By 1996, Jakob Dylan was at a crossroads. His band, The Wallflowers, had been dropped by Virgin Records after their 1992 self-titled debut album sold just 40,000 copies. Three of the group’s original members drifted away in the aftermath of that LP, leaving Dylan with both a band to reconfigure and something to prove. Some may have considered it a low point. Dylan just saw potential. Then 25 years old, he knew he was capable of more, and not just because of the affiliations of his last name.
“It was a good kind of pressure,” Dylan tells Billboard of this time. “It was a pressure to show what you’re worth and what you’re capable of doing.”
Confident in his abilities as a singer/songwriter, and focused on making an album that would make those abilities clear, Dylan spent a run of long nights at his kitchen table working on the 11 resonant, punchy, accessible rock songs that would form The Wallflowers’ 1996 breakout LP, Bringing Down the Horse. The band signed to Interscope, then on a major hot streak with acts like Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt and Tupac. With his second LP, Dylan would join this list of artists who defined this era of Whitewater, the Unabomber and Deep Blue.
He did it largely with a single that married the warmth of his classic rock influences with the modern radio rock sound (weighty, but not like, heavy) then also being popularized by acts like Matchbox 20 and Counting Crows. A major hit in the United States, “One Headlight” ascended to the top of four Billboard charts — Mainstream Rock, Alternative Airplay, Adult Top 40 and Adult Alternative Songs. (The song wasn’t eligible for the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, due to rules at the time that disqualified songs not released as commercial singles in the U.S. — about which Dylan comments with a laugh, “I guess I’m going to have to live with that.”) For those of us who came of age in the mid-’90s, it was entirely possible to be able to sing every word of “One Headlight” before having any awareness of who Jakob Dylan’s father was.
“It had nothing to do with Bob Dylan, it really didn’t,” Interscope co-founder Jimmy Iovine says of signing The Wallflowers. “Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, but Jakob had the songs. It’s that simple. If he didn’t have the songs, it wouldn’t matter.”
Produced by T Bone Burnett, Bringing Down the Horse delivered other hits with its singles “6th Avenue Heartache,” “The Difference” and “Three Marlenas.” But 25 years after its release, “One Headlight” remains the album’s most enduring track — especially after getting new life last year, following its prominent usage in the Judd Apatow-directed dramedy The King of Staten Island — and now ranks as the No. 1 song on Billboard’s newly released Greatest of All Time Adult Alternative Songs chart, coming in ahead of Coldplay, Matchbox 20, Portugal.The Man and other Triple A radio format mainstays.
“We loved Jakob at Interscope,” Iovine says. “Jakob was a real talent, sang fantastic. Great voice. I just knew ‘One Headlight’ was great. Radio people liked it, but it was a hit everywhere. It touched a very broad audience — a very young audience, and that adult crowd as well. That’s when something really goes. I heard it recently. That song stands the test of time.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Dylan rings — “Hey, this is Jakob Dylan!” he announces merrily after his publicist connects the call — for an hour-long conversation about “One Headlight,” its position atop of the All Time Adult Alternative Songs chart, the nerve-wracking experience of performing it with Bruce Springsteen, and what Dylan thinks of his biggest hit, 25 years later.
Tell me about the origins of “One Headlight.”
My recollection is that we’d made a record with Virgin Records that I guess was considered a disappointment on their end, and we found ourselves back in the clubs looking for a new home to make records.
When you’re a dropped band — and certainly if you’re somebody like me in a band, and it didn’t seem to fly — there’s a stigma that I think was given to the band while we were out looking for a new record contract. I just felt [our] game was on a higher level. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of chances, but I felt like we were worthy of getting a second look. And if I recall, this is one of the songs that I worked on during that time.
What was your feeling on the song, as you were writing it?
I recall thinking that we hadn’t played something quite like this before — which was good because we needed to expand what we were doing. If anything, I recall believing the song had a lot of potential. I wasn’t sure if we were quite good enough to explore its possibilities. By your ranking, I suppose it worked!
Where did you write the song?
I was at a kitchen table writing songs late at night, trying to be quiet and not bother anybody, here in Los Angeles.
What was your mood and general state of being during the time you were writing Bringing Down the Horse?
Well, the band was pretty young. I hadn’t been doing it for a long time, but I guess I was probably aware of speculations of someone like myself being in a band, and I felt worthy of doing it. I thought the best way to show that I was worthy of doing it was by doing something and achieving something perhaps different than what was common at the time.
We were very influenced by people like Leon Russell and Dr. John. We felt epic, we felt like taking these songs and putting them on a huge landscape. We weren’t in a mind frame of any sort of format or anything. At the time, loving Al Green — that’s what we kind of based a lot of the groove and the organ on. He was one of our favorites, and still is, and wasn’t someone being talked about a lot. I thought there was certainly a place for that type of feeling and mood on the radio. But I felt strong. I wasn’t defeated in any sense. I felt challenged, and I thought it was a good challenge.
What kind of feeling did “One Headlight” give you, in the time you were working on it?
It still gives me the same feeling. It’s still a song that when I sing it, it’s positive. I lean towards those songs usually. No matter what you’re describing, I think you can find a shred of positivity in it, and I think that that song is about perseverance and positivity. When I sing it I still feel like that.
Over time though, songs change. It’s hard to ask someone 25 years later what they felt or what they meant at the time. Sometimes you just follow your nose and you get to reinterpret it year after year, so I sing it now and I don’t sing it like somebody who’s 25 years old. It’s a different song to me now. Because I’m different.
Was there ever a moment at the height of the song’s success when you were just tired of performing it?
Well, that might be fair to say. [Laughs.]
I’m glad you mentioned it being an optimistic song, because there are some lyrics that could be interpreted as… not that. What’s your feeling on the thematic juxtaposition between the verses and the chorus?
I think so many of the best songs are [juxtapositions], really. The verses could seem pessimistic, but once you realize the chorus, I think you can look at the verses from a different angle and I don’t think they necessarily are [pessimistic]. I think they are about perseverance and independence and self-reliance.
I think those are some of the images being thrown out in the verses, and the chorus makes that realized, that all of those adverse feelings are absolutely okay, and they’re motivating. And to not accept the meandering, free-falling feeling of being in the middle. I do believe there has to be something better, and accepting the middle is just not a great option for anything you’re doing .
There’s a lyric that references “The long broken arm of human law.” What were you expressing there?
Well, that’s human expectations and human nature that can’t be relied upon. I think everybody clearly usually knows what the right thing to do is and what the wrong thing is. It doesn’t mean you can always make those choices, but they’re presented to us pretty obviously I think, what the right thing is. I consider that to be human law. But you can’t depend on it — not for yourself or for other people — even though you’re aware of it. But that’s the beginning of breaking down any barriers, because if you don’t have any human law, then it’s a free fall; it’s a free for all. I guess maybe I suppose I was trying to get that across.
Okay, this one is maybe a little bit more pragmatic: Independence Day is not a typically cold time of year. Was there a specific instance that inspired that line (“She said, ‘It’s cold, it feels like Independence Day”)?
You know, there is, and I’m actually glad you asked me that because that has floated around for quite some time, the criticism that it’s Independence Day, the Fourth Of July, so it shouldn’t be cold. I expected more people to easily get the Bruce Springsteen reference from his song “Independence Day.” Understandably in hindsight that wasn’t picked up upon, but that was a nod to Bruce Springsteen. As well as the last verse, “turned the engine but the engine wouldn’t turn.” That’s also a reference to Bruce and his inspiration to me.
And actually you know, I sang that song once with Bruce Springsteen [at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards]. We did a duet of it, and that verse happened to be his: “I turned the engine, but the engine doesn’t turn.” I felt immediately very self-conscious, so I felt the need to tell him, “You know, I took that from you.” And he just smiled and said, “I know.” And then I made him sing it.
He clearly seems like an idol of yours. What was it like to connect with him on your own work?
It’s a high point of my career to this point still. Not only did I sing a song with Bruce Springsteen, but he sang one of mine, and I got to rehearse it with him. I take stock in that — because it’s Bruce Springsteen and I don’t believe he’s going to spend time doing that with an artist or a song that he doesn’t find value in. So I have that validation going forward for always.
Were you nervous?
Would you be?
I mean, yes! You had two things going on. It was an awards show, and that will make you on your toes to begin with, but then you’ve got a duet, and I’m very aware that I’m standing next to somebody who might just swallow me whole while performing. You’re not talking about a good performer. You’re not talking about a really good performer. You’re talking about who I would consider, if not the best, one of the best rock and roll performers that we’ve had.
So yeah, I’m on the TV show, but I’m also aware of many of these things at once – one of them being that I’m not sure how far I can knock this out of the park, but I’m going to do my best to hold my own next to Bruce Springsteen.
Do you remember what you were thinking during that performance?
You know, not really. Those things, you get three and a half minutes. You have days and days of anticipation and rehearsals, and that moment that that red light goes on, no matter how much preparation you’ve done, you’re just kind of flying. Usually you walk off afterwards and you have to ask somebody, “How was it?” because you’re just kind of transported. It’s hard to be 100 percent in that moment while it’s happening, because it’s such a quick moment. So it goes by like a blur, but it was certainly very exciting, and I felt great for my band and myself to be up there sharing the stage with Bruce.
Who was that person you asked if it was good afterwards?
You know, it might have been the cameraman. It doesn’t really even matter. You just need somebody to tell you “No, you didn’t fall down. No, you didn’t repeat the second verse.” You’re just looking for anybody to tell you that you didn’t fall over.
Did Bruce say anything to you after?
I don’t recall. He’s still a performer. No matter where you’ve been and what you’ve done, I think there would be a portion of him that felt similar, that still wanted to do really well. I think we probably just spoke immediately afterwards and just tried to reassure one another that it was really good.
Where did you record the album version of the song?
That was in Los Angeles. We had begun that record with T Bone Burnett, and I’d had my eye on that song from the beginning. I think at the time people were very focused on the song “6th Avenue Heartache,” which had actually been around since the first record on Virgin, and we didn’t record it. Or I think we did, but we didn’t get a version of it that we all liked. So when we began again on Interscope Records, there was a lot of attention on that song and getting a version of that song that would be helpful in the record business. I secretly felt that that was fine; I understood why people gravitated toward that song, but I felt we had something bigger in our back pocket.
Interscope Records was such a powerhouse throughout the ’90s. What was your experience there?
Interscope was very on board with the record we were making, and part of the draw to go there at the time was that Jimmy Iovine was there — and at the time he was very much still a record person, and it hadn’t been that many years since he’d been producing records. He was a good influence on me, and very involved, and had good ideas for what we were doing.
I thought he understood that music very well — and even though he may have had one foot in that world, and his other in the new world, in terms of what his horizons would involve, he still recognized that music at the time. He was passionate about it. He hadn’t excluded himself so much from the creative process.
What are your recollections of that song becoming such a huge hit?
Well you only get to arrive once. Hopefully you take a minute and you’re cognizant and aware, because it won’t happen again. I felt that “6th Avenue Heartache” was a lot of work to get listened to, and by the time “One Headlight” came out, I thought there was quite a bit of wind under our wings there, and it was kind of taking on a life of its own.
Who came up with the concept for the music video?
We actually made another video for that song, and it was very dark and very gothic. I remember being in New York City and getting a VHS and all of us running to a room to watch it and just being horrified that is was such a murky misrepresentation. I didn’t like watching it. It was very morbid feeling. A lot of shadows. I think there was coffins in it. I didn’t feel good about any of it. I insisted on scrambling and seeing if we could make another video, and we did.
What was that new video like?
I remember it was extremely cold under the bridge there, DUMBO [in Brooklyn]. I do remember someone from the record company being there and reporting back to the big chiefs at home that the band was wearing suits, and there being a big ruckus to get us out of those damn suits. But wearing suits at that time was inspired by The Beatles and Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones in suits. I don’t know that suits were being worn a lot.
I think grunge was underway, and it was a different look and vibe going on — but I’ve always appreciated the older looks of rock and roll. It was our attempt at something like that. At the time people were jumping around in flannel shirts and army cutoff pants, and we were steering away from that.
You guys did a bus tour behind that album. Do you have any standout memories of that experience?
Yeah, it was long. It was like, three years. When bands get to that moment, you can just stay out there as long as you want, and I think we were out there long before anybody really heard the record. Before it had any legs of its own, we were out there already tired. There would just be endless performances to do, television and radio and stuff. It’s all those stories you hear of Groundhog Day — but when all of these things are happening to you for the first time, it’s not the same as having been there before and wondering what the value of these things are. You’re just with the people you travel with, and you’re seeing new cities every day, and your hotels are getting nicer, the food is getting better.
The song has this great moment in Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow’s movie The King of Staten Island. How did that sync happen?
I was just asked if it would be okay to use it in that movie. I know Judd Apatow, and I know his films. Of course I asked what the scene would be like. In general, especially today when there’s such limitations on the radio, to have your songs be heard at all is a feat. I generally say yes for those things. When you’re playing a song in a movie, it’s rarely about the song and more about something else that’s going on. So unless it’s somebody trashing your song in a film — and I don’t know why they’d ask for permission to do that — I generally find it’s okay. And I liked the scene. When he described the scene to me, that sounded like a pretty good use of the song.
Seeing it used in that way, with a bunch of mostly middle-aged drunk dudes belting it out at a bar, was such a delightful surprise. It also worked in that the scene emphasized how the song has become a real classic.
I’ve also been in karaoke bars, and I’ve been able to sing that song unnoticed. All you need’s a baseball hat and you can really impress. [Laughs.] If you’re in a small town and you’ve got a song, just go ahead and put your hat down and do it and have fun. No one is going to think it’s you.
What are your thoughts on the song being the biggest ever on the AAA radio format?
Well, I’m imagining the other songs that might be considered on that list and I’m pretty impressed. I think that’s incredibly special. That format has always been good to me and my band and the type of songs I write. I consider that a remarkable honor.
Why was “One Headlight” such a good fit for that format?
I don’t know. I know why maybe it wouldn’t be on the more alternative charts. It’s not an angsty song, it doesn’t have the requirements for other formats. But I wouldn’t know why it reacted so well.
Is there a place for a song like “One Headlight” in modern mainstream music?
Well I think so. I hope so. It’s a completely different world, and it doesn’t work for somebody pining for the way things used to work. You have to participate in the new world, of course.
But will rock songs do that thing anymore? I don’t think so. I don’t see how that’s going to work anymore. I don’t think you hear a lot of guitars on the radio anymore. The style itself is completely healthy and it’s better than ever, it’s just — how prevalent will these songs become for people, and will people find these new bands? I don’t know if that avenue is available any more to bands. I’m not an expert in that field, but my fingers are crossed. I’m hopeful. It’d be nice to have a song of the summer that didn’t involve something completely grotesque, or something most of us can’t get our heads around. I’m not going to name names.
Do you own the masters to “One Headlight”?
I don’t own the masters to that record, no. To be honest, I think the masters don’t exist anymore with that Universal fire. I didn’t want to look too closely at that. When I heard about that, my assumption was that we were probably in there. I did see it on a list. There were no tears spent over it. It’s frustrating of course, but certainly some really historical records were lost, so there’s no sour grapes here. I certainly wish it existed rather than not, but we’ll continue.
If you’re in your car driving around and the song comes on the radio, do you listen to it?
Some songs, you can’t believe how quick I’ll hit that dial and move on, but I’ve certainly been out and have heard that song come on the radio or in a bar, and I’m continually impressed by the sound of the record and how alive it sounds and how it still sounds like it’s a breathing thing. I can still listen to it and say, “Damn, that was pretty f–king good.”