The Weighty Meaning Behind The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” and Its Many Connections to Bruce Springsteen

The refrain from The Wallflowers’ biggest hit isn’t just memorable for being hooky. We can drive it home / With one headlight creates an image that just about anyone who has ever been in a car can relate to. Trying to make it to your destination with limited visibility is a stressful, white-knuckle experience. When Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan wrote the song, he was clearly using a broken headlight as a metaphor for struggling when you’re not at full capacity.

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Upon closer inspection, Dylan takes a broader view on “One Headlight” than just recounting some personal difficulties. He is actually tackling an ambitious topic. It’s only appropriate that Dylan took inspiration from a rock and roll titan for such a momentous song.

A Funeral for an Idea

Dylan’s reference to a lone working headlight is not the only metaphor he uses to tell his story. In the first verse, he appears to be telling a story about the death of his “only friend.” Dylan provides some details about his friend and her demise.

So long ago, I don’t remember when
That’s when they say I lost my only friend
Well they said she died easy of a broken heart disease
As I listened through the cemetery trees

However, Dylan’s friend is not actually a person. He has said that “One Headlight” is about “the death of ideas.” A line from the latter portion of the opening verse provides the biggest clue as to the song’s actual meaning.

I see the sun coming up at the funeral at dawn
The long broken arm of human law

When Dylan said the song’s lyrics pertain to the death of ideas, he was particularly concerned about the loss of a common understanding about ethics. In explaining the meaning behind the line The long broken arm of human law, Dylan said, “it seems like there should be a code among human beings that is about respect and appreciation.” The lack of such a shared understanding—and the lack of effort to discuss a palatable alternative—appears to have left Dylan with the sense that people no longer cared about ideas.

Hope for “Something Better than in the Middle”

In the remainder of the first verse, Dylan infers that we may not be worthy of something as lofty as a moral code.

Now it always seemed such a waste, she always had a pretty face
So I wondered why she hung around this place

It’s this backdrop of an amoral society in which we envision Dylan driving with his lone headlight. Despite his gloomy view of humanity, Dylan remains hopeful, encouraging us (or himself) to Come on, try a little. While he can get by with just one headlight, Dylan believes There’s got to be something better than in the middle between full visibility and no visibility.

Bruce Springsteen’s Influence

Dylan imbues “One Headlight” with a combination of bleakness and hope that is reminiscent of many Bruce Springsteen songs, and the connections with The Boss’ music don’t end there. Dylan’s gruff vocal delivery is clearly influenced by Springsteen’s, and he also makes some references to Springsteen’s songs. The second verse features a protagonist who is trying to break free from the uncaring societal norms. Fittingly, Dylan references “Independence Day,” a song from Springsteen’s 1980 album The River, which he wrote about forging his independence from his father.

She said, “It’s cold, it feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade”

In the third and final verse, Dylan gives a nod to Springsteen’s 1988 hit from Tunnel of Love, “One Step Up.” The verse’s opening lines, Well, this place is old, it feels just like a beat-up truck / I turn the engine, but the engine doesn’t turn, are a variation on Springsteen’s Went out and hopped in my old Ford / Hit the engine but she ain’t turning. Dylan’s entire “one headlight” metaphor could even be a tribute to Springsteen’s many car-related lyrics.

Dylan’s Other Motivation for Writing “One Headlight”

“One Headlight” is largely the product of the frustration and disillusionment Dylan was feeling around the time he wrote it, but those feelings weren’t the only things that influenced the song. Dylan told Spin he wrote the song to impress a producer he wanted to work with. The unnamed producer appeared to be excited about Dylan’s composition, telling him, “This could be something. This could be really great.” However, he never heard from the producer again. T Bone Burnett produced “One Headlight” and the entire Bringing Down the Horse album, so Dylan’s disappointment probably didn’t last long.

The Impact of “One Headlight”

Though “One Headlight” didn’t make it to Billboard’s Hot 100, it arguably made one of the biggest impacts of any song from the late ‘90s. It was the first song to top all three of Billboard’s Mainstream Rock, Alternative Airplay, and Adult Alternative Airplay charts. It also reached No. 2 on their Radio Songs chart in May 1997. Billboard placed the song at the top of their Greatest of All Time Adult Alternative Songs list from 2021. Rolling Stone ranked “One Headlight” as the 58th greatest pop song since 1963 in their Top 100 rankings published in 2000.

The popularity of “One Headlight” was critical to the commercial success of Bringing Down the Horse. One week before the song peaked on the Radio Songs chart, the album reached its high point of No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Bringing Down the Horse would spend nearly two full years (98 weeks) on the chart, and it would go on to sell more than 4 million copies in the U.S.

The Wallflowers also cleaned up at the 1998 Grammy Awards, thanks to “One Headlight.” It won the awards for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

“One Headlight” hasn’t been covered by many artists, but The Wallflowers performed it live with the one artist whose interpretation may have mattered the most. Springsteen joined the band at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards for a rendition of the song, taking the lead vocal on the second verse, sharing the lead with Dylan on the third verse, and playing the guitar solo, in addition to singing backing vocals. While the song ultimately carries a bleak message, Dylan and Springsteen teaming up to perform it is nothing short of triumphant.

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Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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