Mark Brend Rock and Roll Doctor Lowell George: guitarist, songwriter and founder of Little Feat

Thursday, 22 July 2010 

In suggesting that writing a biography wouldn't be the easiest of literary endeavours I'm not suggesting that any of them are actually easy. If you set out to write a work of fiction, you'll have issues with character development and steering your plot line away from the patently obvious without heading straight into the equally patently obvious. Embark on an autobiography and you'll have the not inconsiderable problem of reconciling your own memories with those of your peers and the documentary record.

Writing a biography, on the other hand, particularly when you can't access the subject or something in the way of autobiographical material you're going to depend on source material and the memories of those around your subject, and in Rock and Roll Doctor: Lowell George: guitarist, songwriter and founder of Little Feat Mark Brend runs right up against those two sets of issues.

Given the fact that Little Feat and Lowell George are and were never exactly household names you wouldn't expect documentary source material to be thick on the ground, and when those closest to the subject as far as the musical side of things are concerned are still making their living from the Little Feat brand name, they're hardly likely to be doing anything that might be seen as trashing it.

The conventional wisdom is that Lowell George was, more or less the essence of Little Feat, and there's a considerable body of opinion to the effect that a Lowell-less Feat couldn't be Little Feat at all. Brend does a commendable job of undermining that belief and while Rock and Roll Doctor is tightly written, well structured, ticks all the expected boxes and provides a good overview of one of rock music's quirkiest figures, there isn't a whole lot there that's new. 

A glance at the bibliography in the back of the book reveals a substantial list  of newspapers and magazines and less than a half-page column of books, some of which wouldn't be too heavy on Lowell George references. Still, if that's all Brend found, that may well be all there is.

As a long-term Feat fan there's nothing much here that's new or unexpected. As an introduction to the man and his work the book is OK as far as it goes. There's still room for a definitive biography of Lowell George (this definitely isn't it) but I suspect that the material to produce one may not be there, at least until Little Feat has ceased to function as a touring entity, and I wouldn't be holding my breath after that.

I doubt that either Bill Payne or Paul Barrere, the other major players in the creative tug of war in the Lowell-era band, are likely to be forthcoming with anything that could be seen as overly critical of the man whose work still provides a fair chunk of their bread and butter. Having met and exchanged email with Bill and Paul, two of the nicest people it's been my privilege to meet, I'm not exactly unbiased either, but I can't help casting my mind back to a totally unexpected Lowell George reference in an Australian newspaper many years ago.

A long-term employee of one of Melbourne's leading hotel was asked to name the most unpleasant guest he'd encountered, and somewhat to my surprise, singled out Mr George. I don't know why, but given the number of difficult personalities the guy must have encountered I would have thought there were many other more likely suspects.

There's no doubt that those blessed with great gifts are often encumbered with gross personality defects (and I'm not expecting anything as uncompromising as the warts and all biography of Warren Zevon that makes extremely uncomfortable reading) and that one anecdote makes me suspect that there are elements of the Lowell George story that haven't been told here. I suspect, however, that they never will be.

© Ian Hughes 2012