Growing up on Long Island, there wasn’t much to do during the summer, especially when you were a pre-teen. There were only two decent options: head out east to the Hamptons or head to the South Shore and hit the beach. My family did the latter. Every weekend, the five of us would make the 45-minute drive from our North Shore home to Atlantic Beach in our white Volvo 940 station wagon.
Back in the early ‘90s, having a built-in single CD player in a car was deemed an extreme luxury (as unbelievable as that might sound), but that was one of the most important reasons my dad chose this family mobile as opposed to any other. That CD player was his sanctuary. For that drive, he was in control of what my mother, brother, sister, and I heard.
Those times spent in the car may as well have been my dad’s own school of rock. If not for these sessions, I wouldn’t have discovered Bruce Springsteen, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, U2, or Van Halen before hitting double digits in age. But there was one singer he put on that we kids despised. We’d roll down the car windows to let in the humid New York expressway air so we wouldn’t have to suffer through the inaudible gargles. My dad told us to shut up and listen to the words, to which I shouted, “He sounds like a toad. How can I understand what he’s saying!” My dad looked back at me and said, “One day you’ll get it.” The singer in question was Bob Dylan.
Back then, I never would have expected the man whom I called a toad would become one of my favorite songwriters, whose songs, even in their varied form, would be something I enjoy. Even with my staunch anti-Dylan stance, my dad would keep playing old Dylan albums (remember, this was the early ‘90s, so it was mostly catalog and just before his renaissance), or he’d blast the classic rock station WNEW. Every time I’d cringe and protest. Occasionally, he’d let me pop a cassette into the tape deck to reward good behavior, and we got to listen to what I was feeling, which was generally Nevermind, Use Your Illusion I and II, Ten, or an assortment of hip-hop albums I can’t, or refuse to, remember. My dad actually liked what he heard, to my surprise, calling Kurt Cobain my generation’s Dylan. My 12-year-old self was disgusted by this comparison. How dare he compare the revered Cobain with a fucking toad?! At the same time, I couldn’t believe how cool it was that my dad liked the same music and didn’t appear to be saying it to be cool. Much to my chagrin, he’d keep playing the toad on our rides to the beach.
I became enthralled with the Beastie Boys by the time of early high school. On the day I bought the Check Your Head CD, my dad drove me to HMV (RIP) to snare a copy. Later that day, on the way to my friend’s house, I forced him to play my new purchase, which he was more than willing to do. It was like he knew something that I didn’t. I was wrong. After skipping through a few tracks, we landed on “Finger Lickin’ Good”, and as the song approached the three-minute mark, it suddenly rolled into a sample. “I’m going back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough,” the voice said. I was startled, yet really excited about the sample, my eyes wide with wonder.
The song ended as we pulled into my friend’s driveway, and my dad wore the biggest smile I’d ever seen on his face. “You know who that was?” he asked. “No,” I said. When he told me it was the toad, I looked at him stunned in disbelief. How was the toad on a Beastie Boys record? It was at that exact moment that everything clicked for the two of us. Although Ad-Rock’s liner notes said he hated this song (sorry Ad-Rock, you were wrong), it ended up being the one that bonded us.
That summer, I finally relented and gave the Dylan catalog a whirl. What I discovered was a treasure trove of songs so vivid and enchanting that it made me think in ways I never had before. I fully engaged in the music, never wasting a moment to ask my dad what a certain lyric meant or who Dylan was referring to in songs like “Masters of War” (the military-industrial complex), “Positively 4th Street” (Dylan hating on his haters), and “Hurricane” (which systematically broke down the injustice of the Ruben “Hurricane” Carter case). Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Desire were in heavy rotation that summer. Instead of gloating about his victory, my dad used this as a lesson, reiterating that good music is sometimes more layered than what meets the ear, and if you’re open-minded, then you’re willing to discover new and exciting things. If you’re not, he said, then you’ll be living in the past, which explained why he was so interested in my music.
This conversation served as the foundation of our music-listening relationship going forward. After that, we went to every Dylan show in the greater New York area. We traveled far-ish (Poughkeepsie) and close (C.W. Post University in Old Westbury) to see the bard play. Each show was more thrilling than the last, which is what my dad boldly said would be the case before my first Dylan concert at Jones Beach in 1997. These were some of the best times of my mid-to-late teen years. Seeing my dad as excited to see Dylan as I was to see Pearl Jam made it well worth waking up early on a Saturday morning to get tickets. This was implausible during those long car rides to Atlantic Beach.
Over the years, my dad’s become an avid listener of WFUV in New York City and keeps up on the latest tunes. Often times, when we aren’t dissecting the most recent Giants win or loss, we’ll discuss what we’ve been listening to. Unlike my pre-writing days, whenever Dad mentions a band he just discovered, the odds are I’ve received a press release about them weeks before. That didn’t matter, though; the fact that he was still seeking out and enjoying new music was good enough for me.
Dad is a big fan of alt-folk and alt-country and counts Wilco and My Morning Jacket among his favorite bands of the last 10 years, which is why when AmericanaramA boasted all three bands in its lineup, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of regret that we couldn’t go to this show together.
However, somehow, some way, Bob Dylan, aka the toad, became the bedrock upon which our musical relationship was built. Our bond over our love of Dylan and his continuously evolving catalog is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
Thanks, Dad. You were right.
Daniel Kohn is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work can be seen in LA Weekly, OC Weekly, FILTER, Vice, and more. You can follow him on Twitter.