I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Commodore Hotel
And underneath the street lamps, I met a Southern belle…
Like poles on opposite ends of some weird Midwestern planet, Southern California and the South exist in a state of magnetic attraction and repulsion. In some ways no two areas of the country could be less alike, and yet within each you will find, often quite unexpectedly, aspects of the other.
Bakersfield and Galveston are 1,700 miles apart, but psychologically they’re just down the road from each other. Great swaths of Gwinnett County are like Orange County with pine trees. Drift in to an electronics store in Huntsville, Ala., and you might think you were at the Frye’s out near LAX. Drop by Mr. Pockets’ on Sepulveda on any given Saturday in the fall and you’ll find yourself in a crowd of Alabama fans, though the leaves in their new home never turn crimson. Once a year, they even fly in barbecue from Dreamland.
And what is Florida, really, but a kind of Yankee-Cuban Baja, an illicit appendage mirroring the peninsula on the other side of the continent? With a few twists of history, these two states might easily have wound up in opposite countries, with the University of Baja California as a power in the PAC 11, and zebra-painted donkeys on the streets of Panama City.
Musically, a certain magnetism operates between the two regions as well. There’s no telling how many songs have been written about girls from Oklahoma and boys from Georgia, gone west to strike it big and longing for home. Many of those songs are true.
The gravitational pull moves in the other direction, also. In 1969, the band Little Feat was formed around the nucleus of Lowell George, a guitar player from Hollywood whose father was a furrier for movie stars, and Billy Payne, a keyboard player who’d found his way to California from Waco. Their sound owed its out-there lyrics and jazz tinge to the Mothers of Invention, in which George and the band’s original bassist, Roy Estrada, had played, and its groove and bluesie feel to the Southern boogie bands that proliferated around that time.
It took a few years and three albums for Little Feat to catch on and gain the cult following which has kept them afloat to this day, but well before then they had become a local favorite in Atlanta, gigging at a club, now long gone, called Richard’s. (It helped, perhaps, that they sang an anthemic tribute to our town’s women, “Oh, Atlanta.”)
“Dixie Chicken,” the title song of the album that made them, was often performed in a long jam with “Tripe Face Boogie” – the best version to listen to is on the live album, “Waiting for Columbus.”
“Dixie Chicken” is ersatz Southern, but that’s the way it is with a lot of Southern songs. The Commodore Hotel is actually located halfway between Memphis and Nashville, but sing “I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Peabody Hotel,” and it will be obvious this was lyrically if not factually the right choice of words.
If you’ll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb…
It’s that classic tale of a young man who takes up with a wayward woman who leaves him. I assume, though I’m not sure, that the Dixie Chicks took their name from it. The song works because of the witty last verse, in which the forelorn lover strays back to his old haunt:
But then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel
I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well
And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song,
And all the boys there at the bar began to sing along…
After they struck it big, Little Feat played a few big dates at the Fox. I had a backstage pass at one of them, and I remember eavesdropping on a conversation George had with an old friend from his Atlanta clubbing days during one of several encores.
“They’re killing me,” the exhausted slide guitarist said before he bounded back on stage again.
And sure enough, they did. He died after a show in a hotel in Arlington, Va., in 1979. The death was attributed to a massive heart attack, but that was only the final symptom of Rock ‘n Roll Musician’s Disease: Too much adrenalin, too many drugs, too many cheering audiences demanding another encore, when not long before it had been a struggle just to stay on the road. He was 34.
Inara George, his daughter, now plays with Greg Kirsten in the indy-rock duo The Bird and the Bee. There’s a certain studied wackiness to their lyrics her father might have liked. Little Feat went dormant for several years after Lowell George died, but reformed in 1987. They’ve gone through several personnel changes, the most recent this year, when Gabe Ford stepped in for drummer Richie Hayward, who has liver cancer. There was a benefit concert for Hayward on Oct. 4 at a club in L.A. In one of those nasty little ironies, Hayward has been living in Canada when not on the road, but doesn’t have health insurance.
Little Feat: Dixie Chicken
The Bird and the Bee: Love Letter to Japan