Weekly Roundup: Confessions Of A Yakuza Edition

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.

* * *

For TTAC I discussed the unbearable being of lightness. For R&T, I predicted a future shortage in club-racing-compatible cars. As always, thank you for reading.

25 Replies to “Weekly Roundup: Confessions Of A Yakuza Edition”

  1. AvatarWhiskeyRiver

    We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We practice our particular arts on their shoulders. Often the slings and arrows shot our way are only a fraction of their burden.

    in my particular profession (network engineer) we stand on those shoulders and build on it. It is as it should be. You do it too, I hope.

    Long live US… We are all we have.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Something I think about quite often: Somebody had to write the free (GNU) version of Bell Labs ‘ls’.

      Without him, and other people like him…

  2. Avatar-Nate

    I’m a Dylan fan, many are not aware of his incredible range .

    Agreed, America is where it’s at ~ those who think otherwise need to try living elsewhere for a year or so .


  3. Avatarstingray65

    Your R&T commentary on the state of racing was very interesting. I’m not sure a lack of manual transmission vehicles is a problem for future racers, since most people growing up today don’t know how to drive a manual and would be unlikely to want to learn while racing with someone on their tail. I also suspect that a current Escape or Colorado in racing prep would run circles around a prepped 1970s Pinto or Vega. Similarly, I suspect an 6 cylinder X3 or F-150 Eco-boost in racing prep would give a prepped 1980s 325i or Mustang all they could handle around a race course, so I’m not sure the the movement to crossovers and pickups is necessarily a problem for racing. In fact, the movement towards AWD/4WD race vehicles might encourage more European style rally cross racing on tracks offering a mixture of pavement and dirt, which is a very entertaining type of racing. The bigger question is whether the smart phone generation of young people will ever bother to get their head’s out of their phones and get a driver’s license, much less race.

    • Avatarsilentsod

      Running heavy vehicles is going to lead to more common parts breakage and a higher rate of consumables use (pads, rotors, etc). Part of what makes racing even semi-affordable with something like a Miata is the fact they’re so easy on consumables.

  4. AvatarSteve Ulfelder

    In my last Conway Sax novel, I used this line: The fingertips know what the brain does not.

    It’s a great line, which is why I swiped it. I tried manfully to make it clear the line was lifted; the character who voices the line says clearly that it’s from a song by a band he digs.

    But wouldn’t you know it: In an 80,000-word book, that was THE line that readers, including critics, remembered and cited. To tell you the truth, it made me feel like a hack – I wrote a 300-page novel and the standout sentence is somebody else’s?

    BTW, the line comes from “Please Hold on While the Train Is Moving” by Old 97’s.

  5. AvatarE. Bryant

    Both of the linked articles are interesting.

    With regards to vehicle weight, I’ve got a ZL1 that weighs in at 4175 or so with me in the driver’s seat and a half-tank of fuel, and with its lightest wheel/tire set installed. But it’s a bombproof car that has survived many, many track days and dragstrip runs while making 650+ RWHP, so I’m less inclined to get misty-eyed about its lighter predecessors which required major surgery in the form of different transmissions and rear axles if pushed much beyond stock, and which would twist themselves into pretzels whenever control inputs would change. As Keith Bontrager said, “Cheap, durable, light – pick any two”. As much as I’d like to achieve a similar power-to-weight ratio by decreasing the denominator, it ain’t happening on my budget.

    Also note that fancy light parts tend to be much more difficult to repair and modify, where as a crude stamped-steel lower control arm can be bent back into shape with a variety of simple hand tools and some heat from an oxyacetylene torch if it happens to get damaged from a brief off-road excursion. Do not try that with a forged aluminum component.

    By the way, said Camaro is the lightest in my fleet. The ’08 Ford F-250 that did daily-driver duty up until a year ago weighed 7800 lbs when I rolled across the scales at the local dragstrip. Despite dropping considerable weight when I ditched the stock poverty-level steel wheels for a set of aluminum take-offs from a new Super Duty, I did not note any improvement in ride or handling. It may have something to do with the fact that this vehicle carries roughly the current weight of a Miata as unsprung weight.

    Your R&T article touched upon something my friends and I only briefly considered as a passing thought during a late-night wrenching session. Certainly, we’ve seen a precipitous dropoff in small-car sales dating back to the mid-aughts, and while the present state of the niche car market is surprisingly healthy considering all the various headwinds, it won’t take much of an additional shift towards austerity in the auto market to kill off the remaining enthusiast platforms (and enthusiast brands such as Mazda). The business case for enthusiast cars only works in lean times when there are compatible platforms and production plants to be leveraged, and right now, it doesn’t appear that there will be many opportunities to do so in the near future (unless one’s idea of fun is the Ford Raptor and Wrangler Rubicon).

    The next industry downtown is going to be brutal, and the loss of a few sporty models might be the least of anyone’s concerns when a few big brands go away or get sucked up in the corporate merger process.

  6. AvatarJohn C.

    It is interesting to think about creativity and getting older. You see so many artists going around playing their hits from 30-50 years before and wonder why did the creativity just dry up when there still around trying. You see them later in their career mash up with someone from the next generation like Santana with Rob Thomas or Sting replace the Police with soulful mystery meat as some form of desperation to recover what used to come easily.

    So many of us deep into middle age find ourselves trying to start new ventures and wonder if we still have it in us. My listening lately has been the rather odd combination of early 70s Glen Campbell and early 80s Loverboy. Campbell provides the mature voice of having been around and experienced a few things. Loverboy for that youthful energy and searching. Glen Campbell couldn’t keep it going creatively and just reverted to singing the old stuff. To hear Loverboy today belt out badly “The Kid is Hot Tonight” just reminds that life doesn’t always work out as intended.

  7. AvatarCJinSD

    /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./

    Does he have a point? If he’d used one idea or phrase from a book he’d read, I’d agree it was harmless use of inspiration. This feels more like the ‘effort’ of someone who assumed he’d ripped off a forgotten work. His employment of offense as the best defense drives it home.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I don’t know. Dylan has never presented himself as a completely original creation: even his showbiz name is a direct statement of that, being taken from Dylan Thomas.

      • AvatarJohn C.

        He could be pretty protective of his own work. The Byrds and the Turtles in the 60s did not earn his respect by covering him. Roger McGuin in concert these days goes on and on about trying to buddy up to Dylan

        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          I think he was sensitive to the fact that he wasn’t always the best performer of his own work. Everybody from Joan Baez to Sara Watkins to Maria Muldaur to Madeline Peyroux to… I admit it… Axl Rose has done his work better than he did.

          • Avatarrambo furum

            “I like a lot of Bob’s songs. Musically he’s not very gifted.” — Joni Mitchell

  8. AvatarSpud Boy

    I never understood the appeal of Bob Dylan. I own thousands of songs from every era since the 1950s; not a single Bob Dylan track.

    • Avatarbbakkerr

      This is something I struggle with as well. I want to see what brilliance others see in him, but it hasn’t happened yet. Without catching the bug in my youth, it won’t happen as easily now, but I remain open to the possibility.

      It happened with Rush and the Grateful Dead. Some switch in my head was flipped later in life, and I can’t be without ’em now. Bob’s Lanois-produced albums came as close as any to endearing themselves to me, but it went no further. Yet.

    • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

      For me, the lack of appeal is his voice. The word’s often are genius, the structure of the music is often great, it’s just the voice. And this is coming from someone who makes Bill Golden sound like a tenor, and speaks with a cadence that makes Forrest Gump sound like he’s on meth.

      My favorite Dylan song is Hendix’s cover of All Along The Watchtower.

      • Avatarhank chinaski

        Yes that voice, to my philistine ears most reminiscent of Gabby Johnson’s authentic frontier gibberish. But of vocals, what do I know, being another Rush fan? As for later in life achievement, Snakes and Arrows is one of their better works, IMHO, and their recent live performances do not disappoint even 30 years after first seeing them.

  9. AvatarRock36

    I recommend “Old Master’s and Young Geniuses: The two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity” by David Galenson. He does a good job of making the case that artistic creativity is not the only the purview of the young.

  10. AvatarScottS

    It’s OK to look over one’s shoulder occasionally but to dally too long in the past is not healthy. Our tomorrows are all that matter and tomorrow is the only thing we can hope to influence the outcome.

    Speaking of influencing outcomes, I would like to know how to convince some our automakers to build some truly lightweight performance cars for a change. The Mazda Miata is a small beacon of hope in an era where most cars are clinically obese by human standards. I think there is hope for f86 platform if they ditch that useless excuse for a back seat. There is no reason that car can come in under 2,500 lbs. I am saddened when I read for the 4th of 5ht time about the ~ 3,100 lb. “lightweight” Evora 400. This is a lotus for God’s Sake! Here I am spending a fortune to whittle a Z06 down under 2900 lbs when all I really want to do is buy one from Chevrolet.

    • AvatarJohn C.

      The weight gain has been much more prominent on the 911 than the Corvette. In 74, first year of big bumpers, the 911 weighed 2740 and the Corvette 3650 pounds. For 2018, the 911 weighs 3153 and the Corvette 3298 pounds. Yet lots of talk of fat Corvettes.

      • AvatarScottS

        Looking at the latest and greatest Corvette performance model, the 2019 ZR1, the curb weight is given as 3,560 to 3,618 lbs. By contrast the Porsche 911 GT3 RS curb weight is 3,153 lb, a large delta any way you slice it. The ZR1 may prove to be the faster of this pair on a number of tracks, but it will burn much more fuel and consumer tires and brakes at a much higher rate. The 911 was a relative featherweight 35 years ago, but we are living in the present.

    • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

      I see the weight gains being caused by two things; safety and comfort. On the safety front you have things like roll over protection (much heavier/bigger A pillars, now with air bags in them), a dozen airbags scattered through out your vehicle, a guardrail in each door, etc. On the comfort part you have 72 way adjustable power seats, a 12 speaker stereo system, HVAC with vents going to a dozen different places, etc. While each individually might only be a pound, add them all up and your talking some real weight.

      • AvatarScottS

        You are certainly correct about the impact of safety equipment and creature comforts catering to the core buying demographic. The other big drivers of Corvette weight gain are 1) additional chassis stiffness to allow for Targa/Convertible configurations. 2) Automatic transmission (new to Z06/ZR1), and 3) Supercharger and related cooling systems. These three items account for most of avg. 430 lb increase over the C6 generation Z06.

  11. AvatarDirtRoads

    Dylan wrote some great songs, all done better by the next person who covered them. Hendrix being the best of them. I always wished Jimmy could’ve covered some of my songs so I could retire. Alas, that ship has sailed. 🙁


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