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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

With "One Headlight," the Wallflowers resolutely navigate toward better days

Jakob Dylan and company paint the end of youthful innocence as a time for reaffirming oneself and continuing to move forward.

Ever since I entered college, the first week of November, especially that weekend, has been a weird time for me to process and to try to work through. Try as I might, I can never shake the memories of what happened that time of year in my senior year of high school that pushed me to a breaking point. I always end up being somewhat depressed, yet I don't remember why that is until it all comes back to me in the latter part of the week.

Saturday always stands out as the most depressing day of the bunch, given the events that took place on that day of the week. That meant that today was a tough day for me to swallow. I did the best I could, but I still don't feel out of my depressive funk. However, I do have a song which I hear as giving me hope that I'll get out of it soon and start to feel more normal (if that exists) as long as I actively make an attempt to do so. In facing aspects of death, but also providing hope in its aftermath, the Wallflowers' "One Headlight" hits home on one of my toughest days of the year.

"One Headlight," first and foremost, is a song that captures and is all about constantly and steadily moving forward. Both qualities are captured from the track's early moments, when Matt Chamberlain's never-wavering drumbeat enters. It's not what I'd call an exciting beat, but it isn't meant to be — Chamberlain does his job to fit the song's context, with the few fills he does have marking the boundaries between sections. It's not the kind of drumming that will get a lot of attention, but it's the kind that will get a mellower tune like "One Headlight" going in the right direction, as a bed over which the rest of the track can grow. Similar can be said about the other background parts, especially Greg Richling's bass line and the rhythm guitar; while it and other lines change in the chorus, Richling's changes are the most minimal and understandable, giving those sections the little bit of extra weight they need to fit their function.

As much as the instrumental elements intrigue me, it's the vocals that have always drawn me to "One Headlight" more than anything else. I'd heard the song plenty over the years, but I'd never bothered to look it up... or maybe I didn't know what I should type to get it to turn up in search results. Either way, it was only quite recently that I realized why the singer sounded oddly familiar: it's Bob Dylan's youngest son, Jakob. While I hadn't heard Jakob Dylan other than on this one song, I'd always been familiar with his father's work, and Jakob definitely takes after Bob in some of his vocal stylings and lyric writing. The way Jakob almost speaks the end of some of his phrases — the first-verse line "As I listened through the cemetery trees" is a prime example — is pure Dylan. (I also can't help but wonder how much influence came from Dylan's longtime guitarist, T-Bone Burnett, being the track's producer.)

I find the verse lyrics themselves and their backdrop to be Bob-esque as well: they're dotted with various references to death, aging, and time passing by, but the other lines and verses make it apparent that literal death is less of the backdrop than a metaphorical "death of ideas." Jakob cites the first verse as driving home this meaning, with the idea, his "only friend," being lost "[s]o long ago, I don't remember when." I hear it that way on a second listen, but on my first listen I'm struck more by the third and fourth verses, especially the fourth:

And I've seen the sign up ahead at the county line bridge
Saying all is good and nothingness is dead
We'll run until she's out of breath
She ran until there's nothing left
She hit the end, it's just her window ledge

While the "window ledge" bit at the end may lead to a more suicidal reading, I really hear this verse as the narrator and the girl who's with him abruptly reaching the end of their youth and its accompanying innocence. Upon "hitting the end" and crossing the boundary into adulthood, that unflinchingly optimistic "sign up ahead" not only remains unreachable, but also fades away. The figures watch as their more naïve view of the world dies, and they realize just how much work is in front of them in order to reach the life they want to live. I find this death to be darker than literal death in some ways, as it tends to suck the hope and life out of those who remain living.

The question then remains: if this is an annual period of peak depression for me, why do I reach for a song with such a message? Well, I mentioned earlier how "One Headlight" also provides hope in the aftermath of the death it configures, and the chorus does just that. In the metaphorical darkness in which the verses entrench the song, the titular object becomes a beacon of opportunity against the odds:

Come on, try a little
Nothing is forever
There's got to be something better than in the middle
But me and Cinderella
We put it all together
We can drive it home
With one headlight

The chorus validates how I feel about the instrumental continuing to drive the track forward, as Jakob Dylan enunciates the same message with the third line. The worst thing to do while anxious and/or depressed is to stay "in the middle," to do nothing. Getting out of those funks requires actively being the solution; reaching out and getting out of your current physical place will go a long way toward getting out of that mental place. Furthermore, once you do get out of that rut, and as you continue to battle those feelings (which never permanently go away), you can still most definitely make something of yourself. Maybe the ending guitar solos by Jon Brion — who played using a screwdriver he found in the studio as a slide — and Leo LeBlanc represent that shift toward activity and happiness as the narrator and his "Cinderella" begin to leave the past behind.

With everything we've gone through in our lives, we're all somewhat damaged goods — we're all battered, bruised, dented, missing some paint here and a part there, but we can all the same "drive it home" and get to where we want to be. It isn't as easy to do so "[w]ith one headlight" as it is with two, but we can still see our way down the road. We'll just have to focus a bit more, and we'll need to be more deliberate when we have to change lanes or direction as we drive toward our destination.


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