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: http://www.johnwesleyharding.com/. 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.