Time Loves a Hero
Remembering Lowell George
By T.E. Mattox
s I was poking through my garage I came across an old trunk amidst my
lifetime of baggage. A dust-caked time capsule, that I had forgotten
about but had planned to open, I guess, on this very day. It was filled
with old analog reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, photographs and assorted
junk I have accumulated over a period of 40 years or so.
One tape immediately caught my eye. A cassette that
Lowell George (backstage) Nakano Sun Plaza, Tokyo,
Japan - July 7, 1978
I had to smile, because
30 years just melted away. I was once again a young Navy Journalist
on my first tour in Asia, working for Armed Forces Radio in Tokyo. And
I was given the opportunity to sit down with one of my all time favorite
bands, Little Feat. They were touring in support of the just released,
'Waiting for Columbus' album and were well into their fourth month when
they got into town.
Prior to the show and
just before they took the stage, guitarist Paul Barrere told me, "the
Feat had recorded half the album in London (The Rainbow Theatre)
and the rest in Washington, D.C." (George Washington Universities
Lisner Auditorium). I pointed out to him that my ticket stub for tonight's
show had March printed on it, but as Barrere explained, there was a
perfectly good reason for that. "Lowell had been injured in
a motorcycle accident and ruptured the sixth and seventh disc in his
vertebrae. This caused a loss of sensation in his left hand."
I was still thinking about that as the band walked out
on stage to a packed house of adoring Japanese fans. As Lowell stepped
into the spotlight, wearing his trademark, white-bibbed painter's overalls,
there was little doubt of his intent. He and the band had come to play
and after those first, few searing slide riffs it was apparent to everyone,
tonight there would be no prisoners.
"I was a live wire in a loose wig you might
say." - Lowell George
After that Tokyo show in the summer of '78, I knew that
Little Feat had made an indelible smudge across the back of my brain
pan, and as the man said, "it's usually permanent when it takes
place." The whole band seemed excited to be out on the road
and especially playing for their world-wide fans. They were at their
peak, riding the success of 'Waiting for Columbus' and just happy to
be there. And best of all, in the words of Paul Barrere, "they
were all writing and collaborating
With the last notes of the encore still ringing in my
head, I sat down next to Lowell as he tweaked on his 9 year old guitar
are like a Ford Fairlane," he told me. "You can get
one in most cities of the United States. If you break it you can go
get another one, right away. If you got a Ford Fairlane it starts in
the morning, gets you to work and you come back again. It's not very
fancy, but it works. That's what we're here for."
Bet you wished you'd been in a Ford Fairlane earlier
? What happened?
"I had a small accident on a Yamaha
a motorcycle, in the dirt and crazy. Trying to have a good time and
over did it. I was supposed to have some physical therapy and said what
the heck and didn't do it, of course, because I'm stupid. It got out
of hand. I had a couple of discs removed from my neck. Put on 20 pounds
lying in a hospital. But since the operation which was four months ago,
I feel much better. Anybody with back trouble, I'd suggest you have
the operation. And if you need a doctor, I know a good doctor."
Rock and Roll Doctor?
"No, he's not at all. He was a tough sucker. His
name's Heifetz. His uncle is…uh, (neither of us could remember Jascha's
name) he has two sons, one's a brain surgeon, the other one's a concert
violinist like….'Uncle' Heifetz. So this guy was no slouch. He came
on like gangbusters."
Lowell did six hours on the table… "That particular
operation, you have to sit up for it. They put you out and strap you
in. It takes more time. In my case the guy realized that I was a musician
and made a real concerted effort to revive the nerves that had stopped
in my hand. Cause I couldn't play the guitar anymore. And I have to
say, only when I get tense does it bother me at all. And it's mostly
just minor pain in my back. I went back to work two weeks later."
Lowell George (backstage) Nakano Sun Plaza, Tokyo,
Japan - 1978 Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
For relaxation, Lowell loved to fish and his
eyes lit up when he spoke of catching a 15 lb. King Salmon on a trip
"I live near the beach in California,
and go out as often as I can. You have to sit there and there's nothing
you can think about except relieving yourself of the difficulties of
living in Los Angeles."
And what about the job? "The pressure
of the music business you really forget about it right away, getting
out there on a boat. You get all kinds of people on a party boat."
Feat bassist Kenny Gradney adds, "When
we were in Florida, Lowell caught a 100 lb carp
brought it in.
The only guy on the boat that caught a fish."
Lowell laughs, "I'm really into a basic
kind of fishing. I do it because I grew up; my father taught me how
to go hunting and you know, fishing I picked up on my own. I learned
about guns at an early age." When other kids would show off
'Here's pop's Three-Fifty-Seven magnum!' "I'd tell em, put 'em
away ya' jerk, when I was nine or ten years old. When you have a lot
of guns around you don't mess with them.
Fishing is the same kind of thing. Corey Wells
in Three Dog Night, is a fly fisherman. He's really good. American Sportsman
calls him up. And I'm into
if I catch a fish I want to eat it,
or I want to know that someone is going to consume this animal. What
if all of a sudden we had no electricity overnight? You go back to the
basics. Man as an animal, as a creature started out as a forager and
then became a hunter/forager; Omnivorous. We just got out of the caves,
if you know what I mean. That really plays a part in it.
The place where I go fishing some folks have
done some scuba diving in the area. They were archeologists and they
found a Chumash Indian village site. About 7,000 years old with fishhooks,
the same stuff these yahoos's I get out there on the boat with are doing.
It's an age old thing, takes you back to the basics." He pauses
and says, "I play a little guitar in my spare time, too."
Let's talk about that, when you first started
who were some of your influences?
"I actually started as a flutist. Henry
Mancini, I saw Peter Gunn and went ta,ta,da,da,da Hey man, Jazz! I would
begin improvising rather than reading the notes. Then later on I started
playing guitar when I was twenty-one. And bottle neck when I was 25."
Paul Barrere of Little Feat
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
“Saxophone and flute were Lowell's primary focus
during the formative years, "music is
to me the human voice
is the most intricate and complex instrument used anywhere. I mean you
can play the piano, Bartok back, forever and still never get into the
intricacies the human voice can get into. A violin is that kind of instrument
that has that kind of quality to it. The way I play guitar, I try to
get that vocal quality to it. And a horn can be like that. A good horn
player will bend notes a certain way. King Curtis could bend notes great.
John Coltrane could play great that way, bending notes. Rahsaan Roland
Kirk was the master of three instruments at once all bending notes together.
He was blind; he didn't know he was doing. It just sounded good."
Tell me about the song, 'Cold, Cold, Cold.'
"That was one of the first experiments
I ever had with a tape recorder. I was a live wire in a loose wig you
might say, at Richie's (Hayward) house, our drummer. I had a tape recorder
and a guitar and this rhythm machine. I sat down and started playing;
just playing anything that came into my head. Then I took the tape and
I cut it down into a form and then I put words to it. And since that
time I've written a lot of songs that way. But that was the first time
I ever did it."
My favorite line from the song, 'I'm down here
on my knees
' Lowell smiled. I told him I could probably qualify
as a groupie. Lowell nodded his head in agreement, "Me too."
Who would you follow?
"Sun Ra. Marvin Gaye, singers for instance
Stevie Wonder. I'd crawl on my hands and knees to beat on his shoes
with a pair of sticks. I mean, he's as good as you can get, without
getting any better. It's impossible. It'sincredible. It's really interesting
too. I mean, Stevie Wonder really can cross barriers. When you have
musical excellence of his caliber, it crosses all boundaries. Doing
a concert in Africa, doing shows in Europe, doing shows all across the
United States, I mean the guy has crossed so many barriers, because
I think, there's a quality of love. A belief in honesty, sincerity,
mercy, kindness, joy, happiness, God
whatever. He actually does
come across with it. There are very few
.Marvin Gaye, I have to
say, is the same way. What he's singing about. I met him once, when
he was in the middle of working on
(Lowell starts singing) Party
He was right in the middle of doing it and I walked in and I'd never
met him before and this friend of mine introduced us. He stopped what
he was doing, got up and shook my hand and talked to me for fifteen
minutes. He was right in the midst of it and all these people were waiting,
engineers were sitting around waiting for him. I was telling him, please
go back to work, go back to work. He said, no I want to talk."
Talked the talk and walked the walk, so to speak.
|Kenny Gradney and Lowell Photo:
"Yeah, what he's writing about in his
songs, is honesty. I try real hard to do the same thing. It's the hardest
thing to do, to say
I'm like this. The Japanese have an expression,
'Gom-bah-ru.' Don't quit, do your best. Do as good as you can do. A
lot of musicians will say, let's make a buck first and think about the
music afterward. When in fact, if someone is really concerned about
making a buck, you have to think about the long run. Financially speaking,
to play what I play, the way I want to play it, so I don't get bored
or too high or get off the track. Like, Jimi Hendrix was fantastic but
he got too high and it got too messed up, and had no control. Janis
Joplin, there's a long list of people who got messed up in a financial
way that effected their music. My whole plan is to just get enough,
so we're not all scrambling, or hustling gigs, as they say. We used
to hustle gigs all the time, but now we're to a point where we had a
real small following that built into, actually a gold album at this
point, in the States. I quite honestly don't plan any of that stuff.
Say you plan ahead, all of a sudden Plan A turns into Plan B. And you
have no Plan C, but you jump into Plan C, you're up the creek, so-to-speak.
So rather than plan everything out very carefully, we really play it
Like most Feat fans, Willin' is an anthem to me.
"I have to say I love it too, even though
I did write it, it's almost like I didn't write it. When I was writing
the song, people would walk through the room and say something and I'd
write it down on a piece of paper. This lady walked in the room and
said, 'My gosh, that chair's been warped by the rain.' And I went, 'Oh,
okay...bbrrrrt and that was the beginning of it. Then somebody else
came in and said something about 'weed, whites and wine' as they were
walking through the room and I just started writing all the stuff down
and putting it in some kind of order."
A little less than a year later, Lowell George was touring
behind a solo effort entitled, 'Thanks, I'll Eat it Here.' He
had performed the night of June 28th at the George Washington Lisner
Auditorium in D.C. to a packed house in a show described by many fans
as 'inspired' and 'energetic.' There were rumors of health issues associated
with weight gain, and reports he had been experiencing chest pains and
suffered from heart-related issues, but the fact remains on the morning
of the June 29th, 1979 Lowell George was found dead in his Arlington,
Virginia Hotel room. He was just 34 years old.
As I finish writing this article and place the cassette
back into my 'time capsule,' I think I'll spend the rest of the week
listening to 'Sailin' Shoes,' you know, 'let my memory drift, and
do nothing at all.'
Thank you, Lowell and R.I.P.