“Bob Dylan is a Plagiarist and a Fake.” II

From an essay Jonathan Lethem wrote for Harper’s magazine a few years ago, entitled, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” for which, by way of proving the author’s thesis regarding the nature of art, he consciously stitched together from a wide variety of sources. That is to say, it’s all stolen. Joni Mitchell may not have such a place reserved in her heart for ol’ Bobby, but Lethem does:

“When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” The line comes from Don Siegel’s 1958 film noir, The Lineup, written by Stirling Silliphant. The film still haunts revival houses, likely thanks to Eli Wallach’s blazing portrayal of a sociopathic hit man and to Siegel’s long, sturdy auteurist career. Yet what were those words worth—to Siegel, or Silliphant, or their audience—in 1958? And again: what was the line worth when Bob Dylan heard it (presumably in some Greenwich Village repertory cinema), cleaned it up a little, and inserted it into “Absolutely Sweet Marie”? What are they worth now, to the culture at large?

“Appropriation has always played a key role in Dylan’s music. The songwriter has grabbed not only from a panoply of vintage Hollywood films but from Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza. He also nabbed the title of Eric Lott’s study of minstrelsy for his 2001 album Love and Theft. One imagines Dylan liked the general resonance of the title, in which emotional misdemeanors stalk the sweetness of love, as they do so often in Dylan’s songs. Lott’s title is, of course, itself a riff on Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, which famously identifies the literary motif of the interdependence of a white man and a dark man, like Huck and Jim or Ishmael and Queequeg—a series of nested references to Dylan’s own appropriating, minstrel-boy self. Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture, like the Civil War poetry of the Confederate bard Henry Timrod, resuscitated in lyrics on Dylan’s newest record, Modern Times. Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.”

In all fairness to Ms. Mitchell, it appears from reading the entire interview in which she takes Dylan to task, that her remarks seem directed at her interviewer, who made a rather careless comparison between Dylan’s entirely autonomous name change early in his career from Zimmerman to her own spousally-mandated switch. Tips for interviewers: BE CAREFUL.

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