Sunday, September 26, 2010

Secret History: The Seventies – Feat Fetish, or Half-Life of a Genius


I was doing the laundry the other day and decided to look up the word fetish. (It was on the extra rinse cycle.) Actually I was trying to think of a clever title for this post. (What do you think?)

Anyway, amongst the less fun definitions of fetish is the following:

       any object eliciting unquestioning reverence or devotion.

This sounded a lot like when I’d “get into a band”, which was when I’d choose a band and methodically buy their records, one by one, until I got at least one too many. Groupies did much the same thing, except they’d have intercourse with each band member until they had one too many STDs.

Now, this isn’t quite the same as “complete-ism” which is the methodical collection of every single recording by the artist, bootlegs and all. Those people know that not everything they get is going to be great. But the occasional finds make it worthwhile. The fetishists grimly buy each official release, record after record, hoping the next one will be better than the last.

Feat First:

This happened to me with Little Feat in the ‘70s. Never heard of ‘em? Don’t worry about it. A lot of people haven’t. And if their music didn’t eventually become bland enough for Americana radio stations to pick up on, they wouldn’t have heard of them, either.

Little Feat was formed by Lowell George, a one time guitarist with Frank Zappa, in 1970. Their most famous song during the early part of their career was “Willin”, but not even their own versions - they did it twice. Instead, it was Linda Rondstadt who made it kind of a hit. (I don’t know why I have such a problem with Linda. She made a lot otherwise obscure singer-songwriters famous. Oh, THAT’s why. Just kidding, they weren’t all bad.)

The first time I heard of Lowell George was on Jackson Browne’s “Your Bright Baby Blues” (from “The Pretender”, the beginning of his Lame period). Lowell played slide guitar on it, which I immediately resented since I missed David Lindley. He also co-wrote it and sang. Looking back now, I think it’s one of JB’s best songs.

And if I looked a little closer, I would have found Lowell George’s name on the back of about half of the records coming out of LA at the time.

This finally sank in in 1977, when Little Feat officially hit my radar. Friend Billy walked into the bar (no joke) and told me he was still feeling a high from the record he just listened to - “Cold Cold Cold/Tripe Face Boogie”, from “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now”. That was back when I could still take bar opinions about music seriously.

Another, very cool, friend Petey, who was big into Frank Zappa, also began to murmur good things about Little Feat. In the same bar, of course.

Then, while thumbing through an old Rolling Stone, I saw an ad for, you guessed it, “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now”, with a blurb that said that they were “the best band in America”. I didn’t take personal offense to this like I used to, when I was certain that the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead were the two obvious best ones. Instead I was intrigued enough to look into them.

There was a time in my life when I would have gone about this in an insanely orderly way, starting with their first record, and proceeding from there. For once, however, I took a strictly hedonistic approach to it, just looking for good records.

My First - Their Fourth - and the Best:

As was usually the case in my beta max life, while punk rock was exploding around me in the early summer of 1977, I picked up “Feats Don’t Fail Me Know”, which was their fourth record, and to me, their peak, released in 1974. At the time, they had just released their sixth, “Time Loves a Hero”, which was a minor hit.

In typical first listen fashion, it all went by in a blur. It was murky and funky (the band was interracial, something rock bands weren’t too good at in the seventies) where I was expecting loud, and then manic just as I was getting a grip on of it.

Lowell George was the coolest dude on earth, whose wacked-out, stream of consciousness liner notes rivaled Bob Dylan’s. His slide could be as intense as Duane Allman’s, even if he didn’t have Duane’s chops. Plus, with songs like “Oh Atlanta”, I assumed I was listening to a Southern rock band. And the lineup resembled the Allmans in a superficial way - two guitars (one slide), two percussionists, keyboards, etc. But the rhythm was very stop and go, and the songs were less bluesy and more funky. More New Orleans than Macon.

It was easy to understand friend Billy’s excitement about “Cold/Tripe” (yummy!) Over ten minutes long, it starts as a dirge but keeps getting faster and more intense as it goes, until the rip roaring and funny slide guitar flourish that climaxes the record.

But it was side one that eventually won me over. Pretty soon, this record was on heavy rotation - to the point of obsession - on my stereo, if not on the radio, but that’s an old story. These guys were definitely worth checking out further.

My Second - Their Third - and Very Good:

In the fall of that year, I picked up “Dixie Chicken”, their third, which again reinforced the southern rock impression. Although a little slicker than “Feats”, it still had the intense rhythmic interplay. It's just a notch below “Feats”. It’s got a very mellow “Roll ‘em Easy” (I really like Linda’s rockin’ version.) and the brilliant “Fat Man in the Bathtub”.

My Third - Their Second - and Very Good:

Right around Thankgiving of that year, I picked up their second album, “Sailin’ Shoes”, and was immediately entranced by the chiming guitars of “Easy to Slip”, and the melody of “Trouble”, but now I’m hearing a very different band. I see on the cover that there are only four of them, and one of them is new (old). The slide is less obvious, and the songwriting is more central, and odder, and with drug references galore. There are earlier, stranger versions of both “Cold, Cold, Cold” and “Tripe Face Boogie”. I’d learn later that Little Feat didn’t have a problem rerecording stuff when the mood hit them. This is supposedly the great Little Feat album – the perfect balance of strange, funny and strong songwriting - “Texas Rose Café” is the epitome of this - but I still preferred “Feats”.

My Fourth - Their Seventh - and Not Bad:

Come 1978, and they came out with a live album - "Waiting for Columbus" - which wasn’t bad, but it had that loud concert-y sound that loses some essential details or blows them way out of proportion. Around this time, I finally caught them live a couple of times. I was shocked to see that Lowell George was, well, a big guy, and I began to understand their lack of success. In his white overalls, he was referred to as the “Pillsbury Doughboy of Rock and Roll”. But big guys couldn’t be cool. The first show was more or less a retread of their live album. The second time around was more of a real show, with a lot of great music.

My Fifth - Their Fifth, too - and …Good:

So I kept on, getting “The Last Record Album” (#5), which, while not brilliant, is very representative of their overall sound. Certainly worthwhile, but not essential.  Friend Petey's favorite, though.

My Sixth - Their First - and Excellent!:

So I no longer trusted where they were now, and decided to go earlier, to their first album. I’d understand if you wondered why I didn’t stop, but that’s a fetish for you. And it turns out that everything is cranked up a notch here. The lyrics are more surreal and Lowell George’s slide is positively fearsome. There’s a good imitation of Howlin’ Wolf, some country, like “Truck Stop Girl” (also done by the Byrds), “Takin’ My Time” (ditto Bonnie Raitt) and “I’ve Been the One”. Then there’s the beautiful “Brides of Jesus”. Overall, my second favorite.

My Seventh - Their Sixth - and Kinda Boring:

I almost forgot “Time Loves a Hero”, which is the most sensible reaction to it. Not bad exactly, but you can feel the half-life ticking. It’s got a sheen, but almost no spark.

Suspended Animation, and Death:

After that, I’d occasionally see them in the oddest of places – Hollywood Squares (I swear). Their manic drummer, Richie Hayward would play with Robert Plant for a while. If an album were recorded in LA at the time you could virtually guarantee that at least one of them would be on it. Around the same time, Lowell George released a solo album that only occasionally showed his talent. I caught his show at the time, which wasn’t bad, but he was very into New Orleans music at the time, and I wasn’t. A week later he was dead.

My Eighth - Their Eighth - and It’s Nearly Over:

By the time “Down on the Farm” comes out (late 1979), the original spark is nearly gone, and my head has now been turned by punk rock and new wave. Little Feat’s time had passed, but truthfully, it had passed before I’d even gotten into them. I think I got this one for Lowell’s sake.

Number Nine - Number Nine - Number Nine….

In 1981, my girlfriend got me a collection of their stuff – “Hoy, Hoy” which is a perfectly respectable record, with moments of genius, but that would be the last time I’d enjoy their music.

Cold Feat:

I occasionally catch them on the local Americana station, pushing some new product. They’d usually have a Lowell George clone on hand to play slide. That just gave me the creeps.

The pieces had now all fallen into place for me. They had started as a very weird little band, carrying influences equally from Howlin Wolf, Captain Beefheart and the Band. They progressed through other configurations and styles, occasionally hitting sheer brilliance. But along the way, while polishing their rough edges, they fell for the canard that said in order to be a great band you had to play “sophisticated” music. Steely Dan did much the same thing. They loved Weather Report – a jazz fusion band – and aside from Lowell George, wanted to be like them. This resulted in some very dull music, like “Day at the Dog Races” – a record Lowell actually refused to play on. He had a better – though hardly perfect - idea of where they should be.

For moments, they were a great band. Their stuff has been covered by everyone under the sun. But their own day in the sun never came. And they kept on, way past the point of true inspiration or relevance.

And I guess I can’t get too upset at guys who’ve been going at this for forty plus years. For two of those years - I loved them.

But it’s over.

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