It is widely acknowledged that creativity and inventiveness wane greatly in the face of youth. Einstein made his breakthroughs before thirty then famously stated that a scientist who had not made a great contribution before thirty would never do so. Writers tend to lose steam as they leave middle age, if not before. Then, of course, you have musicians, who often do their best work before they turn twenty-one and whose later efforts are often shambolic at best.
No surprise, however, that Bob Dylan is the exception to that rule. Love And Theft, recorded after his fifty-ninth birthday and slightly overlooked on its release date of September 11, 2001, stands easily among his most famous work. Most of the songs are musically simple, but that’s always been the case for the man who was born as Robert Zimmerman but whose reinvention as “Bob Dylan” was but the first of many such transformations. With Love And Theft it’s the odd rhythms of the storytelling, the wild swings between sentimentality and hard-nosed realism, the sly way in which the lyrics work their way into your ear.
Not all of the lyrics are his.
It’s been conclusively demonstrated that about fifteen phrases found in the album are directly or partially lifted from an English translation of the book Confessions of a Yakuza by doctor-turned-novelist Junichi Saga. Pressed on the matter, Dylan responded ” “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff… if you think it’s so easy to quote [external sources] and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get.” The man has a point.
Another thing that Dylan noted about his “borrowing” is that it lifts the original sources back into circulation, giving them a life they would not otherwise have. I think he’s right, and I think borrowing is the correct word. Plagiarism is when you steal something wholesale and add nothing; I can think of one rather repugnant current example in the “automotive space” but there’s no sense in dwelling on the matter. Borrowing, by contrast, is when you improve or expand on the source. To the best of our knowledge, Shakespeare never created a plot from whole cloth. Geoffrey Chaucer relied heavily on Giovanni Boccaccio for scenes and ideas. Yet I would defy you to drag your eyes through Holinshed’s Chronicles and tell me that you could have produced “Henry V” from that rather dry recitation of occurrences.
Over the past few days, I’ve read “Confessions Of A Yakuza” cover to cover. It’s a remarkably pleasant and easy-to-read book, but there is nothing extraordinary about it. By modern standards it’s tame fare: the yakuza in question isn’t the hyper-deadly Sato from “Black Rain” but rather the placid, hard-working operator of a suburban gambling house whose one excursion into genuine violence is when he kills (in self-defense) a fellow so vile and disagreeable that the man’s own parents plead with the court on the yakuza’s behalf. Most of the events recounted in the plot take place between the two world wars; to my mind, the primary merit of the work is how it turns the Second World War into a distant menace that, like the monster in “Cloverfield”, is only viewed at a distance until the moment it becomes unavoidable.
With that said, the combination of Saga’s plain source prose and the utterly businesslike translation lends the book a sort of brusquely strangeness that is helped along by the fact that it occurs in the fading past. These factors combine to create a sort of accidental quotability; there are sentences and phrases that hang in the mind for me as they apparently did for Dylan.
“Floater” is the song on the album that contains the most borrowing, yet the verse that sticks with me is entirely Dylan’s:
My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes
It’s delivered in an way that perfectly conveys Depression-era hopelessness. I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes. There is such a thing as being so poor than you can’t even afford hope. Yet this verse exists in perfectly harmony with Saga’s tale of a yakuza who, at one point, had so much money that he used it to pad the crib of his associate’s newborn. “When there was an accident we would burn the notes.” That, in turn, makes me think of certain scenes in the new Tom Cruise movie, American Made, where the amount of cash coming in exceeds the protagonist’s ability to bury it.
This is how art gets made. You start with one source: the stories of the old yakuza, told to the author over the course of multiple visits and distilled into a short book. Then Dylan reads the book and sets parts of it to music. Someone else down the line will be inspired by the album and they will create something of their own. Love And Theft is really good. Not Blood On The Tracks good, but very good. For Dylan to have created it while he was hard-up against his seventh decade amounts to a minor miracle. When I was younger and feeling bad about my lack of success, which was more properly a lack of effort, as a writer, I would take comfort in the fact that Tom Clancy didn’t get a novel published until he was thirty-six. Which is pretty far in my rearview mirror nowadays. Maybe the most I’m going to do is to inspire some younger writers the way I was inspired by Setright, Baxter, and Bedard. I could live with that. It’s not too much to ask.
Before we get to the part of this post where I cover last week’s writing, I want to take a minute to talk about something that happened around this time last year. When I was still in my late thirties I struck up a relationship with a much younger woman whom I knew from one of my contract jobs. Eventually her husband found out. They always do. I had a short talk with him in which he explained to me how much he loved his wife and how much he wanted to make the relationship work. At the time I wasn’t exactly short on options for companionship so I agreed to leave her alone. Every once in a while, however, she would reach out and I would have lunch or dinner with her. On November 4, 2010, she agreed to be my date for the Bob Dylan concert here in Columbus. It was one of the last times I saw her. I found out a while ago that she took her own life last spring. Her husband had her cremated. There isn’t even a gravestone for me to visit. It is not possible for me to believe that there is nothing left of her but those discarded ashes. This song, which appears halfway through the album discussed above, is for her. I’ll take you ‘cross the river, dear / You’ve no need to linger here / I know the kinds of things you like.