It’ll Cost You All Your Love, You Won’t Get It For Being Right

Up to Me starts right off telling us that “money never changed a thing”  in this story we’re going to hear of love corrupted and lost and undying. But the song’s vignettes, so lacerating to the singer and so entrancing to the listener, keep coming back to money. He didn’t buy a ticket to follow her into the officers’ club where she entertains the troops, who apparently did fork over the price of admission, till the break of day. He needs an income: he works as a postal clerk, in a cage no less, and risks breaking the rules to protect the free but hunted fugitive.  One of them is going to pay the penalty of biting off more than they can chew, of taking more than they really need.  Crystal wants to talk to the pimp, Dupree, and the singer is too self-involved, too discreet,or  too high-handed, to keep tabs on whatever transaction might come of this. He assures whomever he’s singing to that the disguised and nameless girl with him isn’t his property, not anything he actually paid for and owns. And then finally  he takes  the song– this strangely poisoned and passionate and timeless world of Up to Me–and  tragically and brutally giftwraps it and hands it to her. His lone guitar played sweet for her this old time melody. This phrase is preposterous, following the intimations of whoring, the admissions of betrayal, the disillusionment. It seems like the terrible sad delusion of the grieving lover. Then the next line: “The harmonica around my neck, I blow it for ya free.”  He wears his noose or his shackle willingly, and indeed it’s his instrument, how he expresses himself, and without words.  “I blow it for ya free,” could be a candidate for the single  nastiest line Dylan’s ever sung.  Here, he says, all the pain and everything else, it’s yours anyway, and no one could sing it but me–so, no fee.

What are things worth? The song is an awful gift, isn’t it? It degrades and punctures and demonstrates and yearns for love, with different kinds of ugly price tags all through it. If the song were for me, would I want it?  Would I want it because the song itself is Beautiful and True even though it has so much dirt and faithlessness in it?

I don’t know why, but this is what I thought about after I read Roy Kelly’s impressive essay on Bob Dylan’s plagiarism, titled “A Shiny Bed of Lights,” published in The Bridge. This was passed along to me by John Wesley Harding a/k/a Wes Stace, a person of varied accomplishment, playful identity, and consistent finesse, whom you may learn more about here:  I don’t have here the date/issue for the essay, and I apologize to Roy Kelly and anyone else for that omission.

Kelly takes on the vexing issue of Bob Dylan’s recent songwriting method, which goes under many names, or rather, people identify themselves through the word they choose to describe this songwriting method. If you call it collage, you reveal yourself as an unreconstructed fan, perhaps an insufficiently skeptical fan. If you call it plagiarism, an unseemly word which seeks to erect a distance between right and wrong, you may be trying to speak Truth to Delusion. If you call it theft, which has romantic outlaw connotations, you may be trying for a kind of higher ground where you consider the issue of originality in the clear light of day, and continue to admire  Dylan’s assaults on originality, as he lives outside the law in his own peculiar honesty.

Kelly begins by outing excerpts from Chronicles which were lifted from other sources. His article’s title appears on page 165 of Dylan’s memoirs, and formerly in Huckleberry Finn. He’s got a passage that appears on page 162 of Chronicles and formerly in Proust’s Within a Budding Grove. Kelly focuses throughout the essay on Chronicles and Modern Times, and he is informed, articulate, and unambivalent:

His songwriting now resembles desk research, where someone tries to gather various data from what exists and out there, and makes use of it commercially.

What seems to me to be different now is that hardly anything remains of the personal  in the words of songs on “Love and Theft” and Modern Times. …The words recede. There is the illusion of the personal because of his singing.

I think there’s a world of difference in both method and the outcome of that method, between being inspired and influenced by the world you live in and the path you want to follow, and in deciding systematically to go through work that already exists, taking out other people’s lines and words in order to fit around them songs that you will then call your own.

Now that I am forewarned that any particular use of words that I admire or think absolutely apposite may not be his, I am as it were, more likely withhold the sun of my affection.

Kelly takes on people like myself with the assertiveness that runs through the essay:

There is always a queue of Bob apologists itching to tell us that either there is no such thing as plagiarism, or if there is that Bob is certainly not guilty of it.

It seems to me that despite the world of fans and blogs and various aerated theorists queueing to post their reasons why these reworkings are evidence of his superior, cunning, creative ability to make something new out of other people’s words, by changing the context and thus the meaning, none of it refers to qualities we once prized and praised in him. If being a Burroughs-style, cut-up, collagist post-modernist is such an admirable thing, why did we ever once rate his being a new, original, contemporary voice so highly?

Kelly supports his arguments with well-illustrated  discussions of the ethics of plagiarism, the value of originality in literature, theories on the differing value of appropriation depending on who is doing the appropriating.

The two strongest currents activating the essay are the betrayal of a certain relationship between artist and audience, and the need for a theory that can guide our relation to Bob Dylan’s work. Kelly writes, “The question for Bob Dylan fans, and especially fans in these latter times, is to decide what we are meant to know, and how to think about the way he now works.”

Kelly’s essay is sound, superior, convincing, and I accept, without defensiveness, being the aerated target of Kelly’s contempt. There aren’t many points I would argue on rational ground: I think I could argue reasonably that Ain’t Talkin’ does not “attempt to do what Highlands does better,” but Kelly already predicts that people like me would say this. I do hear much that is “personal” in “Love and Theft” and Modern Times, but here I recognize that Kelly and I wouldn’t agree on what constitutes the personal, and that’s fine. Kelly mentions Dylan’s “box” of cuttings and clippings which he now picks through when the songassembling mood is upon him, and maintains a portrait of Dylan craftily inserting phrases here and there to modify or illustrate the topic at hand. I do maintain that much of anyone’s disillusionment and unhappiness with the result is a function of the uncannily invisible stitches. He does assimilate disparate registers into the song or the prose. But again, Kelly would justifiably argue that the impersonality he finds in the recent work is exactly a result of all this assimilation at the expense of inspired expression.

It’s the link between betrayal and theory that is the only thing I want to address in Kelly’s piece. His feeling of being disappointed, in a personal way, in his relation to an artist he’s admired for decades, is candid and emotional. He traces his feeling to ethics, and to  ideas of the experience of originality in art. He employs the ideas to create arguments about bad art that betrays a trust between maker and audience, and to assert that bad art particularly degrades his relation to Bob Dylan: he will “withhold the sun of his affection” and I believe that Kelly believes that matters. The cost of betrayal can matter to Dylan, and this cost is higher because Kelly can back it with the credit of reason.

Given everything I know, given the fact that reading Chronicles was the most intimate connection I’ve ever had with a narrator and now I know for certain that much of what shattered the frozen sea inside me was little axes that belonged to other people rather than one big axe wielded by one writer–this means I’m different, changed, and not Bob Dylan. I still feel deeply the shape of an aged life in Floater, and part of this shape is truthfully another man’s life.  As I listen to the song, and assimilate into myself  what I feel to be illuminating and lovely in it, then I also assimilate into myself Floater‘s plausible fraud.

I think that to really relate to art is to assimilate it, and remain always conscious of what we’re assimilating, what we’re becoming as we listen or read or watch. The choice is always to refuse this assimilation if we identify a corrupting agent that we won’t tolerate. If I choose the fraud in Floater, I haven’t justified or excused it. I do believe Roy Kelly and I are both talking about loving art, we just see it from a different point of view.


4 thoughts on “It’ll Cost You All Your Love, You Won’t Get It For Being Right

  1. The (unspoken) keyword here seems to be: betrayal. By my count, this would be Bob’s fifth-and-a-half or possibly sixth betrayal.
    To wit: first, the doesn’t-do-social-conscience-songs-anymore betrayal, which only had time to be a half-betrayal, for it soon got swallowed up and rolled along in the electric betrayal.
    Then there was the end-of-an-era much-too-mellow betrayal, which was interpreted, by A J Weberman at least, as selling out the Movement to the Man (in exchange for heroin). David Bowie nailed this one rather finely in his “Song for Bob Dylan”, in 1971.
    Then came the Born Again betrayal, which led to the makes-crap-records-for-a-decade betrayal.
    However, before this there was the puts-on-makeup betrayal, another brief half-betrayal, where the newly naked Dylan of Blood on the Tracks suddenly turned into an entertainer and a juggler of symbols. Evidence for the prosecution: the doesn’t-do-what-it-says-on-the-tin confessional of Sara and the bewildering apparent sincerity of the eulogy for Joey; Renaldo & Clara; the “late Elvis” shows of the 1978 tour; and Street-Legal, an album which actually sounds like “It’s Halloween and I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on”.
    And now the plagiarism betrayal…
    The dialogue that goes: “He’s changed: I don’t like this as much as I used to like that…” – “Hush, he’s an artist: change is his imperative…” is as familiar as a piece of pantomime patter, and not unique to Dylan. And with other artists too it can take the form of a charge of treachery. But the Judas cry does seem to dog Dylan’s career with peculiar tenacity, like a toothache in his heel.
    I think this is because he uses the tool of self-abnegation a bit more heavily than most changeable artists have done, perhaps because he has more people attached to him than most artists have had. T S Eliot, having rewritten the rules of English poetry, then described The Waste Land as “rhythmical grumbling” – but only as an aside. Dylan, on the other hand, makes a neat almost-haiku of everything he is supposed to stand for, tosses it up with a flourish and boots it right out of the stadium:
    I don’t know which one is worse,
    doing your own thing
    or just being cool…
    Which brings me, finally, to where we always end up: is the thing being betrayed actually the real Bob Dylan? If what he is essentially is a writer of original words, how did Robert Shelton pick him out in that Greenwich Village folk club, when he was singing scarcely a word of his own?
    I agree, there is something radically different about the way Dylan has been writing for the last ten years or so. I don’t think it can be understood in the same way as his earlier manners. I feel there’s a lot still lurking around the corners and over the hedges of these songs, even as I enjoy walking through them. And yes, the requisitioning and copyrighting of pieces of other people’s material makes me uneasy. On the one hand: the works that Dylan is producing are nothing like any other works that I know, and so he seems to have a right to call them his own. On the other hand, there’s the question of economic inequity. To put it in a perhaps childish way, I’d be happy to learn that a proportion of the money from million-selling records which are laced with licks and lyrics created by poor black people from Mississippi was ending up in Mississippi, say, where people are still poor and black. That’s not a comment that applies to Dylan alone, of course: it’s a commonplace that the great musical wealth created by the poorest people in America has generated an enormous material wealth but not, on the whole, for them. How to address that large injustice, I don’t know. How about a much more frequent acknowledgement of “Trad” as a collaborator, with “Trad”s songwriting royalties going into a social fund? It goes against the grain of eighty-odd years of record-industry practice, but there’s always time to make a change.
    This comment is nearly long and digressive enough, but there is one more thought I’d like to have: Dylan’s new plagiarism style coincides with the rise of the internet and digital texts. Before that, the chances of him getting caught stealing from Peter Green’s translations of Ovid and Henry Timrod and so on would be relatively slim. Now his thefts are spotted almost straightaway. Could just be a coincidence, of course.

  2. Hi guys.

    My own take on all this bores even me, but I feel I owe it to myself, if not Dylan, to speak up. There are two quite distinct issues: who should get the money, and is it OK that (I’m being nasty here) Dylan did not invent the vocabulary–aka lexicon–in which his songs are written (musically as well as verbally, although the lit-crit types who go ballistic over this never blink an an eyelash about his musical thefts).

    As to the first question: why ask me?–that’s what lawyers are for. I’m sure Pat Boone’s record company paid Little Richard and/or his record company for his wretched (but best-selling) covers of “Tutti Frutti” et al. Does that make it OK? Does that make it better than Dylan not paying Muddy Waters’ (or his estate) for stealing a riff & a couplet Muddy stole from Robert Johnson who stole it from I forget who? Is it OK that 80% of the hip-hop acts that come to my town are white? Is it OK that most American African Americans who go to church are Christians–which is a European religion initiated my Middle Eastern Jews (even if they didn’t call themselves Jews at the time?) Is there anyone reading this who wished they had gone to law school so they could plausibly adjudicate these matters? Or are you all thanking Whoever that you made better life choices? (and P.S., yes I would not be opposed to a legal regime which distributed the rewards of creativity more equitably. But just try to get that through Congress, which keeps extending copywrite even unto the further generation. If there are any Shakespeare descendents out there, we’re all screwed.)

    As to the 2nd question: Any Dylan fan who had no problem with the 2nd verse of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” has no standing in this debate. Anyone else who is unfamiliar with “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” has no standing. Case dismissed.

    I hate to be so snotty, but then again, it feels good.

  3. John, I’m sorry if I’ve started a hare here that neither of us particularly wants to hunt: the question of whether Dylan’s borrowings are ethically or legally right or wrong. Legally, I wouldn’t know. As far as I know, nobody who’s been borrowed from has complained or sought redress. Ethically, well… The law allows questions of intention to be taken into account. Does the accused, spotting a phrase that pleases him in some text, think: I’ll put that in my song, so that people will attribute its pleasingness to me? I doubt it.
    And as I said, in a digital age, this particular accused would surely suspect that any secondhand phrases he used would soon be traced to their origins. The “deception” is transparent by design.
    The more interesting questions are about the artistic effects of this collage or part-collage method. Even before any borrowings were traced, the songs on “Love & Theft” and Modern Times seemed like giant patchworks of memory, where the boundaries of the narrator’s memory (if there is such a person) have become porous to the “folk memory”. I was riding in a carriage with Miss Mary Jane. Miss Mary Jane got a house out in Baltimore. Is the speaker reminiscing, or is it some fragment of another older song that’s ended up embedded in the planes of this one like a fossil bone? Some people say I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.
    Does anyone else feel that the critical language that’s still forming around Dylan’s 20th-century songs has to be reinvented, or at least stripped down and reassembled, to describe his 21st-century ones?

  4. I think the only topic I feel competent to respond to here is the issue of the serial betrayals Dylan’s audience seems to have suffered across the decades. Although as I write this I realize that of course the Law is addressing nothing but betrayal. Copyright laws impute a special sanctity to the primacy of ownership in the legal codes Mr Hinchey and myself share with Mr Gibbens across the pond: if I burglarize Mr Hinchey’s house, that is one clear violation of a person’s relationship with their property, but if I publish a chapter of his book under my name, I’ve poisoned Mr Hinchey’s relationship with property that happens to be an inimitable, singular concoction from the ineffable Self-ness of John Hinchey that exceeds the Self-ness of John Hinchey’s signature on the deed to his house which I’m looting. Because I agree that even Rollin’ and Tumblin’ bears marks in the language and delivery which make it the ineffable property of Bob Dylan, and because I’m troubled-and-I-don’t-know-why about this, I can’t do anything more than try to work out my troubles in long sentences.
    But the curtain opens on Act II of The Bob Dylan Story, in which we the songs and the person are different from their scripts and costumes of Act I and there is wailing and gnashing of teeth and renting of garments. Act II runs its course, the curtain falls, and rises again on Act III–new script, new costumes, songs all different–and there is wailing and gnashing of teeth and renting of garments. Act IV, Act V—you know, simply getting ten Bob Dylan fans to agree on how many acts there have been would lead to aggression, fallings-out.

    Betrayal is the right word–it’s not disillusionment, not loss of interest, not change of taste. The cris du coeur when Bob abandons Hollis Brown for Maggie’s whole family, when he abandons the far distant universe where the sad-eyed lady lives for the stranger but much older landscape of Frankie Lee, when he abandons Himself for God–these are simply not people whose tastes won’t change along with his, or people who feel a talented man is selling himself short (although this seems to be part of the mix, it’s often enough expressed with a telling bitterness)–they are people who feel…betrayed. Their faith has been abused. They’ve lost a relationship, not a reliable source of entertainment.

    I’m going with John Gibbens’ simple declaration, “perhaps because he has more people attached to him than most artists have had.” And I think what I am interested in is finding ways to talk about the members of Dylan’s audience who have sat through every act, taken in the stuff of betrayal, kept on listening, and not let go. What’s in art, and in Bob Dylan’s art, that makes it possible for people who are paying full and close attention every step of the way to really hold on, and who are not slavish apologists? (For the faction who believes that the very definition of slavish apologists are the people who are holding on every step of the way, geh in gesundeheit.) The people who come in during the middle of Act IV and think “My, what a terrific story!” and then try to make sense of how Act II is also a terrific story.

    There’s a kind of attachment that alters when it alteration finds.

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