“The Wallflowers’ ‘Bleeders’: Once an Underdog, Always an Underdog”

I have the Wallflowers song “Bleeders” on my Dolby Radio Spotify playlist and I hear it come on sometimes when I put the list on shuffle mode. To be honest, it ingratiates itself pretty well to and blends in with countless other classic ’90s alt-rock singles from Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want” to Fastball’s “Fire Escape” to Merrill Bainbridge’s “Mouth,” and right on back.

Well, there’s just one thing separating it from these other songs: it wasn’t actually RELEASED as a single by Interscope.

It’s just… on the CD! New CD’s cost probably between $11.99 and $17.99 in 1996, depending on the retailer. Then, even if somebody really liked this song that was track three on Bringing down the Horse, they couldn’t “share” it on Facebook: the only way to spread word about it would have been just to tell people, or make a mix tape, or make like 1,000 mix tapes (this is a couple years before mix CD’s, even, still).

So as Jakob Dylan talks about in his ’16 20th anniversary Rolling Stone interview, his band could have been the subject of a lot of jealousy for the fact that EVERYONE AND THEIR MOM knew the songs “One Headlight”; “6th Avenue Heartache” and “Three Marlenas”, whether you were a car mechanic metalhead, whether you were black, whether you were a 60-year-old lap steel player with no investment in current music, and that this sets them apart from today’s age when rock isn’t such a radio-borne or showcased thing.

Well, this doesn’t do anything for “Bleeders,” a track that probably astonishingly few people know or are familiar with, despite the fact that it’s catchy, contains another gorgeous Hammond organ run from T Bone Burnett (it’s Rami Jaffee who actually physically plays the organ but I have a feeling it was Burnett who orchestrated such an instrument’s presence, given his previous work on Counting Crows’ August and Everything after). That organ almost seems to WHISTLE into the night, belting out a celestial call to the heavens, but the other instruments do anything but bow in its presence – the drum sound is gutty and raw, though spare, and Jakob Dylan’s guitar is of elite clarity and vibration, strumming away beautifully and lithely. Still, because it preceded the Internet, downloading and streaming, and because it wasn’t put out for radio (I’ve heard of stations actually getting sued or the DJ’s getting in trouble for playing songs that aren’t official singles), it’s buried in relative, if not complete, obscurity.

To be honest, in the ’90s, you almost got a VOYEURISTIC feeling listening to some of the songs that didn’t make it onto the radio as singles, like Everclear’s immensely personal “Amphetamine” or Marcy Playground’s magnanimous drug bout of “Opium” (obviously more personal music is less appropriate for herd, societal musical arenas like grocery stores). Compound that with this song’s particular context, the songs like the ones with the word “heartache” in the title and another one about a friend who “died easy of a broken heart disease”, and you’ve really got the recipe for some séance-ready, plangent listening.

And then there’s just the way Dylan SOUNDS arcing in on “Bleeders”: the voice is raw, like John Lennon’s on the 10th take of “Twist and Shout,” as if the singer is really living this stuff to a dangerous extent, feeling these blinding levels of emotion and only getting through it by chainsmoking a pack of Marlboro Reds.

So after these two introductory songs of dark yearning, each of which was rightly lauded as a stupendous radio single (the latter featuring Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on backing vox), in strides “Bleeders,” like, well, an exemplar in pure FEELING. It’s hard to know what else to call it. It’s not a song that’s ABOUT anything at all, other than just being sad for no reason “Once upon a time / They called me the bleeder”; “I did the best I could I guess / But everything just bleeds”, and to be sure, it’s more than likely the vaguely suicidal imagery that kept it from “single” stature, as few would deny its artistic superiority to “The Difference,” in all bluntness. So in looking back to the ’90s, a time when rock music ruled the world and really spawned cultural movements like the grunge and flannel wearing, we can also see how we’re living in a harder, more complex time, but also one where a band’s singer could never so casually strut up to a microphone and sing such a sweet love song, in lazy pop songwriting form, dedicated to nothing at all. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the wishing from the well”, sings Dylan… “Where you threw the penny and where it fell”. “Bleeders” is the story of a man on top of the world feeling other people’s pain with rhapsodic intensity, as is diagrammed on “One Headlight,” and summing up a perfect decade by also ruining it, in a sense.


Addenda: ’90s Album Tracks/Spotify Playlist



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