Book Review: “Rock and Roll Doctor–Lowell George: Guitarist, Songwriter and Founder of Little Feat” by Mark Brend

I’ve been a fan of Little Feat since the late 1980’s.  I’ve followed their career closely and, even though I was too young to witness their first go-round in the 1970’s, I’m pretty familiar with the all phases of the band’s make up.  There seem to be two categories of fans in regard to the band:  First, there are the fans who claim that the Feat really ceased to exist after founding member Lowell George’s death in 1979.  Second, there are those that emphasize that Little Feat is really a great rock group, and that Lowell’s death (though early and tragic) didn’t end the band, as evidenced by their  career since re-forming in 1987.  I am firmly in the second camp.  It’s hard to think of a rock group that has been so consistent, in terms of quality and band members, over a 40 (!) plus year rock history.  Little Feat never attempted to re-invent its sound–like so many bands with long and varied careers.  Little Feat knows that its bread and butter is the bluesy-southern fried rock –New Orleans sound and has regularly mined their  group chemistry to great effect.

It seems that Mark Brend, the author of Rock and Roll Doctor, takes the first view.  He tips his hat to the other members of the Feat but the book is a biography of George pure and simple.  He follows George’s influence through the Feat albums and deftly deals with Lowell’s reputation as a slide guitarist.

There are lots of photos in the book and it is attractively presented.  Brend is obviously familiar with music and in his track by track take on Lowell George’s compositions, he provides some really interesting professional insights.  The book is a quick read and uncomplicated.

However, that’s its main weakness as well.  The book seems like an abridged version of a much longer work.  For example, Brend opens the book with two really interesting quotes about Lowell George.  Jackson Browne called him ‘the Orson Welles of rock and roll.’  And Lowell’s wife, Elizabeth, is quoted as saying: ‘There was nothing normal about that guy.’  However, both quotes are never explained.  Why is Lowell like Orson Welles?  Both were choleric geniuses?  Both were over-acheivers with damaging addictions?  They peaked too early and burned out too soon?  What exactly does that mean?  The same for the Elizabeth George quote–the remainder of the book describes a man who, if quirky, certainly wasn’t abnormal.  Brend fails to bring us into that world.

There are some glaring omissions as well–which give the book a feeling of a rough draft rather than a completed project.  For example, Brend doesn’t delve very deeply into George’s fiery collaboration with the Grateful Dead on ‘Shakedown Street.’  The author describes their work together as difficult –but he never says why.  Other omissions include: scant discussion of his pre-music life (one could be forgiven for missing that Elizabeth was Lowell’s second wife.  His first isn’t even named!) and the cause of his premature death.

The biggest disappointment is when it comes to song lyrics.  Lowell George’s lyricism is second to none and his songs have a sort of John Lennon surrealism about them.  Songs like “Sailin’ Shoes”, “Trouble” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” cry out for interpretation–ribald and funny as they are.  But the author doesn’t look closely at this aspect of George’s contribution to the band.

What to listen to while reading this book:  What else?  Dixie Chicken

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Book Review, books

4 responses to “Book Review: “Rock and Roll Doctor–Lowell George: Guitarist, Songwriter and Founder of Little Feat” by Mark Brend

  1. Reblogged this on PORTAFOLIO. BITACORA DE UN TRANSFUGA. 2000.2010 and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  2. sam

    Thanks for the review, I’m looking for a book that does delve into the fiery collaboration between Lowell and the Grateful Dead. That and i want to know more about Lowells writing inspirations and specifically what made Lowell so deifficult to get along with. I want to know who Honest Man is written about, who was doing the running down. I want to know things from a perspective closer to Lowells because some fairly recent interviews with remaining band members give me the impression that there is still some dry resentment towards a man who’s been dead for 34 years now. If I could bring one musician back, it would be Lowell! Along with the gift of virtuosity in music comes a huge responsibilty to keep yourself alive- and he couldn’t do that! Damn it! If you have any suggestions where I can find the things that you mentioned that this book lacks, please let me know.

    Thanks

    Sam

  3. Hi Sam, Glad you liked the review. I’ve never come across a good place where all that is gathered. There are some good interviews with other members of the band on youtube re: Lowell. But I am not sure where else to look other than articles in music magazines, I’ve culled a few things from Rolling Stone and the like. I do not own the Little Feat Box set, ‘Hotcakes & Outtakes’ but perhaps that has some liner notes that might help? Best of luck to you and let me know what you find!

    • John cavender

      The Orson Welles comparison refers to the formidable multiple talents found in a single artist. Lowell George was a world class vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and producer wrapped up in one burly enigmatic package. Orson created Citizen Kane. Lowell made Dixie Chicken album. Both were in their twenties when they peaked. Their works will endure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s