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He's Cool With the Family Legacy

Now that his Wallflowers are a success, Jakob Dylan is prepared to discuss the D word: Dad.

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

September 17, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN

Jakob Dylan was so guarded about his family history when he formed the Wallflowers in 1990 that he went six years before mentioning the word "dad" in an interview.

It's a sign of how much the times have changed in Dylan's world that now--5 million album sales later--Jakob refers to his famous father, Bob Dylan, within the first seven minutes of an interview about his band's new album.

"I had to wait for things to line up in my life," he says about the anxiety of following in the senior Dylan's musical footsteps. "Most people don't go out when they are 21 with no record sales, nothing on the radio, no video being played . . . and still have people wanting to interview them. I was always aware that there was no story to talk about except my family, and that made me uncomfortable."

The younger Dylan isn't exploiting any family secrets as he sits in a West Hollywood office before an afternoon rehearsal with his band, but he's finally comfortable with who he is--and he understands how some of his family history may be relevant to better understanding him as a songwriter.

That's no small adjustment--considering that his notoriously private father is enough of a pop culture giant to be chosen, along with the likes of Albert Einstein and John Lennon, to have his image plastered on the sides of buildings in Apple's "Think different" ad campaign.

Jakob Dylan was right years ago. He had no story if you took away the family ties. The Wallflowers' first album was released by Virgin Records in 1992 during the heart of the aggressive grunge era. There wasn't much interest in a new group that was aligned with the melodic sweep and lyric consciousness of classic '60s rock. The self-titled collection sold only about 40,000 copies.

But the band's fortunes took a dramatic turn with the 1996 release of its second album, "Bringing Down the Horse." The success of Counting Crows had renewed radio programmers' interest in a classic rock sound, and the Wallflowers' album was filled with songs that echoed that period, including the richly appealing "One Headlight."

MTV fell in love with the band, which had moved to Interscope Records, and the album sold more than 4 million copies in the U.S. Jakob Dylan was suddenly on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and he won two Grammys (for best rock song and rock group performance) on the same night in 1997 that his father's "Time Out of Mind" was named album of the year.

Jakob Dylan knew by this time that he was finally worth a story himself. More important, he also began shedding his defensiveness as a writer.

"When I look back at 'Bringing Down the Horse,' I see that a lot of the songs were very cloudy," says Dylan, 30. "I was censoring myself a lot. If anyone was looking for any kind of clues or anything interesting [about my background], I didn't want them to be there.

"With this album, I wanted to move forward. With the songwriters I've always admired, I felt like I had got to know them through their records--and I realized that if I don't start [revealing] more of myself, no one is going to have an idea of who I am."

The result is "Breach," a more personal and introspective work that's due in stores Oct. 10. Dylan told some engaging stories in "Bringing Down the Horse," but he chiefly crafted songs that drew from the territory outlined years ago by such celebrated artists as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Van Morrison and his father.

In the best of the new songs, Dylan moves forward in winning fashion. He writes about a musician's alienation--the dehumanizing demands of constant touring ("Letters From the Wasteland") and the disorienting sensation of fame ("Sleepwalker").

Even better, in "Hand Me Down" he outlines the struggles of dealing with the extraordinary expectations of following in his famous father's footsteps. The song begins with the taunting lines "Now tell me what you were thinking of / How could you think you would be enough?"

You can understand the sting of those lines when Dylan explains how he used to walk on stage during the early days of the Wallflowers and have people request his father's songs or tell him afterward how much they love his father's music.

But there's no real bitterness in the song or in Dylan's manner. In fact, one senses he is pleased to finally be able to talk about his family in interviews. By not commenting on his family, he may have led some observers to believe there was a distance or tension in the relationship. He is, it turns out, a loving son.

"The funny thing is I get asked every once in a while why I didn't choose a stage name . . . so I could avoid all the comparisons," Dylan says. "But I saw it as a fruitless effort to change my name or pretend I'm not who I am because it could lead to a bigger incident. People would ask, 'Why are you denying it?' And the truth is I am very proud of my heritage. It's nothing to run from. The only thing I ask is to be taken at face value, and I feel that is starting to happen."

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