Jeff Zittrain

Playing Heaven: This One’s for Dr. John

First published (here) June 2010

“On those lonesome California highways, we all hear our engines whine...”

The title of this column is how I’ve introduced a few songs over the years, most often “Playing Heaven,” my ode to Jerry Garcia, and the favorite song of “Dr. John Liddle,” one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my music.

It’s been 2 years since I wrote a column – mostly because Kynd Music seems to have vanished into the ether…the destiny to which we’re all heading eventually… 

I’ve had ideas for columns, topics that came about from my serial obsessions with works that seemed to hit the jackpot for a while – one about role models of masculinity Clint Eastwood and David Carradine, one about cartoon ethics in South Park and Family Guy. I talked to John about those obsessions on at least one occasion – he could quote line-by-line readings of Kung Fu and Family Guy. 

But with no Kynd outlet, they didn’t get written.

I’m writing now because the topic is bigger.

I found out last week that Dr. John, who had evolved from supportive fan to supportive friend, was found dead in his house.

A little background: 

John had first seen me play with Famous Last Words at a dive bar in Lafayette sometime around  2003. I didn’t know how to take him at first, as he seemed a little unhinged, waving his arms around and raving about my guitar playing. But he continued showing up at shows, at that bar and beyond, and his ravings came to include cheering at particular parts of the songs in a way that I could tell he was a true afficianado and really listening – which effectively led the rest of the crowd into the music as well. You can hear him cheering and see him dancing in this Z-Trane video of “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and I started to occasionally dedicate “Playing Heaven” or another one of his favorites to him. Click here to hear the exact title of this column at the very beginning of this 2008 Z-Trane video of a highly energized “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (For a cleaner Z-Trane version of that song but without the dedication, click here

His enthusiasm spread beyond gigs. I was told by one of John’s friends that he wore his FLW shirt to his wedding… 

When Famous Last Words broke up (for good reasons) in 2007, John and his girlfriend Meghan spent more than a few nights taking me out for drinks, encouraging the then-new Z-Trane Band, and even teaching me to play pool. I never got very good at pool, but they pretended I did – and they knew that it was cool just to hang out during the transition. We didn’t have to engage in complex heart-to-hearts – but John literally said more than once “Always know, you have friends.”

John hadn’t been to a show in over a year. He spent a lot of time taking care of his sick mom, he had back problems, and it was hard for him to make shows not near BART or other public transportation. He also had (gasp) other interests beyond my music. But his long-estranged father had died and left him houses, cars, and money, and he was about to embark on a new phase of life. We last exchanged voicemails in February, and I can still see him on my “to-do” list to call. 

Which is weird but strangely apropos. You see, in the few days since his death, I kept getting the impulse to call him and say “hey, you’ll never guess what I heard…” as if that would take me back to what seems like reality.

Which is weird, because I realize that what I mean by “what seems like reality” is one in which no one dies.

I read somewhere once that it’s odd that we’re so shocked when someone dies, when it should be the other way around – that we should be shocked if someone never died. (I’m talking to you, Esme, my 21-year old cat…) 

Along these lines, I heard through Facebook this winter that my trippin’ buddy from summer camp, “Skip”, about whom I’d written the quite popular (especially among my students) “Skip Trips: Borat on Acid” column (Right Action #20) had died. It was all very vague, though. I sent an email to someone whom I was told was his brother, but I never heard back, and never found out any further information – about when or how, or what Skip had done with his life since our summer camp days. But it threw me for a loop, as I’d always been certain that he was enjoying the sweet life, rich and successful, because, as that column attests, he was a master genius at outsmarting the system.

But no one can outsmart The System. Summer camp and all of the other human games notwithstanding, in the bigger scheme, The House always wins.

The thought of Skip’s death sunk into me for a few days, and then I thought it would be helpful to read Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” I remembered finding it quite intense in high school, and had been planning on rereading it anyway ever since I’d read a pretty good student paper on Camus last summer. 

“The Plague” expresses Camus’ existentialist philosophy quite brilliantly and movingly. We’re all stuck here (“No one here gets out alive” as Jim Morrison declared) – but what we can do is live up to our responsibility even while certain (and often horrific) death happens all around us. It’s not happy and it’s not transcendent – but it’s authentic and it’s noble – and it’s all you can do.

“He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers”

That second “responsibility” part is not really where Jimbo’s focus lay – his existentialism is more along the lines of his famous last verse of “Roadhouse Blues” –  since the future’s uncertain and the end is always near… um, grab a beer when you wake up each morning.

“Well I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…” Jim enjoying his breakfast of champions.

Which I remember Dr. John doing when we had breakfast once after an out-of-town gig in Bolinas. He was more Morrison than Camus, and, although I’m waiting for the autopsy results, that may have been what got him.

Camus famously termed our human condition as “absurd.” On the one hand death is the ultimate reality, the final permanence – yet we paradoxically have to live as if this life is all that’s real.

Which is why it seems like I should be able to pick up the phone and jokingly call Dr. John to reaffirm that reality. (I remember also a few days after I found out Skip died, I was woken by a dream of him calling me to say “Jeff, it’s me, of course I’m not dead.”)

I don’t think it’s just me. A full 30 years after Jim’s death, Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek wrote an entire novel in which he meets the singer icognito and still alive on an island…

And since I’ve now firmly established my depth and manliness by alluding to Camus, the Doors, and Clint, I am secure enough to bring up my latest obsession, The Golden Girls. I know I’m about 20 years late on this one, but I had always thought it was only a mainstream show for old ladies. 

(This Just In: Estelle Getty could deliver snappy lines right up there with the best of TV’s snappy line deliverers – Xander in Buffy, Spike in Angel, Chandler in Friends, Stewie (or Brian) in Family Guy, etc)

Sophia Petrillo enjoying a zinger…

Someone made the quite cogent comment online that they loved The Golden Girls so much because it took away the fear of growing older.

I think part of removing that fear was seeing so much spunk from Estelle Getty, whom I initially thought really was an octogenarian (kudos to both her acting and makeup). 

Yet she was actually younger than Bea Arthur who played her daughter.

And acting and makeup only work on TV. Now she, and Bea Arthur, and (last week along with John)  Rue McClanahan are all gone, leaving only the amazing Betty White still among us – whose recent resurgence can be at least partially attributed to us cheering her on for simply being alive, as she joked in her Saturday Night Live monologue.

In happier, alive times…

John said he loved “Playing Heaven” because it always brought a tear to his eye. Kynd editor Dave Terpeny’s YouTube description of that song is “Have you ever heard the five stages of grief as a guitar solo? You have now.” And I remember thinking when Jerry died, how much all of their music was, if not a prelude to death, certainly informed by it. Not just the obvious Grateful Dead moniker, but songs like “To Lay Me Down,” “Box of Rain,” “Black Muddy River,” “Dire Wolf,” “Black Peter,” “Morning Dew,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Touch of Grey” and “Sisters and Brothers”. 

Yet the music was beautiful and inspiring. From the Dead to the Golden Girls, art seems able to transform the absurdity of the transient world, and to give meaning and comfort to those of us still on the ride. 

And speaking of transient, I think I got obsessed with Caine in “Kung Fu” because of his ability to use eastern mysticism to deal with the harsh reality of the greedy, small-minded, selfish, violent, racist Old West. And although David Carradine died in a…fairly un-Caine like way, he created and embodied a character commited to the integrity of his teachings despite his cursed situation – which is perhaps a metaphor for all of us – wandering alone through the desert, a price on his head, looking for his brother.

One foot in front of the other…

Clint’s characters understand the tragic human condition too, which you can see in every line of his weathered face  – the knowledge that, as he says in “Unforgiven” as he looks out over a landscape that, in true Camus fashion, is both gorgeous and empty, “We all got it comin’ to us, kid.”

“We all got it comin, kid”

So we do what we can. And art happens and the world still does what it does. John used to tell me he loved these columns and he would have loved this one (aside from the topic being his death…) (But he would have loved that irony…and that joke…) And he would have loved the Flaming Telepaths, my new side project Blue Oyster Cult cover band with it’s unapologetic over-the-top guitar mania. I’m truly sorry that he won’t get to see either one and I won’t get to hear his thoughts about them. 

I’m not sure if I have any comfort or insight to offer. I can’t wrap it up neatly. I can just add my own little bit of art to it all.

This one’s for Dr. John: 

When you’re playing heaven, your wings don’t miss a beat.

With the good doctor at that bar in Lafayette. (Note his ever-present FLW t-shirt…)

And here’s a recent version of Playing Heaven from a Memorial concert in Oakland for my friend Jayde Blade. This clip goes from the solo to the end…