“It's those rock and roll hours, early graves without flowers
Please, please darlin' put my mind at rest
I'm beggin' please darlin' put my mind at rest
So it seems that the world keeps on turnin' but so what
I don't doubt it, it just keeps on the move
You're a dream, and that's all that I ask for
So well now, I'm wonderin' just how I'm gonna tell it to you
Skin It Back … ” —Paul Barrere, Little Feat
Among musicians, skin it back means “go for it,” and as a band, Little Feat did just that. Endlessly funky, tight as a drumhead, syncopated, country blues-tinged and punctuated with wry lyrics, the band formed by Lowell George and Billy Payne in 1969 became a staple in my college years.
Marylanders really took a shine to the Feats when they recorded the brilliant “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now” at Blue Seas Recording Studio near Baltimore, in Hunt Valley, Maryland, in 1974. By the time I hit my job at the University of Maryland Record Co-op in 1975, Little Feat was held in high regard. And, between my jobs at the co-op and the college daily, concert tickets were plentiful. I’ve seen Little Feat live more than any other band in my life, including one of the Lisner Auditorium gigs, where the band recorded a number of tracks for its fantastic live album, “Waiting For Columbus.” The band is in my DNA.
That’s why the recent death of guitarist and songwriter Paul Barrere was a kick in the gut. He wrote “Skin It Back,” my favorite Little Feat song in a catalogue of enduring and brilliant songs, many written by the superb slide guitarist and former Mother of Invention, George. Barrere and guitarist-mandolinist, Fred Tackett, often paired up for tours, and in 1986, maybe 1987, played Telluride’s legendary Fly Me To the Moon Saloon. Barrere signed my battered copy of “Feats Don’t Fail Me Now,” mentioning in writing that more than a decade after its release, it had gone gold.
That record was always gold in my book. It features not only “Skin It Back,” but “Spanish Moon,” Rock and Roll Doctor,” “Oh, Atlanta” and the dance-frenzy-inducing medley “Cold, Cold, Cold/Tripe Face Boogie.”
After George died in 1979, his undoing his poor health and propensity to enjoy the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle in all its excessiveness, the band took a hiatus. Imagine my joy when, shortly after making Telluride my home, a reunited Little Feat with Lowell sound-alike, Craig Fuller, performed at Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1988.
In 2012, the Feats returned, this time for Telluride Blues & Brews. I was part of KOTO’s live broadcast team, and Barrere and Tackett said yes to an interview. By the end of the interview I was walking on air. Tackett was warm, effusive and woo-y, while Barrere was taciturn but quietly friendly. Both men kissed me farewell before heading back to the bus. Talking music and life with those guys is a precious gift of a memory.
Payne said this about his departed bandmate: “Paul touched many hearts and minds by sharing the gifts he possessed. We have the songs, his voice and all the inflections he commanded, his incredible musical sense as a player, whether playing a searing and soaring slide part or a gentle acoustic guitar. He was a master at rhythm and creating stellar parts to songs of almost any genre.”
I’ll add this. Barrere had “two degrees in be-bop, a PhD in swing, he's the master of rhythm, he's a rock ’n’ roll king.”
This rock musician death thing just keeps coming at me. The mathematical reality that our (my) musical heroes are going one step beyond with increasing regularity leaves me wondering, who’s next? Could be most anyone, as Damon Linker wrote in his clear-eyed story in The Week in August, “The Coming Death of Just About Every Rock Legend.” There’s a long list of 70-somethings we’ll be mourning before too long — Dylan, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Paul and Ringo, and Mick and Keef are just a sampling of rockers whose time is gonna come.
“Like all monumental acts of creativity, the artists were driven by an aspiration to transcend their own finitude, to create something of lasting value, something enduring that would live beyond those who created it,” Linker wrote. “That striving for immortality expressed itself in so many ways — in the deafening volume and garish sensory overload of rock concerts, in the death-defying excess of the parties and the drugs, in the adulation of groupies eager to bed the demigods who adorned their bedroom walls, in the unabashed literary aspirations of the singer-songwriters, in mind-blowing experiments with song forms marked by seemingly inhuman rhythmic and harmonic complexity, in the orchestral sweep, ambition, and (yes) frequent pretension of concept albums and rock operas. All of it was a testament to the all-too-human longing to outlast the present — to live on past our finite days. To grasp and never let go of immortality.”
He concludes: “When we mourn the passing of the legends and the tragic greatness of what they've left behind for us to enjoy in the time we have left, we will also be mourning for ourselves.”
And so I put Little Feat on the turntable — as I did with Petty and Harrison and Cohen and Casal and Becker and, and, and — and dance and let myself be flung back to my younger self, when there were few cares, fewer pounds and an irrational belief that the feeling would last forever, my ineffectual way of never letting go of immortality. Linker’s right. I cry for me, too.