Lowell George and other thoughtsLos Angeles Post-Examiner

Lowell George and other thoughts

Lately I’ve been in a Little Feat mood. Been singing either “Time Love a Hero” or “All That You Dream” off and on. Not bad songs to have stuck in your cranial cavity. As I was muddling about yesterday I put on Waiting For Columbus, the Little Feat album to buy if you’re only going to buy one.

So, while listening to that album I sang along with “Dixie Chicken” and “Tripe Face Boogie.” People always talk about how the Grateful Dead could jam and segue from one song to another, but really, the best band at that was — and possibly still is — Little Feat. Get this album; Little Feat puts on a clinic. You can download it for under 12 bucks.

Recorded live in London, England and Washington, D.C., this is the lineup that includes Bill Payne, Paul Barerre, Richie Hayward, Sam Clayton, Kenny Gradney and Lowell George.

Lowell George is one of those guys; if you were an aspiring musician and/or songwriter in the 1970’s, you probably liked or even emulated him. Besides forming Little Feat (with Bill Payne) in 1969, he played with Mothers of Invention. The prevalent rumor is Frank Zappa kicked George out of the band for writing the song “Willin’.” Allegedly for the drug reference in the lyrics: “And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine …”

Jimi Hendrix performing at Woodstock, August 18, 1969 (Wikipedia)

Jimi Hendrix performing at
Woodstock, August 18, 1969 (Wikipedia)

Sounds like a quaint story now, but a rumor like that, back then, no computers, no Internets to get viral on, the hippie culture moved with stories like that.

Like the myth that Frank Zappa ate shit on stage. Not too long ago someone relayed that lie to me, as if it were the truest story that was ever told. And this was a guy who hadn’t been born until 1982, or there abouts. How the heck would you know, 40 years after that little piece of rock’n’roll mythology began making the rounds.

Actually, I would bet Zappa loved it though; it gave him notoriety and kind of fell in with his famous poster, Phi Zappa Crappa. If a guy would have a picture taken of himself sitting on the Vertical Throne taking a dump, why wouldn’t he eat shit on stage?

Well, one reason being that shit tastes like, well, shit and Zappa was never high enough to get past that, if he were actually ever high. In his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, FZ talks about the shit-eating myth (denying it ever happened) and how he had never liked drugs, didn’t want his band members using drugs when they played, or even drinking heavily. Although, as I recall, Zappa admitted he did in fact, inhale — once.

Lowell George was a prodigious drug user. Put me to shame really. Well, maybe not. The only difference between us, I survived and Lowell George did not. He lived to the age of 34, dying of “heart failure” in Arlington, VA June 29, 1979. Heart failure … goes along with excessive weight, too much alcohol and too much of the street drugs, like heroin. The autopsy showed that George actually died from an accidental drug overdose, but people who want history to remember George kindly stick to the “heart failure” story.

Like friends and families of alcoholics who die of kidney failure or cirrhosis of the liver, no one wants to state the obvious: the person died from alcohol or drug use. Alcohol and drugs, like nicotine, kill.

Janis Joplin (Wikipedia)

Janis Joplin (Wikipedia)

When someone like Lowell George dies from a drug overdose, it makes a lot of news, affirming for those opposed to legalizing street drugs, the reason why said substances should continue to be illegal. Ignoring the fact that being illegal didn’t stop Lowell George from obtaining his drug of choice.

Being illegal doesn’t stop anyone from buying or selling drugs if they are intent on using or selling them. And by any estimation, the so-called “War on Drugs” has been a dismal failure for the past 80 years.

The saddest part of Lowell George’s legacy though is that he left behind two children and in a broader world, we won’t get to hear any new music from this man, one of the greatest songwriters to emerge from the 1960’s. He also had a great voice and was a master at the slide guitar.

Years ago, right after Little Feat reformed and recorded the album Let It Roll, I had a chance to interview keyboardist Bill Payne. Of his old band mate, Payne said George was the type of guy you loved one minute and were ready to kill the next. Sounds like an addict — predictably unpredictable. You never know when the person you can talk to sensibly will appear or disappear.

George would be 70 had he lived and likely might still be touring, if not with Little Feat than as a solo act. That’s what he was doing when he died 36 years ago. But we’ll never know.

Waiting For Columbus went platinum years ago so he might have gotten out of the music business, got into real estate and ended up like surf guitar legend, Dick Dale, who continues to perform up and down the California Coast.

  • Don’t know if Dick Dale is into real estate actually, but if you have money and live in California, owning real estate used to be a great way to make your money grow.

In the thousands of rock concerts I’ve seen over the years, none of them, to my knowledge, included Lowell George. I’ve seen Bonnie Raitt and John Hiatt perform “All That You Dream” several times each, seen the “new” Little Feat a couple of times, but I can’t say I saw Lowell George perform. I may have been at a concert where he performed, but I was often so high my memories … well I have no memories of many concerts.

Jerry Garcia performing with the Grateful Dead (Wikipedia)

Jerry Garcia performing with the Grateful Dead (Wikipedia)

Back in the 1980’s I took my mother to see Henry Mancini perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. It had been nearly two decades since Mancini had scored a hit song, but for my mother it didn’t matter. Time had stood still and then rolled backwards. She was singing “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” as if she were 30 years younger.

  • “Peter Gunn” is probably the coolest song Mancini ever composed! But Mom loved the romantic tunes.

Just imagine, seeing Lowell George, despite his age, performing his best music. But, it’s not to be. The best we can do is click on YouTube or download Waiting For Columbus.

Lowell George wasn’t the first or last rock star to die as a result of his or her addictions. When it happens my emotions are so mixed I praise the person one minute and then curse them the next for doing what has now become a rock’n’roll cliché. Look at the list.

  • Lowell George: —June 29, 1979 age 34, from heroin overdose, after a show in Washington, D.C.
  • Brian Jones: July 3, 1969, age 27. Found motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool, his death certificate states “Death by Misadventure,” but noted his heart and liver were extremely enlarged due to alcohol and drug use.
  • Jimi Hendrix: September 18, 1970, age 27. Aspirated his own vomit and died of asphyxia while intoxicated on barbiturates. His friend Monika Dannemann said Hendrix took nine of her prescribed sleeping pills.
  • Janis Joplin: October 4, 1970, age 27. A heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol, Joplin was found dead in her room at a motel in Hollywood.
  • Jim Morrison: July 3, 1971, age 27. Circumstances surrounding his death are not verifiably known, but the woman he was with in Paris, France, Pamela Courson, said that he had accidentally snorted some of her heroin, thinking it was cocaine and overdosed.
  • Ron “PigPen” McKernan: March 8, 1973, age 27. He died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, after years of abusing alcohol. He was genetically pre-disposed to having liver disease — which wasn’t enough to keep him from drinking. He had to leave the Grateful Dead because he could no longer perform. Pigpen knew he was dying and told his band mates he didn’t want them around when he died.
  • Brent Mydland: July 26, 1990, age 37. He died from a speedball overdose. Speedball is a combination of heroin and cocaine.
  • Kurt Cobain: April 5, 1994, age 27. Died of a self-inflicted shotgun blast, after years of heroin addiction and depression.
  • Jerry Garcia: August 9, 1995, age 53. He died of a heart attack, while in his room at an alcohol and drug rehab center. Jerry had a slew of other medical issues, all of which were exacerbated by his drug and alcohol abuse, chief among them diabetes.
  • Amy Winehouse: July 23, 2011, age 27. Died from alcohol poisoning. Amy was considered to have the best voice of her generation.
Kurt Cobain with Nirvana (Wikipedia)

Kurt Cobain with Nirvana (Wikipedia)

There are many more, but those are the ones that come to mind.

There’s nothing really profound or influential to say here. You can’t point at an alcoholic and/or drug addict and say, “Look what happened to this people!”

Knowing how the first six names on that list died didn’t stop me from abusing drugs and alcohol. In fact there was a time when I thought it would be cool to die from alcohol or drug-related causes at the age of 27 — just like Jimi, Janis, Jim and Pigpen.

On March 5, 1982 John Belushi died at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood from a speedball overdose. My friends and I, big fans that we were — and prolific drug abusers — said almost in unison, “We gotta try that!” When it was revealed how Belushi died. The fact that a speedball killed him was what made the idea of doing them so enticing.

Yes, that’s fucking insane, but addicts are more than a little insane when they are still actively abusing drugs and alcohol.

On the morning of my 28th birthday I felt like a complete loser, a failure, for having lived that long. It’s no coincidence that within 10 months of that birthday I stopped using drugs and alcohol altogether, remaining clean and sober all these years.

Amy Winehouse (Wikipedia)

Amy Winehouse (Wikipedia)

What’s the point? Don’t know really, other than lets end the war on drugs and spend more money on rehabilitation. Put alcoholics and addicts into rehab facilities. It won’t “cure” most of them, maybe half at best, many will be back at it within a year, but it will save thousands. The truth is, as long as our heroes, like rock stars, continue to use and abuse drugs and alcohol, it will always look appealing to the millions of young people (especially) that look up to these celebrities.

Garcia, Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison still have a tremendous influence on music, as does Belushi in the comedy world. Most of the musicians on that list had a profound effect on me over the years and a few continue to influence my life.

Maybe the point is — and many rock stars will agree — don’t put these or any other artists on pedestals. They are remarkably talented, but like the rest of us they are only human. Not everything about them is laudable or even acceptable.

The true legacy of drug abuse; we lose a bit of what makes us smile when our heroes die far too young. Man, I would love to experience Lowell George live on stage.

Top photo: Paul Barrere and Lowell George performing with Little Feat in 1977 (YouTube)


About the author

Tim Forkes

Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the elected government officials and business were so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that. Contact the author.
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