dylan love & theft
July 8, 2003 11:07 AM   Subscribe

If you liked the lyrics on Dylan's last album, you'll probably also like the Japanese gangster novel he lifted some of them from. Verdict: Not guilty, on grounds of prior artistic achievement. (Long article in today's WSJ not linked because the old WSJ free-linkification doesn't work anymore!!?)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders (42 comments total)
never mind, i think this works
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:20 AM on July 8, 2003

Hmm, I just got done reading about that in the Mpls paper. The thing that struck me was how cool the japanese author was being about everything. I wish more people could be that chilled out about harmless transgressions instead of flying off the handle.
posted by COBRA! at 11:22 AM on July 8, 2003

But still - Dylan ripped him off! Fine line between cool and taking it lying down.

All plagarizing is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Why should it be OK sometimes and not others?
posted by gottabefunky at 11:35 AM on July 8, 2003

"Bad artists borrow, great artists steal."
posted by Blue Stone at 11:43 AM on July 8, 2003

Well, yeah, if Dylan ripped off the lines, that sucks, I agree. And I wish he hadn't done it- it deals a fairly serious blow to my Dylan Respect. You're right, plagiarism is bad, bad, bad. But it's nice to hear the author come out and say "you know, it was a pretty obscure book, it's not like I'm being deprived of life and liberty, no harm , no foul."

I guess it's just refreshing to see someone hold off with the litigation hammer, even when they'd be justified in doing so.
posted by COBRA! at 11:44 AM on July 8, 2003

I also think it's messed up how he plagerized Vincent Price's mustache.
posted by BigPicnic at 11:46 AM on July 8, 2003

I wish more people could be that chilled out about harmless transgressions instead of flying off the handle.

I love Bob Dylan but it's not a "harmless transgression", it's plagiarism and it's kind of pathetic. People will try to be nice and everything because it's Dylan, but it is shameful and the japanese author (Dr.Saga I presume) should receive formal excuses, royalties for the songs and maybe even co-author status.
posted by 111 at 11:57 AM on July 8, 2003

I found a first edition copy of Tarantula at a used book store. *faints*

Not guilty indeed. This man's fingernail should be worhshipped.
posted by Satapher at 12:00 PM on July 8, 2003

C'mon, "Tarantula" is a joke (you should read the story behind its creation in the recent book "Positively 4th Street". It does not reflect well on Dylan as an artist). This "Yakuza" discovery is stunning, though. I do not believe it's plagiarism, however, any more than Picasso's use of printed matter, wallpaper, etc., as collage elements in his cubist works makes him a plagiarist. On the other hand, for all we know, Dylan may have been ripping off obscure literature from the very earliest days of his career. Where are these books? The search is on!
posted by Faze at 12:24 PM on July 8, 2003

Can I use this to say that I still love the WSJ's portrait illustrations? Those drawings of Saga and Dylan are great.
posted by blueshammer at 12:42 PM on July 8, 2003

There's a big difference between borrowing a few phrases from a book as part of a work of art and stealing full passages of someone else's book for your own non-fiction book. Or fiction book, for that matter.

It's a good thing Andy Warhol is dead, or you'd all be telling Campbell's to sue him for plagiarism.
posted by me3dia at 1:02 PM on July 8, 2003

Faze, I havent read Positively 4th Street, but it did look interesting.

I really enjoy reading Tarantula. Its full of meaningless chaotic Kerouac styled bop prosody. Plus I can read ten pages of it, not retain any information or facts or happenings, but still be pleased just by the musical rhythms of the prose.

Don't read it like a novel. More like a song.
posted by Satapher at 1:05 PM on July 8, 2003

I find it strange that the translator isn't even mentioned--because isn't it really the translator that he's plagiarizing? I mean, the ideas were Saga's, but the actual word choices for translation (that Dylan stole) were John Bester's.
posted by witchstone at 1:09 PM on July 8, 2003

Love and theft indeed
posted by Outlawyr at 1:12 PM on July 8, 2003

me3dia, at the very least some kind of acknowledgement should have been made on L & T. The fact is there were too many sections of the book grafted on the lyrics; we're not talking about one or two phrases. BTW, the title itself is also borrowed from a book on troubadours or something like that.
posted by 111 at 1:15 PM on July 8, 2003

what 111 said. plagiarism is never acceptable, but for an artist of dylan's stature, at this phase of his career, to refrain from offering credit, thanks, and remuneration is beyond dishonest: it's stingy.
posted by stonerose at 1:19 PM on July 8, 2003

Is Dylan wearing a wig? Because, damn...as cool as he is, the top of his head is livin' in the 80s. It's mullet-tastic!
posted by graventy at 1:30 PM on July 8, 2003

I don't know - I see inspiration, not plagarism:

- Of the 12 quotes pasted on the Web site, none of them are exact quotes. With the possible exception of quote 2, all of them appear to be close paraphrases of the original.

- The 12 paraphrased quotes are pulled from five different songs. Each song presents these quotes in different contexts.

Yep, a lot of the material is suspiciously familiar - nope, I don't see material theft as much as I see reworked material by a lazy artist.
posted by FormlessOne at 1:35 PM on July 8, 2003

Let he who has never plagiarized an obscure Japanese novel cast the first stone.
posted by toothless joe at 1:55 PM on July 8, 2003

::toss:: Bonk!
posted by FormlessOne at 1:56 PM on July 8, 2003

From a legal perspective, one big factor in deciding whether this is "fair use" is whether the usage is "transformative." There's no doubt, in my mind, that it is: like Dr. Saga says, Dylan's album is incredibly atmospheric and if using a portion of Saga's words helps him achieve a unique artistic end, I'm all for it. It's like crushing up Oreos for your cheesecake crust: has Oreo been violated? Idurnthinkso.
posted by adrober at 1:59 PM on July 8, 2003

Here's how I picture it. Dylan's lawyer calls him and says: "It's that time of year Mr. Zimmerman. You owe Columbia a new album." And Dylan sighs and picks up his guitar and pencil. His girlfriend or somebody had been reading a book nearby and set it down to go and get a drink. The pages are riffled by the wind. Dylan begins strumming aimlessly. He has not had an inspired musical or lyrical idea for about 25 years. His brain was burned to a crisp years ago. He starts thinking or singing random phrases and writing them down in a notebook. He glances around the deck, or wherever he is, and sees an ashtray. He works the idea of an ashtray into the song. He sees the open book, and (without getting up or setting down his guitar) holds down a page and reads a random sentence. He works it into the song. He keeps doing this for the rest of the afternoon, and pretty soon, he's got an album. He's sets the guitar down and goes in to watch tv. He is no longer depressed by the fact that it doesn't matter whether his work is good or bad or makes sense or not or is entertaining or not on any level. He gets paid no matter what he does. Bob Dylan, he once said, is someone he is only once in a while.
posted by Faze at 2:06 PM on July 8, 2003

sometimes artists are more respectful of a little guy's rights

Wyn Cooper's first book of poems, The Country of Here Below (Ahsahta Press, 1987) included a poem called "Fun" which singer Sheryl Crow turned into a Grammy-winning song, "All I Wanna Do".


According to the most popular version of the tale, they had a nice tune with no words to it, and somebody decided to send out for a bunch of poetry books, and, somewhat against probability, they netted a copy of The Country of Here Below in their haul. They wrote a chorus for a poem of Wyn's called "Fun," and recorded it as "All I Wanna Do," which became the song which no one with electricity could escape during 1994 and 95.
As a result, Wyn was able to move around to the other side of the bar (recently reborn as "The Pig") and become a customer. He also experienced a meteoric metamorphosis from not terrifically well-known poet to very successful song-writer.

posted by matteo at 2:12 PM on July 8, 2003

btw I think Love & Theft is a masterpiece.
but it's irrelevant to the discussion about the Japanese doctor being ripped off or not
posted by matteo at 2:15 PM on July 8, 2003

In don't know if it's plagiarism or not (if I were on the jury I'd be off the jury; I think he's a national treasure), but in America when someone sees his own writing show up in the lyrics of a million-selling CD, uncredited and uncompensated by the bazillionnaire lyricist, that's called "payday." Don't they have lawyers in Japan?

You can't scrute those people. Don't even try. Completely inscrutable.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:27 PM on July 8, 2003

I think, strictly speaking, this is plagiarism, because unique phrases from Saga's book are included in the lyrics. It's fairly harmless, though, since Dylan didn't just repeat what had already been written in Confessions and claim it was his own. He's obviously saying something new and different.

Of course, it could all just be a joke. Meaning, of course he stole from someone else, the album is about music stealing from other music, the era of the "minstrel show", the folk tradition.. Man, the whole album is full of oblique and overt references to so many old songs that even y2karl was probably stumped once or twice.

That said, obviously the right thing to do would have been to give credit to Saga. Obviously. Obviously. A bit disappointing, in fact, that this wasn't done. Now he'll never get that Nobel for Literature.
posted by Hildago at 2:34 PM on July 8, 2003

Hmm... didn't Dylan settle out of court with Hootie & The Blowfish in 1995 for their unauthorized use of his lyrics in their song "Only Wanna Be With You?"
posted by thatweirdguy2 at 6:34 PM on July 8, 2003

plagiarism is never acceptable, but for an artist of dylan's stature, at this phase of his career, to refrain from offering credit, thanks, and remuneration is beyond dishonest: it's stingy.

well, let's talk about stinginess. or, following dylan's lead, let's let someone else talk about stinginess.

Why would I sue? To take something that made people around the world happy and try to exploit it for money -- that's poverty," Saga said.

and now compare and contrast:

Dylan begins strumming aimlessly. He has not had an inspired musical or lyrical idea for about 25 years. His brain was burned to a crisp years ago.

the clear winner here is saga. after all, "[t]wo weeks ago [he] bought his first dylan cd."
posted by kjh at 9:41 PM on July 8, 2003

Love and Theft was better than I would have expected--due in part to the stolen phrases, I suppose. But the phrases are lines in songs--not the songs entire.

this verse from Mississippi

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

or this from Bye and Bye

Well, the future for me is already a thing of the past
You were my first love and you will be my last
Papa gone mad, Mama she's feelin' sad
Well, I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I wanna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be

have nicer lines--not in Confessions of a Yakuza, let it be noted--than I would have expected from Dylan at this point in his career. Are they full of quotes, allusions, perhaps derived from secondary sources or uniquely original lines from a Dylan song? No doubt, they are.

He didn't give credit on Bye and Bye to Leo Robin & Ralph Rainger who wrote Billie Holiday's Having Myself A Time, but the melody and the changes are pretty much the same in both songs.

A possible key comes via Eyolf Ostrom, who runs DylanChords, from where stupidsexyFlanders's third link comes. He wrote a nice piece on Love and Theft wherein he quotes Allen Ginsberg on how Dylan composed Renaldo and Clara:

He shot about 110 hours of film or more, and he looked at all the scenes. Then he put all the scenes on index cards, according to some preconceptions he had when he was directing the shooting. Namely, themes: God, rock & roll, art, poetry, marriage, women, sex, Bob Dylan, poets, death—maybe eighteen or twenty thematic preoccupations. Then he also put on index cards all the different characters, as well as scenes. He also marked on index cards the dominant color—blue or red … and certain other images that go through the movie, like the rose and the hat, and Indians—American Indian—so that he finally had a cross-file of all that. And then he went through it all again and began composing it, thematically, weaving these specific compositional references in and out. So it’s compositional, and the idea was not to have a ‘plot’, but to have a composition of those themes

Hmm, interesting. That sounds like something he learned--pardon the self link--from Norman Raeben. It's from the same era. Perhaps Raeben's techniques are part of his compositional palette now. Blood On The Tracks came from those same techniques--I don't considered it or Love and Theft inferior albums, nor do most informed people whose opinions I can respect.

Man, that Po' Boy is one of the sweeter songs on Love and Theft, by the way. I love that song. Oh, and Eric Lott wrote the book Love and Theft, by the way. As Hildago pointed out, the theme of appropriation and transmutation of other peoples' materials is a theme of Lott's Book and a subtext in Dylan's album. Among other things, it's a blues album, more so than any he's recorded in years, and one of the best albums he's done in years, musically and lyrically. The idea of crying plagiarism about blues lyrics is is the very definition of absurdity. Still this is a fascinating story and a fine discussion. In my opinion, the only plagiarism for which he should be sued was noted by BigTop. As for the rest of the allusions in Love and Theft, see Artur J's annotated lyrics and readings list.
posted by y2karl at 10:17 PM on July 8, 2003

very definition of absurdity

y2karl, agreed in the case of blues songs lifting from within the genre - incestuousness is part of the essence of the form, no? - but this is pulling in someone elses creation from a completely different field. Interestingly, that seems to matter. Again, plagiarism is too strong, but would it have killed him to include a credit line somewhere?

Your last link looked interesting but was broken, alas.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:55 AM on July 9, 2003




You can't scrute those people. Don't even try.

Got that right. Got a scrute-shield around the country or something...
posted by gottabefunky at 8:33 AM on July 9, 2003

Let he who has never plagiarized an obscure Japanese novel cast the first stone.

^_____^ funniest ever
posted by Satapher at 11:37 AM on July 9, 2003

Umm.. isn't the title of the album Love and Theft? Like, um, he's saying he stole the stuff right there, because, like, he loved the book.
posted by rich at 12:24 PM on July 9, 2003

Your last link looked interesting but was broken, alas.

It's not broken now, but I had trouble, too, when I clicked on the link at Expecting Rain. Interestingly, the song title links all hail from it--if those worked for you and the main site didn't, you had the same problem that I did when I first clicked on the link at Expecting Rain. When I Googled for it, it came in fine. The site's in Poland and I'm wondering if that may have something to do with its hinkiness.

At any rate, all the songs there are annotated with links to source material. Here's the...


1. Othello by William Shakespeare
2. Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
3. Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
4. Where The Wild Roses Grow by Nick Cave
5. High Water Everywhere by Charley Patton
6. Break It And Shake It by Charley Patton
7. The Prodigal Son Parable from The Gospel of Luke, Ch. 15
8. Freddie Who? from Mr Potato Head - Knock-Knock Jokes
9. The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
11. Aeneid by Virgil
12. I Believe I'll Dust My Broom by Robert Johnson
13. Kansas City by Wilbert Harrison
14. The Cuckoo Is A Pretty Bird - Traditional folk song
15. For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
16. A Street Car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
17. The Darktown Strutters' Ball by Shelton Brooks
18. Meditation XVII by John Donne
19. Jack and the Beanstalk - traditional fairy tale
20. Rosie - traditional (Alan Lomax book)
21. The Lonesome Road by Austin & Shilkret, sung by Frank Sinatra
22. I Cried For You (Now It's Your Turn To Cry Over Me) by Freed & Arnheim, sung by Sinatra
23. The Garden Of Love by William Blake
24. Black-Eyed Susan by John Gay. also a song by Morrissey and by Jack Hardy.
25. Hopped Up Mustang by Bill Romberger & Arlen Sanders
26. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Caroll
27. Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner - an appropriate bit only
28. The Book of Genesis - the Bible
29. Don Pasquale - an opera by Donizetti (synopsis)
30. Love Is Pleasing by ??? (performed by eg Marianne Faithfull)
31. LOVE AND THEFT by Eric Lott
32. Your Funeral, My Trial by Nick Cave
33. Your Funeral And My Trial by Sonny Boy Williamson
34. Bye and Bye by Thomas Martin Towne
35. Pig Without A Wig and more nursery rhymes
36. I'm A Good Old Rebel (traditional)
37. Charlie Patton by R. Crumb
38. Tweedle Dee by Winfred Scott
39. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
40. Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga

He could add a credit line, I suppose, but where should he stop then?
posted by y2karl at 3:39 PM on July 9, 2003

As long as we're waxing exegetical...

"Well there was this movie I seen one time"

References to particular films and fragments of film dialogue are scattered throughout the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s songs, particularly in the 1985 album Empire Burlesque. I have attempted to compile these snatches from the songs and cite the original film dialogue, although some of the quotes may be coincidental rather than deliberate, using phrases that have passed into common usage.

Out of the 42 films listed, 12 belong to the dark, cynical cycle of 40/50s crime films that French cineastes later christened film noir and nine star the archetypal noir anti-hero, Humphrey Bogart. The film from which most of Dylan’s quotes are taken is John Huston’s
The Maltese Falcon (1941), which defined the noir genre and Bogart’s screen persona. Like film noir, Dylan’s songs of the 80s, from which most of the quotes are taken, point to what Eddie Muller called the struggle of the individual to transcend or escape "the black core of corruption in our 'civilized' society and our primitive essence."
posted by y2karl at 11:34 PM on July 9, 2003

Y2karl, I followed your link (works now) and saw the L&T lyrical connections to all the works on the "reading list," and I don't feel any different. Quoting (in many cases not really quoting, but simply referring to, an important distinction) Virgil, Genesis, Lewis Carroll, and many blues and standards is to my mind different in kind and degree to the lifting he did from Mr. Saga's book. Is there an individual source on this reading list quoted as extensively as Saga, and as many times?

Dylan is a sponge and a collagist, and a brilliant one, and his audience expects at this point, and probably recognizes, the bits and pieces of Victoria Spivey and Charley Patton and Gatsby and Mother Goose scattered through his work uncredited, in the American folk tradition. Cribbing this many lines from a japanese gangster novel just feels different & wrong.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:28 AM on July 10, 2003

As I have *koff* quoted lines from Nabokov, Pynchon, and early 90's Nashville hardcore band Buzzkill (not this Buzzkill), I now consider myself on par with Dylan as a songwriter.

What would be the appropriate way to credit this, though? I feel kinda funny putting Shepherd/Nabokov/Shiboleth next to a song.
posted by mikrophon at 7:46 AM on July 10, 2003

how about an amazon referral link to the book in the liner notes? Bob could maybe even pick up a couple of bucks.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:20 AM on July 10, 2003

Agreed on the implicit moral obligation for some slight accreditation--but then again, maybe it was an unconscious plagiarism....

Is there an individual source on this reading list quoted as extensively as Saga, and as many times?

I haven't gone through the movie quotes page as yet but it may be possible that he has in that context.
posted by y2karl at 10:21 AM on July 10, 2003

One more link--here's Jon Parele's take on the story from today's New York Times:

Plagiarism in Dylan, or a Cultural Collage?
(Google link, there should be no registration needed)

Mr. Dylan has apparently sampled "Confessions of a Yakuza," remixing lines from the book into his own fractured tales of romance and mortality on " `Love and Theft.' " The result, as in many collages and sampled tracks, is a new work that in no way affects the integrity of the existing one and that only draws attention to it.

Dr. Saga has no need to keep his book isolated. He told The Associated Press that he was ecstatic to have inspired such a well-known songwriter. And as news of the Dylan connection surfaced, sales of "Confessions of a Yakuza" jumped. Yesterday it was No. 117 among the best-selling books at Amazon.com, and No. 8 among biographies and memoirs.

Of course, Dr. Saga can't be too possessive about the writing. The book is an oral history, told to him by the yakuza gangster of the title. It's another story that has drifted into humanity's oral tradition. Mr. Dylan's complete lyrics are freely available at www.bobdylan.com. As for the song, if someone asks Mr. Dylan for sampling rights, it would be only fair to grant them.

Seems fair enough. I did not get that it was an oral history before this. That throws an interesting new light on things.
posted by y2karl at 1:09 AM on July 12, 2003

Just to make the next to last sentence above a bit more clear, Confessions of a Yakuza apparently is not a Japanese gangster novel , but rather an oral memoir of a yakuza boss, edited by Junichi Saga and translated by John Bester. This makes the problem of who should receive the proper credit for Dylan's song lyrics a tad more complex.
posted by y2karl at 7:41 PM on July 13, 2003

i steal from people all the time. i consider it collage and many times have done it unconsciously (i've also had instances of footnoting [self link, obviously]). i've had a number of authors i've quoted write me with thanks for turning people onto their books.
posted by dobbs at 7:57 PM on July 13, 2003

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