Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Scott Warmuth Weighs In On Dylan's Latest Appropriations

Early example of Dylanesque obfuscation.
When accusations of plagiarism began emerging after Dylan's Nobel Prize lecture was released two weeks ago, I headed to Scott Warmuth's Goon Talk blog to see whether he had published anything yet. Nothing. That is, nothing on this topic. A few years back I began following his Pinterest page devoted to revealing the sources of lines and word imagery appropriated into Chronicles: Volume 1, Masked and Anonymous, Time Out of Mind, Modern Times, Together Through Life, Tempest and "Love and Theft" and what an interesting undertaking he's immersed himself in, noteworthy enough to have received inclusion in David Kinney's The Dylanologists.

In a Spin.com article by Marc Hogan, Kinney calls Warmuth the Internet sleuth "who deciphered Dylan’s own Da Vinci Code." Rather than wait however long before getting his take I took the initiative and was rewarded with the following interview.

EN: The initial response to Dylan's speech, most writers took it as straightforward, calling it "Extraordinary", revealing and a work of art. But a few days went by and the questions began, focusing primarily on the Moby Dick section. You would add that this (Moby Dick) is only the beginning. What are some of the other sources you've observed so far in this speech?

SW: The Charlie Poole verse from "You Ain't Talkin' to Me" that doesn’t appear in Poole’s version was a topic of discussion and news articles. bobschool on expectingrain.com suggests that it is likely a contemporary verse written by a fellow named Jim Krause.



There’s material that appears to be crafted from the CliffsNotes to All Quiet on The Western Front and The Odyssey. Below are a couple of examples.

Dylan: This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals.

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/a/all-quiet-on-the-western-front/summary-and-analysis/chapter-7    This generation is one that has lost its childhood, its dreams, its faith in a meaningful world, and its concern for the individual.

Dylan: All around you, your comrades are dying. Dying from abdominal wounds, double amputations, shattered hipbones, and you think, "I'm only twenty years old, but I'm capable of killing anybody. Even my father if he came at me."

https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/a/all-quiet-on-the-western-front/summary-and-analysis/chapter-6   Only twenty years old, he is already a grim mercenary capable of killing all adversaries, even if his "own father came over with them."

EN: What was the first trigger event that inspired you to dig this deeply into Dylan's appropriations?

SW: During that awful September of 2001 I tossed Dylan's "Love And Theft" in my cart on a whim while shopping at a big box store, not expecting anything. It became my favorite album of all time, and I am a record collector with thousands of albums. I became captivated by it, and with thoughts of Dylan’s writing process.

A trigger event beyond just loving the record was an article in The Wall Street Journal in 2003 that discussed how a fellow named Chris Johnson discovered some parallels between some of the lyrics on "Love And Theft" and an oral history of a Japanese gangster. I was fascinated with that story, but not because it was a case of “gotcha” or anything like that. It was the serendipity strikes component tied with learning about some of the moving parts of a work that I love that captivated me.

In 2006 I appeared on NPR's All Things Considered and I told Robert Siegel that I wanted to know what was on Bob Dylan's bookshelf (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6076801). I had some basic questions: I wonder what Bob Dylan reads? I wonder what’s in his record collection? I also had questions about his creative process. I tried to create fortunate happenstance and look in the right places. The works I was initially most interested in were “Love And Theft,” Chronicles: Volume One and the Masked And Anonymous script. More recently I’ve been spending time considering his paintings. I've learned that he reads a lot of books and listens to a lot of records.

EN: Dylan has always played cat and mouse with the media, hasn't he? What do you surmise with regard to this latest set of appropriations? He seems too smart for this to be just a faux pas. He has to know "people are paying attention." What's your take on Dylan's motivations? And since nothing ever remains the same, how have your views changed over the two decades you've been doing this?

SW: In the lecture Dylan states, “If a song moves you, that's all that's important. I don't have to know what a song means. I've written all kinds of things into my songs. And I'm not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don't think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.”

So, there’s that aspect, which I get – just enjoy it for what it is. There is another side to that as well. In my essay “Vive le Vol: Bob Dylan and the Importance of Being Ernest Hemingway” I suggest that Dylan aligns himself with German music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825 – 1904), who argued for the active listener, one who listens to music with the intent of discovering the method of composition, over the passive listener, for whom music is merely sound to float in. I argue that Dylan does this via the use of bits from Hanslick’s 1854 book On the Musically Beautiful in Chronicles: Volume One.

If Dylan has written all kinds of things into his songs, as he states, it is incumbent on the dedicated student to consider these things.

I’m not interested in the “Bob Dylan is a plagiarist” angle at all. There’s nothing more boring. I am taken with the notion of Dylan positioning himself as outlaw appropriation artist. Dylan writes about meeting "Robyn Whitlaw, the outlaw artist" - a fictional character - in Chronicles: Volume One. His interactions with Richard Prince play into this as well.

I like outlaw appropriation art, especially if it pisses people off. I love that there aren’t any rules and that everything goes. The Cramps have a wonderful song that asks, "How far can too far go?" What matters is if an artist has anything to say. Bob Neuwirth makes this point in No Direction Home. He says, "Basically, the way people were rated you know, they'd say 'Have you seen Ornette Coleman? Does he have anything to say?' And it was the same with, like with Bob or anybody else. Do they have anything to say or not?"

Bob Dylan has plenty to say and I dig that he isn’t interested in articulating his subversiveness as doctrine. On an episode of Theme Time Radio Dylan stated, “I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.”

When Dylan’s outlaw appropriation artist persona is firing on all cylinders it is nuanced and fascinating. He combines language from a New Orleans travel guide and Hemingway to deliver a telescoped version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, creating a subtext about his unattended, neglected muse that lies hidden behind a shaggy dog story about a hand injury in Chronicles: Volume One.

He crafted "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," using found lines and musical source material, to function as a response to the Grateful Dead's "Uncle John's Band."

Those things went unnoticed for years, and it's the type of outlaw appropriation art I can get behind. It takes time to recognize some of these things. Slow is the new fast. The Nobel lecture has only been around for a couple of days. You must consider the possibility there are things going in in that lecture that we don't recognize yet. All sorts of things could bubble up.

Perhaps it's not the type of work that some want from Bob Dylan, but it's the kind of work he's been doing and it's apropos to explore these themes and approaches.

There’s the push and pull between finding what is there (such as the low hanging fruit in the Nobel lecture) and considering why it is there. I argue that in his essay in The Beaten Path catalog Dylan has incorporated a bit from a John Greenleaf Whittier short story called “The Fish I Didn’t Catch.”

That story ends with, “When I hear people boasting of a work as yet undone, and trying to anticipate the credit which belongs only to actual achievement, I call to mind that scene by the brookside, and the wise caution of my uncle in that particular instance takes the form of a proverb universal application: ‘Never brag of your fish before you catch him.’”

Locating a few of the moving parts in the Nobel lecture is not catching the fish.

EN: You stated in one post that you were already delving into Together Through Life before it was released. How did you acquire your copy so you could be so quick on the draw?

SW: It was leaked on the Internet. Nothing special – a lot of people had the recordings before the release date.

EN: And since nothing ever remains the same, how have your views changed over the two decades you've been doing this?

SW: That small window into his artistic process has freed me in terms of making my own art. Learning about how Bob Dylan goes about creating some of his work has been liberating. I had great respect and admiration for his work before I ever started looking into with any type of real focus, and now I have even more respect and admiration.

Check out my Instagram feed if you haven't already.


My 3rd Richard Prince/Bob Dylan book. 8x10" (20x25cm), matte hardcover, standard paper 60lb/90gr, 34 pages. Edition of 2. (2017) NFS. From The Richard Prince/Bob Dylan Series


My 1st Richard Prince/Bob Dylan book. 8"x10" (20x25cm), matte hardcover, standard paper 90gr, 26 pages (2015) NFS. From The Richard

Prince/Bob Dylan Series





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In Closing

For more on Love and Theft, check out the source material where some of the tunes themselves originated.

And finally, my previous blog post about Mr. Warmuth.

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Meantime, life goes on all around you. Open your eyes. 

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