Bob Dylan’s sticky fingers

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

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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 He resigned from the New Yorker; Imagine was withdrawn from retailers.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.