DYLAN VS. BEETHOVEN: A Lesson in Family Communication
[This is an edited chapter of a book I’ve been working on for some time, which consists of stories from childhood, approximately age 4 through 14.]
One Saturday, with no warning, Paul Martinez engaged my father in the relative value of pop vs. classical music. This was probably around 1964 when Bob Dylan was the king of pop, and seemed to be the messenger of the “secret messages” to the younger generation. All my older brothers could fairly accurately be called Dylan fans, if not Dylan worshippers. We all seemed to regard listening to Dylan as a more meaningful spiritual experience than sitting through Mass at Saint Elizabeth’s.
No one remembers how it began, but it was a legendary conversation that lasted for hours. My father’s argument was that the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan were of no lasting value and the young people were simply too ignorant to realize it yet. Frank, my father, said that Dylan would be forgotten in a few years. He compared Dylan to Beethoven and Bach, and other classical musicians, and explained that Dylan was not in any way at the level of the classical composers. Paul wholeheartedly disagreed.
Their conversation began in the living room where Frank would sit in his easy reclining chair and watch TV. Paul sat near him on the couch. Everyone in the household only became aware of their conversation when we realized they were still at it after about an hour. As the conversation’s volume level would rise from time to time, we could all hear what they were saying: “Of course you can put Dylan in Beethoven’s category,” said Paul in his deep and sincere voice. “Have you actually ever listened to what he’s saying in his songs?”
“He just cackles,” said Frank, “and you really can’t even make out his words most of the time. And I’m not even talking about the words. And it’s only important, as you call it, if you take an hour to explain it all to me. I don’t need any explanation to know that Bach’s music really is good,” said Frank as Paul patiently waited his turn in this lively exchange.
“Well, I’m not saying that Dylan and Bach and the other classicals can be compared directly. Obviously, they can’t,” said Paul, giving some ground to Frank. “But there is obviously something that millions of people are responding to that you aren’t seeing – or hearing. Dylan is not just music; he is also the message. So we’ve got to examine some of the words and see what he’s really saying.”
This went on, back and forth, quiet and loud, for another hour. They opened up the record player and began playing select songs for the other to listen to.
We prepared the usual Saturday night dinner – something like hotdogs and baked beans and salad and some other vegetables. We took a plate into Frank and Paul, and we didn’t expect them to come into the kitchen as their debate entered the third hour.
We heard silence and then the lyrics of Dylan. Sad Eyed Lady of the Low lands. Hey Mr. Tambourine Man. Blowing in the Wind. The Times They Are A Changing. After each short selection, there would be a brief silence, presumably as Paul removed the needle, and then they would talk about it. We couldn’t hear all the details. Then there would be a round of some of the classical musicians’ work, a silence, and commentary by Frank.
We cleared the table and washed the dishes, and I set up the chess board and began a game with a neighbor who dropped by. Our game lasted nearly an hour, and Robert won. The Dylan-Classical debate continued.
And then, all of a sudden, Frank and Paul were standing in the kitchen doorway, shaking hands as Paul had to depart. My brother David hadn’t said much the whole night, but he never did.
It was late and Paul had to go home and so it was over. A stalemate, we presumed. No clear winner, each side having done their best to promote their own arguments to win over the other. But both Paul and Frank were unbudgeable and they each stuck to their guns.
For the rest of us, the conversation about the conversation had just begun.
“Why doesn’t he ever have meaningful conversations with us,” David asked to no one in particular. “He engaged with Paul when Paul challenged, but shouldn’t he take it upon himself to engage us,” asked David. No one really cared, but it was clear in the conversation about the conversation that David didn’t really care about whose music was best. To David, the conversation was an example of a father that didn’t take adequate interest in his own children, but would take extra time and supreme effort in a very engaging discussion – but not with David.
I inwardly agreed with David, but I didn’t say anything. In some very primal way, I am sure that I longed to have a father who took an interest in me, who talked to me, who taught me things, who engaged me in his activities for our mutual benefit. I am sure that David had a good point that Frank should do these sorts of things, but I was not bitter about the fact that he did not do so.
The rest of us had probably long ago accepted Frank for what and who he was. To me, Frank was neither good nor bad, right nor wrong – he simply was my father, doing what he did in his patterns of somewhat predictable behavior. But to David, Frank’s conversation was like a slap in the face, saying that he can take the time with a friend of the family, but would not take the time with his own children. At least that’s how I took David’s reaction.
Depending on who you asked during the various conversations about the conversation in the weeks and months that followed, the entire event was amusing, meaningless, interesting, a waste of time, insightful, and/or demonstrated that Frank was capable of in-depth abstract thought and could maintain an intellectual conversation and hold his own for hours.
Though I generally disagreed with Frank’s premise, his performance definitely boosted my image of him. And likewise my image of Paul was greatly enlarged. Here was a peer of my brother who could debate with intensity and authority, and try to convince my father of a point of view which I held, but felt totally unable to communicate in any meaningful way.