Mark Brend’s Rock and Roll Doctor

51rxp8sj66lLowell George was the best singer, songwriter and guitar player I have ever heard, hands down, in my life. — Bonnie Raitt

The first time I heard Lowell George was on a song called “Strawberry Flats.” It came from the first Little Feat album, but I was listening to one of Warner Brothers samplers. A three record set called Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, it featured one track each from dozens of contemporary Warners/Reprise releases. Three records in a deluxe box for only a dollar, with Ry Cooder, Gordon Lightfoot, Foghat, Black Sabbath, Van Dyke Parks, and lots more…but the song that I remember most is “Strawberry Flats:

Ripped off and run out of town
Had my guitar burned when I was clownin’
Haven’t slept in a bed for a week
And my shoes feel like they’re part of my feet
Let me come down where I won’t be a bother to no one
Let me unwind please give me a hole to recline in

and I have to say I’ve been singing the first couple of lines of this song ever since…it just seems appropriate, in all kinds of situations. Lowell George was the songwriter responsible for this one. He was the singer who seemed to capture the urgency and despair necessary for those lyrics, and he was the guitar player playing the electric filligree behind the words. The rest of the band was good too, don’t get me wrong, but Lowell George seemed special right from the start.

“Lowell was a real musician, from an academic standpoint. He knew a lot about serious and non-serious music.” — Van Dyke Parks

Mark Brend has written the first biography of Lowell George, described in the sub-title as guitarist, songwriter and founder of Little Feat, but known by his fans (and that includes many of the musicians who worked with him) as “a real musician.” Yeah, he was the Rock and Roll Doctor but the self medication got to him and he passed away far too early, but he left behind a legacy of songs and music that live long afterward. Brend has spoken to many of George’s contemporaries, and he tries to place George’s compositions into the rock continuum drawing influences in and out to Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. He traces the development of George’s signature slide guitar sound, back to the blues and forward into the sound of modern day Little Feat. You couldn’t call it bottleneck; George used a heavy metal socket wrench. He traces the growth of Little Feat, their development into jazz territory and beyond. He follows George into his short solo career, and his rapid decline and death.

Knocked on my friend’s door in Moody Texas
And asked if he had a place for me
His hair was cut off and he was wearing a suit
And he said not in my house, not in my house
You look like you’re part of a conspiracy

“A con-spira-cyyyy” that’s the way Lowell George sang it, drawing out the last vowel.  If you ever heard it…it’s there in your head, echoing around…you’ll never forget it. The sound of Lowell George singing and playing. Rock and Roll Doctor is filled with photographs of Lowell and Little Feat, on stage and posed portraits. There’s a great one as he puts his shoulder to a sculpture of a huge cube, and appears to be taking all of the weight. At the time the photo was taken he seemed strong enough to do it…the time passed. Brend describes the studio sessions. Everyone wanted George’s guitar sound on their records, John Sebastian, John Cale, Robert Palmer, Etta James, Mick Taylor, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and others. He stamped each recording with that signature sound. Heavy steel on strings, turn up the amp. Slide.

Now I’m six hours out on Strawberry Flats
Trying to get to Waco ‘fore it freezes over
They’re stopping every one who looks too wierd
At the ghoul bust Texas road block
Oh let me come down where I won’t be a bother to no one
Let me unwind please give me a hole to recline in

Finally Brend goes through the Little Feat discography, one album at a time. He attempts to reconstruct the dynamic that was taking place in the studio when each album was recorded. It’s a fascinating chapter.

Got a ride on a highway king
Made the cross road by nine fifteen
If I don’t find a place to crash
Well I might as well cash it all in”

Maybe Lowell George knew he only had a short time, and he made the most of it. His only solo album shows him stretching out in new directions. Where would he have gone next? We can’t know.

“If I was a no ‘count gambler or a Texas fool
Or a millionaire with a suit and real short hair
Or do you even care

Mark Brend’s Rock and Roll Doctor provides us with the essential material. The story of a life. Taken together with his recordings this is the closest any of us will come to a look at who Lowell George was. But perhaps his widow, Elizabeth George,  said it best, “There was nothing regular about the guy.”

(Backbeat Books, 2004)

About David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.