28 March 2009

Little Feat

Cocaine is a funny drug when it comes to music. It makes some artists actually create better music (Sly and the Family Stone), and it gives some artists the illusion that their music is better than it really is (Conor Oberst). Some artists, after kicking the habit, get bloated (John Mayer), and some die a cocaine death (Ike Turner). A lot of musicians have written songs about the pitfalls of cocaine (Phish, Bob Dylan). But it takes something special to write a song championing the love for such a notorious substance.

Enter: Little Feat (and possibly Van Dyke Parks). Little Feat were a Southern rock band in the 70's. The first time I had ever heard of them, it was on the recommendation of my dad.

One day a few years ago he mentioned this Little Feat to me. "Oh yeah, they were smokin'!" or something. "Ok cool, I'll have to...check them out...someday..." and then I didn't.

It wasn't until I saved a copy of Robert Palmer's Sneaking Sally Through the Alley from becoming dumpster food that I first got to know what Little Feat were all about. The backing band on this album are a couple dudes from Little Feat and a couple dudes from the Meters, and the first track is a cover of Little Feat's "Sailing Shoes". The cover is pretty funked out, with a heavy bass line and some sultry ladies complementing Palmer's soulful pipes. And then I still didn't seek out the original until I was at my parents' house last September. I was digging through some of my records, some of which got mixed in with my parents'. And there it was: 1972's Sailing Shoes, by Little Feat.

I was watching the Cubs trying to clinch the division with the sound off, and popped the old bird onto the platter. The original "Sailin' Shoes" is much more sparse than the Palmer cover. It's Southern, but not in that dumb rock Skynyrd kind of way. It doesn't try to rock at all. Laid-back slide guitar, plodding honky tonk piano, gospel chorus. In a word, this song owns.

I had my computer music on shuffle this week, and what should pop up but a Van Dyke Parks song entitled "Sailin' Shoes" from the same year as the Little Feat version. "What is this all about?" I asked myself.

Well it turns out, Parks probably had something to do with the writing of this song. He and Little Feat's frontman (and member of Zappa's Mothers of Invention) Lowell George were good friends. It seems a little odd, then, that Parks never got credit for the song.

So here are the three versions:

Robert Palmer - Sailing Shoes
Van Dyke Parks - Sailin' Shoes
Little Feat - Sailin' Shoes


Frank S. Hurrat said...

Did anybody offer a little more insight into this? Little Feat were not a Southern band, unless you consider them a Southern California band. Despite all the misinformation, Feat was based in Los Angeles. Sailin' Shoes was written by Lowell George. The version Van Dyke Parks released was an edit of Lowell's demo, at least according to Lowell, whose credibility was never particularly high on such items.