January 09, 2006

Smile, Let Your Life Begin

p02744r5nax.jpgBeing on somewhat of a Lowell George kick the last month or so—digging Little Feat’s debut in particular—I thought I’d talk a little about a man who made a pretty good-sized mark on California music in a pretty short time. Lowell George started playing instruments in high school, “which led to him appearing as an oboist and baritone saxophonist on several Frank Sinatra recording sessions.” Shifting towards rock, blues, and country, George got into some unique slide guitar playing techniques and, it's said, developed a talent second only to Ry Cooder's in the L.A. scene. By ’65 he’d started a folk rock group called The Factory with his friend and drummer Richard Hayward (Future CSNer Dallas Taylor was in it first, but got sick). They cut a few sides for Frank Zappa who George had met at a talent show years before. Contrary to Richie Unterberger’s oft suspect allmusic notes (Hell, he once wrote that Dino Valente “didn't have much of a voice.” Jeez, Dino’s all voice!), The Factory released at least two 45s for Uni in 1966 and '67, including one where they’re jamming with microtonal magician Emil Richards. (You can find these four sides plus 11 other demos and never-released recordings on a CD called Lightning-Rod Man).

Writes Unterberger, “The group pursu[ed] a slightly eccentric folk-rock vision that neither bears much similarity to George's more famous work nor matches the best work done in this genre by their L.A. peers. At times they echo Kaleidoscope in their vaguely spacey, good-natured folkish rock; just as often, they take cues from Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa in their skewed blues-rock and obtuse songwriting (in fact one song, “Lightning Rod Man,” has even turned up on bootlegs as a lost Beefheart gem).” As far as The Factory’s sound, Unterberger’s pretty spot on, but let it be said that The Factory’s at their best, particularly the Eastern-vibed “No Place I’d Rather Be” and “Smile, Let Your Life Begin,” kick ass on most of that square jangly stuff so championed by reissuer types and trad-leaning critics.

A saying scrawled above the wall
heater at the Factory's Hollywood Hills house circa
1967 : "When shit becomes valuable the poor will have no assholes".

Though their records didn’t do so hot, George and the boys still found themselves on teevee, performing two of their songs, “Lost” and “Candy Cane Mountain” in a nightclub scene on an episode of Gomer Pyle. They also popped up in early ’67 on F-Troop performing instrumentals as The Bed Bugs—even getting to speak a couple lines. Soon thereafter The Factory fell apart, or in reality sort of metamorphosed into The Fraternity of Man, a very odd band who were best known for their jokey "Don't Bogart Me" on the Easy Rider soundtrack. The group featured Elliott Ingber (later “Winged Eel Fingerling” of Captain Beefheart-fame). Recalled George in a 1975 interview, “[The Fraternity of Man] was trying to play ‘Rumble’ and on about take 54 they still couldn't get through the first verse and the guitar player started talking to his amplifier. And then his amplifier started answering, it really did answer him. He spoke something to the amp and the amp spoke back, and it's on tape. Yeah, it was very strange.” The Fraternity of Man cut two albums, although George’s involvement was sporadic.

factory2.gifAlso around this time, George can be heard tooting his flute on Michele’s Saturn Rings LP which featured contributions from lots of Saggitarius/Millenium types like Curt Boettcher, Bobby Jameson, and Gordon Alexander. For a time it looked as if George had found a home as a replacement for Dick Dodd in the Standells (having just released his Tower LP, The First Evolution of Dick Dodd). The gig didn’t last long, however, and George was soon replaced in The Standells by none other than Dewey Martin from The Buffalo Springfield!

At this point, George joined the Mothers of Invention, an arrangement that didn’t last too long either. The anti-dope Zappa soon “convinced” George to form his own band (or as some say, kicked him out of The Mothers) after hearing his "weed, whites, and wine"-mentioning composition, "Willin'.” Taking bassist Roy Estrada along with him, George formed Little Feat in 1969 with ex-Factory drummer Hayward and Fraternity keyboardist Billy Payne. Estrada quit in ‘72 to become a computer programmer, but Little Feat would go on to big success with the reefer-blowing set.

feat.jpgHaven’t read it yet, but British author Mark Brend wrote a book a couple years back about Lowell George called Rock and Roll Doctor. In it he apparently has George doing stints not only with The Mothers and The Standells, but also The Seeds. According to reviews, “the book also includes a detailed and descriptive list of all of George¹s recorded appearances and production credits making this as complete a reference available for this often overlooked genius.” Until you go out and find that, read this very amusing interview of George from Zig Zag magazine in 1975. Sadly, George passed away a couple years later

March 31, 2005

Expanding Energy

It?s an interesting phenomenon to watch grow. The pull of its influence continues to extend in ever-spreading circles, attracting searchers and thinkers to a new multi-faceted "lifestyle" of expressive creativity, eco-communal awareness and inter-personal sensitivity. Often it seems that even those involved are unaware of the magnitude of the expanding movement. What appears to insiders as "exercises in every day life" may actually be the basis of a viable movement. The force I'm speaking of, of course, is New Energy.

The most visible trend within the movement has been its diversification. Since my last report the Whale Folk have become much more visible on the streets of the Bay Area with their dark hoods and yellow emblems. They seem to be lesswhale.jpg concerned with their music than getting their message out there. "Whales have been here longer than we have," one of them told me recently. "Shouldn't they have a say in their future?" A woman in sweats holding a yoga mat stopped to ask why whales all of a sudden needed a spokesperson. "Whales have a lot to say," he explained to her. "They make a lot of noises. . . there are even records of whale sounds. But no one can understand what they're saying. We are their voice."

North of the City I witnessed a medium-sized gathering on a beach near Inverness. The event was billed as a "Tree and Plant Funeral" meant to eulogize a swath of land being developed somewhere in Marin. Several young men and women in brown capes spun circles in place while a guitar player with intense blue eyes and a tossle of curly chestnut-colored hair hummed dramatically over raga-style drones and introduced himself and the others as the Growth Ring.

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February 01, 2005

Where We Went When We Had Nowhere Left To Go

turner.jpgNo discussion of American political, cultural, or social trends in the United States in the years between 1877 and 1929 can ignore the importance of the so-called "closing of the frontier" on the American psyche. It is a theme that seems to pervade nearly all aspects of American ideology. Even if Frederick Jackson Turner?s much-debated hypothesis is cast aside, unused and disproven, the repercussions of its declaration have undeniably colored and even altered thought about this period.

According to Turner?s interpretation of the 1880 census, the American population had by that time blanketed entirely itself over the entire North American continent, leaving no significant areas free of settlement. In other words, the frontier was officially closed. This posed a serious problem: How could America continue to develop ?democratic institutions and ideals? and grow smoothly as a nation as it had been previously been able to without the freedom of a frontier to expand beyond? Turner was reluctant to suggest a solution. Without this geographical release mechanism, he beleived, American society had, among other problems, ?no force tending toward democracy.? This was an issue that would have to be resolved otherwise. It is an interesting exercise to examine the changing trends and policies of the early 20th century in response to the nagging question that Turner has left us. If the frontier truly is closed, then what shall replace it as the great unifier of American society?

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November 09, 2004

Welcome To Energy

kk copy.jpgThose of you Great God Pan readers interested in communal living and drop-out lifestyles ought to check out Erik R. Bluhm's in-depth uncovering of and possible conversion to California's New Energy movement in the new issue of Arthur magazine. Get the scoop on the group's collaboration with noted New York minimalist Ferg DeWitt, their taste in abstract paper clothing, and the current state of West Coast Naturmenschen. Relates New Energy spokesman Kaisle Feeled, who is also the singer known as Little Wings, "We are the precursors to a newly awakened generation; the feelings, visions, and sounds that have lain dormant under the conditioned reality of Western civilization are emerging so we can touch them." Illustrated with beautiful color photos by Jamison Carter. Read the whole story by ordering a copy from Arthur, or by picking up a free copy at any of these fine locations across the country.

September 27, 2004

May Your Tank Never Run Dry

Postwar Escapism on Western Byways


“When I suffer the wounds of city living, the small won't-heal cuts of too much pavement, too much ticky-tacky, too much iron and cement against the sky, I skitter away from it. I follow a wide road that becomes a narrow road, that becomes a dirt road that becomes no road at all and then I keep driving until the desert wind tells me I'm safe or the car just won't go any further.

—Russ Leadabrand, Exploring California Byways III, 1969

Westerners of the post W.W.II era were a people on the move. But unlike their Okie predecessors, who were bent on escaping poverty and discovering new opportunities, these modern sojourners were financially confident and motivated by the aesthetic pleasures of nature and an interest in their own consumable history. Thanks to the affordability of the automobile, these new travelers were mobile and self-sufficient. They felt knowledgeable of their destinations from perusing the multitude of travel guidebooks produced during this period. book1.gif

Regionally-enamored journalists like Commander A.W. Scott, Choral Pepper, and Russ Leadabrand published, broadcasted, and proselytized extensively on the attractiveness of automotive diversion off the beaten path. With their wide-eyed Ramona-esque glamorization of California and the West, these writers belong to a tradition of regional boosters that can be traced back to 19th century champions like Lansford Hastings and John C. Frémont, only the satisfaction of an open stretch of asphalt or gravel, and unobscured vistas had replaced earlier aspirations of wealth, power, and opportunity.

But theirs is often a manufactured West built on myths, dreamy atmospheres, and distorted retellings. It draws heavily on romanticism and drive-up history while ignoring the West that was rapidly becoming what environmental critic William Bronson called in 1968, "a hell of a mess and getting worse." It has been argued that their printed endorsements may have hastened the process as many of the regions they promoted were in danger of becoming smothered by subdivisions and crisscrossed by go-fast interstates that discouraged the very assimilation of charming roadside minutiae they so valued.

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