My early musical tastes were country music, because that’s what my father listened to: old-style middle-of-the-road country music, Eddy Arnold, Ray Price, Loretta Lynn. I eventually found Johnny Cash on my own and became a rabid fan. I begged to stay up late to watch Johnny’s variety show; for Christmas my parents bought me a two-record greatest hits collection off TV. Soon I knew all the words to “Ring of Fire,” which was not hard, since there are only about nine of them.
But I was a word-hungry kid, who wanted to be a writer from the time I learned to hold a pencil, and after using the Beatles as my bridge to rock ‘n’ roll (everyone’s bridge) it was the wordy guys I was most attracted to: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon.
Far better rock critics than me have written on these giants–along with the Beatles, they are the ground zero upon which rock criticism was built–so I’ll settle for personal history. Paul Simon came first, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” I think me and my Mom saw him on Dick Cavett and I asked her to pick the album up for me in the city. Later my father took me to see Paul at Lincoln Center, my first concert; later still I’d write an essay with my deep thoughts about Paul’s lyrics that my parents found and read and then asked if I wanted to see a therapist. My first Bob Dylan album was “Greatest Hits Part 2,” a strange, ragtag place to start, but then came “Blonde on Blonde” and “Blood on the Tracks” the week it came out and, a little later, “Slow Train Coming.” I remember making my girlfriend at the time read me an adulatory review of “Slow Train” in Rolling Stone as we drove home from Orange Plaza after buying the album and the magazine; I remember forcing myself to like the album as much as they said I should. I bought an 8-track of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” at a yard sale and was intrigued, but it was “Decade” (another Christmas gift from my parents) that had the most impact, its sprawl and whiplash mood changes and endless dark alleys. I remember a buzzing ride home from Newburgh after seeing the “Rust Never Sleeps” movie, trying to recall the words to “Thrasher.”
Later I’d have musicians I thought of as buddies or even girlfriends, but these three were more my rock ‘n’ roll Dads: they were a generation older, they had gravitas, wisdom. Bob was the twinkly-eyed trickster Dad whose strange utterances and private jokes were like riddles you couldn’t figure out: you wished he’d just come out and say it! And then on “Blood on the Tracks” he did that and became the Sad Dad, the too-much-information Dad. You felt his pain but kind of missed the jokes. Neil Young was the scary Dad, whose inscrutable-as-Dylan lyrics were less riddles than warnings it was frustrating not to be able to understand. It seemed like ancient voices were speaking through Neil, and not necessarily benevolent ones. Paul Simon was the explainer Dad, the Dad who knew everything, and whose explanations of that everything were always smart and patient but also a little condescending and superior. Even his attempts to lighten up had quote marks around them.
But enough generalizations! For the sake of argument, then, which of course is its own special branch of rock criticism: favorite Bob Dylan song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” with “Tangled Up in Blue” a close second. Favorite Neil Young song, “Like Hurricane.” Favorite Paul Simon song then, “American Tune,” and now, “Hearts and Bones.”
Sorry for the obviousness of the choices but one thing it’s hard to argue with is greatness.