The Max Weinberg 7, Conan O’Brien’s house band, has become far more interesting since Max Weinberg has taken leave of the band. Weinberg, as you may know, is out on tour with the E Street Band, in support of Bruce Springsteen. This observation about interest has nothing to do with the interim leadership of guitarist Jimmy Vivino—though this is not to reduce the capability of that musician. Rather, it has to do with the entire notion of an outfit whose existence seems to be predicated on an individual. In this case, Max Weinberg.
Presumably, the Max Weinberg 7 was established by Max Weinberg. He selected the musicians who are in the band. And unless there are some contractual obligations or that one of the members happens to be NBC exec Jeff Zucker’s brother-in-law or a personal favorite of O’Brien, chances are, the other six members of the seven serve only as long as Weinberg wants them to. Otherwise, it is back to the classifieds. In a very real sense, then, the proper name “Max Weinberg” signifies ownership of the Max Weinberg 7 in a way that, say, the “Chicago 7” wasn’t a group of defendants owned by the municipality of Chicago. Simply, Max Weinberg is in charge of the Max Weinberg 7 in a direct way. If Weinberg was fired, chances are the Max Weinberg 7 would cease to exist.
Presumably, Max Weinberg will return to the Max Weinberg 7 at the end of the Springsteen tour. He will resume his position behind the drum kit that has the Max Weinberg 7 emblazoned on the front of the bass drum. What if, however, he decides that he’ll not return to the band, that he’ll not actively participate in the band? Would the group of musicians still be the Max Weinberg 7? The fundamental question is: How much of the identity of a band depends on a single individual? Note, this is not the case of when the band is a backup band to a musician, when the members of the band are essentially nothing more than session musicians that are participating in a synchronous series of sessions. Evidentially, at least based on the case of the Max Weinberg 7, a band’s identity can transcend the individual after whom it is named. Perhaps it is a case of “These are the people whom Max Weinberg selected,” and consequently, the Max Weinberg 7 label then fulfills that situation. Or a case of “This is the type of music that Max Weinberg believes should be created, so it is precisely the Max Weinberg ‘sound.'” Which would mean that Max Weinberg could never return, or create the Max Weinberg Trio, or cease to exist. (Although it must be noted that if he ceased to exist, and if it became a situation where people no longer knew of Max Weinberg, or even that there was once a real person named “Max Weinberg,” then the name of the band, the Max Weinberg 7, would become nothing more than an alphanumeric signifier whose attributes would describe nothing more than the organized set of musicians. (It should be pointed out, however, that there is a resistance for this to happen: consider the situation of Hootie and the Blowfish: People wanted to believe that Darius Rucker was “Hootie” and the rest of the musicians were “the Blowfish.” Categories are important as they help organize the world into units we can better contain.))
On tour right now, in addition to people including Max Weinberg and Bruce Springsteen, is a group that calls itself the “Other Ones.” This group fundamentally consists of the players that had been a part of the Grateful Dead, a band that ceased to exist after the death of Jerry Garcia. Garcia wasn’t the first member of that band to die, but he was the only one who was so essential to what the band was that it was apparently thought to be inappropriate to continue as the Grateful Dead. So some of the members went off and did other things, including performing in other bands. But whether it was Rat Dog or Planet Drum, it was probably the case that the bands were perceived as being Bobby Weir or Mickey Hart “of the Grateful Dead,” not entities in and of themselves. The “Other Ones” is vaguely specific. To be “other” it is necessary for there to be a base from which something departs. So in this case, it is a group of individuals who are other than those who were the Grateful Dead, even though the Other Ones are, by and large, a subset of the preceeding group. (There couldn’t be a band known as the “Other Ones” without there being a predecessor from which they would be contrast with.)
The Grateful Dead, however, is a band which had something of a loose constituency in that there were some musicians who were in the band and who left, to be replaced by others. This happened right along throughout the band’s existence. Still, until the departure of Garcia, there was a sufficient continuity of band membership so that the “Grateful Dead” was a perceptible quantity. Some of the others could come or go, and that which made the band “a group” the whole of which was greater than the sum of its parts remained, although some of the parts were fundamental for the whole (e.g., Garcia). One of the members of the Grateful Dead who left without the dissolution of the band was Bruce Hornsby. But listen to this from drummer Bill Kreutzmann: “Bruce isn’t really a Grateful Dead man. He’s so Bruce that it’s Bruce’s band whenever he’s in a band.” Which essentially means, then, that if Hornsby had been asked to be a member of the Other Ones rather than Rob Barraco, the band would have been, in effect, if not in name, “Bruce Hornsby’s Other Ones.” This would be a fundamentally different band than the band that is out touring simply as the “Other Ones,” as those musicians are the ones who are, in effect, other than Garcia. “It’s Bruce’s band whenever he is in a band.” If that is the case, then it would be fundamentally impossible for their to be a band called the “Bruce Hornsby 7” that would exist sans Hornsby, because his absence would mean, perforce, that it is no longer “his” band. As we have seen, however, with Max Weinberg it is an entirely different situation.
What’s in a name?