All Along the Wallflowers

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The handsome young singer-songwriter with the Wallflowers, whose video of the song "6th Avenue Heartache" is a buzz clip on MTV these days, enjoys talking about his musical heroes.

Sitting at a sidewalk table in front of a Hollywood coffeehouse, he digresses at several points during an interview to speak at length about influences ranging from Solomon Burke and Tom Petty to Charlie Rich and the Clash.

But his face tenses when he's asked about the influence of the most celebrated singer-songwriter of the rock era.

Even after two albums with the Wallflowers, Jakob Dylan, 26, still feels uncomfortable talking about his father, Bob.

It's easy to understand why.

Scores of rock artists--from Bruce Springsteen to Beck--have struggled with the high expectations raised when the media branded them the new Dylan. So imagine the pressure of being related to Dylan.

But there's another reason that Jakob Dylan resists talking about his father: a respect for the elder Dylan's penchant for privacy.

"People expect me to just come along and give away all the information that he has spent his career defending and protecting," Jakob says. "Plus, that kind of talk just turns articles into personality pieces, and I'm not selling my personality. I just write songs and play them."

The good news for Dylan and the Los Angeles-based Wallflowers is that the pop world is beginning to pay attention to the songs.

Besides the MTV and VH1 airplay, the Wallflowers' album "Bringing Down the Horse" has gotten enough exposure on alternative, mainstream and adult alternative radio formats to edge its way to No. 3 on Billboard magazine's latest "Heatseekers" chart, which measures the sales progress of new or developing acts. The band will headline Saturday at the Coach House.

As the conversation drifts from his father to the music and the progress of the band, Dylan relaxes and tries to put the issue of his famous lineage into perspective.

"I think anybody who sits down with an acoustic guitar and wants to write songs would be lying or be completely out of their mind to say they aren't aware of those songs," he says of his father's body of work.

"The truth is that I'm essentially applying 30 years later for the singer-songwriter job that he invented."

The Wallflowers' leader would be answering questions about Bob Dylan even if there weren't any blood ties. In his fedora and black shirt, he looks an awful lot like the young man staring out from the covers of such classic albums as "Nashville Skyline" and "Another Side of Bob Dylan."

There are parallels, too, in the music. There is a raspy, searching quality in his vocals and a rootsy, blues-accented edge to the band's instrumental sound that are associated with Dylan and the '60s. One also hears traces of artists, including Springsteen and Petty, whose visions were shaped by his father.

Yet there are moments when Jakob's own voice and vision emerge--and they suggest considerable promise for both Dylan and the band, which also includes Rami Jaffee on keyboards, Michael Ward on lead guitar, Mario Calire on drums and Greg Richling on bass.

In the heart of "Bringing Down the Horse," one hears convincing and affecting tales of a young man's struggle to find trust and faith in a world of confusion and contradiction. He moves in the album from the melancholy of "I Wish I Felt Nothing" to the idealism of "One Headlight," which includes the lines "Come on try a little / Nothin' is forever / There's got to be somethin' better."

Tom Whalley, the Interscope Records executive who works with the Wallflowers, says the Dylan name was, if anything, a negative in his early assessment of the group.

"You worry at first if people won't just think the band is a gimmick, but the music won me over," he says. "There is something special about the way the band works with musical pieces that come out of the past but which sound totally fresh."

Jakob Dylan was born in New York, the youngest of five children of Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes. He was about 3 when the family moved to Los Angeles. His parents were divorced in 1977, but Dylan doesn't disclose anything about his upbringing other than his disinterest in school and his passions as a teenager--music and painting.

When it was time to begin pursuing a career, he leaned first to painting. At 18, Dylan enrolled in the Parsons School of Design in New York. Almost immediately, however, he realized that he preferred music, and he was soon back in Los Angeles putting together a band, the Apples, which evolved into the Wallflowers around 1989.

Andrew Slater, who manages the group, was impressed by a Wallflowers tape he heard at a party in 1990. His first reaction was similar to Whalley's; he didn't know whether the Dylan association would be a blessing or a curse for the young artist.

But there was a haunting quality in the music that caused Slater, who has worked through the years with such admired songwriters as Don Henley and Warren Zevon, to check out one of the band's rehearsals.

"I don't know what I expected, but it turned out they were rehearsing in this dive with some of the crummiest gear I had ever seen," Slater says. "That told me that he was serious and trying to do it on his own--not relying on his parents."

Slater began representing the Wallflowers, trying to keep the focus on the band rather than the Dylan name. They specifically prohibited clubs from using Dylan's name to advertise the gigs.

The group signed with Virgin Records and released its debut album, "The Wallflowers," in 1992. It received generally strong reviews but sold only a modest 25,000 copies.

The band suffered a major setback a few months later when Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris, the co-heads of Virgin Records in the U.S. and the band's key supporters at the label, left the company.

Worried that the Wallflowers would be lost in the shuffle at Virgin, Dylan and Slater asked to be released from the label. They were delighted when Virgin obliged, but the move proved a bigger hurdle than expected. For one thing, the focus in rock was on grunge, so there wasn't much interest in a more rootsy, '60s-style band. That wasn't the only problem.

"Nobody in the industry wanted to come see us after that," Dylan says between sips of coffee on this sunny morning. "They figured if someone drops us after one record, something must be really wrong. It was a real trying time and some of the band members left. Andy is a fairly well-connected manager, but no one would return his phone calls."

Did Dylan ever think of trying to shift his sound to a harder, grunge style?

"No," he says forcefully. "I think I've always known the music I wanted to make. There had been other things before grunge. When we started out, every other band in L.A. was trying to be Jane's Addiction, and I've got nothing against that style--or grunge. It's just not what I'm interested in. I was never interested in just being in fashion. I was never the kid on Melrose who wanted to grow the dreadlocks and put on Doc Martens."

The Wallflowers' fortunes changed in late 1993 when the band made a demo tape of "6th Avenue Heartache" that caught the ear of some of the city's top record executives. The Wallflowers signed with Interscope.

Dylan thinks some of the self-questioning and melancholic undercurrents on the new album reflect the struggles of being without a record label and feeling abandoned.

"Most of these songs were written at a time when I felt pretty beat up," he says. "It was a time when people didn't want to come see us and when countless producers said the songs weren't good enough. So, I kept writing more and more songs, and I think a lot of that feeling got into the songs."

Now that the Wallflowers have a new album out and are touring again, Dylan, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, feels a certain validation.

"I feel pretty good," he says. "I think the record is really good this time, and I'm not trying to dodge things anymore."

Dodge things?

"I think for a while that I was uncertain about who I was," he responds. "When I was younger, there were a lot of things coming at you at once. It was hard getting up onstage when you knew there was a chance someone out there was going to yell for us to do 'All Along the Watchtower' or that someone would come up afterward and want to talk about . . . you know.

"But I'm more comfortable with every aspect of this. It has taken a while, but I think I've finally realized that this is my life--that music is what I do and I am who I am, and it's nice that people seem to be listening."

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Hear the Wallflowers

* To hear excerpts from "Bringing Down the Horse," call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5720.

In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.

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The Wallflowers play on Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 8 p.m. $10. (714) 496-8927.

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