For a very brief time in 1997, the Wallflowers were more popular than Bruce Springsteen. Bringing Down the Horse, their second LP, was one of the biggest selling albums of the year, scoring hits with “One Headlight,” “6th Avenue Heartache” and “The Difference.” The fact the group was fronted by Bob Dylan’s son gave the media an irresistible angle, and Jakob Dylan’s photo graced many a magazine cover. It seemed like they were going to have a long and bright career.
Bruce Springsteen, meanwhile, was in a weird place. He began the decade by releasing two albums (Human Touch and Lucky Town) on the same day and then touring with a new group of musicians fans derisively labeled “The Other Band.” For the first time in his career, he was getting negative reviews, and it seemed like he was on a permanent downward trajectory.
At a similar point in his career, Bob Dylan returned to the charts with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. For Bruce Springsteen, it was Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and the haunting title track “Streets of Philadelphia.” The tune earned him an Academy Award and his first genuine radio song in quite some time. He followed it up with “Dead Man Walking,” a less successful track from the Sean Penn death row film. In 1996, Jerry Maquire brought his ballad “Secret Garden” onto the charts, and radio started playing a version intercut with dialogue from the movie. It was cheesy, but it made moms all across America cry in their cars, especially the line “You had me at hello.”
All of this represented a comeback of sorts for Springsteen, but it placed him in a bizarre Randy Newman-esque role in the music industry. He was wise to try something else. By the spring of 1997, his long solo acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad tour was finally over and his future was a little hazy. He was working on a box set of his old studio outtakes and contemplating a reunion tour with the E Street Band, but nobody knew it at the time.
Unlike today, the MTV Video Music Awards made an effort to appeal to people over the age of 26 back then. In 1993, they teamed Neil Young with Pearl Jam. Four years later, they put Sting onstage with Puff Daddy. That same year, yet another live performance of “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers didn’t seem that exciting. Bringing in Bruce Springsteen to perform it with them, however, would be a huge deal. Springsteen was widely labeled the “new Dylan” when he arrived on the scene in 1973, and pairing him with the actual new Dylan would be amazing.
The surprise Sting/Puff Daddy pairing was the big news of the night, but Springsteen and the Wallflowers were a seamless fit. It was the first time in quite some time many people had seen Springsteen fronting a rock band, and he really seemed energized. “You know your career is going well when Bruce Springsteen asks if he can sing a few lines from your song,” Adam Sandler cracked later that night.
After the Video Music Awards, Bruce Springsteen did just about everything right and the Wallflowers did just about everything wrong. They recored an instantly forgettable cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” for the instantly forgettable Godzilla movie in 1998, and they waited three long years to follow up Bringing Down the Horse. When (Breach) came out in October of 2000 people had largely forgotten about them. It also didn’t have a single song as memorable as their earlier hits.
Springsteen, on the other hand, got the E Street Band back together and began working like a maniac. During the Nineties, he’d completely lost faith in himself and wound up shelving countless songs. Between 1992 and 2002 he released a single album. But in the past decade he’s released six, and he toured the world many times over, packing stadiums and arenas like it was 1985 all over again.
The Wallflowers are going to wrap up the year with gigs at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts and the Union Country Performing Arts Center in Rahway, New Jersey. That’s about a 40-minute ride from Springsteen’s hometown, but don’t expect him to show up to revive their old duet.