Just like there’s a Side B on every vinyl album, there’s always a Plan B. Dylan Zangwill is sitting a guitar pick’s throw away from it on a pub chair at his parents’ Stolen Sun Craft Brewing and Roasting Company in Exton. It’s where he spent the first two weeks of the summer working in the kitchen as a line cook. “It’s definitely not a dream,” he says. “It’s just a job, and I try to help out.”
Zangwill was otherwise busy making a run at landing a spot on the current season of NBC’s America’s Got Talent. He’d initially wowed judges with a moving two-minute version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, home of the Oscars. Then he performed the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” for the recorded wildcard slot in front of the show’s host, Terry Crews. Back home, Exton Square Mall proudly posted good luck wishes. “You have our vote,” the billboard read.
Alas, fellow musician Storm Large won the most online votes via social media to land this season’s 36th and final position. “Today, it’s about who becomes famous,” says Dylan’s father, Jonathan. “That’s the game.”
AGT’s first 35 performers are selected by the judges during auditions. Dylan was one of five—three musicians, a comedian and a magician—invited back for the wildcard performance. “I was trying to tell myself that I wouldn’t get on because I didn’t want to get too excited and get my hopes up,” says Dylan. “But they were up.”
The Zangwill family—which also includes mom Deidre and theatrically inclined younger brother Zane—was first contacted two years ago by an independent talent agent with AGT connections. Skype auditions followed. But they decided to wait a year before trying to advance any further.
Looking back at those first videos, Dylan cringes. “What was I thinking?” he says. “I’m just so dedicated to what I do. Now, vocally I’m so much stronger, and also in my style, my attitude, the coolness I can add to a song and the way I build a riff. I love what I do. I’m happy when I’m playing piano. I’m happy when I’m watching a documentary on (Queen’s) Freddie Mercury. I’m just connecting so much to wanting to be a star and to living out my dreams. They’ve brought me here, so I can’t wait to see where they bring me in the future.”
Dylan began playing piano at age 6, quickly realizing that classical wasn’t his style. Three years later, he was introduced to the guitar at a party following the West Chester Christmas Parade. For his next birthday, he got one. He learned his first Beatles song, “Hello, Goodbye,” three weeks later. About the same time, his father passed along a large CD collection. Now, it’s all about Dylan’s 400 vinyl LPs, including a recent $24 copy of David Bowie’s Young Americans. “It’s probably worth $240,” Dylan says.
This past November, Dylan ended up with two Hammond organs in his Exton living room—one was an uncle’s, the other the family purchased second-hand. Once he added his first Leslie speaker, he “really connected.”
With 10 million combined YouTube views for two documented AGT performances and 5,500 Instagram followers by summer’s end, Dylan wasn’t sure what to expect—or how he’d be treated—once he started ninth grade at the Westtown School in the fall. When we spoke, he planned to have a pocket full of Dylan Zangwill stickers and a few colored markers for signing autographs. “I have no idea how people are going to react, so I’m a little nervous,” he said at the time.
Dylan hopes to capitalize on his AGT notoriety with a new single, “Open Door,” released in September on all major streaming platforms. It’s a song he wrote five years ago about “letting go of older things and getting used to newer things.” It was a way of convincing himself that “it’s OK to begin new chapters in your life.” Oh, and friends don’t last forever. “I believe that’s what it’s about,” he notes.
Guitar instructor Andrew Smith first worked with Dylan as a middle school music teacher at the Montgomery School in Chester Springs. “He’s such a pro,” says Smith, founder of Earth Song Creative Arts in Spring City. “He gets it. He knows the lingo. He knows the technical aspect. He has a natural feel for music almost unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When he got the call to go on AGT, we were surprised—but at the same time, we weren’t surprised. Dylan’s destined for this kind of life.”
And he has the hair—the long, wild rock star hair. At his first guitar lesson, Dylan took note of Smith’s mop and decided he needed that, too. “It’s been six years without getting it cut, only trims,” he says. “Everyone wants to know my care secret. I wake up—that’s it. I sleep way past my alarm, then quickly run out the door, and I’m here. It’s totally about the look.”
Smith believes that Earth Song’s nontraditional free-choice approach was just what Dylan needed to develop confidence singing. “Right off the bat, he was singing and playing with his entire being,” says Smith. “It was like he was a radio station tuned into a frequency— and, boy, was it coming through. I always joke that he has to decide which reincarnated dead rock star he is.”
Dylan also has another mission—to revive rock and roll. “The music in my generation sucks,” he says bluntly. “Others can say rock and roll is back, but they’re not using a real guitar. Modern music is so emotionless. I don’t know what went wrong.”
This coming from a kid who can play the entire first side of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ 20-minute Abbey Road medley. “Now I have to try to maintain a crowd of followers, create an image and still try to be humble,” he says. “But I’m still a 14-year-old kid from Exton, and I might be going nowhere.”
If it doesn’t pan out, there’s always the kitchen. “I’m his Plan B, and he’s my Plan B,” his dad says. “But Dylan’s a rock star either way.”