Everyone has a favorite song. If you ever meet someone who says they don’t, they are lying. They are just embarrassed by the song they love and don’t want to have to explain it to you. Even my dad, who connected himself in no way to popular culture, had a strange fondness for, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Lynn Anderson.
My earliest musical memories take place in the “way back” seat of our family’s Pontiac station wagon. My youth was spent looking out that back window, listening to the best that AM radio had to offer. I was nine years old in 1972. The Beatles broken up two years earlier and Dylan was still making his way out of his motorcycle accident haze. If the radio played any of their songs, we were lucky. In their absence, the airwaves were filled with lots of really bad songs and few really great ones. But, at nine years old, I had no ability to discern between the two. The songs just washed over me as we drove from the house, to the supermarket, to the pool. The songs all sounded great to me. Elton John, Bill Withers, Mac Davis, I loved them equally. My favorite song of that year was Brandy, by the band, Looking Glass. Why the story of an A-hole sailor who chooses the sea over such a “fine girl” as laments, “what a good wife she would be”, appealed to a nine year old boy, I have no idea. The song still holds a fond place in my heart, but it did not live on as my favorite. Though, the song that did live on, was also from 1972.
Brandy charted as the twelfth most popular song of 1972. My favorite song of all time, the song that I have carried with me for the last fifty one years, is Heart of Gold by Neil Young It finished the year at seventeenth on the Billboard chart. Looking back at it now, it makes perfect sense. I am a huge Neil Young fan. I own every record he’s ever released, including all of his questionable choices of the 1980’s. I’ve seen him a dozen times and will argue his importance to any fellow music snob that wants to debate the issue. But, when I was nine, all I knew was that song, and that song stuck with me. The music I gravitate to has often been described by others as, “sad bastard music”. I accept that label and chart my affinity for such songs back to Heart of Gold. Songs of heartache and lost love have a staple to my ears from that point on. At nine years old I set out on my quest to find that golden heart.
As I grew up, I refined my skill at discernment. My sense about what made songs good became more clear. At the same time, I became much more strident in my view of songs I considered bad. I discovered The Beatles with a passion and Dylan with perpetual awe. Heart of Gold was always there, ready to be set on the turntable. The mixtapes I made through the 80’s and 90’s might include Elvis Costello or Tom Petty, but Heart of Gold almost always started them off. Girls were confusing and beyond my reach, but Heart of Gold set the standard I strove for.
In the liner notes for the compilation album, Decade, Young comments on Heart of Gold this way: “Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” The ditch he headed for produced some of his best and my favorite albums. His affection for the song waned and he refused to play the song live for over a decade. The first time I saw him was at the Cow Palace in 1982. I was nineteen years old. I had found my “heart of gold”, and recently lost her. My heart was broken and I was playing that song every day with tears in my eyes.The song’s power had grown and often overtaken me. I looked to the show with great anticipation, but I knew my favorite song was rarely played and I wasn’t hopeful. As I expected, the show included very few older songs. Young was in his techno-electronic phase. Most of the crowd was mystified by what they were hearing. Heart of Gold had no rightful place in that vocoder/synthesizer experiment. Yet, in the end, there it was. The acoustic guitar came out and the vocal enhancement gear was left back stage for the encore. As Neil sat on a stool and set the guitar on his knee, my atisipation grew.The first strum set my heart a flutter. I wasn’t the only one. The crowd went crazy. My favorite song was back on his set list and all was right with the world. I sang every word at the top of my lungs. Though I shed a tear of two, I was happy. That’s the thing about favorite songs, they can run you through an infinate range of memories and emotions in a span of two and half minutes and you love them because of that.
Since 1972, the strum of an acoustic guitar and a smart turn of phrase have always turned my ear to a song. I love when those moments happen. Every time they do, I am brought in some way back to the “wayback” seat of that station wagon. A time when music was new and every melody and lyric opened a world to me that I loved. I also am reminded of my quest for that golden heart.