Hemingway’s kids never attempted to become the novelist that their father was. Mozart’s kids never tried to bang it out on the keys, just like Wolfy. Moses’ kids never tried to talk to a burning bush. And yet, Jakob Dylan decided to walk the same path as his father. Despite the lofty and conceivably unreachable standards that Bob had set for him, Jakob couldn’t help himself.
I have spent a lot of words on the great Bob Dylan. Anyone that is even slightly acquainted with me most likely knows the reverence that I have for the man, both as a musician and a cultural icon. And whenever you may read or hear me refer to him as the Greatest American Hero of All Time, you probably have serious questions about whether I am joking or not. (Honestly? I am joking...a little. But definitely not half-joking, or even quarter-joking. It’s probably closer to like 5 or 10 percent joking, with 95 to 90 percent seriousness. Really. I can make the argument. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the #2 American Hero is John McClain.)
And while I have an infinite number of reasons for why I believe that Bob is the most historically and culturally important musician of all-time, I have just as many reasons for why I find him to be incredibly riveting and interesting. However, he might not even be the most interesting musician in his immediate family.
Jakob Dylan, to me, is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, and deep-fried in an enigma. The fourth and youngest child of Bob and Sara Dylan is probably best known as lead singer and songwriter of the band The Wallflowers. The band itself is probably best known for their hit song, “One Headlight”, off of their quadruple platinum album, Bringing Down the Horse. And the song “One Headlight” is probably best known for winning two Grammy Awards in 1998, as well as being belted out by an incalculable number of middle-aged drunk people at their local karaoke bars. The Wallflowers released five total studio albums, and Jakob has recently released two solo albums, the first in 2008, and the second (Women and Country) in early April of this year.
But those facts don’t really tell the story of Jakob Dylan, or his relationship to his father and how that has shaped his career in the music business. What really makes Jakob so incredibly, mind-bogglingly fascinating to me is that, more than anything, Jakob has tried to separate himself from his father as much as possible when it comes to being a musician. And I don’t mean separate in terms of sound, style, look, or perception, but simply by distancing himself from the fact that he is Bob’s son.
Jakob has never once, at least publicly or to my knowledge, tried to gain an ounce of fame, publicity, sympathy or even notoriety from his father’s name. He has never marketed his band or his own identity as that of “Bob Dylan’s son.” He has largely kept that aspect of his life under wraps, only electing to talk about it when asked, and even then limiting his words on the topic. How astonishing is this? In a world where kids always seem to use the fame or fortune of their parents for any slight advantage they can get, Jakob buries it as much as possible. In a society where Paris Hilton and Brody Jenner (people with no discernable talent other than being photogenic) have become household names due to the triumphs of their guardians, Jakob Dylan would rather die as a starving artist than lean on Bob to help him sell records. It’s absurd. If my father were rich and famous, I would most certainly be a snot-nosed snob, majoring in yoga or film at UCLA, wearing Ed Hardy shirts and True Religion jeans, driving a Porsche 911, using more hair gel than Wolf "The Dentist" Stansson from D2: The Mighty Ducks, and starring in some variation of a VH1 reality show. And you can’t convince me that you would be any different. But somehow, Jakob Dylan is.
It would be naïve of me to say that Jakob’s bloodline has had nothing to do with his musical career. At one point or another, either Jakob or his band has toured as the opening act for the likes of Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Tom Petty, all three of whom are friends and contemporaries of Bob. Also, Jakob’s contract as a solo artist is with Columbia Records, which just happens to be the company that Bob has been signed to since 1962 (with a brief hiatus in the 70s). But there is no evidence that Jakob used his father to swing these things, and it certainly wasn’t Bob that got his career started. After The Wallflowers were let out of their contract with Virgin Records following the release of their first album, the band came back strong with Bringing Down the Horse four years later. Bob Dylan didn’t do that; Jakob and The Wallflowers did. Bob Dylan didn’t write “One Headlight”, and Bob Dylan didn’t make Bringing Down the Horse sell six million-plus albums. In fact, T-Bone Burnett (a famous singer-songwriter who produced the band’s hit album) once said: “I don't think Jakob sold a single record because he is Bob's son. I think he sold a lot of records because ‘One Headlight’ is a very good song. I wonder how many Wallflowers fans even know who Bob Dylan is.” It’s true. Most people are surprised when you tell them that “Bob Dylan’s kid sings ‘One Headlight’.” Some of you might not have known until reading this. And when you consider all of that, it just makes Jakob’s story that much more interesting.
There is very little public information about the personal relationship between Bob and Jakob Dylan, but by all accounts, they seem to have a very healthy father-son bond. Both have pretty much kept a lid on talking about their family life, but there have never been any credited reports of a strained relationship or any type of separation. In all honesty, it just seems that the two have made a conscientious effort to keep quiet about the whole thing. Jakob is very private about his family in general, including his wife and kids, and Bob has always kept it to a minimum when talking about his personal life, especially in the last few decades. Basically, Jakob didn’t want a free ride and Bob didn’t want to step on his toes. I mean, the two have only played at the same concert once, and at no point were they on stage together.
But with that said, it’s hard to look at or listen to Jakob and not think of his father. Physically, there are a great deal of similarities, many of which have become more noticeable as Jakob has gotten older. You can also sense Bob’s influence in Jakob’s sound and songwriting, although not any more distinctly than you can sense Bob’s influence on Conor Oberst, Amos Lee, Devendra Banhart, or any other folk/indie artists of today that Bob’s music has had an impact on. Jakob’s voice is also much softer and smoother than his dad’s, and he often sounds closer to an early Springsteen or Clapton than to the sharp and passionate sound of Bob, which always found a way to be sarcastic and sincere at the same time.
His father’s folk presence does seem more apparent on Jakob’s two solo albums, with his soft acoustic sound and melancholy lyrics evoking his father’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or Blood On The Tracks. And the shift to a more country sound on the second solo album is similar to Bob’s own ventures into country music with releases such as Nashville Skyline and Desire. But through it all, Jakob has certainly crafted his own unique sound and image, one that has simultaneously placed him as a successful and accomplished musician to the blind ear or ignorant eye, but also one that has him coming up short of expectations or being second-rate when compared to his father. And it is in this quandary that Jakob has shed light on his true self.
Jakob has never been concerned or interested in measuring up to his father, all of which goes back to the fact that he has never relied on Bob for success as a musician. While Jakob has indirectly acknowledged his public perception as the “severely less-accomplished Dylan” on songs like “Sleepwalker” and “Hand Me Down”, it never comes from a place of jealousy or self-contempt. Rather, Jakob just alludes to the belief of others that he has come up short, despite the fact that he personally couldn’t care less. In his eyes, he sees no sense in comparing himself to Bob; it's never something he strived for. This is smart, because Jakob would also be the first to tell you that if he did measure himself by Bob’s ladder, he would only be setting up for major disappointment. When asked in a 1996 interview if he ever felt pressured by the fact that he was Bob’s son, he said: “Not at all. I never consider it, really. I don't think anybody could operate on a healthy level if they did. We're not talking about an artist [referring to Bob] who can be compared to anybody, you know.” It’s hard to say it any better than that.
There are plenty instances of children following in the foot-steps of their famous parents. Sometimes they exceed the legacy left behind (Ken Griffey Jr., Miley Cyrus, Kiefer Sutherland) and sometimes they fall short (Lisa Marie Presley, Nicole Richie, Carnie Wilson). But when you look at those people – as well as people like Charlie Sheen, Liza Minelli, Laila Ali, George W. Bush, and countless others – at one point or another, they all relied on the prominence, recognition, or mystic of their parents to reach any level of success or notoriety. But not Jakob Dylan. He had a tougher act to follow than any of them, and he chose to do it on his own. The closest analogy would probably be the rest of us on earth trying to live our lives like Jesus, yet knowing we will inevitably fall short. (Hey, I said it was close, not exact. Calm down). It’s what separates Dylan from everyone else.
In that same interview Jakob did back in ’96, he mentioned how there was always people at his concerts that would yell out requests for Bob Dylan songs. And when asked if he ever honored those requests, he simply stated, “No, I do not.” This is probably the simplest way to describe Jakob. He knows he’s not Bob Dylan, so he doesn’t try to be. That is not the path that he wanted to choose. T-Bone Burnett made yet another insightful comment about the younger Dylan when he said, “As far as Jakob is concerned, I can't imagine having larger footsteps to follow in.” Well, Jakob never imagined it. He had the self-awareness to realize, from the very beginning, that he couldn't emulate or live up to the legacy of his dad. In the end, separating himself from his father was the smartest thing he ever did. It wasn’t baffling at all; it was just the only logical decision. He realized that no matter what, he would never be Bob Dylan.
And luckily for Jakob, he never wanted to be.
Thanks for reading