By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
The news that Bob Dylan was selling the copyright of 600 of his songs to Universal Music reminds me of a story I read somewhere about how assiduous the young Dylan was in amassing that intellectual property. Dylan would haunt the folk music shows, soak up melody lines and arrangements by such groups as the Clancy Brothers, write his own (brilliant) lyrics to the melodies and rush off to get them copyrighted.
The Clancy Brothers would find that some song they’d been singing now, technically at least, belonged to Bob Dylan.
From that time on, while he did some crazy things like giving songs away, in the main he jealously protected his intellectual property. He was fine giving permission for the hundreds of cover versions of his songs, but made it very difficult for writers who wanted to quote him, other than in critical works or blogsites such as Untold Dylan.
He was dead set against bootleggers ripping off his performances, and for many years there was constant battle between the bootleggers and the Web Sheriff on You Tube – an ongoing war, and a losing one, against copyright infringement. Videos would appear and disappear and reappear again. This still goes on to some extent, despite the flood of material onto You Tube.
Looking at this history, we see a Dylan very concerned with the integrity of his property, with a fierce sense of propriety when it came to his songs.
Now he’s cashing out. Or as some prefer to see it, selling out to the big musical corporates. Not everybody is comfortable with that.
When the news came out, The Guardian newspaper somewhat gleefully commented: ‘The fact that he’s ceded control of how the songs are used might cause palpitations for a certain kind of Dylan nut. Will this Nobel prize winner’s hallowed oeuvre now be allowed to play on the soundtrack of anything, no matter how inappropriate, so long as someone stumps up the requisite cash?’ (Bob Dylan’s rights sale all part of his freewheelin’ approach to business, Dec 7).
Judas! I can hear someone yelling from the middle rows.
Not happy with this sideswipe at Dylan’s admirers, The Guardian goes on to list all the adverts Dylan has been in, or his songs have been in, and comments, ‘If you look online, you can find Dylan fans tying themselves in knots attempting to square his fondness for adverts with their image of him as an artist above petty materialistic concerns but, in truth, after a tricky start – he dissolved his relationship with his 1960s manager Albert Grossman after discovering that his hastily signed contract entitled Grossman to 50% of his song publishing rights – he’s become impressively savvy when it comes to business.’
What this article doesn’t say is that all the young Dylan had to do was look around at the way managers treated Elvis Presley and Jimmy Hendrix, to get the picture.
However, fair to say there has been some agonizing on the Untold Dylan Facebook page, with wounded declarations that ‘these are his songs and he can do what he likes with them.’
I have no intention of ‘tying myself in knots’ defending the Great Cashout. My approach to Dylan has been solely through the songs and the way he sings them, not because of some idealized image I have projected onto him. I love and admire the songs and performances, not Dylan, whoever he may be. It is the songs and the performances that show the artist, not what he does with his money or how he disposes of his property.
Famously, Shakespeare left their marriage bed to his wife, specified in his will (but nothing else, it seems) and people have expressed surprise that the great artist who had plumbed the depths of tragedy and scaled the heights of comedy should be so downright bourgeois in his worldly ambitions. People also expressed amazement that Kahlil Gibran, the great mystic poet and author of that best seller, The Prophet, should die of alcoholism and despair. I just wrote The Prophet, Gibran complained, I wasn’t the prophet. The famous Chilean Marxist poet, Pablo Neruda, who identified himself with the working man, also owned several large houses. And so on and so on.
We may build up expectations of artists because of their work, and our response to it. Arguably, this has been made worse by the ‘follow’ culture, but it’s all about projection rather than hypocrisy.
I have only one thought to offer here. I’m going to suggest, with a full awareness that this is mere speculation, that the Great Cashout may have a spiritual function or dimension. I see it not so much as a sellout but a divestment. Property can become a burden. Fussing over it, defending it from rip-off merchants, hoarding it, growing it, all this activity can become wearisome.
By renouncing that which has occupied his whole working life, the 79 year old Dylan takes a step towards freeing himself from the material concerns of the world, an important step in preparation for death.
‘Three miles north of Purgatory one step from the great beyond ’
he sings in Crossing the Rubicon. At times during his last album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, we get the feeling that he is entering some intermediary zone between life and death, and I suspect you can’t enter that zone carrying your property on your back.
Life is enacted in three parts, and the third part is a period of preparation for death and ‘the great beyond’. To some extent I want to evoke the spiritual journey evident in Dylan’s evolution as an artist. Christianity is not the only religion that requires us to ‘lay our burden down’, but it comes to mind where Dylan is concerned.
I am suggesting that it is the renunciation of ownership that lies behind the Great Cashout. The Great Cashout is, at the same time, the Great Disowning. The Great Letting Go. We could push this further and suggest that, as the spirit approaches the Great Beyond, ownership becomes meaningless. You can’t own the wind.
Am I conveniently forgetting the cool $300 million now in the singer’s back pocket? Hardly. Cash is not property. Cash is more ephemeral than a song. Cash can turn to ashes in your mouth if you have to sell that which is most precious to you to get it. But look at it this way – Dylan is now finally free. He is no longer ‘Dylan’, owner operator of his own intellectual property. Now he has no property; he is no longer Bob Dylan in the sense we knew. He has effected a separation from his life and work. He is already a shade.
One final point. The Great Cashout is also the Great Dispersal. All those amazing lyrics, which grew out of the popular culture of which he was a part, have now returned to the cultural cauldron from which they arose, the cultural cauldron celebrated in ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Murder Most Foul’. Dust returns to dust. Since Universal Music can now slice and dice, mix and remix his words, use them as they want to sell what they can, the very sense of a ‘Bob Dylan song’ may become problematic as time goes on.
Picture a man in a bar, alone. As he watches a woman leave, some mood music swells. A male voiceover says, in an insinuating voice, ‘Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?’ The man grins ruefully. The camera focuses on a bottle of whisky: Heaven’s Door, the most expensive on the shelf.
‘But life sure has its compensations,’ the voiceover says. ‘And you ain’t goin nowhere.’
Ain’t that the truth?.
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