Weekend Songs: Little Feat, ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’
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Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords and tight harmonies. But it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times. And there’s no better time for that than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.
Sometimes, our best-laid plans for the weekend — which may or may not include hopes for various types of laying — go awry. It can be awfully frustrating to deal with foiled fun, especially after working so hard to grab a little time off, but we’ve all been there a time or two; in fact, there probably isn’t a rock fan on the planet who can’t identify with that anguish, which is part of what makes the sad tale of Spotcheck Billy in Little Feat’s ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ such an enduring classic in the band’s catalog.
Recorded for the group’s third album, 1973’s ‘Dixie Chicken,’ ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ offers a perfect encapsulation of what made Little Feat so great: When they were firing on all cylinders, they stirred greasy rock goodness, deceptively complex arrangements and raw, risque humor into an irresistibly spicy musical gumbo that — although it consistently proved too much of an acquired taste to attract mainstream success — has consistently delivered the goods over a career spanning 44 years and counting. And while it’s the album’s title track that brought the band one of its closest brushes with breakthrough sales, ‘Bathtub’ is just as potent, with a raucous New Orleans rhythm and stinging slide guitar that perfectly offset the tongue-in-one’s-own-cheek blues of the lyrics.
As with quite a few things relating to the band’s early greatness, ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ sprung from the mind of founder and frontman Lowell George, whose inimitable songwriting style dominated the first few Feat records. George had a hand in seven of the 10 tracks on ‘Dixie Chicken,’ which saw the group’s sound taking a turn toward R&B and second-line funk. That’s especially evident in ‘Bathtub,’ which, as drummer Richie Hayward pointed out in a later interview, marked a critical turning point in his evolution as a player. “‘Fat Man’ was one of my first experiments in second line,” he reflected. “It began with that straight Bo Diddley thing you hear in the intro, and through the course of the tune, it changes feel about six times. They’re all at the same tempo, but they feel completely different.”
But it isn’t just the music that gives the song its distinctive feel. That’s also attributed to George’s lyrics, which present a typically cockeyed view of the struggles endured by a lust-plagued guy named Spotcheck Billy in his quest to, as he puts it, get “some hit and run” from a sweet chiquita named Juanita. George’s friend and collaborator Van Dyke Parks summed up what made his old partner special in an interview with the Guardian, musing, “I think he had the audacity of a schizophrenic, which I associate with great work, whether it’s Van Gogh or Ravel. I think Lowell had a madness in his work that he wanted to explore, and he had the integrity to do it. You see the physical comedy in Lowell George that you get from Buster Keaton. It’s the tragicomedy of man in crisis — that’s what Lowell did for me.”
Sadly, George really was a man in crisis, and one whose health woes — combined with an appetite for dangerous extracurricular activities — contributed to his tragically untimely death at the age of 34 on June 29, 1979. But the man’s music lives on, both through the current incarnation of Little Feat and through our very own speakers, where you’ll find ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ (as well as big chunks of the rest of the Feat catalog, including their killer 1978 live album ‘Waiting for Columbus’) blasting at high volume throughout the day. Here’s hoping you don’t get the blues this weekend, either in or out of the tub — but no matter what your plans are, it’ll feel real good to scroll up to the video at the top, hit the play button and get the festivities started now.