Little Feat: Dixie Chicken
Okay, so here’s the lesson of today’s story: always pick up cool looking hitchhikers.
Illustrator Neon Park (born Martin Muller) was driving from the Mothers of Invention offices, where he’d finally succeeded in getting paid the $250 he was owed for the cover of Weasels Ripped My Flesh. (We’ve previously written a post about the history behind that awesome cover).
He saw a guy called Ivan who, as he tells it, “was hitchhiking in the rain in a tee-shirt, didn’t have a coat. He was getting very wet. He had a guitar with him, stuffed under his shirt. That’s why I picked him up.” As it turned out, Ivan was a songwriter and a friend of Lowell George, the co-founder of Little Feat and an ex-member of Mother of Invention.
“So I was on my way home, and there was this fellow human being in misery, and I picked him up. Almost got hit by a bus doing it. He said I should come with him to Lowell’s… I had my portfolio with me, so Ivan said I should show Lowell my stuff. Little Feat’s first album had just come out. I showed him my stuff and he liked it.” It was the beginning of one of the great collaborations between band and cover artist, as Park went on to create the images for nearly every Little Feat album to follow. At the same time the band’s line up would change constantly.
The first cover Park created for the band was the highly suggestive and very funny Sailin’ Shoes, which took us to an alternate Versallies for a trippy homage to Marie Antionette.
If the relationship between the cover and the title “Sailin’ Shoes” is hard to discern, that’s because when Park began the artwork the album was to be called “I’ll Eat It Here”.
He would get used to this kind of thing – in fact, it only got worse. The album Dixie Chicken was supposed to be called “Handcuffs and Accordians”, which once again explains the dissonance between the cover and the title.
The Dixie Chicken that Little Feat sing about is a southern strumpet who seduces a guy by singing him a song one night. He goes on to marry her and buy her everything she wants (“My money flowed like wine”). Once she grows bored of him, she runs off – but his humiliation isn’t finished.
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
As great as the lyrics are, the woman on the cover of Dixie Chicken isn’t the femme fatale who comes to mind. She seems an urban vixen, as moneyed as she is mean and desirable. Much of the humour comes from how highly sexed the image is, with an instrument as neutered as a piano accordion transformed into a phallic, lust-filled object. The giant, pillowy background with its cold blue tones evokes a world that is one giant mattress; a place for endless play.
Park admits that the change of the title really worried him but the cover was much loved nonetheless. And if the visuals didn’t always match the new album titles, they always matched the feel and mood of the music.
Had he been given the brief for an album title “Dixie Chicken”, he may well have put forward one of the feathered females from his well-known duck series.
Park also worked with David Bowie, Dr. John and the Beach Boys and made illustrations for Playboy and National Lampoon. It is a terrible irony that this great illustrator started to notice a numbness in his hands in the early 80’s. It wasn’t until 1992 that he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. His response to the doctor? “I never even played baseball.”
He died a year later, having already assured his legacy.