The endless touring took its toll. The sales and recognition were nice, but looking at all the videos and magazine covers got weird. After all, Jakob Dylan had spent a lifetime struggling for some semblance of privacy. And by the time Bringing Down the Horse had sold 4 million copies, he says, “a lot of time I just felt like a puppet. I’d forgotten what a lot of the songs were about. I’d be singing them, people would be really enthused about seeing us, and I’d just want to start laughing. I found it to be funny. That’s not a term I like to throw at myself that often – that what I’m doing is funny.”
Becoming the subject of your own slightly crazed amusement is hardly a comfortable place to be if part of your birthright is to be haunted by the “shadow,” as Dylan frequently puts it, of your father’s unapproachable achievements. So when the Wallflowers finally finished touring to promote Bringing Down the Horse, the younger Mr. Dylan returned home to Los Angeles and took his time getting back to work. “It’s hard to speak about and not feel that you’re telling one of those boo-hoo stories about being successful,” he admits. “But there I was: I’d gotten everything I thought I ever wanted, but it was like ‘Why is this not the greatest thing in the world?’ Well, because I didn’t know myself that well.”
When the specter of reemerging in front of a large audience made him self-conscious about songwriting, he simply stopped for a while. His relaxed L.A. home life (he’s married with two children) helped. “There’s that image that you realize you put out there, but I always felt a separation from it,” he says, laughing. “I certainly don’t wear black suits around the house.” Eventually, he returned to feeling like his success had been earned, like he had finally stepped out of that shadow. “The people who bought the record, they aren’t baby-boomers and old hippies,” he says. “They’re kids, and a lot of them are unaware of the whole thing – and God bless them! It makes it a lot less complicated for me.”
That said, it’s been four years since Horse unleashed hits like “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” and many of those “kids” are notoriously fickle. Even sympathetic industry watchers are wondering if the smart, melodic folk rock on the Wallflowers new album, Breach, will find a place on the charts amid hormone-addled teen idols and the First Amendment poster boys of hip-hop and rap-rock.
“You turn on MTV, and, of course I don’t want to say in an interview that I don’t watch it that much – Carson Daly could be reading this,” Dylan laughs. “But the face of that channel is totally different.” Still, VH1, which enthusiastically supported the Wallflowers’ last album, has big plans for the band. “The Wallflowers fit as well for us as they did four years ago,” says Wayne Isaak, the channel’s executive vice-president of talent and music programming. “They’re coming into a vacuum where there isn’t really another great young rock band. And they’re able to appeal to a wide variety of people – teenagers who want to rock, young women who want to get deep into Jakob’s blue eyes, 20- and 30-year-olds who can relate to the music, and classic-rockers who are celebrating that this band sounds like some of the best of what they grew up with.”
“American rock is defined now by teen pop and the synthesis of rap and hard rock,” says Andrew Slater, manager of the Wallflowers as well as of Fiona Apple and Macy Gray. “Those styles have been so much in your face that I see Breach as a relief record.” A serial hit-maker who embeds the familiar pleasures of sixties and seventies sounds in contemporary settings for Gray and Apple, Slater co-produced Breach with songwriter (and Sean’s brother) Michael Penn. They teased nuances from the Wallflowers – Dylan, guitarist Michael Ward, drummer Mario Calire, bassist Greg Richling, and keyboardist Rami Jaffee – without sapping their back-to-basics essence.
For his part, Dylan, now 30, is ready to hurl himself once more into the breach. Writing with a compelling new maturity, he tackles his questions about his identity on songs like “Letters From the Wasteland” and, most provocatively, “Hand Me Down,” in which he’s derided as “living proof that evolution is through” and told “You feel good and you look like you should / But you could never make us proud.” Finally, though, “I’ve Been Delivered” suggests an artist who’s ready to step out on his own. “So just keep on letting go,” he sings, ” ‘Cause I must be close / To being delivered for the first time.”
In interviews, Dylan turns verbal contortions to avoid using the phrase my father; at one point, he even earnestly denies that he’d ever claim to be “comparable to the original.” Still, he laughs out loud when asked if he and Pops have ever exchanged feedback on each other’s works-in-progress. “I definitely think he’s got a lot-more-valuable sounding boards than me,” he says. “There wouldn’t be a lot of sense to that. But those possibilities have been there for me, and I’ve used them at times. Like anybody who has valuable parents, I like to do it on my own. But if I need that kind of guidance, it’s always been there.”
Due October 10, Breach concludes with the sweet “hidden” track “Babybird,” on which Dylan sings a folkloric lullaby to his children over a lovely music-box melody. It’s a subtle but pointed reminder that even though he may always be frozen in the public imagination as Bob Dylan’s son, the likely subject of another famous lullaby, “Forever Young,” he’s a grown man with his own family and his own career. (Characteristically of both, Bob Dylan has never named the subject of “Forever Young,” and Jakob has never asked.) ” ‘Babybird’ is a song that maybe I wouldn’t have put on a record a few years ago,” Dylan admits. “This was my way of turning the tables a little bit: writing a song for my kids as opposed to always being the son of someone.”
Not that turning 30 hasn’t raised its own issues. “You wonder, ‘Am I going to be able to do this like Willie Nelson or Bruce Springsteen?’ ” Jakob says. “Very few people actually get this career for more than five years. Okay, I’ve crossed that line. I’ve been given the possibility to make this last. Now, hopefully, I can make something out of it. Can I pull that off? Or is this it for me?”