April 2014

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Sufjan Stevens, Bill Callahan, Sarah Davachi, David Gilmour… and Sun Ra Arkestra!

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Robert Fripp on Eno, Bowie and King Crimson

"Whenever you walk on stage – maximum hazard!"

No-one who saw Little Feat at their peak will want to contest Jon Dale’s description of them later in this issue as one of the greatest American bands of their era. Their records were great, but live they were sensational – at least until a not unusual mix of drugs and personality clashes ruined them.

I missed them in 1974 when they came to the UK as part of a Warner Bros package tour intended to break The Doobie Brothers, who they nightly blew off the stage. When they come back in June 1976, however, to play on The Who Put The Boot In tour of various football stadiums, I’m waiting for them. I’ve been dispatched to interview them individually for a regular Melody Maker feature called Band Breakdown. I’m supposed to meet them early on a Friday afternoon, the day before they play Swansea with The Who, at the Montcalm, a swanky hotel near Marble Arch.

Unfortunately, when I get there, I’m informed by a worried label lackey that they’re being held at Heathrow, their impounded equipment, flight cases, amps and the like, being stripped, much like the group themselves, and thoroughly searched for drugs. They turn up around six, their remarkable good humour explained by the fact that whatever the officials were looking for had been sent ahead by the band and was waiting for them at the hotel, their stash quickly liberated, which makes for a series of mostly very convivial interviews.

Sam Clayton, Ken Gradney and Bill Payne are fine. But I don’t get on with guitarist Paul Barrere, who in a surly hint of tensions to come grumpily complains at one point that Lowell George gets too much credit for the band’s music. I get on fabulously, however, with drummer Richie Hayward. He’s sharp, funny and extremely generous with his share of what the band had collected when they’d rocked up at reception. We jabber for hours and I realise I still need to speak to Lowell, who doesn’t answer his door. Richie suggests I meet the band in Swansea and so the next day I spend a lot of time in Little Feat’s trailer, drinking beer, smoking this and that.

I still don’t manage to get Lowell in front of a tape recorder, so it’s agreed with someone that I’ll meet up with him at the soundcheck for their show on Monday at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, but that doesn’t happen either. There’s an aftershow party for the band at the Zanzibar, a Covent Garden cocktail bar, however, which is where after a sensational show Lowell is finally cornered. He’s already pretty much out of it, although not yet as far gone as he looks he might get, but for the next 45 minutes he’s charming and hilarious, hugely charismatic.

The next time I see him it’s August 1977. Little Feat are playing The Rainbow and something dreadful has clearly happened to Lowell in the last 12 months. Always given to portliness, he’s now grossly overweight, fat as a Buddha, hair greasy and unkempt, face bloated and his mind clearly elsewhere. His appearance is made even more disturbing by what he’s wearing – candy-striped overalls, puffed at the wrists and shoulders, that give him the appearance of something nightmarish from a nursery rhyme come frighteningly to life. By now, Barrere and Payne have taken control of Little Feat and apparently turned them into a brash jazz-fusion band, barely recognisable from a year earlier. When they play “Day At The Dog Races” from Time Loves A Hero, Lowell walks off, disconsolate and marginalised.

When I next run into him, it’s June 1979. He’s recently disbanded Little Feat and touring to promote his solo album, Thanks I’ll Eat It Here. I’m in a lift at The Gramercy Park Hotel in New York with Captain Sensible from The Damned, who’s dressed in a fluorescent pink rabbit suit, complete with ears. The lift doors open and Lowell steps in, stares disbelievingly at Sensible and before I have a chance to say anything gets out, possibly worried that he’s having a psychedelic episode. Two days later, he dies of a heart attack, another good man gone. You can only hope that the last thing he thought of wasn’t a man dressed as a rabbit, swearing his head off in a lift at five in the morning. Enjoy the issue.

ISSUE ON SALE FROM FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY

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