Lowell -- so meticulous and self-demanding -- it was as if he thought sleeping was a waste of time, as if taking care of himself was getting in the way of what he had to do. You get blurred to thinking it's the only way, and a snort of heroin is just a different high that puts you in a different place."
And so he'd sit up there on his mountain in Topanga Canyon, and gaze off at the stars through his telescope, and wonder about things. He laughed when somebody tried to sell him some life insurance: "Sign that? I'm betting against myself." He'd head off for the ocean and hours of fishing. It was as nice there as gazing off at the stars, far removed from the cries of FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! Hell, the band had broken up. His demands had gotten too much for most of the others to tolerate. But he missed them . . .
His solo album, "Thanks, I'll Eat It Here," was a swan song. He went out with a backup group to promote it, but it didn't feel quite right. Out on the road late one night, he called Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, who was back in LA in a full body cast, recuperating from a motorcycle accident. "This s----," he said. "You're the only drummer I can work with."
It was as if he was making amends, putting his conflicts to rest, singing, on "20 Million Things":
Letters written that don't get sent
It comes from confusion
All the things I've left undone . . .
A few days later he was on stage at Lisner Auditorium here. And the fans were screaming FEAT! FEAT FEAT!
But it was over. There was no encore.
FEAT! FEAT! FEAT!
MOST A YEAR after George died, Linda Ronstadt came to Washington for a concert at the Capital Centre. A It was a routine show for her until the band began playing "Willin'," a Little Feat song she had popularized. The crowd became unusually quiet as she moved through the lyrics:
I've been kicked by the wind
Robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in
But I'm still on my feet
And I'm still . . . willin'
Matches and cigarette lighters were being held in the air, transforming the sports arena into a huge cathedral. And as Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne -- on the road with Ronstadt -- started spinning the notes of his closing piano solo, 18,000 people were quietly on their feet. With the last notes, there was pandemonium and applause -- louder than at any other point in the show.
And then it started slowly, building into a rally:
FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! FEAT! . . .
Russ Kunkel, Ronstadt's drummer, turned to Payne to say, "What did you guys DO in this town?"
He was about to give him a fraternal shot in the arm, when he noticed that Payne was shaking his head.
And wiping the tears from his eyes.