Back when Bob Dylan was a mere scamp of around 19 or so, before he left for NYC to make his name and fortune, he stole a pile of hard-to-get records from the house of acquaintance Paul Nelson, a folk record collector. Now, granted that at the time it seems Dylan already had an overwhelming sense of destiny, and knew that he needed to study these records in order to better learn his sources and create the music he envisioned. But he didn’t ask to borrow them, he didn’t try to cut a deal to buy them – perhaps he knew this wouldn’t work. So instead, he broke into the house on the weekend when he knew Nelson would be away and he took them. About 25 records by Woody Guthrie, The New Lost City Ramblers, Cisco Houston and so on. In No Direction Home Dylan explains that he was a “musical expeditionary” and there was nowhere else in the Midwest to get these records, so…
Now in the light of what Dylan’s done and given to music and the world, the theft of those 25 records can seem like the most minor of sins, if a sin at all. They were necessary for Dylan to have for his growth. But it’s the hubris of the act that stands out still. If maybe he’d left behind a note explaining, saying this was the only way he could see to get the records and he’d send them back, please try and understand, he was sorry and he’d make it up some day down the road – anything like that – and it probably it would have gone down easier. As it was, Nelson knew it was Dylan who stole them anyway, and he and a friend eventually caught up with Dylan, threatening to beat him up. Tempers cooled and Dylan slipped off unharmed, soon went to NYC. The rest is history.
Dylan has, of course, been accused of stealing other things – melodies and lines from various songs and sources throughout his whole career. In music, however, especially blues and folk music, those practices are pretty well accepted. He did raise eyebrows higher recently as far as his “borrowings” when it was pointed out that he took passages from a number of writers and inserted them, uncredited, with slight changes, into his autobiography, Chronicles – Volume One. A few of the writers he took from were Jack London, Marcel Proust, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson among them.
Currently, Bob Dylan has an art exhibit at the prestigious Gargoshian Gallery in NYC, The Asia Series, 18 paintings with Asian themes. Dylan’s an interesting painter, not a great artist, but rather a gifted amateur artist whose work can be fascinating because we know it’s Dylan who’s painted them. Or else, maybe that’s not even true. Maybe they’re the work of a gifted amateur who imbues them with a noted freewheeling style and pulse of life, and if we didn’t know who painted them, we’d think they were very good works of an amateur.
Turns out, most of the paintings at the Gargoshian are not even Dylan’s original compositions. The paintings are very close copies of photographs, some fairly famous, some obscure. The gallery apparently didn’t realize this until it was pointed out by Dylan fans, who study his every move. The story was sprung on the pages of Expecting Rain, the Bob Dylan fan website. When news of it came out, the gallery offered this in response. “While the composition of some of Bob Dylan’s paintings is based on a variety of sources, including archival, historic images, the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colors and textures found in everyday scenes he observed during his travels.”
OK. But originally, they were presented at the gallery as paintings gleaned directly from Dylan’s travels in Asia. Not as Dylan painting from postcards and photos 50 or 100 years old. Not exactly honest, and to live outside the law, as Dylan generally does, you must be.
To put it into some perspective, painters have been doing this since the time or Raphael and Michaelangelo. They’d all paint famous or not so famous paintings of other artist’s paintings, in their own style. It’s no sin. It showed a measure of respect. But in those cases, historically, artists would credit the original. Dylan didn’t. If he’d only had the good sense to tell the gallery call it “The Asia Series – Reinterpretations” and named his various sources, there’d be no outcry, no charges of plagiarism, no brouhaha.
But he didn’t. He attempted to steal them without explanation and got caught. That old hubris again, following him around after all these years like a mangy dog he doesn’t particularly care to shake.
Why bother explaining anything? He’s Bob Dylan, after all.