Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bob Dylan -- Beg, Borrow or Steal?

Looks like Bob Dylan -- who was accused of lifting lyrics from a Japanese writer for his 2001 "Love and Theft" disc -- now stands accused of pulling a few refrains from Civil War poet and Charleston native Henry Timrod.

On the one hand, you think, why in the world can't an artist like Dylan do what he's always done, write his own words?

On the other, Dylan is a sponge who absorbs everything he can find. I like to think I was the first person -- although I probably wasn't -- to notice that Dylan cribbed several lyrics from his underrated mid-1980s Empire Burlesque from films like The Maltese Falcon and The Hustler.

(This is common knowledge today, but it came upon me very naturally way back in the day, during a chance viewing of the Bogart classic, and I published my findings in a small little newspaper column no one ever read. So to me that makes me the first, if only in my own head.)

It might be worth noting that one of the best songs on the disc is "The Levee's Gonna Break," which seems to pay homage to the thunderous Led Zep classic "When the Levee Breaks" -- although, actually, Zep got the song from someone named Memphis Minnie, and I suspect that's where Dylan got it too.

How weird is it that Dylan reads Henry Timrod, a poet almost no one who is not a lit professor or a South Carolina history buff can name? I think he's one of those names like William Gilmore Sims, who exists only for the doctoral theses of the woefully desperate.

If nothing else, this story contradicts that old cliche that "Great artists steal, minor artists borrow." Dylan appears to be the great artist who borrowed, because Modern Times is a great, great disc and I can't stop playing the damned thing.

It's gorgeous and more than that, it has the incandescence of his best records, by which I mean bottomless, that it keeps giving back more, listen for listen.It grows on you, the songs improve more with each listen, open up a little more.

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