The Dylan exhibition. Photo: Getty
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Bob Dylan’s sticky fingers

What does it feel like to have your work “remixed” – maybe even ripped off – by Bob Dylan?

About a week ago, Public Radio Exchange uploaded an episode of a “storytelling” show called The Moth in which the disgraced former New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer recalled the moment when his career ended. “I get a call,” he said, in a voice so full of remorse that it was hard to listen to, “[and] I learn that another writer had discovered that I’d fabricated several Bob Dylan quotes... I’d been a lifelong Dylan fan and was familiar with approximate versions of what he’d said. So I put in those approximations to make it sound better… Then I forgot they were there.” He had passed off paraphrased lines as direct quotations to serve the argument of his book Imagine, and was busted.

Shortly before the exposure of this rather trivial blunder, Lehrer had been called out for multiple instances of self-plagiarism. He knew that his reputation, already tarnished, couldn’t take another hit so soon. So when Michael C Moynihan of the Tablet website pressed him for page references, transcripts, whatever would corroborate his story and its account of Dylan, Lehrer panicked and lied to Moynihan about the quotations’ provenance. Then he crumbled under the pressure and admitted to the fabrications. He resigned from the New Yorker; Imagine was withdrawn from retailers. That book concerned our “ability to imagine what has never existed”. It was a bitter irony that this ability proved to be the author’s undoing.

I wrote at the time that Lehrer’s transgressions were simply errors of judgement, and that his punishment by his profession was disproportionate to his misdeeds. His self-plagiarism was lazy – in a sort of homage to Lehrer, I’ve liberally cannibalised my 2012 article in the paragraphs above – and to misquote Bob so carelessly was dumb. But when Lehrer recounted the “sordid details” of his conduct on The Moth, I couldn’t help but think that they weren’t particularly sordid. He hadn’t killed anybody, or even hired Russian prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed once slept in by an adversary. At least Lehrer was accurate in how he had characterised Dylan – he wrote, in essence, that the singer likes to claim there’s no “great message” in his work, and dislikes being asked to explain himself. These alternative facts were very much like the real facts.

When Bob Dylan does explain himself, he is usually wildly creative with the truth in a way that makes Lehrer look like the bodily incarnation of snopes.com. Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, lifted chunks out of Jack London novels and 1960s magazine articles to tell the story of his career. Yet it didn’t matter to me that he’d mopped the words of others, because the effect of the book as a whole was convincing. For example, the singer described Johnny Cash as seeming as if he was “at the edge of the fire, or in deep snow”. Though this was pretty much how London had described a character called “Scruff” Mackenzie in an 1899 short story, it didn’t read as any less true of Cash. By blurring fact and fiction in this way, Dylan – now a Nobel laureate – gestured towards the commonality of human experience across the ages. (And probably saved himself some time at the laptop, too. Thinking up new stuff is hard.)

“In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition,” Dylan explained in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone. “It's an old thing.” Accusations of plagiarism had been hurled at him since the mid-1960s (not so long ago, the writer Michael Gray expressed disappointment at the troubling similarities between Marty Stuart’s “The Observations of a Crow” and Dylan’s Oscar-winning 2000 song “Things Have Changed”), but the singer didn’t care. “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff,” he said.

Yet I wondered what it would feel like to be “quoted” by Dylan. What did Leonard Cohen think when he first heard “Love Sick”, the opening song of Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind, which spookily echoed the Canadian’s “Waiting for the Miracle”, released five years earlier? What would the folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford have made of one of his lines – “A railroad man, they’ll kill you when he can and drink up your blood like wine” – cropping up in Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” in only slightly edited form (“They say that all the railroad men drink up your blood like wine”)? Both Cohen and Lunsford are dead, so I contacted two people whom Dylan seems to have “quoted” over the past year. They’re not musicians, however, and neither is at all well known.

In recent decades, Dylan has brought his sticky-fingered folk approach to visual art. In September 2011, his first major US exhibition, “The Asia Series”, opened at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. “I paint mostly from real life,” he said in the interview printed in the catalogue. But it soon emerged that his definition of “real life” included work by other artists; one painting depicting an elderly Chinese man was quickly identified as having been based on a 1948 photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Dylan continued working in this appropriative method in his latest show, “The Beaten Path”, which closed last month at the Halcyon Gallery in London. Reviewing the exhibition, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones called him a “Hockney-like painter” and imagined, in a wonderfully evocative piece of writing, how the images were conceived:

Dylan comes along and sketches your car because he likes it parked there outside some fast food joint. He paints a knish and bagel shop, and the blue and yellow light inside it, and the graffiti along the street. He looks up and paints the vastness of skyscrapers, the glory of Manhattan Bridge, or a burning desert sky…

Yet the compositions here seem, again, to have been born of Dylan’s magpie instinct: his love of an idea, then his theft of it. And also his perverse instinct to pull people’s leg at any given opportunity. “For this series of paintings, the idea was to create pictures that would not be misinterpreted or misunderstood,” Dylan wrote in the “Beaten Path” catalogue. “The attempt was made to represent reality and images as they are without idealising them.” If these were his true intentions, however, he failed the instant he decided to source his reference images online and wantonly mistitle his final paintings – all, it seems, to create a sense of a mythic, expansive America that exists more in his dreams than anywhere else.

Lisa Thompson Bagherpour, a 53-year-old resident of Sewell, New Jersey, was recently contacted through the art-sharing website deviantart.com by “a person stating that Mr Dylan had used one of my pictures”. When she checked her photograph of an old building “up the street” from her home against a Dylan painting titled New England Depot, she noted their similarity: the railway tracks at the base of the images slope at the same angle; the shuttered windows in both catch the same light. This was not New England. This was New Jersey. And though Jonathan Jones wrote of Dylan that “this guy can look”, here it was Bagherpour who had done the initial looking.

“I was really excited and honoured,” she told me when I messaged her on Facebook about her discovery. “It is just nice knowing that there are a lot of people that see and like my pictures.” When I asked her what she thought about Dylan’s methodology, she was forgiving and philosophical: “Everyone has to get inspiration from someone or something and it just happened to be my photo.” Bagherpour told me that she shares her imagery online “so that people can use them to help them create their own works of art”; she asks only that they credit her. The fact that Dylan failed to do so was a disappointment, but Bagherpour, as a fellow artist, insists that she “can understand” why he was silent about the origins of his ideas.

The blogger Diamond Geezer, who posts pictures and writes anonymously from his home in Bow, east London, was similarly contacted by Scott Warmuth – a kind of Dylan detective – who had spotted that a holiday snap the blogger had taken in Blackpool had somehow formed the basis of Dylan’s painting Norfolk, Virginia Pier. “Take a look and let me know what you think,” wrote Warmuth. “When I superimpose them, they align perfectly.”

Diamond Geezer, like Bagherpour, was “surprised and intrigued” by Dylan’s appropriation of his image. Yet he told me that he wasn’t “angry”; rather, he was simply baffled by the matter of “why… he’d label Blackpool as Virginia”. He speculated that the singer-songwriter-painter was “wilfully bending the truth”, and that this “might just be part of the art. All sorts of artistic things aren’t what they look like, or what they say they are.”

Neither Diamond Geezer nor Bagherpour intends to pursue any legal action, which I feel is correct and generous. Perhaps it is because both are practitioners in their own right that they understand this artistic process of theft – creativity is, in the end, a matter of fashioning new things out of what has gone before. A few years ago, I wrote that Dylan’s work, at its best, has always been “characterised by an exhilarating omnivorousness. The restless, mercurial energy of his music is partly derived from how each of his songs contains multitudes of other voices.” Now we know that these other voices – in Dylan’s music, films, visual art and writing – include not only those of Shakespeare and Keats but also east-London bloggers and hobbyist photographers posting on deviantart.com.

Dylan’s next album, Triplicate, will be his third collection of American standards in a row. Yet, in a sense, his career has been a long, interpretive cover version that mixes up fragments of human thought and experience into a soup that tastes unlike anything served up before. Jonah Lehrer stole from himself and fudged some quotes and ended up exiled. Dylan steals from everybody but gets away with it. He can’t help it if he’s lucky. There is no man around who can track or chain him down – let’s hope he keeps robbing us all blind.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.