Some years ago the St. Petersburg Times ran a feature story about a former neighbor of the writer William Faulkner, who reminisced that on Sunday nights, the Nobelist would sneak across their adjoining back yards to watch “Car 54, Where Are You?” at his house. Scholarly research on Google indicates Faulkner eventually made no secret of his fondness for the ‘60s sitcom, but I like the image of him sneaking next door to watch it.
That old story came to mind recently when I read that Bob Dylan, pressed in an interview with Rolling Stone to name his favorite songwriters, replied: “Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.”
Nothing against Parrotheads, or Canadians. But Dylan is not only the poet of his generation but a listener of famous erudition and, on his late-lamented radio show, a disc jockey extraordinaire. We know he’s familiar with the Gershwins, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell and Caetano Veloso, and he’s probably heard Chamillionaire. He knew personally, and owes a great debt to, Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash.
Yet when asked for his favorites, Dylan, with perfect honesty, named several white guys of about his age, language and genre, performers with whom from time to time he may have talked guitars or shared a beer.
Elsewhere in this interview, Dylan makes a distinction between his music and those of his generation who have entered the mainstream. “My stuff is different from those guys. It’s more desperate,” he says. But in his personal preferences, his taste, there is none of this edginess. “I’m not exactly obsessed,” he says, “with writing songs.”
There’s no accounting for taste, matrons used to say, and on one side of the coin they were right. Robert Spano, whose conducting suggests the deftness with which Vladimir Nabokov wrote, recently said in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview that as a youth he read and reread the works of another White Russian emigre’, Ayn Rand, the most excruciatingly polemical writer since the Marquis de Sade. How do you account for that?
We shake our heads at the French adulation of Jerry Lewis, and the deep affection of the British for Joan Rivers. The tastes of others may baffle or disappoint us, or if we think about them long enough, put our own tastes in a new and surprising light. But there are some things you can say about taste in the broad sense, diverse as tastes can be.
Although one can have good or bad, provincial or cosmopolitan taste, there is nothing right or wrong about it. Taste is not style, either, though one thing might influence the other. Befitting the word, taste is more intimate, like the olive that slides along the tongue or the last bite of apple pie. And like Proust’s famous madeleine, our taste in art, music or books triggers complicated networks of associations that make this more than a process of categorizing what we admire and what we don’t.
Some tastes seek out compatibility the way we are drawn toward an old sweater. Some need the exotic. Why one person’s taste runs to mac ‘n’ cheese and another’s to jangeo-gui is often hard to say. The striking thing is that both tendencies lead to similar sensations. We have a taste for things that can be enjoyed warmly, things that draw us toward that tonic-chord comfort zone, which some call home, but which can be near or far.
This comes across strongly in Ben Ratliff’s “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music,” a series of interviews with jazz musicians listening to their favorite recordings. For Sonny Rollins, the pull toward home is quite literal. The first recording he wants to listen to is Fats Waller’s “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a song he heard on the radio as a child in Harlem. From the beginning of the song, Ratliff writes, it is like the great saxophonist has “just stepped into a warm bath.”
“I believe in things like reincarnation, and it struck a chord someplace in back lives or something,” Rollins tells him.
Ornette Coleman, a very different kind of genius, is moved by associations as cosmic as Rollins’ are familiar, but they bring him to a very similar place. His first choice is a 1916 recording by Cantor Josef Rosenblatt.
“He’s making the sound of what he’s experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he’s singing to is what he’s singing about,” Coleman observes. “We hear it as ‘how he’s singing.’ But he’s singing about something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”
The cab driver smitten by Puccini or the soccer mom secretly hooked on hiphop would nod their heads in understanding. Whatever it is that turns them on, it’s bad, and yet somewhere in that strangeness there is the shock of recognition, the sound or image or sentence which speaks to us so deeply of what the other is “experiencing as a human being.” We may not be able to account for our own tastes, any more than those that puzzle us in others. But at some level – maybe at a different place for all of us, but somewhere deep down – we know what we like.