Would you let your daughter marry someone like Bob Dylan? I sure won’t let mine do that. The man is an unrepentant reactionary, an obvious phony and — the gravest charge that could be levelled against a performing artist — an incorrigible plagiarist.
If you were left scratching your head earlier this month over how this overrated, 75-year-old folk singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, you were not alone. Dylan’s peers, who knew him when he was Bob Zimmerman, a nice Jewish boy from Duluth, Minnesota, struggling to make it in New York’s Village in the early 1960s, are equally baffled. How was he able, over the years, to convince the world that his asinine lyrics are high poetry, pregnant with hidden profundities, and the Swedish Academy recently into crediting him with “creating new poetic expressions within the great American tradition”?
That Dylan failed to acknowledge the honour was, said Per Wastberg, an academy member, “impolite and arrogant [but] he is who he is”. So who is Bob Dylan?
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2010, folk legend Joni Mitchell, Dylan’s contemporary, said this: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.” And the well-known music critic, Jonny Whiteside, writing in LA Weekly, was just as blunt. “After years of carefully manicured deification,” he said, “the time has come to flout indoctrination and examine Dylan’s track record as a Grade A phony.”
Those of my generation who grew up — to resurrect an extinct colloquialism in the United States from the 1960s — grooving on Dylan’s music were scandalised when he turned wacko between 1979 and 1981, a period which began with the release of Slow Train Coming, a collection of dull songs, imbued with mean-spirited spirituality, about his “awakening” as an evangelical Christian. And those others, also from my generation, but who grew up in Palestine and loved what they thought were his protest songs against injustice — like those composed by Woody Guthrie, whom Dylan vainly tried to impersonate all his life — were aghast, shocked and enraged when he came out in 1983 with Infidels.
This was an album that contained the notoriously reactionary song, Neighborhood Bully, which glorified the war Israel had launched against Lebanon the year before, in which Dylan referred to how Arabs everywhere were ganging up on a defenceless Jewish state that stood alone, surrounded by vengeful hordes out to destroy it.
‘Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man/ his enemies say he’s on their land/ they got him outnumbered about a million to one/ he got no place to escape, no place to run ...’ Dylan wailed. The song, a bitter, impassioned and indignant defence of Israel’s atrocities in Lebanon, instantly struck many listeners as a crude and alarmingly bigoted piece of Zionist rhetoric, but most of these listeners, being the entrenched fans they were, put aside their concerns.
Few wanted to believe that Dylan had all along been a parochial and small-minded artist unable to transcend his tribal roots. Tellingly, the inner jacket of the album showed Dylan as the unabashed Zionist, standing on the Mount of Olives in occupied Jerusalem, wearing a yarmulke, mournfully contemplating the Holy City below. Needless to say, Neighborhood Bully became a popular anthem among Likudniks and colonists in Israel.
Come to think of it, Dylan was never closeted as a Zionist extremist. After a visit to Israel in the 1970s, for example, he called Meir Kahane, the demented rabbi whose fascist party Kach openly called for “trucking” all Arabs out of Palestine, a “really sincere guy, he’s really put it all together”. Then, from there, Dylan went on to become an ardent supporter of the Chabad Lubavich movement, which holds a firm ultra-nationalist, “Eretz Israel” position on the occupation, and to contribute generously to the coffers of the Israel Emergency Fund, a right-wing outfit dedicated to colonising the West Bank.
Okay, call me a one-issue columnist who is trashing an iconic folk singer revered by millions around the world. Hold it against Dylan for his fervent support of the excesses of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, you say, but do not deny his “genius” as a lyricist. You cannot berate him for his views anymore than you can berate Ezra Pound because, in his time, he defended the venomous ideology embraced by Nazis.
Well, to start with, Bob Dylan is no Ezra Pound. Pound’s poetry, influenced by the movement, in the early 20th century, known as “imagism”, which derived from a typology of Japanese poetry that stressed clarity, precision and economy of language, was hefty. Bob Dylan’s poetry — if poetry it is — is pedestrian, even infantile. And Pound did not plagiarise. Dylan did.
In his album, Modern Times, for example, he borrowed heavily from the writings of the confederate poet Henry Timrod. In another album, Love and Theft, he plagiarised a dozen passages from a gangster novel, translated into English as Confessions of a Yakuza, written by an obscure Japanese author called Junichi Saga. Then came the controversy surrounding Thunder on the Mountain, a song also in Modern Times, that turned out to be a rephrasing — feel free to call it a rip off — of Ma Rainey, a song that the old blues great Memphis Minnie recorded in 1940.
And in his autobiography, Chronicles, published in 2004, Dylan was caught with his hand in the cookie jar — lifting passages, without attribution, from Marcel Proust and Jack London. The man was such a brazen, serial plagiarist that he even (hold on to your hat) cribbed material from Ovid. In Ovid’s Tristia, as a case in point, we read: “My cause is better/no one can claim that I ever took up arms against you”. Dylan’s song, Working Man’s blues, has the lines: ‘No one can ever claim/ hat I ever took up arms against you’. I got this from Richard Thomas, professor of classics at Harvard, who wrote a piece for the Journal of Oral History in March 2007, where he cited half a dozen other instances of pilfering from the Roman poet by Dylan.
And so it goes. Joni Mitchell, trust me, was not shooting her mouth when she disdained Dylan as a plagiarist — with a dreadful voice and a fake name.
Yet, he continues to enjoy a kind of Pavlovian worship among his fans, refusing to disappear into some well-deserved pit of oblivion. Instead, we’ve had Rolling Stone magazine paying court to him all these years, US President Barack Obama, in 2012, presenting him, in the White House, with the Medal of Freedom (while the child from Duluth disrespectfully kept his Roy Orbison glasses on) and Greil Marcus, the music critic credited with putting rock in a broader cultural context than is customary in journalism, urging readers in an op-ed piece in Gulf News earlier this month, on October 15, to think of Dylan’s songs as “thrillingly alive with the fumes of creation, discovery and experiment”.
Now, what we all want to know is this: What were the members of the Swedish Academy thinking when they voted to honour this man with the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.