“Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.” — Joni Mitchell, Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2010
Caterwauling Canuck “folk singer” Joni Mitchell got just about everybody riled up with that sweet morsel of self-serving insight, but the real shock is not that Mitchell is absolutely correct but that someone finally came out and said it. After decades of carefully manicured deification by Columbia Records, brain-dead rock critics and the slimy elite institution that elevated such barely able snake-oil salesmen as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to celestial heights, it’s high time to flout indoctrination and examine Dylan’s track record as a Grade-A phony.
Most Dylan fans would be stunned to realize that his vocal style (for lack of a better term) was high-jacked, in its entirety, from long-dead bluegrass-country singer Carter Stanley. We’re not talking about an influence, like Lefty Frizzell for Merle Haggard, but a total appropriation of Stanley’s highly idiosyncratic approach. A counterfeit from the get-go, once Dylan realized what an advantage his audience’s innate ignorance was, he’s exploited it ever since.
Just type “Bob Dylan plagiarism” into your friendly search engine, and a plethora of questionable circumstances pop up, enrobing the singer almost as completely as his years of reflexive media fawning have. Documented from his teenage start, when he submitted a hand written, thinly revised version of country star Hank Snow’s “Little Buddy” for publication as an original poem, to his 1963 pilferage of Irish poet Dominic Behan’s “Patriot Game”‘s melody for the similarly slanted Dylan tune “With God on Our Side” to songwriter James Damiano’s ongoing multimillion dollar copyright infringement suit (alleging Dylan’s Grammy-nominated “Dignity” is nothing but an altered version of Damiano’s “Steel Guitars”) to the naked “Red Sails in the Sunset” melody heist for the song “Beyond The Horizon” on his Modern Times album, up through the recent Confessions of a Yakuza–Love & Theft plagiarism charges (Love & Theft? Calling Dr. Freud!), the Timrod controversy, even the numerous passages of Proust and Jack London that (re) appear in the text of Dylan’s autobiography, it’s a deep, dark thicket of thoroughly damning and apparently chronic bootlegging. Naturally, Dylan has said nothing publicly about any of these, but he already spent over three million dollars defending himself against one-time affiliate Damiano–the classic delay-to-destroy court room technique.
Defenders and apologist have an extraordinary array of excuses on Zim’s behalf, from use of “literary allusion” to his building a “cultural collage,” or that his “borrowing” is “homage,” to the more deliciously desperate “he obviously doesn’t NEED to do it” (strangely, though, he always has). This instamatic, Clinton-ian excuse making serves only to further polish up the shine on Dylan’s teflon hubris and to underscore the blind, Pavlovian worship which he has long enjoyed. Let’s face it: as a lyricist, Dylan is crap, inarguably unworthy beside, say, Hank Cochran, Chuck Berry, Mickey Newbury or Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower” plays as a lead balloon even for Hendrix, nearly deflating his Electric Ladyland masterpiece).
While we’re endlessly told that “The pump don’t work / cause the vandals took the handle” is vintage Dylan worthy of class room study, in truth it’s little more than the wordy spew of a peripatetic rhyming dictionary who’ll hang any phrase together as long as it fits. Metaphor is convenience, not expression for Dylan. His songs have also treated women quite badly: the entire attitude of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is ugly; “Just Like a Woman” is nothing short of misogynistic, but, worst of all, Dylan’s sheer verbosity has ineradicably stained American pop music, and we’ve all had to suffer through the post-Dylan legacy of long-winded nonsense (“American Pie,” anyone?).
Dylan and Mitchell
The real tragedy is that none of these very well-documented and nigh irrefutable plagiarism charges will ever emerge from the shadows, as the Cult of Zimmerman’s hulking form casts a very, very long one. Even when the Hank Snow rip-off stared the world in its face, the strongest reaction was a nervous giggle and murmurs of youthful indiscretion. To capitulate the carefully constructed myth of folk music and Dylan’s subsequent installation as rock & roll’s poet laureate is unthinkable, a hot, hit-the-panic-button nightmare for generations of quiescent “hipsters” never weaned from the million-selling Dylan teat. His socio-cultural mystique is also an industry-manufactured sham, one that very handily diverted attention away from genuine political stink-stirrers like the MC5 or the lysergic guerilla warfare of the 13th Floor Elevators.
As a junta-backed counter-culture figurehead, Dylan is ideal: a harmless, unoriginal patsy, a cute insouciant whose relentlessly self-involved stance never threatened anyone, save for the hazard of the droning lip service endlessly paid him. We should all praise Joni Mitchell for this overdue call-out (just don’t ask us to listen to her records), but it’s unlikely that any in the Zim Cult will even consider the ramifications of her statement. But when you pile it up with all the rest, there’s a single conclusion to be made: Bob Dylan is an artistic (and ethical) fraud, one whose own fear of creativity has long since given way to an apparently lifelong practice of emulating his superiors by vampirism, siphoning off their intellectual blood and using it to top off his own under-baked efforts. Weirdly, even then, the results have been scarcely palatable.