The unenviable side of the rock-and-roll life
A Rock and Roll Life
By Graham Nash
The Story of Little Feat
By Ben Fong-Torres
Da Capo. 296 pages. $26.99
Reviewed by John Timpane
We get a snootful of the rock-and-roll life from these books, one by Graham Nash, topmost voice of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and (sometimes) Young; and the other by Ben Fong-Torres, a fine Rolling Stone writer drawn to tales of tragic greatness unfulfilled.
For a decade or so, CSN-sometimes-Y was one of the biggest acts in music. Their self-titled first album was crackling fresh, and tracks from it are still all over the listening-scape: "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "You Don't Have to Cry," "Marrakesh Express," and so on. Déjà Vu, their second album, with Young kind of aboard, was also huge, with "Woodstock," "Teach Your Children," "Helpless," and other tracks.
The band itself? A stinkin' train wreck. This monster live act featured half-hour jams, insane guitar dogfights, political disquisitions, quiet-downs so each man could acoustic-solo, sometimes up to five hours of delirious joy. I saw them at their peak, in 1970 in Los Angeles, and they were dumbfounding.
But they killed one another, the feckless Young taking off and being "The Loner," Crosby with his inhuman intake of drugs, sex, and guns (documented here), Stills with his vulnerable, inconsiderate genius-musician ego, and Nash, self-portrayed as the steadying force of the group. We see him, more than once, tears in his eyes, warning his dysfunctional mates: "We're losing it!"
Wild Tales takes us through the history of the Hollies, itself fascinating, and details Nash's agonizing decision to leave them and join Crosby and Stills. How hard it was to be in CSNY, how druggy (Nash happily admits to crippling drug intake but swears he never let it change him . . . I suppose not, compared to Crosby), how much it hurt when one guy stole another guy's girl, or when two guys (Stills and Young) erased the vocals of the other two and made their own album. Each, at one time or another, walks out on the rest. Each shows up expecting to be taken back. And these guys sometimes still tour. Whew.
Plenty of wild tales here. A frustrated Joni Mitchell dumps a bowl of cereal over Nash's head (he loved her but couldn't commit). An angry Little Richard chews out his too-showy guitarist, a young man named Jimi Hendrix. A rampaging Stills destroys the master tape of a Nash track. Crosby shows up sick, covered in sores, paranoid, running through millions to feed his habits.
Nash has some vacancies. To be sure, he's movin' quick, much to cover, and yet . . . as much as we learn about the band en masse, the only bandmate we get to know well is Crosby, who was closest to Nash. Less described is the mercurial, brilliant Stills, and the inexplicable Young. Nash had tons of meaningless sex and loved every minute of it. Aside from Mitchell and his wife, Susan, it isn't clear he sees women. To be fair, he may be going easy out of loyalty or delicacy (which he laudably maintains). To echo his own mantra, oh, well, rock and roll.
Nothing so glib is Fong-Torres' tale of Little Feat, the blazing, original L.A. band that, though they never had a "hit," were and still are among the most admired and influential acts of their era. Fong-Torres is drawn to tales of the should-have-been-great: His excellent bio Hickory Wind tells such a tale of Gram Parsons.
Here, the tragic antihero is Lowell George, big man, big voice, big guitar, big talent for writing tunes like no one else's - and a big penchant for wrecking everything. His was a crew of uncommon talent, with Bill Payne on keyboards and Paul Barrere on guitar, etc. Each could easily head his own band - and, it seems, each thought he did!
I saw Little Feat, and what a live band they were. Played like demons, sang like angels, and had a lot of fun with the audience. In their traditional percussion throwdown near show's end, they threw maracas into the crowd and danced like nuts. Those nights, they were happy. Too many nights, they weren't. Fights. Volcanic artistic splits. Remind me never, ever to do drugs. Not after reading these books.
I'm not going to pretend we get to know George from this book. We do peer into his upbringing, his friendships, his early bands (including the Mothers of Invention) that led to Little Feat. That helps. But maybe you just can't get into a George or a Young or a Stills. I get a better sense of Payne and Barrere, whose sometimes rueful remembrances spice the book.
Fong-Torres is a good stylist, an excellent music reporter, and a compassionate storyteller. It's hard to tell stories about music and musicians: So much is hidden, so much chaotic. The rock life is a road, not an arc, highlights but few resolutions. Fong-Torres knows that better than almost any writer alive. He weaves a tale of superbly gifted, sensitive people trying to make something good, enjoyable, and lasting. And achieving only the first two.
Fong-Torres implies that the frustrations of being a great-but-not-triumphant band helped destroy George, or helped him destroy himself. To most musicians, there comes a time one realizes one will not be Michael Jackson/Beyoncé/the Beatles, and that, if one wants to keep making music, one must hit the road and get satisfaction from playing well. It's hard. Even harder when you've had a taste of success - for example, Little Feat's industry fame as best studio band in the world (they basically are the band on some albums by Bonnie Raitt, Robert Palmer, and others). Or their U.K. tour with the Doobie Brothers, in which, famously, Little Feat, as opening act, eclipsed the world-beating Doobies.
Surely, road warriordom is not failure. Despite its drags, it's a life many would love. Too many lives have been sacrificed, though, to "rock stardom," and when it did not come their way, they sputtered and went out. That's a tragedy, because many of these were better than the ones who found fame.
George was one of the best. When he died of a heart attack in a Virginia hotel room, his band crumbled, rose again, and is still touring, with four of the 1972 lineup still going. They give a damn good show. Willin' is one of the few books that makes a band's post-spotlight career as interesting as its salad days.