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All is good and nothing else is dead.

June 30, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

The Wallflowers – One Headlight
From: Bringing Down the Horse

I recently read an interview with Keith Richards that Rolling Stone magazine did in 1988 prior to the release of his debut solo album, Talk is Cheap. In it, the interviewer finagled Keith’s opinions on a wide variety of musicians. Keith mentions he likes Ziggy Marley, and describes one of many of Bob’s offspring thusly: “Ziggy Marley I find very interesting because he’s not just ‘the son of,’ He’s avoided being, I hate to say this, Julian.”

Immediately my mind turned to 1996, Bringing Down the Horse, and the Wallflowers, or as you might remember them, Bob Dylan’s son and some other dudes.

OK, I feel a little guilty for writing that. I have a very dear friend who rates the Wallflowers highly and citing someone as the “son of” immediately belittles their own contribution to the musical landscape, suggesting that the only reason they made any dent whatsoever is because of the weight behind their surname.

But if I were to ask you how many Wallflowers songs you could name, how many could you give me? Now if I pared that down further to “How many Wallflowers songs can you name NOT on Bringing Down the Horse, but on one of their four other studio albums?” how many could you give me?

I’m guessing the answer is slim to none. And that’s not me trying to pick a fight, Ben, I know you can probably name ‘em all.

But in the months that covered 1996 and 1997, the fact of the matter is that every biographical clip I saw on the band contained the fact that Jakob is Bob’s son, as if it was the biggest slice of “here’s something you might not know” cool information that year. Even the cover story that Rolling Stone did on Jakob in 1997 carried a picture of the young boy with his father.

Now, sure. The counterargument is, “Hey, the Wallflowers put out an album in 1992—Jakob was Bob’s son then and no one cared a bit.” Fair point. If the boys didn’t have some solid tunes to stand on, would the Dylan name mean anything at all? Probably not. Maybe it would give you some better club gigs than the average Joes trying to get bar gigs any night of the week, but you’ve got to have a cracking tune to top three different Billboard charts for a combined total of 15 weeks, don’t you?

I say this. You’ve got to have a cracking tune to top the charts for two to three weeks. Anything extra is driven by extracurricular interest in the band, and let’s face it, Jakob being Bob’s son and carrying his own set of gravelly, talk/sing pipes added an interesting element for sustained interest.

Interscope Records, for their part, put up a lot of cash for Bringing Down the Horse to reach the heights that it did, too. Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and Counting Crow Adam Duritz both feature on “6th Avenue Heartache” (which, for my money was always the Wallflowers’ best tune), Michael Penn drops in on “Angel on My Bike” and the solo on “One Headlight” is played by none other than Jon Brion.

I’ve talked before about the “this is all up for grabs” aspect of the top of the charts in the 1990s, and so for “One Headlight” to be popular, you must remember it was sharing equal air time on MTV in that stretch with the likes of Hanson, the Spice Girls, Savage Garden and U2. Maybe it was the working man’s rock preference to the other popular music of the era, and certainly a lot of people bought into it (I remember buying my copy of Bringing Down the Horse at a shopping mall during our 8th grade trip to Washington D.C. – who needs souvenirs from the National Treasury?), but there always seemed to be a reticence by the general public to buy into the Wallflowers full stop. After all, we all had bought into Hootie two years prior, and look how that ended up. But even with as much as “One Headlight” incessantly played on radio, MTV and VH1, I was always surprised at how few people really seemed to be actual fans of the song, much less the band.

For example:

Classmate when I made my purchase at the D.C. shopping mall: “Oh is that the one with the song about the engine turning, but the engine doesn’t turn? I like that song.”

Friend at a fast food place when ‘One Headlight’ comes on over the sound system: “Oh, I like this one. This is the “Me ‘n’ Cinderella” song, right?”

A two-word title, a chart-topper on 3 different charts for 15 total weeks and you don’t know it’s called “One Headlight” … Really?

I also think “One Headlight” shirked complete audience buy-in because of the ambiguity in its lyrics. Undoubtedly a trait that had been passed on from father to son, there are a few things you can surmise from “One Headlight,” but a lot you can’t. Someone’s dead, is it a lover or the mother? The town the singer resides in apparently sucks, but he only thinks of leaving without actually doing it, and the chorus well, how does that fit in? There are plenty of people who’ll argue it shouldn’t matter, and the message is what you make of it, maaaaan, but for single geeks trying to deduce whether or not this was an appropriate inclusion on the mixtape for the girl they fancied, well… this was a dilemma.

Eventually the inescapability of the song wore everybody down, and the follow up singles, “Three Marlenas” and “The Difference” hung around for about two weeks apiece before bowing out. And once the Bringing Down the Horse wave ended, so too did the Wallflowers’ reign on mainstream America. Sure, they put out three albums in the ensuing years, and Jakob’s doing solo work now, but most people stopped paying attention. And I have a little theory about why.

Between 1988 and 1993, Bob Dylan released an album each year (with the exception of 1991), and in addition to both Traveling Wilburys records. After 1993, he went quiet for four years until 1997, when he put out “Time Out of Mind” and got himself a Grammy and all sorts of critical acclaim that he’s been riding ever since. In the gap between 1993 and 1997, “The Beatles Anthology” came out and stirred a nation’s collective hardcore reminiscence for the past. If you don’t think Oasis’ popularity stateside was helped by the timing of the Anthology, you’re delusional. So for Dylan to come back in fine form in 1997, well, all the sudden people remembered what a genius he’d been all along too. Sure Jakob was fine and all, but hey, Dad’s still making good music, so we’ll talk later, kid. And when did Time Out of Mind crop up? Right when Bringing Down the Horse receded.

A couple years ago I was at a friend’s house in Madison and we had some satellite music station on that was playing a solo cut by Jakob Dylan. When it came on, my friend identified the voice, but he was caught between trying to finish his sentence and minding a nacho platter he had in the oven. “Didn’t he used to be …” he started, trying to tie “in the Wallflowers” to the fact that he knew it was “Bob Dylan’s son.”

What came out was: “Didn’t he used to be Bob Dylan’s son?”

I just laughed.

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One comment

  1. Great Song, thank you for that. And I really like the story at the end 🙂



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