Rock And Roll Doctor: Lowell George
Lowell George’s musical career was foundering when he died of a massive heart attack on July 29, 1979. He was only 34 and had lost control of Little Feat, the band he’d created in his image early that decade. Ironically, the group’s commercial fortunes and his involvement existed in inverse proportion — the less he participated, the better their albums sold. Still, it’s unlikely later discs would have reached so wide an audience without the critical buzz caused by the band’s earlier efforts, on which George maintained a firm grip in terms of both composition and production.
Then, too, his solo career was nothing to write home about. His sole extracurricular outing, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here, sold poorly and, worse, barely hinted at the wise, witty songwriter George once was, nor gave fair representation to his prodigious talents as a slide guitarist.
Rock And Roll Doctor, Mark Brend’s brief but informative biography, traces the arc of George’s life, starting with its beginnings in Hollywood (where his father was a furrier to the stars and Errol Flynn was a neighbor) to his first group, the Factory (whose recorded output was meager despite appearances on TV’s “F-Troop” and “Gomer Pyle”), to stints in the Standells and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.
From Zappa, George learned about making a band the expression of a single creative vision, and he strove to craft Little Feat into a group that reflected his personal and somewhat surreal take on the blues, country music, New Orleans R&B, and California rock. Despite fine early tracks such as “Willin'”, “Easy To Slip” and “Sailin’ Shoes”, Feat’s early albums sold in the low five figures. Good reviews and benefactors at Warner Bros., including producer Van Dyke Parks, kept them afloat until their career caught fire a few years later.
Brend did a fair number of original interviews for the book, but much of the material comes from previously published sources. Much of Little Feat history is clouded in mystery, misremembered facts and contradicting stories. Brend does a good job of, if not sorting out such conflicts, at least laying out all the various possibilities. But while that’s fine for such speculative items as whether or not George played saxophone and flute on a Frank Sinatra session, it’s more problematic when dealing with serious issues such as the personality conflicts that eventually sundered the relationship between George and the band, and the extent to which his substance abuse led to the dissolution of his talent and his death.
Instead, Rock And Roll Doctor focuses on the work George left behind. Brend gives a close reading to nearly every Little Feat song, discussing in great detail instrumentation, production techniques, and all sorts of minutiae (George, in case you were wondering, used as a slide a Sears Craftsman 11/16 socket, “ideally suited to pulling spark plugs”). That makes the book a great read for musicians and hardcore Feat fans, but something of a disappointment for those equally interested in George’s charismatic personality and the demons that eventually claimed his life.
It should be possible to strike a middle ground somehow — acknowledging the causes and effects of his various excesses without resorting to tabloid-style exploitation. That Brend can’t or won’t travel just a bit further down this path keeps Rock And Roll Doctor from being a complete portrait of an amazing and still underappreciated talent.