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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/07/28
by Jesse Jarnow

More Love! More Theft!

By now, the basic arguments have been laid in regards to Bob Dylan’s use
of portions of Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza in several
songs on his 2001 album ‘Love and Theft’. One on side are those who
call it plagirism, flat-out. On
the other side are those who say "big deal, it’s part of the folk process, man.
Y’know, folk?" The reality of it is more complex than either of those —
though it’s very little of the former, and a good deal of the latter.
The idea of plagiarism is two-fold: legalistic and ethical. Despite Dylan’s
clear borrowing from Confessions, from a prosecutor’s point of view,
any case against Dylan is a bit murky. Dylan clipped small pairs of lines
from a significantly more major work, and rephrased them. From a broader
standpoint, Dylan wasn’t passing Saga’s work off as his own. Saga wrote a
novel about a Japanese gangster. Dylan made a record about a Southern
American gentleman on the skids. Moreover – and part of me would like to see
the case be pressed if only to see how this issue might resolve – Saga wrote
in Japanese. The English language edition from which Dylan lifted the
phrases was translated by John Bester.
Ethically, yes, it would have been cool of Dylan to put a note somewhere
inside ‘Love and Theft’ with a reference to Confessions of a
Yakuza. Ultimately, though, that’s not Dylan’s style — but, more
importantly, it’s not his responsibility. In the late ’50s and early ’60s
folk scene, there was a constant debate over scholarship. A new tradition
created by the hardcore folkies (added atop the ones they were supposedly
upholding) was to cram liner notes with intricate arcana about where
musicians learned the songs from, the catalogue numbers of the original
imprints, and maybe a bit why they were qualified to play them. The liner
notes to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music were a loving
parody of that style.
There was another school of thought, to which Dylan certainly belonged, that
the music was the music, scholarship be damned. And, I think, this is
basically why and how Dylan did what he did on ‘Love and Theft’ —
the motive, the crime, and the weapon all rolled into one. For all of
Dylan’s density and references to culture, he is profoundly (or
pretentiously) an anti-intellectual. "You’re very well read, it’s well
known," he sang in "Ballad of a Thin Man,"
concluding a laundry list of academic activities, "because there’s something
happening here, but you don’t know what it is do you Mr. Jones?"
Dylan is a Romantic. It is not the artist’s job to laboriously note how his
work came into being, where every source came from, where every idea
originated. That’s the scholar’s job. Art doesn’t have footnotes, unless
they’re employed for effect, ala novelist David Foster Wallace. The artist’s
job is to make art, by whatever means necessary. Dylan has long done this.
A fan site catalogues bits of
movie dialogue – mostly from Dylan’s youth in the 1940s and ’50s – that
Dylan has drawn into his songs — some examples a tad suspicious, others
heartily convincing, one completely mind-boggling. (Empire
Burlesque’s ‘Tight
Connection To My Heart", seemingly constructed entirely of movie quotes,
apparently involves a bit of dialogue between Mr. Sulu and Capt. Kirk from
Episode #30 of Star Trek, titled "The Squire of Gothics.")
Another useful Dylan quote, ironically lifted from The Lineup and
used in Blonde on Blonde’s "Absolutely Sweet Marie":
"To live outside the law, you must be honest." And maybe Dylan wasn’t being
entirely honest here, at least to the rest of the world, but I think he was
being honest to himself. Frank Zappa’s first rule of music: "If it sounds
bitchin’, it is." That’s what it comes down to, I suspect: Dylan read the
book, thought "gee, that line would work well with this stuff," discovered
it did, and used it without batting an eye.
"Why did the author who wrote ‘the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones
of her face’ have to borrow such mundane prose, anyway?" a friend of mine
kvetched in reference to Dylan’s borrowings on "Po’ Boy’:
Yakuza: My mother… was the daughter of a wealthy farmer… (she)
died when I was eleven… My father was a traveling salesman… I never met
him. (My uncle) was a nice man, I won’t forget him…"
‘Love and Theft’: My mother was a daughter of a wealthy farmer / My
father was a traveling salesman, I never met him. / When my mother died, my
uncle took me and he ran a funeral parlor. / He did a lot of nice things for
me and I won’t forget him."
I don’t agree with her assessment that they are mundane prose. In
Yakuza, they are perhaps a bit bland, but part of a larger story. On
‘Love and Theft’, they are – with the creepily effective addition of
the funeral parlor – a completed narrative unto themselves. It is that
transformation, that contribution of the funeral parlor, that should be used
to argue against anybody who claims Dylan is a lesser artist for using
Saga’s work. Much of the transformation comes in the performance, the final
stage of the recontextualization, which is simultaneously sentimental and
coolly casual, which leaves the listener not entirely trusting the narrator.
Paul Williams has argued elegantly
(predominantly in his Bob Dylan: Performing Artist series), that to
write Dylan off as purely a wordsmith ("love his songs, hate his voice") is
to sell him short. Indeed, it is Dylan’s subtle performance that makes
‘Love and Theft’ so great. He betrays nothing when he reaches the
Yakuza lines, which are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the
songs’ lyrics. They are samples.
Why must the rock musician be denied the raw materials that visual artists,
or even sample-heavy musicians, are "allowed" to work with? Though samples
can be employed to call attention to themselves, and force the listener to
make an on-the-fly post-modern assessment of the world, the less noticeable
the sample, generally, the more sublime. If one is to truly accept the idea
of bricolage as an art form, then he also has to accept the complete
integration of it as a technique capable of creating a piece of art that is
whole without reference to the methods used to create it.
One of my favorite use of samples is the lilting introduction of "Jack-ass" by Beck.
I always thought it was part of the song until I saw Basquiat, and
discovered that the specific piece of music was actually sampled from Van
Morrison’s rendition of Dylan’s (!) "." To me, Beck and producers The Dust Brothers’ use of it was a sign
of success: it is part of "Jack-ass" no matter where it came from. To add
another level to that: Dr. Lonnie Smith has just issued a CD called
Boogaloo To Beck, instrumental Hammond-based jazz renditions of Beck
tunes, including "Jack-ass." I haven’t heard the CD yet, but – presumably – the part that was originally from Morrison’s arrangement is in it. In that
case, does authorship belong anywhere? Does anybody get credited? Certainly
not Beck. And not Dylan, since the part wasn’t from his song. Morrison? He
didn’t write "Baby Blue," nor did he probably come up with that part. Does
there need to be a credit at all?
What has happened here is a completely mutated 35 year collaboration from
Dylan to Morrison to Hansen to Smith, and not entirely different from
Dylan’s use of Yakuza on ‘Love and Theft’, which found its way
from a Japanese writer via a translator to American shores. It is the folk
process and it isn’t the folk process. It is certainly not the same romantic
notion of two musicians passing on the road, teaching each other songs, and
going their separate ways, but it is a global realization of that. And, by
participating in that act, Dylan is surely aware of his actions.
Of all pop performers, Dylan is likely one of the most self-conscious about
his contributions to a larger culture that he helped create. And though rock
and roll musicians have been borrowing/stealing/academically recreating
since day one, Dylan has taken on an identity as an avatar of the folk
scene. He knows how he is perceived, and frequently alludes to it in his
work — both in terms of songs and the films he has written, the autobiopics
Renaldo and Clara and the recently released Masked and
Anonymous. The former – along with 1986’s Hearts of Fire, which
Dylan acted in – was soundly panned, adding another layer of history to
Dylan’s persona: the rock star turned B-grade actor, and a full-blown
resident of the New, Weird America, a contributor to a culture every bit as
stupefying as the pre-modern worlds that his Folk Revival comrades
Jesse Jarnow’s gotta pack his shit
and head home

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