For seven-odd years and six albums, few appreciated rock’s Little Feat except for a coterie of folks named Jagger, Ronstadt, the Eagles and such. Then came the group’s seventh LP, the new four-sided Waiting for Columbus, and suddenly their reign is over as America’s Best Unknown Band—they have created a nation of Feat fetishists. What held them back so long, suggests keyboardist Bill Payne, is that Lowell George—their iconoclastic composer, lead vocalist and slide guitar virtuoso—”is afraid of success.”
True, the six-man band has had the same tight and funky sound since George, Payne and drummer Richie Hayward founded it in late 1969, and indeed their recognition by the public at large was delayed because they couldn’t sustain a self-promoting tour. Yet George, 33, insists that he’s never had any problem with success. Admittedly, he can’t explain away his “annual illness of some kind, usually before we go out on the road.” Then last December, prior to a postproduction mop-up on Waiting for Columbus, George was thrown off a cycle doing wheelies and shattered several disks, requiring delicate spinal surgery. He also hasn’t exactly helped his popularity by telling fans to move away from the stage and “get the hell back to their seats.” Explains George: “What do I need that crap for? Success isn’t money or groupies to me. It’s recognition.”
To George that attitude hasn’t kept Feat from doing their stuff. “Basically,” he observes, “you put in your five years playing the scuz stops and promoting albums before your overnight success. You don’t just waltz your group over to Shea Stadium in New York and set up the equipment.”
The artists who love George most aren’t necessarily his own musicians. “Lowell can be the nicest guy in the world or a complete jerk,” says Payne. Certainly his perfectionism has helped the band focus on a driving, rhythmically subtle sound, rather than theatrics. “Flash pots and smoke bombs are okay, I guess, but what the hell has that got to do with music?” argues George. “Too many musicians play down to their audiences instead of taking them on an adventure to learn something. It’s just the television mentality applied to music—instant entertainment. Never mind the mind.”
Not surprisingly, Little Feat has undergone numerous personnel shifts, near breakups and—worse—a three-sister intramural marital act that makes Fleetwood Mac seem a model of monogamy. Before 1972 the three Price sisters—Pattie, Pam and Prissy—were married to George, Hayward and road manager Rick Harper. Then George divorced Pattie and married Liz, the ex-wife of his best friend, Tom Levy, who was unconnected with Feat but who, in turn, married the Feat roadie’s ex, Prissy. Says Pam, whose marriage to drummer Hayward is still intact: “This is the most incestuous band I’ve ever heard of. It’s a riot when the kids get together with all the different combinations.”
George and Liz ended up with a son from her first marriage, Jed, 9, two from his, Forrest, 9, and Luke, 6, and a daughter of their own, Inara, 3, all living in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon. Sparsely furnished—pending Waiting for Columbus royalties—their mountaintop ranch-style home is 20 miles from the Hollywood Hills, where, George recalls, he grew up, the out-of-it son of a furrier. Everyone tormented him, including the monkey of neighbor Errol Flynn. “He used to spot me eating an apple, swing across the telephone wires, drop down, steal the apple and run.”
Lowell fit in, he says, only in the Hollywood High orchestra, where he was a flutist. He entered a Ted Mack Amateur Hour as a duo with his brother and went on to L.A. Community College, among others. Though studying classical composers like Satie and Ives, he got an offer to play in a pop band for $500 a week. “My music teacher advised against it, pointing out that I had a B average. I asked him how much he was making, and he thought for a minute and said, ‘Take the job.’ ” George played in numerous groups and watched “a lot of my buddies fall by the wayside from psychedelics” before he landed in Frank Zappa’s formative Mothers of Invention. “He fired me when he heard I was writing my own music and told me to start my own band.” By then a comment by one of the Mothers about Lowell’s shoe size 9½) provided what is about to become a household name.
Yet if the past is any indication, George’s sales (Waiting for Columbus is waiting for gold) aren’t likely to bend his art out of shape. “Christ, we’re all gonna die from terminal boredom with the sameness,” sighs the restless leader of Little Feat. “Differences, uniqueness should be encouraged. This band has a lot to say and we’re going to say it right.”