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?’ ”
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