When Bob Dylan released Love & Theft back in 2001, it was hailed as one of many returns to form in his gilded career. The album was intended to be Dylan’s “comeback record”, one that would mark his return to the world stage with style. There was every indication that the album would succeed in doing so, and Dylan recruited his favourite backing band of all time and, when Love & Theft was released, it peaked at number five on the Billboard 200. However, a little further down the line, when the emerging internet masses got their grubby mitts on it, it found itself mired in controversy.
Joni Mitchell once said: “Bob Dylan is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.” While a liberal view of appropriation is certainly a cornerstone in Dylan’s artistic oeuvre, for the most part, he has been the foremost trailblazer of popular culture and led the way with illuminating originality akin to the renaissance folks of old. Bob Dylan’s catalogue is full of literary references. The set of Biblical allusions in ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is a perfect example. But his 31st studio album took things a little further.
When it comes to Love & Theft, ostensibly Mitchell’s words retain some weight, as it would seem on the surface that he declared his working method in the title: he loved a book, and he borrowed from it. While there are thousands upon thousands of albums in existence that in some way are inspired by literature, some in a very nebulous way, others in a much more direct sense, Dylan quite inexplicably decided to transposes chunks of prose directly into his own work.
The issue on this occasion, however, was that these conservatively edited chunks of text went uncredited and were strangely from a book so niche that it wasn’t as though people could clearly connect the dots anyway. If you say “to be or not to be”, then there is no need to credit the source, likewise, if you bend a riff out of recognition, then that’s merely how art works and no one can claim dominion over ideas themselves, but word-for-word etchings in print is another matter.
As it happens, with Love & Theft, the book in question was Confessions of a Yakuza, an obscure 1989 biography of a gangster by Japanese writer Junichi Saga. At the time of Dylan’s release, Saga was a physician in his sixties. He had fictionalised the account of a patient for a novel that Saga describes as exploring love and crime, or, as he remarks: “In other words, love and theft.”
The novel received minor success in its first two years of print in Japan, but in 1991, it was translated into English and brought in marginally more esteem from overseas. Saga believes it sold something like 25,000 copies in English, earning him the modest sum of $8475. Seemingly one of those 25,000 copies may have fatefully wormed its way to the most eminent artist on Earth and was about to revive his stardom?
Of course, being one of the most famous artists in the world, sooner or later, the connections would be made. A comparison between the Dylan line: “I’m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound” to a line in the book, which reads: “I’m not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded”, was almost instantly made. Similarly, the ‘Floater’ lyric of: “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord” was compared to Sagas line: “My old man would sit there like a feudal lord”. Once you start looking deeper, there are many more examples of occasions in which Dylan clearly lifted his lyrics from Confessions of a Yakuza. Take, for example, the Love And Theft track ‘Honest With me’, which contains the lines: “Some things are too terrible to be true, / I won’t come here no more if it bothers you,” the latter of which can be found in exactly the same form in Saga’s book.
When the question of whether Dylan had indeed plagiarised the book was brought to Saga’s attention, in a hilarious twist of fate, the obscure Japanese writer had never heard of the treasured American troubadour. All the same, he said he was very honoured if he had in some way inspired his work, and his only request was to be credited on the liner notes in future, if possible.
Saga stated: “Why would I sue? To take something that made people around the world happy and try to exploit it for money — that’s poverty,” he very wisely told the Associated Press in a quote that restores faith in artistry and humanity. And in its way, the universe rewarded him with a surge in his novel up the English language book charts. Saga’s publisher, Kodansha, hoped that in future editions, they could print Dylan’s picture, or at least offer a blurb, for the dust jacket of the next edition.
The whole debate is a very interesting one, and this case, in particular, is tricky. There is the approach that says Dylan lifted it and should be condemned, but then there’s another point of view entirely to be considered.
As the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once told MovieMaker Magazine: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul,” his famous quote states, before continuing: “If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”
It is a notion that French New Wave hero Jean-Luc Godard also celebrated when he said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” And Pablo Picasso joined the act when he commented: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” a line which was actually also ironically stolen from T.S. Eliot. In short, what we’re saying is that the evidence displayed below is not necessarily a condemnation, and a very liberal view could, in fact, celebrate it as an upcycling of art into something new that serves as glowing addition to our dismal saily lives. Essentially, whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly not foregone.
The ethics of such a liberal invocation of source material are complicated and difficult, but Nick Cave is always a reliable voice to turn to in such instances, and he wrote on his Red Hand Files forum: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”
Vitally, however, he goes on to add, “Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary — even admirable — tendency, and that is to steal. Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.”
Cave’s words themselves even shared a kinship with one of his heroes, the poet Stevie Smith, who chimed in, not only on this subject but the origins of great art on the whole, when she remarked: “A great artist … takes what he did not make and makes of it something that only he can make.”
However, as Cave adds in his concluding words: “But a word of caution, if you steal an idea and demean or diminish it, you are committing a dire crime for which you will pay a terrible price — whatever talents you may have will, in time, abandon you.”
You can judge for yourself where Love & Theft sits below.