Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 12: The Wallflowers - Bringing Down the Horse

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

After our last feature, where we discussed the legendary Mr. Bob Dylan, we couldn't help but move onto Dylan's significantly less famous son. That led us to Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers, a roots rock band that broke out in the mid-1990s, scored some hits, won some Grammys, jammed with Bruce Springsteen, and then rapidly receded back into the underground. The band is still making great records to this day - albeit, with a slightly different line-up - but their best work remains the album that endeared them to millions of radio listeners back in 1996 and 1997:
Bringing Down the Horse. For both of us, this album and its flagship single, the unforgettable "One Headlight," represented big musical awakenings, and I think you will find that we both explored a bit more personal territory in our write-ups this week. We hope you will enjoy reading and listening along to one of the last true "classic rock" records with us.

Craig Manning: Next to the surge of harmonica and the slamming screen door that kick starts Born to Run, the atmospheric guitar echo at the top of “One Headlight” – the 1990s smash hit from the Wallflowers and the opening track of Bringing Down the Horse, their 1996 sophomore album – is my favorite opening of any record. That may seem strange to some people, since “One Headlight” doesn’t have anywhere near the legendary status in rock history that “Thunder Road” does. Indeed, in the eyes and ears of mainstream pop radio listeners, Bringing Down the Horse was a record that made the Wallflowers little more than one-album wonders. For a brief moment in 1996 and 1997, the Wallflowers were legitimate hit makers. “6th Avenue Heartache,” “One Headlight,” and “The Difference” were all top 40 singles (“Headlight” almost got to the top of the charts, stalling out at number 2), while “Three Marlenas” was a minor single that generated a small amount of radio play. It speaks to the brevity of the 1990s alt-folk resurgence that most people have no idea the Wallflowers even exist beyond this album.

But if you are going to build your legacy on a single disc, Bringing Down the Horse is a very good one to do it with. Released on May 21, 1996 – when I was only five and a half years old, for those who are counting – Bringing Down the Horse became my first favorite album, “One Headlight” my first favorite song, and the Wallflowers my first favorite band. The better part of two decades later, I’d still consider Horse to be among my top 10 albums of all time, one of the ultimate essential summer nighttime albums. But the real game-changer was “One Headlight,” which, if I had to boil down the most important songs in my personal music evolution, would be at the top of the list. That’s where my big, sprawling obsession with music really started, and if it hadn’t been for that song, I can more or less guarantee that I wouldn’t be writing for this website right now. At very least, I’m sure my tastes would be markedly different, not so attached to folk, roots rock, alt-country, and all of the similar styles that so dominated my top albums of 2013 list.

Sure, you could argue that “One Headlight” was merely a “right place, right time” song for me and that it played a role that could have just as easily been substituted with a different song. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. I’d connected with other music on a more casual level before that radiant guitar echo pounded on my door and forced me to pay attention. I didn’t have a CD player and I had no way to really access music in any capacity, but my brother had a boom box and a burgeoning CD collection. I’d have him make copies of my favorite albums for me to listen to on my shitty old cassette player – Morning Glory by Oasis, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled record, Green Day’s Dookie – but Bringing Down the Horse was by far the one I’d listen to most. I’d drum along to it on a makeshift set-up made of beat up old metal popcorn buckets and pieces of plastic, or turn it into a soundtrack for the battles between my action figures. One time, I even cranked up the volume, put my tape player on my window ledge, and blared the music out into the street on a summer evening so I could listen while bike riding and shooting hoops in the driveway. It was my first life soundtrack record back before I had much of a life to soundtrack.

“One Headlight” was the one I listened to most. I found that cassette tape a few years ago when I was cleaning up my room, and that song was utterly wrecked and grainy from all the times I had rewound the tape to re-capture every moment of the tune. Though I first started listening probably in 1997, after “One Headlight” became a hit, it remained my go-to favorite song for years after the fact. When the rest of my classmates in third and fourth grade were all about the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and god knows what else, I was still hung up on “One Headlight.” In a pop music landscape that was becoming increasingly defined by plasticity and deposability, here was this dark, beguiling, and mystifying song about death. Jakob Dylan said that the song was about “the death of ideas,” written as a pissed-off, tapped-out diss to a record label that wouldn’t give the band the respect, the appreciation, or the support that they felt met the terms of their contract or even the codes and mantras of human decency. In that sense, it’s their “Dancing in the Dark,” a song that achieved massive mainstream pop success despite the fact that it was penned with anger and contempt for everything the mainstream pop world stood for. Jakob may have been Bob Dylan’s son, but he took infinitely more from Springsteen on this record, and particularly with this song. I’ve frequently seen “Headlight” described as either “the best Bruce Springsteen song of the 1990s” or “the best song Bruce Springsteen never wrote,” and those are both rather apt descriptions. (Sidenote, if you’re either a Springsteen fan or a Wallflowers fan and you haven’t read this, you haven’t lived. Scroll down to the second to last question to learn why.)

Personally, I always took the meaning of “Headlight” to be a lot more literal than Dylan actually intended. The song fades in on a funeral (with the untouchable opening lines of “So long ago I don’t remember when, that’s when they say I lost my only friend/They said she died easy of a broken-heart disease, as I listened through the cemetery trees”), and explores the world through the eyes of a guy who is striving not to give up, even though a good friend of his did just that and chose to end her life. It’s a sobering tune about what makes life worth living and what impetuses conspire to make people throw up their hands and surrender. When the screws come loose and the narrator starts to despair toward the end of the song (“Somewhere here in between the city walls and dyin’ dreams/I think her death it must be killing me”) it’s a powerful moment, and one that has kept the tune and its questions of life, death, friendship, love, loneliness, resilience, and surrender alive for me, 18 years after the fact. I can’t think of another pop song since that has so elegantly captured the human condition. Or maybe it’s a song about a woman with one giant breast, as Jon Lovitz theorized. Who knows?

Chris Collum: There are a lot of different things I could say about Bringing Down the Horse. I could go on about Jakob Dylan’s pitch-perfect pop sensibilities and moody vocal delivery. I could talk about how Dylan and keyboardist Rami Jaffee masterfully update the sound that Dylan’s father dabbled in with The Band decades prior to this album’s recording. Or I could discuss the all-star cast of collaborators who were involved in the making of this record, essentially a “who’s who” of roots rock. Those names include T. Bone Burnett, the album’s producer; the legendary Mr. Sam Phillips; Adam Duritz of Counting Crows; Gary Louris of The Jayhawks; Gillian Welch collaborator David Rawlings; pedal steel master Leo LeBlanc and others. But I’m not going to focus on any of that. In fact I’m only going to talk about one song on the album.

“One Headlight” is one of the very first songs by someone other than Springsteen that I remember becoming truly enamored with as a child. I don’t know if it was the first time I heard the song on the radio or simply the first time I remember hearing it, but I have a pretty vivid memory from when I was around six or seven of being struck by the song one foggy winter morning. That day was going to be the first time I’d ever attended a funeral. The deceased was an elderly woman from our church that I barely knew, but being the only Catholic church in a tiny Mississippi county it was a pretty tightly knit community so we were going anyway.

Riding around our small town in the car with my dad that morning, the haunting tone of “One Headlight” - as well as obviously the references to a funeral and death in the lyrics - made a pretty big impression on me. The song kind of scared me in a way, not least of all because Jakob Dylan delivered each line with a laidback nonchalant drawl that made him seem so detached from what he was singing about. That is until the chorus came along and with a glorious swell, both of Dylan’s voice and of Rami Jaffee’s organ, all attention was directed heavenwards.

I remember hearing the song many more times in the next few years; not surprising given the level of radio saturation it achieved. I eventually acquired Bringing Down the Horse in full many years later, but that was at a time when I was starting to think that any music that wasn’t all power chords, distortion and palm-muting in double-time was kind of lame, so I didn’t really connect with it until toward the end of high school. When I listen to the record now, without fail “One Headlight” sends a little chill down my spine. I’m usually so floored I listen to that song twice before going on to the rest of the record. It’s basically just a song about beat-up people riding a beat-up vehicle through a beat-up town, but something about the way Dylan strings together images like “the sun up ahead at the county line bridge” and “smells like cheap wine, cigarettes / This place was always such a mess” is incredibly evocative.

So yes, I do like all of Bringing Down the Horse. And when I really got into the record several years ago there was a good period of time when “One Headlight” wasn’t even my favorite song on the record. It is now though, and more importantly that song is very special to me because it was one of the first songs that made me realize just how powerful of an atmosphere a rock song can conjure out of thin air. But I didn’t quite realize all of that when I heard it that morning as a kid, I just knew that the song made me feel a little strange and uneasy on a morning when I was already nervous about spending most of the morning in the same room as a dead person.

I don’t remember anything about the actual funeral except that—appropriately enough—as soon as the service began the sky ripped open and a hard rain began to fall.

Craig Manning: As Chris so eloquently put, “One Headlight” is the obvious highlight and anchor track to Bringing Down the Horse, but there’s so much more to this album than its biggest and most memorable hit. The other singles, for instance, are all fantastic, from the delicate slide-guitar grandeur of “6th Avenue Heartache” (complete with glowing harmonies from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz) to the pounding, youthful summertime atmosphere of “The Difference.” Other cuts didn’t catch me until later, like “Invisible City,” where the narrator fights through metaphorical crash sites and illusions of choices to retain the same resilience he found on “One Headlight,” or “Josephine,” Jakob Dylan’s twist on his father’s “Just Like a Woman” and a most elegant slow dance about a girl who tastes “just like sugar and tangerines.”

These are great, great songs, forming the backbone to an album that I think deserves classic status as much as any record Chris and I have written about in this feature. The fact that Bringing Down the Horse doesn’t get that kind of recognition probably has more to do with when it was released than anything else though. As I said before, the Wallflowers dropped this disc at a precarious time for rock and roll music. Grunge was fading. What we’ve come to know today as “classic rock” was little more than a memory. Bruce Springsteen and U2, two of the most dependable rock acts from the previous decade, were in the midst of career slumps. Bob Dylan was a year away from the album that would kick him into his late-career master streak. By all accounts, the Wallflowers were the last of a dying breed, and it therefore makes perfect sense that their time in the mainstream limelight was fleeting.

The banishment from the radio hasn’t hurt the Wallflowers, though. On the contrary, since Bringing Down the Horse, this band has – despite line-up changes and numerous lengthy hiatuses – released a string of terrific albums. 2000’s Breach came too late to take advantage of the momentum that “One Headlight” afforded, but the band hit a near-high water mark when they teamed up with Brendan O’Brien for 2006’s Rebel, Sweetheart, a lush, anthemic, and poetic work that nearly matched Bringing Down the Horse in terms of sheer song-for-song consistency. 2012’s Glad All Over, on the other hand saw the band in turns embracing their alt-country roots, pursuing harder rock textures (thanks to Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who guested on a few tracks), hitting modern E Street levels of self-assuredness, and easily fitting back into the modern folk revival that has been going on for the past few years. Finally, the band’s other post-millennial record, 2002’s Red Letter Days, overcame a bloated runtime with a few of the most aching ballads anyone has written since Clinton left office. Put simply, this band’s discography deserves a second look.

Still, despite all of that great music – and despite two wonderful solo records from Jakob Dylan – Bringing Down the Horse remains the Wallflowers’ greatest accomplishment. Wonderfully and organically produced by T. Bone Burnett (who also helmed August and Everything After, the other alt-folk masterpiece of the 1990s), aided and abetted by a laundry list of terrific session musicians, and sensitively written throughout by Jakob Dylan, this record is a masterpiece of mood and feeling. From the rollicking rock tracks (infectiously fun songs like “Laughing Out Loud” and “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls”) to the mid-tempo jams (“Angel on My Bike,” a road-trip essential), I adore everything about this record. Many of the hallmarks here (the ringing surge of Rami Jaffee’s B3 organ, the wistful whine of Leo LeBlanc’s pedal steel guitar on songs like “I Wish I Felt Nothing”) are sounds that, when replicated elsewhere, on other records or by other bands, instantly win me over. It may not be remembered as a classic in many circles, but for me, for how important this album was to my personal listening evolution and for how much it continues to blow me away to this day, it’s an all-time, top-five, desert island essential. There’s a reason I still pull it out for late night drives every summer.

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