After nine years and seven albums with the band Little Feat, guitarist Lowell George recently went solo with the release of his album Thanks I'll Eat It Here on Warner Bros.
This is the man who penned a string of songs that have slipped instantly into the repetoire of rock, songs such as Keepin' Up with the Jones', Willin' and the classic Dixie Chicken, to name but a few.
Jovial, witty and relaxed, George, a Santa Monica Mountains native - obviously enjoying the family life on his ridge top home - chatted amiably with writer Cregar a couple of weeks ago, and awaits the next step, on the road for three weeks of concerts across the country.
Well, I guess we could start with some biographical information. People would like to hear where you're from, where you went to school and how you got started?
Lowell: You want to hear all that stuff?
Lowell: Okay, I went to Hollywood High. I lived in the Santa Monica Mountains and grew up in the mountains.
Up here in Topanga?
Lowell: No, in town. When the Santa Monicas weren't populated. When I grew up I watched the smog slowly engulf the place where I lived.
Where exactly was that?
Lowell: On Mulholland Drive between Laurel Canyon and Woodrow Wilson Drive. I watched the area really deteriorate. I remember watching the Valley fill up with people and smog and cars and freeways and now out here I'm watching the same thing happen. Today I was watching the smog, slowly engulf this area, which was kind of surprising 'cause I didn't think it could get up this high and this far out.
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. That was the age group of folks who actually wound up over there.
Atouchy point with a lot of people seems to be age. How old is Lowell these days?
Lowell: (smiling) Thirty-four yesterday. Yesterday or the day before. I can't remember... yeah day before. I don't know. I don't worry about that a whole lot... not important.
When did you first start playing an instrument?
Lowell: At about five years old, I started playing harmonica. Taking lessons and learning all the notes. A teacher taught me how to read music, and all the time I was faking it... playing by ear. He'd say, "Hold that note." And I'd go humm. And he'd go, "No, that's not it." And then I would say, "You play it first..." which in terms of reading turned out to be a real drag. I never really did get to read a whole lot until I started playing flute and then... Music education at this stage is way out of the hands of the Board of Education. Most kids learn to play music completely disassociated from school. They learn in another place. They learn from private teachers if they're classically oriented and they learn from records if they learn how to play... other kinds of music. The elementary school system has almost no business trying to teach music. Only at the college level does it ever get anywhere... maybe one out of fifty kids get some kind of information that is useful later.
In a recent Rolling Stone article they said some things about you. Let me quote some of them to you. "Is Lowell George willing to succeed? He revels in the idea of taking refuge. Reports surfaced that George had turned moody, reclusive." What do you think about that? Is it true?
Lowell: That's what you call Cosmic Bullshit.
Lowell: Yea, that's rock poop. I mean they've got to sell the article from some standpoint. If you read to the end of the article I really leveled all those people. I wasn't hiding out. I just like to stay out in Topanga and not go back and forth to town. I mean who likes to go into town? They're city folks. Gary Gilmore's brother was the author of that article. He's a very quiet reclusive kind of guy himself. He doesn't come out except to take notes. No one knew he was Gary Gilmore's brother until long after Gary Gilmore wanted to be... done in, and was done in, and somebody said, "Your name is Gilmore too." He said, "Yea that's my brother." Rolling Stone had it right in their offices and didn't know it. So this guy is writing about how I'm a recluse and Gary Gilmore's brother never told anybody. I mean it's insane.
What's happening with Little Feat? That's a big question with a lot of people.
Lowell: I don't know what's happening. I'm not really worried about it. I mean groups break up and get back together again all the time. It's no big deal. Everybody is under the impression that once something happens like that, it's permanent and nothing is permanent. Even in the record business.
In Rolling Stone you said, "I hope I'm beyond all that competition." Woody Allen alluded to this idea when he did not show up for his Academy Award one year. Why is the competition idea so repulsive to artists?
Lowell: Not all artists. Some people really get off on it.
Ihear the music business is not a very nice one.
Lowell: That depends on whom one works with. Along with the real jerks there are some real nice folks. I happen to think that Warner's have some of the nicest people working in the business.
Isn't the business a very tightly held monopoly. The people in control?
Lowell: Oh yeah! They don't want to give it up.
Do you have any advice to someone who is thinking of making music a career?
Lowell: Yeah. Sure. Don't give away your publishing. That's the first rule. And don't spend your own money. Those are two bits of advice that have come out to be real true. A record company is there to provide financing for a record project and you shouldn't spend your own money.
What particular artists do you like? Which ones have influenced you and in what way?
Lowell: Any number of artists. There's a Mexican group who played on my record that I really like, Los Companjeros. Muddy Waters on one end and Ry Cooder on the other in terms of bottleneck guitar. In terms of singing, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye are not to be exceeded. Tony Bennett maybe is the best white singer on earth.
What defines a tune in terms of commerciality or non-commerciality in your opinion?
Lowell: Commerciality is a very strange thing. Here you have a group that all of a sudden sells a million albums and a million to a million and a half singles or whatever and they can't go out and play in front of an audience or make any money. That's one phase of it. That's happening a lot recently. What is commercial to a radio audience may not be commercial to a concert audience. Who knows
It's taken rock and roll sometime to be accepted as a legitimate form of music. In some circles it's still frowned upon.
Lowell: In some circles it's still frowned upon? I don't know. To tell you the truth I can't listen to radio. I'll turn on FM and search constantly for a station that I can listen to from one moment to the next and I can't do it so I always wind up back on KFAC because I know I'm going to be put to sleep.
Why are drugs and music invariably linked?
Lowell: There are a lot of players that are dopers. One way or another. Musicians have always been trying to escape reality of some drunk slobbering on their shoelaces going, "Do you know Melancholy Baby."
The Disco craze seems to be still going strong. What is Disco?
Lowell: Disco is a kick drum on every beat. That's what disco is man. You want to know the truth.
Do you prefer playing to a live audience?
Lowell: Rather than a dead audience, yeah!
No what I meant was a live audience versus a recording session.
Lowell: I hate recording sessions. I'd rather play to a live audience. It's a lot easier and a lot more fun. Recording sessions are mental exercises. They get real tough and they're real real boring.
Alot of groups have a strong distaste for top 40 tunes. They prefer doing their own material. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Lowell: Yeah. I would suggest they only do their own material if it's any good. If it's not any good it really doesn't serve any purpose. Unless they can figure out different arrangements for their material to make it better and better. Which is a really helpful thing to do.
Have you ever played to an audience who reacted favorably to something you've played badly, and unfavorably to something you did well?
Lowell: I can remember one night, two different audiences. I thought we really played great. I guess we were so good. Nobody knew it because everything was moving just right. Then on other occasions where God, it's been horrible and we got a magnificent response. It's very hard for a person on stage to know what the audience is thinking. There is a deliniation between the stage and the audience that the artist cannot cross. They must be subjective enough to know what was good and what was bad.
I've heard that musicians are second class citizens, traditional chicken thieves and should be put back in jail after they've played the big party.
Lowell: I agree with that entirely. Most musicians are animals. They should not be let out. It's true man. You want to have a party and you want somebody to break something in your house. Invite a musician to play. He'll undoubtedly get drunk on his ass and knock it over and break it. You've got to put them back in their cage when they're through. I've been right there with the best of them. I know who said that. I wouldn't want to rent a house to a musician for all the money in the world. There is no reason why you should have to.
In the news today one of the more dominant items seems to be nuclear power. I realize that's somewhat out of context.
Lowell: No necessarily. As a matter of fact we played an anti-nuke benefit in San Luis Obispo for Diablo Canyon. We had a bomb scare. Jane Fonda organized two or three concerts that we did for various political causes. That move she made probably did more for the anti-nuclear circuit than... I remember her explaining to me way back, oh five years ago about the meltdown in China Syndrome. I said yikes! I see now. Wendy Waldman was on the show with us. She is also a Topangan. I saw here just the other day and she looks just like Wendy Waldman.
What are some of your values?
Lowell: You don't want to hear that. My values speak for themselves, pretty much. To try and keep a sense of humor amongst a lot of bullshit is really nice to do, and just recently I've been able to capture that. Nothing is really that important.