Monday, July 14, 2003

Dylan's Japanese connection. News that Bob Dylan had lifted extensively from a Japanese book on his 2001 "Love and Theft" CD sent me running for Bob Spitzer's Dylan: A Biography (1989). Sure enough, just as I had remembered, I found Spitzer's account of an interview with Rob Stoner, who played bass on Dylan's 1975 Desire album and in the Rolling Thunder Revue. Stoner's recollection of a conversation he once had with Dylan in New York City is worth quoting at some length:

At three o'clock in the morning, in a city once referred to as "the most dangerous place on earth," Bob Dylan and Rob Stoner went on a walking tour that lasted until the sun came up. "We just wandered around until dawn," Stoner recalls. "Bob staring off into space with his hands in his pockets, walking with a bounce in his step. Taking it all in. Later I learned that this was something he did in every major city in the country. No one recognizes him and it allows him to feel completely free and relaxed."

As usual, Bob was preoccupied with plans for the tour, but mostly they talked about obscure rock 'n roll songs. Stoner was a connoisseur of old rockabilly standards. He owns a priceless collection of R&B 78s, including the entire Sun Records catalogue and hundreds of southern "race" records, and as the two men walked they tried to stump each other with a list of their favorite titles and corresponding singles. Bob was no slouch when it came to rockabilly. "He knew almost everything I threw at him," Stoner remembers. "Not just the titles but the entire lyric, too. He'd go into a verse like he was singing it only a couple hours before. The extent of his knowledge was mind-boggling."

Very cautiously, Stoner broached a subject that had been nagging him for some time. "Ever hear a tune called 'Bertha Lou'?" he asked Bob.

Bob nodded confidently. "Sure. Johnny Burnette and his trio. 19 ... 57."

"Fifty-six," Stoner corrected him, "but that's pretty good, man." They walked another hundred feet or so in silence. "The reason I asked is that it's really similar to one of your songs." In fact, it was almost a note-for-note duplication of "Rita Mae," from the Desire sessions. The melodies were exactly the same, and Bob's scansion followed Burnette's pattern to a rhyme.

"Oh, yeah?" Bob remarked, but it was a closing statement if Stoner had ever heard one.

"He never even asked which song of his I was referring to," Stoner says nonplussed. "He didn't care, and at that moment I realized that the line between plagiarism and adaption was so blurred that it wasn't even an issue for him."

A quick search of turns up a song from 1975 called "Rita May," written by Dylan and Jacques Levy, that has apparently never been released. But Stoner's recollection neatly ties in with a piece in Saturday's New York Times by Jon Pareles on the Japanese connection, who notes that Dylan has always operated as someone who blends together lyrics and music from a variety of sources. Writes Pereles:

The absolutely original artist is an extremely rare and possibly imaginary creature, living in some isolated habitat where no previous works or traditions have left any impression. Like virtually every artist, Mr. Dylan carries on a continuing conversation with the past. He's reacting to all that culture and history offer, not pretending they don't exist. Admiration and iconoclasm, argument and extension, emulation and mockery -- that's how individual artists and the arts themselves evolve. It's a process that is neatly summed up in Mr. Dylan's album title "Love and Theft," which itself is a quotation from a book on minstrelsy by Eric Lott.

The extent to which Dylan, er, lovingly stole lines from a little-known Japanese book, Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza, is nevertheless a surprise. The details were reported last Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Eig and Sebastian Moffett. Even Dylanologist Christopher Ricks of Boston University, who never has a bad word to say about Zimmy, comes off in the Journal piece as a tad disappointed.

A big deal? Not really. Dylan has always been pretty transparent about the way he works, even if -- on this particular occasion -- he borrowed from a source so obscure that it's a wonder it was ever discovered. Still, Dylan plays it both ways to an uncomfortable extent: he pieces together bits of found culture, sticks his copyright on it, and collects the royalties.

At the very least, as Pareles notes in the Times, Dylan should be generous the next time a rap musician asks permission to sample one of his songs.

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