Jakob Dylan: “The advent of poetry in music made things limitless”

New film, Echo in the Canyon, explores the music revolution that happened in California in the mid-1960s, but Jakob Dylan says we should be cautious about believing songs can change the world

Jakob Dylan is a two-time Grammy Award-winning singer songwriter, his band The Wallflowers was one of the biggest acts of the 90s, selling millions of albums and going quadruple-platinum. His father has released a couple of decent records too.

Dylan fronts a new film, Echo in the Canyon, which takes a trip back in time to tell the story of the artists who developed the ‘California sound’ in the mid-60s and started a sonic revolution. Pioneers like Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Graham Nash feature alongside those who were inspired, including Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Tom Petty (the interview was Petty’s last before his death in 2017) – as well as contemporary fans like Beck, and Apple.

But what is the real legacy of that period, and can music actually change anything anyway?


The Big Issue:
Echo in the Canyon focuses on the musicians – The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield – who lived in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles from around 1965. Why were they drawn there?

Jakob Dylan: You don’t have to go too far in Los Angeles to be in the mountains. But Laurel Canyon is unique in that it’s right in the middle. Geographically, it connects the San Fernando Valley to the Hollywood side. Maybe that’s why they gravitated towards there – you could live in the country but when it was time to go out you could literally roll down the hill to Sunset Strip within five minutes.

Apart from the location, what other ingredients went into this emerging scene?

Their influences were really good. People hadn’t gotten terrible yet. Like, if you’re a kid today listening to music, I can’t even imagine the garbage you have to sift through to find the good stuff because anybody can make music now. I don’t ever want to say drugs are an important creative part, but some of the people in the film would say that they were.

The artists proved to be quite different individuals. What did they and the music share?

You know, as somebody who has experience with bands, they do change over time. You get this powerful moment when you’re first starting, everybody’s in it for the same motivation and money’s not an issue. That is inevitably going to change. These artists in ’65, they’re at the beginning of rock evolution. You had the first wave of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry and blues rock, then you get here and it’s all very new. Lyrics started becoming a lot more interesting, melodies started changing. It was a much simpler time, more communal. The ‘me me me’ part hadn’t happened yet. How else can Neil Young be in a band? He’s too big to be in a band. I don’t think today he’s able to exist in a band. He’s tried sometimes but at that time it was brand new.

Was the drive to become rich and famous or was it about creativity and freedom of expression?

It would be too easy for me to say that they didn’t care about making a living, but I don’t think that’s ever true. They were probably told you have to stop screwing around at some point. I think a lot of them imagined getting real jobs afterwards. Because why wouldn’t you? Nobody was ever going to be as good as The Beatles, nobody will ever be as good as The Beatles. You could argue David Bowie was not as good as The Beatles. Do you wish he hadn’t made music? You can still try. You’re still supposed to go for it.

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Jakob Dylan with Ringo Starr

The scene you document in the film started when Mr Tambourine Man became a huge hit for The Byrds. That was obviously an echo of an existing song. What did they do to make it a hit?

Roger McGuinn was brilliant and taking these songs – a lot of them traditional – and changing the time signature or shortening them or finding a chorus. He took these songs and adapted them to the radio, which in itself is brilliant. Turn, Turn, Turn – he put that on the radio. It’s pretty incredible.

What was the wider social impact of songs on the radio with a bit more lyrical depth?

This is the advent of poetry in music, which makes things limitless. You don’t have to make sense, you don’t have to have an agenda, you could just express whatever the hell you wanted to. When did that start exactly? I don’t know but I know that whenever I’m asked what a certain song is about, you just cringe because they’re not really about anything necessarily. What’s a painting about? Artists don’t have responsibility to explain that. They exist in no time. They’re three-dimensional. That begins around this time with songs like Eight Miles High. You can say whatever you wanted, and it’s about whatever you want it to be about. I mean, you could ask the writer, they might tell you what it’s about. But honestly, what’s the difference? These songs require you as a listener to participate, they require you to pay attention – or not pay attention, just be hypnotised by the words. But you have to participate.

Is that the real revolution of this time – not the music itself but what it asked of the listener?

I’ve never really seen music change society in any kind of impactful way. Not since I’ve been listening to music. It has the illusion of doing so. And I think the illusion is enough to keep you at it. Sometimes music is just there to entertain people and let them feel better for three-and-a-half minutes. The social impact of this music, how real was it anyway? What change did it really bring upon people? I know Graham Nash in the film says he still believes it has the power to change. I know he believes it because he experienced it. I didn’t live in that time, I’m always cautious and a little bit wary of those scenes and movements. Ultimately, historically, do they really change things a lot? Why are we still singing the same songs from 50 years ago? No one’s writing those songs any more. I’m not suggesting they should but maybe they already believe it’s not going to make a difference.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

The film project started as a live show and album revisiting songs from this period. What echoes did you want to add to your versions?

You do cover songs, you try to emulate them exactly as they are. You don’t reinterpret them, you don’t flip them on their heads, you don’t turn them inside out, you don’t deconstruct them. I’ve never really understood that too much. I don’t think there’s any reinvention needed. I don’t think you can add anything to a Brian Wilson song, I don’t think you should try to. You just play the song.

Has being immersed in this music changed your songwriting?

Honestly, I’ve been doing it long enough to know that nobody knows how a song is written. Songwriters really can’t tell you how they do it. The ones who are full of shit probably can, but the ones who are really good, they don’t know how they do it.

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The legendary Tom Petty

Echo in the Canyon is available to stream digitally now