My earliest memory as a human is of James Taylor. It was upstairs at our family's house in Long Island, and I was naked, protesting a bath. My dad began singing "ain't it just like a friend of mine to kick me from behind" while pushing me toward the bathroom with his foot. (I know, it's "hit", but that's how I remember it.)
There was plenty of Sweet Baby James' soothing voice around our house growing up, as well as Cat Stevens, Elton John, the Stones and the Beatles, but Bob Dylan was king.
My dad was a super fan, but undiscriminating. He wasn't one of those weird Dylanologists who'd rank every song by importance, or collect poorly recorded bootlegs just to have it all, or go through Bob's garbage. We just listened to all of the albums, all of the time.
I still have the Blood on the Tracks cassette from the winter of '74-75 when we lived in Aspen. Aside from the John Denver megahits of the day, and C.W. McCall's Wolf Creek Pass, it was all we listened to. The printing is all worn off, and I can still hear the next song coming as one is fading out.
I have never not had Bob Dylan's voice, songs and records in my life. It's a deep connection for me; one of a handful of things I own completely and know will never change.
As a leftist New York Jew, my dad was an admirer of Bob's role in the protest movement, but I don't think his love of Dylan was intellectual. He'd point out a beautiful line of lyrics and "sing" along, but I think he just liked the way it made him feel.
And I think I've inherited some of that. It's been interesting to me over the years as I've met people who have come to Dylan's music later in their lives. "He is a master of lyrics," they always say. "I never really got into him until I really listened to the words." Indeed. There is a lifetime of deciphering in those thousands of verses, endless little word movies, and not a small amount of history and story.
But to me, it is music first. I mean, is a 10 or 15 year old kid (or a 45 year old man, for that matter) really going to understand a verse like this:
Of war and peace the truth just twists
Its curfew gull just glides
Upon four-legged forest clouds
The cowboy angel rides
With his candle lit into the sun
Though its glow is waxed in black
All except when ’neath the trees of Eden
I'll confess, there are Dylan songs to which I can sing along with every word having never really pondered their meaning. Don't scoff; there are certainly more that have moved me to tears and wonder and laughter with their acuity, absurdity and deep feeling. But often I am hearing foremost the voice, the guitars, even the harmonica, and the work of a master tunesmith.
I'd like to think that for all the words Dylan has put to page and stage, he'd appreciate this perspective. Many of the musicians he's cited as idols over the years have not been deep writers, but channelers of something he deems essential through rhythm and blues, jazz, Appalachian old-time, country and bluegrass. Chuck Berry, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Django Reinhardt. Hell, he's even written a few instrumentals!
So I'll keep on keepin' on listening to Bob's songs as music and words, in whatever order strikes me that day.