In 1986, it wasn’t unusual to find 17-year-old Rami Jaffee, a lanky, scruffy-looking longhair in a Grateful Dead tie-dye T-shirt, improvising on the grand piano in Fairfax High School’s auditorium during recess.
Cut to Sept. 6, 2012, on stage in Charlotte, N.C. Jaffee, 43, his long locks shorn, jammed with Dave Grohl and the rest of the Foo Fighters at the Democratic National Convention.
An associate member of Foo Fighters, keyboardist Jaffee was in Wallflowers mode this week as the American roots band he co-founded with singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan returned Oct. 9 with their first album in seven years, “Glad All Over,” and a date at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood.
For Jaffee, September was a blur of bicoastal flights and performances with his two internationally known, Grammy-winning groups.
Last week, over a plate of spaghetti at Andre’s in the Town & Country food court at Fairfax and Third, Jaffee spent the few scant hours of downtime with the Journal before heading East for a Wallflowers “Good Morning America” appearance.
Jaffee grew up in the Fairfax District. Sephardi on his mother’s side and Ashkenazi on his dad’s, he attended Temple Beth Am and at 16 worked as a JCC camp counselor.
Fairfax Avenue has always been central to Jaffee’s life, from receiving his education at Hancock Park Elementary and Fairfax High to fueling his musical education at Canter’s Deli’s Kibitz Room.
After spending 1982 to 1987 playing in bands, most notably the David Bowie-esque group Daisy Chamber, Jaffee cultivated the Kibitz Room into a weekly Tuesday night magnet for local musicians. He became transfixed with roots rock, indulging in lush Hammond organ sounds.
Jaffee and Dylan, who met at Canter’s, formed the Wallflowers (originally the Apples) in 1989. But when the band released its self-titled album in August 1992, the grunge scene, ushered in by Grohl’s former group, Nirvana, was firmly established and rock fans were in no mood for the Wallflowers’ Americana.
The band also didn’t help their own cause with their label, Virgin.
“We were not willing to talk about Jakob Dylan’s lineage,” Jaffee said. “We were under contract for eight records. And we’re the biggest nightmare for promotion. We were known as this difficult band who spent their money and didn’t want to admit Jakob was Bob Dylan’s son.”
From 1991 to 1994, the Wallflowers toured nationwide, opening for Spin Doctors and 10,000 Maniacs. In 1994, Virgin dropped the group, which had rung up a million-dollar debt while failing to connect with their first album.
Jaffee dealt with this blow by staying active in L.A.’s music scene, continuing to play the Kibitz Room, Viper Room, the Mint and the now-defunct Pico-Robertson venue Jack’s Sugar Shack. He also crossed the street from Canter’s to deliver pizzas for Damiano’s.
“It was soul-crushing, but I’m a worker,” Jaffee said. “You do what you have to do to make a living. I was developing the biggest music scene. We had Peter Tork of the Monkees, Lenny Kravitz on drums, Melissa Etheridge on bass. Rick Rubin was walking into the Kibitz Room, saying there should be a Kibitz Room anthology album.”
Jaffee chalks up the “lightning-in-a-bottle” energy to the Fairfax area’s magical “Gilmore Island” history.
“Anyone could play the Kibitz Room,” he said. “A bum would walk in and grab the mic.”
One such ostensibly odd person was avant-garde producer Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple).
“He came in with a weird look, a bow tie,” Jaffee recalled. “They were like, ‘Please don’t let this guy in the place; he looks like a transient.’ ”
Meanwhile, the Wallflowers persevered. “We created our own scene. One label head got wind of our live performances; Jakob’s lineage, everything helped. Jakob was gorgeous,” Jaffee said.
A bidding war broke out and Universal Music Group’s Interscope signed the band. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, 1996’s “Bringing Down the House” sturdily posited the Wallflowers on the map. Pillared by hit songs “6th Avenue Heartache,” “The Difference” and their biggest single, “One Headlight,” the quadruple-platinum album and two Grammy awards propelled the Wallflowers forward for four years.
“We toured relentlessly,” Jaffee said.
A hit cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” from the “Godzilla” soundtrack in 1998 “acted as a fifth single,” he said. “Let’s just say that’s when we bought our second houses.”
“All the 12-year-olds thought we wrote it,” Jaffee continued, laughing as he recalled a DJ asking him on the air, “ ‘This next song is brand-new. Where did you learn to write this stuff?’ ”
Things did not go as smoothly with the next three Wallflowers records, “(Breach)” (2000), “Red Letter Days” (2002) and “Rebel, Sweetheart” (2005). “Interscope just got inundated,” said Jaffee, referring to Universal Music Group merging A&M, PolyGram and Geffen with Interscope.
Suddenly, Interscope had multiples of every genre, “Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, the Black Crows ...” Jaffee mused, adding that the Wallflowers became less of a priority for the label.
As things grew shaky with the band, Jaffee picked up referrals from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers pianist Benmont Tench. He kept busy with session work and played on a Johnny Cash cover of Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son” just three weeks before the Man in Black died in 2003.
Jaffee first ran into the country legend at the Viper Room inside co-owner Sal Jenco’s office.
“I barged in there, and there was Johnny Cash,” Jaffee recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, son!’ I was going to stay there long enough to smoke a cigarette. I smoked a cigarette that seemed to last nine years.”
Jaffee still appears agog recounting how “Father & Son” was recorded “in Rick Rubin’s living room. Sitting at the piano, in the foyer, and Johnny Cash singing. He told me, ‘I want to see what you got, kid.’ ”
In 2005, Jaffee was introduced to the Foo Fighters’ Grohl through a mutual friend.
“Dave wanted me to record with them on the acoustic-ish second disc of ‘In Your Honor,’ ” Jaffee said. “Then Dave asked me to play acoustic sets all over the world.
“I’ve been asked many times to tour with other bands and artists I’ve played with on records, but it had never felt right since the Wallflowers was ‘my’ band, but we were on a mini-hiatus and the Foos seemed like good times. And good times they were. Already four records in with them and, I hope, more to follow.”
Meanwhile, things were not so sanguine in Wallflowers Land.
“We had just toured relentlessly,” Jaffee said. “I was very comfortable and happy with that, but after 17 years, I was like, ‘Let’s try different things. Let’s stop relying on the record companies.’ ”
Three dates shy of the “Rebel, Sweetheart” tour’s end, Jaffee walked off stage in Chicago. One music magazine characterized it as a “meltdown” in which Jaffee had permanently abandoned Dylan’s group.
According to Jaffee, the band members knew the rift was temporary.
“They know me so well,” Jaffee said. “We are the Siamese Jewish triplets from hell. After a week, we had made up, of course.”
Jaffee insists he was merely frustrated with the Wallflowers stagnation as Interscope continued neglecting the group.
At the time, Dylan suggested the band take a break. After 17 years as an outfit, Dylan’s time-out proved the right decision.
“A break felt really good,” Jaffee said.
The three founding members went their separate ways, playing with other musicians, following their respective muses. Jaffee and bassist Greg Richling began producing other artists while Dylan recorded solo material. In addition to Jaffee’s touring duties with the Foo Fighters, the pianist befriended Fran Drescher and briefly served as bandleader on her short-lived talk show.
With the release of the Wallflowers’ greatest-hits collection, “Collected: 1996–2005,” Dylan with Bill Appleberry on keyboard and Stuart Mathis on lead guitar toured nationwide during summer 2009.
Then in 2011, Dylan reached out to Jaffee.
“The best part,” Jaffee said, “was Jakob broke down and called me and said, ‘Hey, are we going to make a record?’ ”
Jaffee’s attitude: “Let’s just enjoy.”
In the summer of 2011, Dylan, Jaffee and Richling ended their Wallflowers hiatus. Now boasting a lineup that includes Mathis and Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons (a Fairfax High alumnus and a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Jaffee says the Wallflowers feels re-energized and ready, like a brand-new band.
It’s unwittingly symbolic that Mick Jones, former member of the seminal punk band the Clash, lends his vocals and guitar to two tracks on “Glad All Over,” including the aptly titled lead single, “Reboot the Mission.”
“Reboot” is all about a recharged, reinvigorated Wallflowers’ quest to reinvent itself after the long hiatus. In 1983, Jones was fired from the Clash following his last appearance with the group at the US Festival. Years later, the Clash’s Joe Strummer and Jones attributed the group’s disintegration to a relentless record-and-tour schedule their manager had pressured them to maintain for seven years. Ultimately, all the Clash needed was a break.
After 15 years, Jaffee says he is looking forward to touring in support of a new Wallflowers album, which will take the band across country through year’s end and then to Europe, Israel, Asia and Australia in 2013. Underscoring the band’s renewed resolve to make uncompromising music on its own terms against the backdrop of today’s erratic musical and iTunes-fueled digital format trends, Jaffee and his fellow Wallflowers appear refreshed, revived and ready to forge ahead through uncertain times. With no hard feelings or grudges between band members, all they needed ultimately was a break.