Bob Dylan Ain’t No Thief

posted May 25, 2014

Steve Earle once said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan‘s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” There are Bob Dylan fans out there who would probably beat you to a pulp for saying that.

I’m not one of those Bob Dylan fans.

That’s how I feel about Tom Waits. I’m fan enough of both Dylan and Van Zandt to have lots of their albums and to have listened repeatedly and with awe. I know at heart they aren’t better or worse than Tom Waits. They all have a signature way of conveying something, and Tom just hits me deeper.

Tom found me young and damaged, before I knew everyone is lost in their own way. He made me feel my experiences were both unique and familiar. I loved music before I heard Nighthawks At The Diner, but that album, and Tom’s persona in it, was like an intimate gig played in my guts. Afterwards his songs were gospel and feast. The words and sounds brought out as many “Amens!” as ideas of my own.

But I’m here to talk about Bob Dylan.

I’m thinking specifically of an article in The Daily Beast about his autobiography. Evidence of hundreds of other sources has been found in the contents of Dylan’s Chronicles, some lines nearly word for word, some mysteriously paraphrased. It has people everywhere scrambling to explain what it all means. I don’t know what it means, but it ain’t plagiarism.

If that’s plagiarism we’re all living lives that aren’t our own.

Bob Dylan is a lot humbler than I ever gave him credit for.

Anyone who has created anything knows you take your influences, and the inspirational push from them, and try to express what you’ve found there, while adding what you hope will be something new. You’re trying your damnedest to express yourself, but there’s no pure originality in those acts. Even if you succeed at Eraserhead levels, and make something so bizarre it seems nothing but yours, it’s never completely unique at its core.

The influence has to come from somewhere. Even David Lynch is recycling content on some level in everything he does. An artistic ego big enough to dispute that doesn’t change the fact that no one spontaneously generates their art.

Take for another example Sean Penn.

Forget for a second if he’s a good person or not. He once took the Bruce Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman” and turned it into The Indian Runner. To me that film is a perfect demonstration of what many try to do as artists: a piece of art prompts you to build something out of an experience and as you struggle with that you share the experience with others. Art is a love song you sing aloud along the path to understanding what it means to be human. In Bob Dylan’s gravelly voice you can often hear your own history.

We are all an accumulation of influence. Plagiarism implies a deception that in most cases just isn’t there, that would in fact be more time-consuming and difficult than the art itself.

The facts of the article made Dylan seem to me a living time capsule for our shared experience. He’s a well-read nerd who is probably completely disconnected from his own legend. He has devoured the contents of the world’s art, the poetry and songs, the everything, and made something new in his quest to absorb and understand it all.

Bob Dylan has a sphere of influence seemingly the size and shape of his whole experience.

I think most artists, when they realized that they want to be an artist, make an almost arrogant choice for what their chief influences will be. I count Henry Miler, Tom Waits, the 90’s television show Northern Exposure, and a handful of other things as my influences. If someone were to be as curious about my background as people are about Dylan’s they could pick through my favorites and find a residue of each in my work.

When you only have a handful of favorites it’s easier to steer clear of the kind of plagiarism some are accusing Bob Dylan of. If something seems a little too familiar or doesn’t feel completely like your own voice, you can usually find the spark and regroup. And you do regroup. An artist never wants to say something that’s been said before, nor does he want credit for something that isn’t his. The artist tries to step a little bit further along the paths of giants.

But Bob Dylan doesn’t play favorites

Bob Dylan on the other hand seems to have turned nothing away. Everything he’s read, heard, dreamed, or ingested has been stored away awaiting deployment in his work. He did it not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, but because in the process of creating he’s given all of those influences back to us. He’s a torchbearer carrying the light handed to him, who stops along the way to make sure everyone who wants to, can have a fire of their own.

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