Jeff Zittrain

Can’t We All Just Get Along…and Jam?

Thirteen comments on the last column! – must be a new Kynd record as well as a shot of good luck…now on to this month’s business:

My latest DVD find is Music for Montserrat, a 1997 concert at the Royal Albert Hall to benefit the people of Montserrat after a devastating volcanic eruption. Organized by Beatles producer Sir George Martin, it features the crown royalty of British rock and roll: Paul McCartneyElton JohnEric ÇlaptonStingMark Knopfler, and Phil Collins, along with Carl Perkinsand Jimmy Buffet. These usual suspects have been playing these kinds of benefits ever since Live Aid, but what’s particularly cool about this show is that on many songs they sit in with each other. This leads to some truly magical moments such as Clapton and Knopfler trading solos on “Money for Nothing”, and Paul, Elton, and Sting trading verses of “Hey Jude.”

Those collaborative moments are the highlights of the show for me (along with Elton’s surprisingly inspired solo version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) – because there’s some real interaction, which is what the best music always achieves – and when that happens the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Yet I still found myself wishing they would take those jams further. Maybe it’s all those years I spent listening to the Dead take their chances, but I’m always surprised when a bunch of great musicians gets together and they don’t head out to the edge and get real (or “real gone” as Elvis put it) instead of pumping out another billionth version of the same licks on the same songs.

You can learn so much from hearing these collaborations, even when they’re not entirely successful. Along those lines, I remember an urgent phone call back in the 90’s from sometime FLW percussionist Richard Dry telling me to tape the Deadhead Hour because they were playing a show which included Allman Brother Dickey Betts sitting in with the Dead.

The next day, Richard and I agreed that, although we felt kind of guilty to admit it, when the jam started we both had the odd feeling that it was the greatest thing the Dead ever did – Dickey’s lead playing was so assertive and solid that it carried the Dead to a place that felt more tied together than ever before. But after a minute or two our guilt dissipated – because it just stayed there in that one place. What ties it together also ties it down. It flows, but it’s very linear. Jerry on the other hand was much more responsive, so open to the present that sometimes it seems as if each note can go in any direction – his playing is so liquid, allowing itself to be blown by the wind, taking things in as much as asserting itself – so the whole band moves in more directions.

Dickey Betts, holdin’ it down...

I’ve never heard any other rock player with that kind of quality – but, returning to Montserrat, it’s interesting to consider Clapton’s lead playing. It’s certainly more like Dickey Betts than Jerry – although he leaves more space.

In my mind Clapton’s masterwork is Derek and the Dominos’ double album “Layla.” I’d always considered that such an intensely personal statement – Clapton’s assertion of his individual vision while finally fronting his own band after leaving supergroups Cream and Blind Faith(and earlier, John Mayall and the Yardbirds). And its subject is his own real-life much-mythologized anguished heartbreak, his unrequited (at that time) love for his best friend George Harrison’s wife – about as personal as you can get.

Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Yet take a look at the track credits: A double album with 14 songs, there’s only one (“Bell Bottom Blues”) that Clapton wrote alone. There are five collaborations with pianist Bobby Whitlock, four Blues covers, Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, “I am Yours” which sets a poem to music, and then the climax – “Layla” with the famous piano outro written by drummer Jim Gordon, and the beautiful closing acoustic “Thorn Tree in the Garden” written and sung solo by Bobby Whitlock. In fact, Whitlock’s soulful vocals are all over the cd, harmonizing wonderfully with Clapton. And of course Duane Allman dropped by to throw slide guitar over most of the record, dueling and harmonizing with Clapton’s leads. “Layla” is an intensely personal statement made in a truly collaborative way.

Now that’s a pretty interesting dichotomy. But now, to push further:

Beyond the artistic achievement, does this wildly successful collaboration take you to a better place in the world? In other words: “Right Action” anyone? Let’s start with the generally-accepted, feel-good, positive notion, here expressed by Wynton Marsalis on why he thinks it’s important to teach music in the schools:

“Music, in its purest form, encompasses the very ideals that we want to impart to our children…music teaches us how to get along with others. [In jazz] each member of the group can improvise, but none of it works – for a soloist or an ensemble – if the musicians do not play in balance…This group dynamic teaches the importance of choice, and many choices require some form of sacrifice. You must listen. You must have a conversation. The group must work together to achieve its goals”

Wynton Marsalis walkin’ the walk…

This all sounds well and good. And I’m all for funding music education. But let’s make sure we’re keepin’ it real, and not just getting real gone.

Derek and the Dominos fell apart after “Layla” (and a live recording). In fact, being in a band can be as stormy as being in a romantic relationship, which is why they say it’s not a good idea to have actual romantic relationships within a band.

But don’t just trust the… ahem…rumors. Fleetwood Mac’s famous example springs to mind: “Rumors” may be one of the biggest selling albums of all time, but, to take one anecdote of many, Christine McVie says she spent days recording and nights holed up with Stevie Nicks in a hotel room hiding from a crazed John McVie.

But you don’t even have to go to actual romances within the band. Look at John Lennon scrawling “Funeral” over a picture of Paul’s wedding, or the wars between Roger Waters and David Gilmour to determine, as they once mocked the clueless record industry, which one’s Pink. Or Levon Helm’s vicious attacks on Band guitarist Robbie Robertson in his autobiography. Or Steven Tyler’s jealousy over Joe Perry’s girlfriends (for reference on this one, see Joe Perry’s interviews on that bastion of right action, Aerosmith: Behind the Music). Or Pete Townshend attacking Roger Daltrey with his guitar during the recording of “Quadrophenia.” And perhaps most heartbreaking and disappointing of all, what about Nigel walking out smack dab in the middle of Tap’s tour forcing them to become a fusion band for the big Puppet Show gig…

Nigel with the Tap in happier times…

The joke worked in Spinal Tap because it’s so common as to be archetypal. Some drama is not surprising, really, when you consider all of the band dynamics that need to be balanced. I recall another conversation with aforementioned percussionist Richard, back when I was reading a book about committed polyamory (yes, I was just reading the book) – he said “It’s hard enough to be in a relationship with just one person, why compound the issues?”

I used to watch the Dead and feel that somehow when they pulled it together on stage there was hope for humanity.

There’s an open mic/jam I’ve been going to recently where I’m always impressed by the quality of players. Everyone, it seems, can do spot-on renditions of the entire Beatles catalogue, including obscurities like George Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity,” or “Eleanor Rigby” complete with violin parts. And last week not only did someone spontaneously play the entire epic “Dogs” byPink Floyd, going so far as to retune all six strings of his guitar down a step to match the recording – but three or four other people were able to sing along, word for word, for the entire 18 minute song.

The open mic, with a real-life visual accompaniment to “Dogs”…

“Dogs” has pretty brilliant lyrics about society making you sell your soul (what? In a Pink Floyd song…?) And singing them in a group was quite great and collaborative and community-making – but with that level of musicianship, you would think the jams would be getting higher and higher and higher.

Living in the Bay Area, you stay humble. I’ve never been onstage with the attitude that I was blowing people away with my chops alone – I always figure half of the audience can play guitar themselves, or know someone that plays ripping guitar. But I always feel that I do what I do and I do it well – I can play WITH people, I can “see the field” as they say in football – I can play something that’s supposed to be played. Whether it’s flashy or not doesn’t matter.

Playing what’s supposed to be played is not necessarily playing what’s been played before. It’s surrendering to the larger pattern. As Jimmy Buffet sings at the beginning of the Montserrat concert, ‘I don’t know where I’m gonna go when the volcano blows.’ But maybe, as Paul McCartney sings at the end, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Yet I think Chris Farley spoke for all of humanity throughout all of history when he asked Paul himself on Saturday Night Live, “Ummm…. is that true…?”

That I think not even Sir Paul knows. But it sure sounds true when he sings it. And maybe that’s music’s job – to manifest the ideal in song – and let us try to manifest in real life.

Posing the big question to Paul – Feb 13, 1993

Or as they sang in Montserrat :

‘Make the best of the situation, before you finally go insane. Take a sad song and make it better (better, better, better…). (Otherwise you’re zigzagging your way through the boredom and pain. And dragged down by the stone).

Seems you’re not alone in being alone. Song is a gift, and this one’s for you.

Stay off of my blue suede shoes and get your chicks for free.’

(D’oh! Shoulda quit at “Your Song”…)


  • # 1 JZSays: November 16th, 2006 at 6:36 am
  • In classical music there seems to be no melodic improv at all — they play each note in sequence as the composer wrote it. But they still say that orchestra mates can be cooperative or spotlight-stealing by volume, style, etc. Can rock be that subtle when the band is playing the same licks and the same notes for the billionth time?
  • Wikipedia seems one big jam (without even a baseline melody worked out ahead of time) and most blogs are solo. It’d be good to combine them …
  • # 2 Dave Terpeny Says: November 23rd, 2006 at 12:52 am
  • Man, Jeff…see what happens when you don’t submit until the middle of the month? Happy TGiving man.
  • # 3 Jeff Says: November 24th, 2006 at 11:01 pm
  • What are you saying, Dave…? Now there’s 3 comments on here plus maybe I can convince my mom to leave one too…
  • # 4 Ross Says: November 25th, 2006 at 9:38 pm
  • So Jeff should I comment on this one or just wait SIX DAYS until the new one shows up?
  • Tell your editor he needs to get on the ball and get your stuff up on time!
  • Anyhow, I’m doing to have get that Monserat video, sounds kickin’. But let me ask you as a guitarist in a jam band, how do you find the space to improvise?
  • # 5 Jeff ZittrainSays: November 25th, 2006 at 10:44 pm
  • Hey Ross – I have to admit that this month’s late posting of the column was on me – I turned it in late…
  • And to answer your question – I have lots of space to improvise in Famous Last Words partly because we’re a trio (and even sometimes play as a duo) so there’s lots of sonic room to fill – and arrangement-wise, there’s usually places in every song that are built for improvising – where we’re either vamping on a progression or hanging out on a riff or a chord – or even letting a progression devolve slowly into space…
  • Is that what you meant…?
  • # 6 Sal Says: November 30th, 2006 at 2:08 pm
  • It’s Here! So is it late or early?
  • I can’t believe you would say that Jerry’s jams were better with Dickey though. The Allman Bros don’t jam. They just solo really. Not to bash them but still…better than Jerry?
  • And you know I’ve been thinking about that. The reason that all those guys didn’t jam is because they don’t have the courage to do it. They may be great musicians and very talented but you need a particular bravery to do it.
  • Jerry had it. Few people do.
  • # 7 Jeff Says: November 30th, 2006 at 4:49 pm
  • Hey Sal – good to have you back on board…
  • This column was posted about 2 weeks ago – 2 weeks late – another one is coming soon…
  • Regarding Jerry/Dickey – I wasn’t saying Jerry’s jams were better with Dickey – I was saying having Dickey’s more assertive lead-playing initially sounded more cohesive but ultimately left the jams too tied down. Also, I agree that the Allmans sounds more like soloing than group improv like the Dead…
  • # 8 musician position Says: November 30th, 2006 at 6:12 pm
  • The Grateful Dead were the luckiest people on the planet. They have as much talent as my pet rock. Yeah, you can recognize Garcia when you hear him…he sounds horrible. Mickey Hart has as much time and feel as my dog’s turds. Stick to McCartney, he can sing, write and play….and puts together great bands.
  • # 9 Jeff Says: November 30th, 2006 at 6:39 pm
  • Interesting point about your dog’s turds – I don’t know how I didn’t factor that in…
  • sigh…
  • # 10 Rose Says: December 2nd, 2006 at 12:24 am
  • Dog’s turds? Sigh is right.
  • Anyhow Jeff, I understand what you were saying about Dickey and Jerry and agree. If jamming is a musical conversation like you describe then the analogy works well.
  • If a loudmouth enters a room hooting and hollering nonsense about, say, dog turds, then the rest of the conversation in the room, the give and take between intelligent people, is seriously hampered.
  • You could also look at it politically. If you have an arrogant prick swaggering and blustering all over the world stage then the voices of reason and the delicate dance of diplomacy is constricted.
  • I’m glad to see you’re back. I was worried the first couple of weeks of November.
  • So where’s the new one? It’s December 1st…
  • # 11 Jeff Says: December 2nd, 2006 at 1:45 pm
  • Hi Rose:
  • Nicely done! – tying it all together and extrapolating onto the world stage – you’ve made a silk purse out of, um, a dog’s turds…
  • Thanks for the props – a new column is in the works and should be up soon…
  • # 12 Brant Says: December 2nd, 2006 at 5:11 pm
  • Nice column, Jeff! Don’t you think Dickey liked to actually jam? Hard to believe a musician of such talent wouldn’t.
  • Surely all those big-hair bass players didn’t get their kicks simply picking chord roots MP’s pet rock could play.
  • Didn’t you have a beer with one of the Bros in San Rafael a few years ago? Maybe you could ask him! 
  • # 13 Jeff Says: December 15th, 2006 at 2:57 pm
  • Hi Brant – thanks for the props –
  • The bro in San Rafael story is that a friend and I were playing an open mic at the Sweetwater and when we got off the stage Gregg himself got up next. He did a great version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and dedicated it to Duane. As he was drinking at the bar I told him I really dug that version and he said he liked what we did, that we reminded him of 2 friends he used to cut school with, Phil and Don Everly.
  • He also asked if we wanted to jam sometime and we exchanged phone #’s. For the next month or so he kept calling but we were always too busy, at the Super Bowl, Grammys, etc. No wait, it was the other way around…
  • Anyway, maybe in the future…