The Confessions of Jakob Dylan: A Wallflower's Coming Out

No longer running from the spotlight, the singer talks about his childhood, his famous father, his rise to fame, and his own music

The Wallflowers perform on 'SNL' on October 21st, 2000. Credit: Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Jakob Dylan cannot recall the first time he saw the movie Don't Look Back or how many times he's seen it. "I just remember always knowing about it — it's the ultimate family photograph," he says of D.A. Pennebaker's gripping all-access chronicle of the 1965 British concert tour by Jakob's father, Bob Dylan. "On one hand, it's the greatest rock documentary going. On the other hand, that's one of my parents when he was younger than me." The elder Dylan was just shy of his twenty-fourth birthday when Pennebaker caught him riding the lightning of celebrity. Jakob, now a successful singer-songwriter in his own right with the Wallflowers, turned thirty last year.

"What's interesting," he continues, "is watching the rules being written right then. That was the moment rock stopped being cute."

Jakob is sipping coffee in the sepulchral lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He looks dressed for labor: plain black pants, heavy brown shoes, a blue denim jacket buttoned to the top. He also arrives with his guard up, wearing jet-black sunglasses that make him look like a warrior insect. But when he eventually takes the glasses off, his ocean-blue eyes shine with a keen pride as he talks about the surreal electricity of the backstage and press-interview scenes in Don't Look Back — and how the movie captures his dad in the act of creating a new brand of self-empowered rock stardom.

"You can imagine how docile everything was before that, how appreciative you had to be, as an artist, just to be anywhere," Jakob says. "Those reporters were guys who had no idea what was going on. Somebody had to come along and have the insight and the balls to say, 'None of this means anything. We don't have to work hand in hand here. My job doesn't depend on being appreciated by you people.' "

Two nights later, Jakob is nearly drowning in cute. He and the Wallflowers — keyboardist Rami Jaffee, bassist Greg Richling, guitarist Michael Ward and drummer Mario Calire — are at MTV's Times Square studios taping an episode of First Listen, a breezy cross between a focus group and Total Request Live in which hit acts premiere hot product by playing live and answering questions from a studio audience. The Wallflowers are here to promote their new album, Breach —  the follow-up to their 1996 breakthrough, Bringing Down the Horse, which has sold 6 million copies worldwide — and they coolly kick 'n' roll through two of the record's most biting numbers, "Sleepwalker" and "Hand Me Down."

The queries from VJ Brian McFayden and the eighty young fans in the studio are cheerful softballs, mostly about influences and the four years between records. Jakob responds with an almost paternal geniality, a quiet directness leavened with dry humor. There is also a palpable awkwardness in his delivery, the discomfort of peddling intimate work in a light setting. When McFayden remarks that the new album seems very personal, Jakob flinches for a moment. "I thought the last record was very personal," he says, then recovers, flashing a showbiz grin. "I guess it didn't come across."

The best part about the show is that the entire two-hour taping goes by without either the host or anyone in the audience mentioning the name Bob Dylan. "It's nice to be in a position where it's about our group, our music," Richling says later with blatant relief. Otherwise, the whole exercise is like Don't Look Back never happened.

"His history doesn't depend on any of the things mine does," Jakob admits, referring to his father, a few hours before the taping. In conversation – at least in front of a tape recorder — Jakob never says the name Bob or uses the words my father or my dad. It's always the elliptical third-person: he, his, him.

"The position that generation gets to hold, whether it's him or Neil Young or Willie Nelson or Al Green — they get to do whatever they want," Jakob continues. "If they want to dabble in the world I deal with, they can. Maybe it's interesting to them to peek in once in a while. But it can't hurt them. They've lasted. They've made it through.

"I'm very envious," Jakob says without embarrassment. "My job consists of different things that weren't around when they established themselves. You know what groups like mine go through. You can say no. But I want to allow myself the same chance everybody else gets — to put the music forward.

"I didn't want to be a footnote in all those books," he insists. "His thing" — Bob's thing — "is so huge. It's been going on for so long. It's in history books, in your schools. There's countless biographies. In most of the books, there might be one page that mentions the names of his children. That's it." Jakob's voice practically clangs with steely purpose.

"I don't want to be a page in the book."

Jakob Dylan's stage presence basically runs from his neck up. Front and center on a small stage at a Manhattan rehearsal facility, he stands at the microphone with neutral poise, strumming a vanilla-white Telecaster and giving nothing away in body language as the Wallflowers run through a few Breach songs in preparation for First Listen: the guitar-spangled, tour-grind memoir "Letters From the Wasteland"; "Sleepwalker," a saw-toothed romp with a playful reference to Sam Cooke's "Cupid" poking through the guilt; "Some Flowers Bloom Dead," a folk-rock groove running under total emotional burnout.

Instead, Jakob broadcasts his vocal and lyric temper with an economy of physical gesture. His singing is a low, muscular sizzle, closer in texture and dynamics to Jakob's teenage heroes, Joe Strummer of the Clash and the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, than to Bob Dylan. Jakob's idea of lead-singer theater is a slight nod of the head here and there. When he hits a particularly juicy line or a prolonged vowel, his mouth will break into something that is part smile, part wince.

And there are the eyes. "Sometimes I joke about it: 'The blue eyes — that's what the girls want,' " says Rami Jaffee, 31, an L.A. native with a warm, wise-cracking personality who is, besides Jakob, the only surviving member of the Wallflowers' first, early-Nineties lineup. "Jakob's eyes are worth more than all my fun keyboards."

"I never had a Seventies phase: 'Hello, Cleveland!' " Jakob says after rehearsal, rolling those eyes with distaste. "Stadium rock — I never spent any time working on that kind of skill. I'm very skeptical, too, when I see other guys doing that, pandering for love from an audience. It irritates me. You have to have faith in what you're doing." Yet until last year, when he started writing the eleven new songs on Breach (if you count the hidden bonus track, "Babybird"), Jakob's confidence was a shaky thing.

Jakob had already been "up and down the mountain," in Jaffee's words, by the time of Bringing Down the Horse, released by Interscope in the spring of 1996. The Wallflowers' 1992 debut on Virgin, The Wallflowers, a record of potent amateur passion, sold a feeble 40,000 copies; over the next three years, original members Tobi Miller, Barrie Maguire and Peter Yanowitz all drifted away. It took nearly as long for the band to become whole again.

Richling, 30, is a high school friend of Jakob's who became a Wallflower during the last bout of roadwork for the first album; he had previously studied film at Boston University and worked as a production assistant for the TV show Pee Wee's Playhouse. Minneapolis-born Michael Ward, 33, co-founded the L.A. band School of Fish and had just finished touring as a sideman for John Hiatt when he joined the Wallflowers, initially as a studio guitarist for Bringing Down the Horse. Schooled in jazz drumming, Mario Calire, 26, of Buffalo, New York, was working in L.A. with a funky Meters-style band when he was hired between the completion of Bringing Down the Horse and the two and a half years of gigging that followed. The reconstituted Wallflowers played 275 shows in 1997 alone.

"We did this tour with Counting Crows in the summer of '97, playing five nights a week," Calire says. "And almost every day off we had, we booked a gig somewhere on our own. We would drive way out of the tour route to do our own gigs. We played every city there is to play, shook every hand there is to shake."

The grind paid off. Powered by the hits "6th Avenue Heartache," "One Headlight" and "Three Marlenas," Bringing Down the Horse sold 4 million copies in the U.S. Jakob and the Wallflowers also won a pair of 1997 Grammys for "One Headlight," including Best Rock Song. Married and a father himself with two young boys, Jakob was no longer just a son-of-Bob. (Jakob and his wife, Paige, had a third boy in September. Citing privacy concerns, Jakob declined to publicly reveal the names of his children.)

But Jakob felt awkward in his success, partly because of the way Bob and Sara Dylan raised him and his older siblings, Maria (by Sara's previous marriage to Victor Lowndes), Jesse, Samuel and Anna. "We didn't grow up with gold records in the house," Jakob says. "I would go to friends' houses and see their parents splash any kind of hype they had right in the front entryway. We never had that stuff. It was understood that I wasn't supposed to be in awe of it."

Ward remembers a telling moment on the Wallflowers' tour bus after the band received gold-record plaques for Bringing Down the Horse at the House of Blues in New Orleans: "Jakob actually said to me, 'I don't know if I want this one to go platinum. I hope it stops here.' He was hoping he wouldn't get the platinum record, because it was too cheesy, too sell-out."

Jakob also began to see holes in his most popular songs — places where, he says, "the idea that I had wasn't coming through. 'One Headlight' was totally misunderstood. In the last verse, there's a line — 'Her death, it must be killing me.' People kept asking me, 'Who died?' I was like, 'No, it's a metaphor.' " To write the songs for Breach, Jakob rented a small house in Los Angeles, outfitted it as a demo studio and put in workingman's hours, eight to five, trying to find a new, clear voice in his writing.

He discovered it in the last place he cared to look: autobiography. In Breach's pivotal songs, "I've Been Delivered" and "Hand Me Down," Jakob goes deep into his lineage and the expectations that come with it — figuratively in the former track, literally in the latter ("You won't ever amount to much … How could you think you would be enough?"). He comes out bruised but strong, hitting universal nerves with his willingness to confront the obvious. "I was goose bumps all over," Jaffee says, recalling the first time he heard "I've Been Delivered" at Jakob's demo crib. "There was such a sincerity to it. Metaphorically, he can be all over the place. But his delivery, the words he sings — he is behind them."

Andrew Slater, who has managed the Wallflowers since their pre-Virgin days and who co-produced Breach with singer-songwriter Michael Penn, also hears a fresh honesty in Jakob's singing. "Before, there was something in his phrasing, avoiding certain kinds of enunciation," Slater says. "On this record, he was ready to face the mike. If DNA was evident in the performance, he was like, 'Fuck it — this is it.' "

Jakob laughs when asked about the sly nod in the title of "I've Been Delivered" to his father's Basement Tapes hymn "Nothing Was Delivered," hinting that it was not deliberate but leaving room for speculation. "I used to spend time censoring my stuff, grading it for references," he admits, "get out the songbook to make sure he hadn't used the words dump truck before." And when Jakob wrote "Hand Me Down," "I knew people were going to say it's about me. And I decided that's fine. Two, three years ago, I would have scrapped it."

Besides, he adds, "Who hasn't felt a little underappreciated, not given a fair chance? Who hasn't felt some kind of shadow behind them that they can't break free of? It's a song anybody deserves to write."

"I've always felt Jakob's had his own voice as a songwriter," Richling declares with a brotherly pride. "You see things, people saying, 'He's not his dad.' My reaction is, 'You're not either, man. Who the hell are you to say that? You're holding him to a standard that you can't hold anybody up to.'

"All of the pressure Jakob feels comes from himself," Richling contends. "He knows what being great is. Jakob has his own rating system."

I had an apartment right off Sixth Avenue," Jakob says, raising an arm and pointing eastward over his iced coffee. He is sitting in the back open-air garden of a bistro in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, a few blocks from the Parsons School of Design and the student pad where, in 1988, he wrote what he considers to be his first real song, "6th Avenue Heartache." Jakob was eighteen and had recently junked an art career after just three weeks of study at Parsons. "It became clear to me that I wanted to write songs. I was also very conscious that I was getting a later start than a lot of people."

Jakob was born in New York on December 9,1969. At the time, the Dylans lived in an apartment on MacDougal Street near Bleecker, the once-hot crossroads of the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. Shortly after Jakob's birth, the clan moved out, settling in California after spells in New Mexico and Arizona. Back in New York, while he was dropping out of Parsons, Jakob walked the Village streets examining the remains of a time he knew only through family lore.

"A lot of kids are curious to walk in the same place that their parents experienced," he says. "Things that are probably so mundane to people who live here — I found them thrilling. Like going through Washington Square Park and witnessing all these strangers singing 'Under the Boardwalk.'

"I wasn't coming here and thinking I was going to see some amazing stuff," Jakob insists. "There was nothing anymore, culturally. But, yeah, there's ghosts in the streets. You kind of feel it."

Bob and Sara Dylan divorced in 1977. Jakob, who lived with each parent during his adolescence, speaks of both with a loving vigilance; he is careful not to spill more than he feels the world deserves to know. Yet as adept as he is at navigating the tricky issue of his father, Jakob is caught by surprise when asked about Sara and the traces of her that he sees in his own character.

"I find that a harder subject than the other one," he confesses, smiling, after a thoughtful pause. "She's a real individual. I don't think she's been affected by the things around her. She was too strong for that stuff, that lifestyle you see a lot of other 'wives-of' pursuing.

"I watched that," Jakob says, "and found it valuable. I believe that the less you talk about things, the less dangerous they become. 'Look out for that guy, don't fall into these habits' — they didn't have to be talked about. Things were just obvious."

Jakob floundered in formal education; he had a D average from ninth through eleventh grades. He did better at home, where he got his musical schooling. He listened to British punk — the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Buzzcocks — with his older brothers and quietly watched Bob for signs of encouragement and approval.

Those signals were subtle, Jakob says, "but loud — speaking volumes with low decibels." Something as simple as Bob perusing the back cover of the Clash's London Calling took on great significance. "I don't think he'd spend a minute looking at it if he thought it was terrible. I was looking for that. I wanted bread crumbs to get where I was going. And I didn't want to ask. I wanted to figure out some part of it for myself, in some way feel like a different generation." On Breach, Jakob shows off his love of vintage Costello in the Attractions-like gallop "Murder 101"; Costello adds backup vocals, too.

Bob Dylan tours were Jakob's other rock school. Guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who plays on Bringing Down the Horse and Breach, remembers seeing Jakob on the sidelines during Bob's 1986 tour with the Petty band. "We were in Australia — two or three of the kids were there," Campbell says. "Jakob was always watching, kind of quiet. I don't know if I said more than 'Hi' to him at the time. But he was paying very close attention to what was going down."

"We always went out," Jakob says of his father's road trips. He has no clear memories of the '74 shows with the Band and only vague recollections of the Rolling Thunder circus of '75 and '76. But he vividly remembers Europe '84. "I started to see people I really admired, how they reacted to the whole thing" — of meeting Bob Dylan. "I wouldn't want to mention their names. These were my heroes, and I'm watching them melt on the floor. I saw that countless times" — and, he adds, "started to figure out why.

"Aside from being one of my parents, this was somebody doing this on a very large scale, for a long time. I knew these things, but I suddenly discovered it not as someone in the family, but as a music student. These songs meant so much to so many people. Yet if your dad made a little table and put it in the dining room, you just loved it. You didn't care what it meant — your dad made a table. These songs were like furniture in the house to me."

Now comfortable enough in his own achievements to speak publicly of his father at length, Jakob uses the analogy of a family business — "working on cars, running a hardware store" — to explain his own desire to write songs. "How many sons and daughters do exactly what their parents did?" he asks. "I wanted the sound of amps turning on; I wanted to see cables run across my living room. I loved the way the bus felt. It had been there since I was small. The only way to keep it was to do it myself."

A decade after that Australian tour, Campbell saw Jakob on the road again when the Wallflowers opened some shows for Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1997. "Jakob came into the sound check," Campbell relates, "and the first thing out of his mouth was, 'I want to thank you for giving me a career with that guitar lick [in "6th Avenue Heartache"].'

"It was really sweet," Campbell says. "I just smiled and said, 'You're doing fine on your own.' "

Andrew Slater first met Jakob in 1987. Slater was producing Warren Zevon's Sentimental Hygiene; Bob Dylan came to the studio to play harmonica on one song. "He brought this kid," Slater recalls. "I said, 'Hi, I'm Andy,' and he said, 'Hi, I'm Jakob. I'm in a band.' " Then seventeen, Jakob played rhythm guitar in a garage combo called the Bootheels with future Wallflower Tobi Miller.

Three years later, Slater heard, through a friend of a girlfriend, a tape by a group called the Apples. When Slater went to a party to see the Apples play, he was surprised to find Jakob at the microphone. "He had long hair parted down the middle, one of the most striking guys I've ever seen," Slater remembers. "And he had a great voice." Slater also noticed a wary diffidence in the young singer.

"He didn't seem like he wanted anyone to get to know his stuff," Slater says. "It was only by ignoring him … There was some other guy at the party who had a band, and we were talking. I said, 'Let's go into the studio.' That made Jakob sit up and say, 'Well, I have these songs.…' "

Jakob explains his mixed feelings at the time — a monkish devotion to writing songs; a perverse reluctance to play them for anyone — this way: "I don't find anything charming about sucking. I didn't think I was very good. I wanted to be better." He was living at his mother's house, in the garage. He owned one guitar and an amplifier. One of the other Apples had a job delivering Chinese food. When Jakob needed money, he would pick up the other Apple's shift. Otherwise, he has never had a day job — besides songwriting.

"I wasn't interested in being original," he states bluntly. "It's important to study the craft. Then you can expand and be an individual down the line." Jakob repeatedly cites Costello and Westerberg, as well as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Neil Young, as figures of respect and inspiration. You can hear him striving to make new sense of history in the roots-rock impressionism of The Wallflowers. On the road in '92, the Wallflowers often covered "The Weight" by the Band.

Slater and the other Wallflowers all speak highly of Jakob's work ethic and his extreme reluctance, from the beginning, to trade on his family connections. Slater went to an early Wallflowers rehearsal at a low-budget joint called Fortress Studios. "The shittiest place in L.A. — five dollars an hour," he says. "I'm thinking, 'Here's this guy who obviously has access to any piece of gear he wants in any rehearsal space. And he's in this shit hole. I like that.' " For the first two weeks Jaffee was in the Wallflowers, he didn't even know Jakob's last name. "He just said he was Jake," Jaffee says. "I was not a last-name guy. I didn't care."

He soon understood Jakob's low profile. On the Wallflowers' first tours, the Dylan freaks came out of the woodwork, hippie loons with twenty-page letters for Jakob to pass on to his dad. "You think the young girls were there?" Jaffee asks. "People our age? No way."

Jakob reacted to the attention by craving anonymity. His face and name do not appear on the front or back covers of The Wallflowers or Bringing Down the Horse, only inside the packaging. "It was, 'Pull my name off of that,' " he concedes. "I got a reputation as difficult and unmanageable."

"I heard about the reputation," says Interscope/Geffen/A&M president Tom Whalley, who signed the Wallflowers in 1995. "Once I got a chance to talk with him and see where he was coming from, I agreed with him." When the Dylan name "became just part of the story, not the story, once people wanted to hear his songs, Jakob became far more comfortable."

"I'm not that difficult," Jakob insists. "If you give me intelligent questions, I can give you intelligent answers. But I'd get these ridiculous questions: Why did I change my name to Dylan? I loved that one the most." (His father, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, legally changed his last name to Dylan in 1962.)

Jakob's pride in his father and the family name are best illustrated in the way he talks about the Dylan death scare of 1997. On May 25th, the day after his fifty-sixth birthday, Bob was admitted to a hospital in New York with a severe heart infection; newspapers went on obituary alert. Jakob was on the road in Europe when he received the news. "Without getting too far into it," he says, "I was reassured there was no reason to come back." Bob recovered and was on tour himself by August. In November, Bob and the Wallflowers shared a bill for the first time, at a private show in San Jose, California, for employees of Applied Materials, a Silicon Valley firm.

"What was so interesting," Jakob continues, "was people had such a sense of panic. They suddenly realized a world without him. And my feeling was, 'Shame on you. You think you get these kind of people your whole life? You should be proud of the fact that you're living during the time that this person is.'

"And he's still working. You may not understand what direction he's gone in, but you never understood on time before. He's always been a little bit ahead. When that happened, I felt a great amount of shame on people. What did you think? You don't get this forever."

The promo continues. Five days after the Wallflowers' First Listen taping, Jakob and Michael Ward are back at the MTV studios for an appearance on Total Request Live. They banter with host Carson Daly, an old acquaintance, and introduce the world premiere of the video for Breach's first single, "Sleepwalker." The entire segment barely lasts five minutes, sandwiched between videos by Papa Roach and the prefab boy band 2Gether and a fashion sequence down in Times Square, where two young fans are getting pop-star makeovers — one as Britney Spears and the other as N' Sync's Justin Timberlake.

Jakob rolls through his appearance with relaxed humor. "We're learning how to lighten up," he tells Daly, introducing the "Sleepwalker" clip, a parody of pop-music videos in which Jakob vogues his way through a succession of exaggerated pained-artist, babe-magnet scenarios. But away from the jubilant squeals of the TRL studio audience, lingering over his iced coffee in that Chelsea garden, Jakob examines his success with a harsher eye. He understands, in a way many of his peers never could, the difference between selling records and making history.

"The stuff I've seen, the stuff I've been around — I'm not that impressed with myself," he says, his voice hard and even. He does not sound humble or self-pitying. He's not kidding around, either. "You want to do something that lasts. You want to do something that strikes people in a way that matters. I don't want to entertain. I don't want to fill a spot. I don't want to be temporary.

"I think I have a chance," Jakob says, with an urgency fortified by the glare of his blue-laser eyes. "I've earned the position. I can make something of it or I can blow it up.

"Everybody has something to overcome. I want to be a great writer. Maybe the thing I have to overcome is this notion of myself. I just have to believe that there are people who don't care where I grew up or how I grew up or what my parents were like."

Jakob smiles — broadly — when asked how it might be for his sons if they, in turn, follow him into the family business. "I don't think it's comparable — let's put it that way," he says with a rich laugh. "I anticipate that working within my shadow is not going to be that big of an issue."