Friday, January 12, 2007
The Orson Welles Of Rock
It was just wild. I imagine that there are still people around like that, but I haven't met any. One time, I was walking down the alley and this French woman was sitting on a toilet. We started talking and the next thing I knew we spent the next three or four days together. -- Chuck E. Weiss on the Tropicana Motel
Here's a post from back when the world was a small place and Lowell George, the fat man in the white overalls, seemed to be the center of the universe or, as Jackson Browne put it, George was the "Orson Welles Of Rock." Maybe it was because of all the sex going on in the 70s LA music scene but six degrees of separation seemed to collapse into .5 degree. One game I like to play is linking George with everyone who ever covered him, everyone he ever produced or played for.
But first, to set the scene, an interview from the Topanga Messenger, 1979.
Lowell: Okay, I went to Hollywood High. I lived in the Santa Monica Mountains and grew up in the mountains...When I grew up I watched the smog slowly engulf the place where I lived.
Were you playing at Hollywood High?
Lowell: Yes. I was a jazzer at that time. I played flute. Legitimate flute and thought I was a jazzer. I hated rock and roll then. At that point I was not... you know... it was the Frankie Avalon story...who wanted it? Who needed it?
Lowell: No, it was beyond crude. It was really silly. Now it gets into silly with... safety pins through your ears and stuff... that's really silly. But back then it was like... Beach Party Bingo. Which is the ultimate in silliness because everybody who watched Beach Party Bingo immediately went to Viet Nam. That was the first requirement for going to Viet Nam, watching that movie.
After the Hollywood High marching band, in 1968 Lowell started to play guitar with the Mothers of Invention. He became more interested in slide when he injured his hand on a model airplane propeller. (See Neon Park's cover art for the Little Feat album Under the Radar. Park was also responsible for the Mothers' famous Weasels Ripped My Flesh image and claims he got the Little Feat job when he picked up a hitchhiking Ivan the Ice Cream Man who was on his way to Lowell's house.) Lowell says he got kicked out of the Mothers when straight edge Zappa became irked by all the drugs in Lowell's newest composition, Willin'. And so Lowell, recruiting old Hollywood High friends, started Little Feat.
Little Feat is a fine band, I suppose, but they've always been tainted for me by the Deadhead/frat boys I went to school with. But Lowell himself is another story. He worked with Van Dyke Parks, Harry Nilsson, Ry Cooder, Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Randy Newman, Etta James, Bill Wyman, Chris Smithers, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, The Meters, Robert Palmer, Maria Muldaur, James Taylor, Yvonne Elliman, Mick Taylor, Jimmy Webb, and John Cale to name only a very few.
Here are a few of my favorite Lowell covers and collaborations:
Linda Ronstadt doing "Roll Um Easy" from 1975's Prisoner in Disguise. Lowell plays on the track. Ronstadt also famously covers "Willin'" on Heart like a Wheel.
Robert Palmer doing George's "Sailing Shoes" and the Palmer/George cowritten "Blackmail".
And Van Dyke Parks doing "Sailing Shoes".
Here is Lowell playing slide on Bonnie Raitt's cover of Randy Newman's "Guilty" off her fantastic 1973 Takin' My Time.
And finally here is Lowell George doing a cover himself. After Little Feat broke up, Lowell gave Rickie Lee Jones her big break when the aforementioned Ivan the Ice Cream Man sang a verse or two of "Easy Money" over the phone to Lowell and he decided to include it on his first and only solo record, Thanks, I'll Eat it Here. This year's Snap, Crackle, Pop (see Lefty's earlier post) includes another track from this fine album.
If George is the sun of this hepcat universe, I like to think Rickie Lee Jones is the moon. At the time she was living at the Tropicana Motel, swimming nude with the Ramones in the Trop's black pool, doing lots of drugs with boyfriend Tom Waits while they formulated their beatnik scat by copying comic Lord Buckley. Warhol shot both Trash and Heat at the Tropicana. Chuck E. Weiss was living just down the hall. That's of course the Chuck E. who's "in love with the little girl singing this song." See pic. (Here's Chuck E. playing with Willie Dixon). When Lowell sang "Easy Money," RLJ'S eponymous album hadn't come out yet, but when it did she went, in one year, from living at the $6 a night Trop to winning the Grammy for new artist. Small wonder she had to do so many drugs.
Here's "Pirates, (So Long Lonely Avenue)" off RLJ's second, lesser-known, equally incredible, record.
An aside: Rickie Lee just played my old friend Linda's club Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace in Pioneertown, CA. I didn't make the show but have seen RLJ a few times before. I'll tell you, it's a treat. Her voice is chilling. She can hold an audience of hundreds entirely silent, entirely captive. Pappy and Harriet's has excellent shows all the time. Plus it's out in the desert. If you're in SoCal, check it out.
Finally here is Lowell with Little Feat doing "Willin"' in 1973 at Ebbets Field, the Denver bar where, not surprisingly, Chuck E. Weiss and Waits would meet a year later.
I like how Lowell tries to fool you at first, to make you think he doesn't have a beautiful voice.
Here the story comes to a sad end. On the eve of the 80s, while Lowell was touring in support of his first solo record, he died in DC after falling ill in his hotel after the show. Police found no drugs at the scene but suspect that a life time of hard living, smoking, eating too much, etc had taken it's toll. His ashes were returned to LA and sprinkled into the Pacific.