Son of a Preacher Man
By Seven McDonald. Photographed by Anthony Mandow
There are two currents of Jakob Dylan. One hits you like a tidal wave, the other seeps in slowly. The first, of course, is his physical beauty. The second is the sincerity of the things he says. Both of these qualities have the ability to stun. When speaking, Dylan's delivery is so well-phrased it can seem almost unemotional. When singing, thanks to the thick poetry of his lyrics, he can come across as distant. Yet on a second listen, his words reveal themselves as the antithesis of that first assumption. They are, in fact, evocative, watery, vulnerable. Possibly despite himself, especially in the case of his music, his voice gives him away.
QUESTION: You don't really take the direct approach, do you?
ANSWER: It's not interesting. My preference would be to be heard and be talked about but remain thoroughly invisible.
Dressed in a rainbow of browns, soft coffee cords, a faded mocha tee, and a felt chocolate hat pulled over his thick, dark hair, 30-year-old Jakob Dylan is seated in a slick, air-conditioned Culver City photo studio. His limbs are folded neatly over each other, his lips full, his deep-set eyes so big and blue and dewy that it's hard not to look away - look too close, and you'll literally lose your ability to speak. The singer/songwriter is back in the limelight along with his band The Wallflowers and their follow-up to the 1996 Grammy-nominated Bringing Down the Horse. Coproduced by Michael Penn and the band's manager, Andy Slater, their third album, Breach, is already being pegged as Dylan's most reflective yet.
For most people across America, the name Jakob Dylan connotes images of glossy magazine covers and his iconic father Bob. Yet for me and many of my local-music-following peers who occupy the areas surrounding West Hollywood, "Jake" Dylan and The Wallflowers were stars long before they sold five million albums. When they jammed at the Kibitz Room bar adjacent to Canter's 24-hour delicatessen, they made LA's Fairfax district sexy. When they left Virgin Records, shortly after their self-titled debut album received a lukewarm response, and everyone in the music business said they had been dropped, we continued to see them play nearly every week at the Viper Room. It's hard not to like Jakob Dylan. He is intense and sardonic all at once - despite the bloodline, he projects an everyguy quality. The boys like Jakob because he is unquestionably talented yet humble, and the girls, well . . . the night after Jakob got married seven years ago, his older brother Jesse was overheard saying, "All the girls east of Fairfax cried last night." He wasn't exactly exaggerating.
QUESTION: How would you describe yourself?
ANSWER: You wouldn't even want to know my impression of myself. Anything with any amount of humility would sound like I was being falsely humble, and anything over the top would make me sound ridiculous. That's the journalist's job. I'm sure you can get to the core of it.
QUESTION: Do you think you are evasive?
ANSWER: I've been accused of that before, sure. I don't think it's a bad thing. Certainly it makes for a tough interview. Was my answer evasive?
Here's a little taste of Jakob Dylan's childhood. The youngest of the Dylan clan, Jakob was, like his older brothers and sister (Jesse, Sam, and Anna), given a biblical name. It was Jacob who in the Old Testament dreamed of a ladder directly to God. Born in New York, he moved with his family to Los Angeles sometime between the ages of three and four. He collected records with his brothers, and especially loved Paul Simonon of The Clash. "He was like Chet Baker with a bass guitar. I thought he was the toughest guy ever." He played Little League. "First base, third base, I was pretty much a roamer. I stayed away from second base. . .too much responsibility." Another responsibility Dylan wasn't keen on was homework. "I think the stock answer is, I never really applied myself."
QUESTION: Has your dad ever given you advice about show business?
ANSWER: Yeah. But that's priceless. And I am sure people would be lining up to get a piece of it. He is someone who has survived and persevered in the music business for 35 years or so. He would have good advice. I obviously consider that confidential. It's just strictly for me.
His first band was called The Boot Heels. Like his experience with team sports, Jakob briefly played the field as backup before making it to center stage. "I wasn't the singer. I was the guitar player which was a good thing." After graduating from high school, Jakob returned to New York, where he attended Otis Parson's art school "for almost literally a second." Soon he was back in LA. Along with his Boot Heels bandmate Tobi Miller, he formed The Wallflowers. "We started the band together," says Dylan of Miller, his best friend since childhood. "He was more outgoing, so he took a lot of the pressure off of me. He understood that it was kind of a big step for me, just being in front of people."
QUESTION: What does Breach, the title of your new album, mean?
ANSWER: When I was finished with the run of the last album and had gotten away from it for a while, I felt there was a kind of breach in the dream. It wasn't as fulfilling in the ways I had imagined it would be. By all means, I think we have had nothing but great times. But that is not necessarily the thing that gets you to sleep at night. "Breach" is also great 'cause it means coming into the world ass first.
When Jakob Dylan first met Wallflower Rami Jaffe, it was Jaffe who was the infamous one. "The band had been together for about three years, just guitar, bass, and drums," recalls Dylan, leaning deeper back into the gray leather couch. "I had always wanted a keyboard player. This was 1988, '89. I would ask around and everyone would say, 'Well, there is Rami Jaffe, but he won't join a group.' One night at a restaurant, I started talking to a guy. He said he played keyboards and had a B3 and a Wurlitzer. It sounded pretty great. We exchanged numbers, he said his name was Rami. . . . He was kind of a mythological figure at that point. We set up rehearsal a few days later and he has been with the group ever since."
Jaffe is the only original member left from The Wallflowers' debut album. It's a subject that Dylan, like many others, plays down. "When you start a group, first and foremost you work with friends. Then you worry about whether or not they play well. Some people get more serious. Some people don't. That's kind of what happened to us: some people were not capable of keeping up, they didn't want it enough. From the original group, three of the guys were either asked to leave or left."
QUESTION: People are saying that this is a much more personal album than your last.
ANSWER: The best thing you can do is write honest songs, songs with some amount of truth in them. I got to the point with this record where that's what I wanted to do.
This album is so honest, if you're expecting a handful of tight pop songs from a breezy pop star you might miss the point. Jakob Dylan has come into his own. From the opening track ("Letter from the Wasteland," a seeming ode to his father and life on the road) all the way through to track eight ("Up From Under"), the disillusionment he explores on this album appears to go beyond the trappings of fame, to include a disappointment in himself for having been human enough to have briefly fallen under its spell. Yet at the center of the album, the celebratory "I've Been Delivered" indicates that the fever has broken, and here Dylan revels in his newfound wisdom and music.