Little Feat's place in rock 'n' roll history is undeniable, as is Ben Fong-Torres' role as a rock 'n' roll scribe.
Little Feat is inarguably one of the most underrated bands in American music. Formed, more or less, by two ex-Mothers of Invention (Roy Estrada and the late Lowell George) and friend Billy Payne, the group fused elements of country, New Orleans-inflected jazz, blues, rock and pop, only to emerge with a sound that no other band has been capable of matching. George’s penchant for odd song structures and atypical lyrical matter helped launch the Los Angeles-based outfit but the tenacity and talent of his bandmates helped sustain the group after his creative light began to fade and, later, after his death at the all-too-early age of 34.
Some might argue that there is no Little Feat without Lowell George but the group reunited in 1987 and has run on without him since then with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. Author Ben Fong-Torres struggles with this problem throughout Willin’: How to acknowledge George’s roll in the creation of the band and how to acknowledge that the fine musicians who joined him on his journey are still creating music that is often vital? The author admits early in the text that this is a factor in the story and a task that will hover over the entire narrative.
This problem is compounded by sometimes unclear and inevitably contradictory recollections and by George’s penchant for both fabrication and embellishment. These are challenges when dealing with biography and especially when dealing not with the biography of one man but the biography of several. Payne is as central to the story as George even if some might feel he lacks the mystique and magnetism of the band’s original guitarist. The late Richie Hayward comes off as another figure worthy of deeper exploration, and the dynamics of the latter-day Feat, with female vocalist Shaun Murphy, also has the potential for intrigue. So, how to get all of those stories straight and enhance rather than damage the reputation of this enduring and endearing band?
The problem here is that Fong-Torres, despite being a seasoned and respected writer, doesn’t seem to know what to do with the material. It’s as if the contradictory nature of the story and its potentially epic scope were too much for him and he found himself at odds with the story that he wanted to tell and the story that needed to be told. A straight up George biography would never do (though it’s obviously warranted) and a closer examination of the group’s latter years would likely result in cries that the author had somehow shortchanged the early, beloved and ground-breaking era.
It’s an unenviable position for a writer to be in, for sure. Readers deserve to get the full story and the men who have carried forth the Feat legacy deserve much the same. Guitarists Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett are formidable talents who have written and played some of Feat’s most memorable material and percussionist Sam Clayton is as singular a voice as you might find in the era of rock from which Feat first emerged. Bassist Kenny Gradney’s contributions can’t and shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should those of Roy Estrada, who left in 1972 and is now serving the rest of his life in a Texas penitentiary for having sexually abused a young girl.
Instead of trying to strike a balance, Fong-Torres seems instead to give up; you can almost hear the steam running out of the engine once George’s participation in the band begins to fade (right around 1977’s Time Loves a Hero). Although George’s death seems to play an important role in the history of the band and in rock lore, it’s not dealt with in a satisfactory way—a little bit more investigation into the circumstances might have helped clear the air for once and for all about what finally did the legendary guitarist in. There are hints and allegations about George’s mental health, but Fong-Torres is dismissive of these and even disses poor Linda Ronstadt in the process.
It’s in those latter chapters, after the remaining Feat members pick up the charge and begin recording and touring again that the writing really falls apart and Fong-Torres sounds more and more like a sarcastic freshman stretching toward the final paragraphs of a term paper he really doesn’t want to write. The transitions become looser, the analysis of the music more uneven and the writing itself more repetitive. (The author tends to repeat minor points often enough that you begin to think that he believes either his readers can’t remember more than ten pages back, or that he fears no one, save a critic or two, is actually going to read the book from cover to cover.)
He dodges other interesting questions: How is that a group of guys who almost invited Bonnie Raitt to join their club come to resent Shaun Murphy for having actually done so? And where, exactly, does the band fit into the puzzle of American music? Is Little Feat a West Coast version of The Band or is it something more unique? What is the band’s ultimate legacy? And isn’t Fred Tackett just as marvelous as Lowell George?
Fong-Torres is a writer of strong reputation and some acclaim and Little Feat is a band that commands a certain reverence among music lovers to this day. Willin’ is a book that falls short of being worth of either and suggests that anyone aspiring to write the great Little Feat book should step up and have at it.