Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, and the Parrot Wins Prescience Prize

Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature! This was worth getting up early for!

Dylan, who already won a special award from the Pulitzer Prize committee, has been mentioned before in connection with the big magilla of literary prizes. So it would not be especially interesting if I had squawked it again. But on September 19th I sent a letter to the editors of Poets and Writers magazine in response to a reference to Dylan in one of their features. Since they have not responded, much less shown any sign that they would publish it, I'm reproducing the entire text here:

Dear Editor,

Poets and Writers is a source of essential advice and deep insights into the writing process - the reason I have subscribed almost continuously since the time I first thought about trying to publish my creative writing. But as with any forum that dispenses literary advice it is also sometimes a source of narrow-minded prejudices. Such dubious views are sometimes found, for example, in "The Aha! Moment", where agents, editors and others point to what they did or didn't like about a story, a query letter, or in the latest (Sept/Oct) issue, an MFA admissions essay. Commenting on a candidate's use of an alleged quotation from Bob Dylan - "The purpose of art is to stop time" - Kate Daniels of the Vanderbilt University MFA program writes: "...I'm thrown off a bit by the reference to Bob Dylan at the end of the paragraph - why didn't she find a poet's quote on this rather frequent topic in literature[?]..." This comment just about stopped my breathing, if not time. First I had to find the source of the alleged quote, which, as far as I can tell, is an interview conducted by Allen Ginsberg in the journal Telegraph (#33, Summer 1989) on the subject of Dylan's film, Reynaldo and Clara. Ginsberg begins by asking Dylan, "What attracts you, as a poet, to movies?". Well, there's "a poet's quote", if you will. The Dylan quote itself does not actually exist, though it is a close paraphrase of some things Dylan had to say about his film. Next, I wondered if Daniels is simply ignorant of the existence of Tarantula, Dylan's 1971 collection that interleaves experimental poetry, micro-fiction and memoir; though an even greater worry is that she may be implying a  critical judgment of that book that would end up removing the label "poetry" from an awful lot of work whose poetic credentials we take for granted. Furthermore, is Daniels judging prospective (and current?) MFA students on a definition of poetry so narrow that verses like Dylan's do not count as poetry? That would be a pity, for I strongly suspect that history will not sustain her view. The "extraordinary poetic power" of Dylan's "lyrical compositions" has been cited by the Pulitzer Prize committee; his writing has been the subject of an in-depth literary analysis by Christopher Ricks and various philosophical works and the like. In the end, though, whatever may be the status of Dylan as a "poet" in some formal sense, the notion that he is not a sufficiently respectable literary artist to be a fine source of a quote on the purpose of art is very hard to accept. I should think there are few people on earth more qualified to offer their two cents on that subject than Bob Dylan, who is not only considered one of the greatest musicians and lyricists of all time but has also published six books of drawings, many of which have been exhibited in galleries and museums. No offense to Tennyson, Baudelaire, Stevens or whoever Daniels might be thinking of, but few people in the history of the arts carry quite the same authority as Bob Dylan.

No, I did not sign it "Sincerely, Parrot". I guess they don't need to publish it now anyway, since the good old Swedes have said it so elegantly for me.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Glenn Branca Ascends in Brooklyn

The New York Downtown arts scene – the music side of it in particular – is something I've touched at a dozen different points without ever grabbing hold of it. Like a leitmotif it keeps showing up on the edges of my life, and I keep resisting the idea of making it my scene. This is usually followed by regret, years later, when I see how rich and enduring it is and how lovingly its true exponents and fans embrace it.

Still, not really feeling a part of the scene doesn't quite explain why I have never been to a Glenn Branca concert until tonight, though I was aware of his music almost from the time he set foot in New York in the late 1970's. I suppose I have told this story before, but since most of the readers of this blog won't have heard it why not give it one more chance. When I was a student at the Mannes Conservatory – now a college of the New School – in the late 1970's, my brother and I formed a rock band. We quickly outgrew the Upper West Side bedroom we had converted into a music studio and started looking for rehearsal space – one that was all but free, since we had very little money. I can't recall how we found it – probably an ad in the Village Voice – but we managed to locate someone who wanted to share a basement rehearsal studio at 262 Mott St. That someone was Jules Baptiste, who founded the band Red Decade. At that time Jules was performing with Glenn Branca; that's how I heard of him, and his "symphony for 100 guitars". It sounded like a crazy idea, not to mention probably too loud for my tastes. Besides, since Jules was playing landlord – and, we assumed, having us largely subsidize his studio – we sometimes just barely got along, so running out to see him play wasn't a top priority.

Well, there it stood, for, um... about 37 years – until tonight. Today, the stars just aligned – thanks to my wife taking my daughter and mother-in-law on a cruise to Halifax (the purpose of it, lest there be any confusion, was not specifically to allow me to see Glenn Branca). Having that rare, momentary notion of myself as a "free man" from around 2:30 p.m. today until a few days from now, I was already more open than usual to the concept of an evening adventure. The notice of a Branca concert this very night – at Roulette, an easy trip on the R train from my remote Bay Ridge location – somehow slid beneath my eye as I leafed through the NY Times. Even more enticing, the premier of a memorial piece for David Bowie, with whom Branca had briefly collaborated and who was an admirer of his music.

So there I was at the stroke of 8:00, complimentary earplugs in hand, ready to experience my first Branca concert. What did it feel like? Well, not very different from the day I sat in a different Downtown room (The Kitchen, I think) waiting to hear my first (and last) Cecil Taylor concert. Expectations of an immersive but not terribly easy experience. Nothing I can take out on the street and hum as I head back to the subway. A feeling of obligation – to myself, to St Cecilia, to some spiritual link that I can only place by thinking of a lot of vague connections. I look around, and imagine everyone over 50 to be someone I either know, or should know, but can't recognize after decades of hair style and body weight changes. Patrons of the Downtown circuit who have either had works performed here or at least smoked dope with Phillip Glass, if not Andy Warhol. Feeling oddly at home, like I belong here, even though everyone knows everyone else, or so I assume.

The first item on the program was a set of six pieces called The Third Ascension, a recent work for four guitars, bass and drums. Each piece had a slightly different impact. The first, "German Expressionism", seemed to have more open sounds and events than some of the others, though it also featured a bit of energetic improv, not to say wilding, by Reg Bloor (who is Branca's wife). Next was "The Smoke (Guitar Concerto for Arad Evans)", hardly a concerto in anything remotely like your usual sense, and featuring smoother and more tonal sonorities than the first. After a change in the guitar tunings, the next two pieces also featured the trance-like continuities that make the Downtown music scene what it is. I found both of them too loud to enjoy, even with the deeply appreciated earplugs. (I did not wear them through the whole concert but for these two pieces they were hardly out.)

Another tuning change preceded what turned out to be my favorite piece of the evening, "Twisting in Space", a mutating cloud of appealing soundscapes that reminded me a bit of something Robert Fripp and Brian Eno might have come up with. The last piece, "Cold Thing (La Belle Dame Sans Merci)" is, I suppose, appropriate to its subject, though once again I found the sonorities a bit harder to take than, say, the sound of two Boeing 767's landing on either side of you.

Finally at the end of the concert, with no special announcement or fanfare, came The Bowie tribute, "The Light (for David)". This I have to say was a complete success, for me at least: I felt transported, mesmerized in the way this kind of music is supposed to achieve, and had no inclination to reach for the earplugs in spite of the volume. In fact I was sorry it ended, as I was about as close to feeling stoned as I have ever been without drugs. (Okay, one bottle of Brooklyn Lager – does that count?) Bowie, I think, would have been pleased.

As for Branca, he "conducts", after a fashion; at least he signals changes of sonority to the performers. His music is oddly metrical, sometimes even sporting a heavy backbeat on the drums, and with the energetic drumming of Owen Weaver behind the ensemble there is no real need to keep a beat. Instead, Branca sways, bends his knees and swoons, extends his arms like St. Francis receiving the stigmata, and sometimes ushers the performers towards a change of volume or tempo. When he speaks (with some difficulty) he offers comments that suggest he is well aware of how challenging his music is – "We're only just getting started!" (three pieces into the concert); "we have another tuning change, so go get yourself a drink – you may need it".

Well, that's one down on my list of obligations. I see four upcoming Rhys Chatham concerts in the NY area – will I manage to get to one? That would be after, not 37 years, but let's be honest, more like 47. Rhys was my classmate at the Third Street Music School back around 1969 or so. Our teacher, Tom Manoff, kept close tabs on the new music scene, and took the class to visit Morton Subotnick's studio, where he demonstrated an early Buchla synthesizer. Manoff was the first person to encourage me to compose music. I don't recall seeing Rhys again after a went to college and left the Third Street settlement. I should pay him a visit.

(P.S. - Why no pictures or video clips? They were recording the concert and asked us not to take any pictures.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Wait Watcher: Foos, Talese and the Voyeur's Motel

Judged by the timeliness of my posts this hardly even counts as a blog. On the other hand, if something is not worth talking about two months after it was current it was probably never worth talking about in the first place. With that in mind, I turn to Gay Talese's provocative article in the April 11 New Yorker entitled "The Voyeur's Motel".

Talese describes a relationship he developed with a man in Colorado whose voyeuristic inclinations were so overpowering that he went to the length of buying a motel and outfitting the ceilings of the guest rooms with customized gratings that allowed him, from an attic runway constructed with equal care, to view his guests in their bedrooms and bathrooms without their knowledge. It is not the first time we have heard this sort of thing - I recall a guy who was eventually caught after installing two-way mirrors in his guest rooms - but Talese's subject, by the name of Gerald Foos, adds some interesting twists. 

Probably the most shocking is that his first and second wives were complicit in his activities, though neither one had more than a passing interest if any in voyeurism herself; indeed, the first wife helped him by acting as a subject and assistant to ensure both accurate placement of the gratings and his careful concealment behind them. Both apparently had sex with him regularly, unperturbed by his obsessive voyeurism. Another twist is that he not only kept this habit up for 15 years, but took copious notes, including what one might generously call philosophical, or at least sociological, reflections on what he was observing. (It sounds like masturbation was the first order of priority, though, with the notes "reflected in tranquility", if I may.) And the last is that he reached out to Talese and invited him out to the motel, shared his activities with him, sent him copies of what he had written and finally released him from any obligation to keep it private - brave stuff for a guy who spied on his paying guests for a decade and a half.

I have no intention of repeating the rest of the details here; by all means read the New Yorker piece, or Talese's new book from which it is excerpted, if you are interested (curious, excited, disgusted, outraged...) Quite a few people have commented on the ethics of Talese's lengthy relationship with Foos and his decision not to expose him to the police. That's all fair game but not my concern here. What I want to discuss is what Talese makes of all this, and what he doesn't. In the article, at least, it seems to me that he makes some great observations but avoids judgment on the deepest moral issues of the situation.

He does hit the psychological nail on the head a couple of times. One is the following general characterization of voyeurism: "A voyeur is motivated by anticipation; he invests endless hours in the hope of seeing what he wishes to see. Yet for every erotic episode he witnesses he is also privy to hundreds of mundane moments representing the ordinary daily routines..." Anyone who has been in a situation where there was an expectation of some discreet, sexually titillating experience of neighborly nudity, knows that this is exactly how it is: you wait, and wait, maybe staring at a dark window hoping a light will come on, or a lighted window hoping your subject will enter the frame, and if they do, you then wait, and wait, and wait as they do stuff around the house, entertain guests, or whatever, until something either happens, perhaps so quickly that you can rub your blurry eyes and miss it, or the light goes out and you just completely wasted a good chunk of time. 

Talese captures this feeling so well you can't help but wonder if learning about it really required studying Gerald Foos. Most guys have been there, by pressure if not by choice. Early in my first semester at college (I was 16 at the time) some guy talk over dinner turned to the matter of a very impressive young woman on the female side of the dormitory, and one of the group announced that she regularly disrobed with her curtains open right across the courtyard from his window, where he and his friends took in the show. Several of us were invited to participate in the viewing that evening. Unfortunately or not, depending on which side of the window you were on, no such performance took place on that occasion. 

Most men don't seek this stuff out in the obsessive manner of Gerald Foos, or buy a telescope like Dudley Moore in 10 - but then again, I knew a fellow, a co-worker at my first computer programming job, whose window faced the monumental apartment buildings across the Hudson in Jersey City, and who not only told me that he bought an excellent telescope for exactly this reason, but assured me that his attractive Filipino wife tolerated and occasionally participated in his astronomical pursuits. In any case, there are few innocents at this sport among men who have lived in an urban or college environment, and anyone who has allowed himself (or herself) to get particularly entranced with a certain subject can surely attest that there is no greater threat to human accomplishment than the time wasted waiting for some skin or lingerie to be revealed. One can only imagine what it must have been like for Foos, hour after dusty hour up in the attic, day in day out, hoping that some woman or couple, preferably not too unattractive, would put on a show, above the sheets, with the lights on. Adding up all the juicy moments he did observe might sound like grounds for some perverse jealousy, until you divide it into the hours he spent waiting, or the number of disappointments, which should have us thanking our lucky stars that we never found a motel to buy.

The other great observation Talese makes follows from this. He says of Foos's journal, "The more I read, the more convinced I became that Foos's stilted metaphysics were his way of attempting to elevate his disturbing pastime into something of value." That says a lot more than might appear at first glance. The voyeur is torn by two passions: the desire to make something of himself, and the obsession with watching others. In fact they are more or less the same thing: the creative impulse is there in the naughty act of getting some kind of sensual gratification with minimal effort, a vicarious sex act without all the preliminary engagement that having sex usually involves. The voyeur locates himself outside the social world, looking at it, judging it, using it, and that impulse could equally be the pose of an artist or writer. In fact that is precisely what an artist is, a voyeur of other lives, only not of a strictly sexual sort. The voyeur's entire creative impulse has been hijacked by one of its components, the sexual one, and he struggles with that and tries to do what he can to even it out. Foos is brilliant in a slightly cockamamie way, for he has managed to close the gap - by his own less than perfect logic - between the time-wasting, energy-sapping, often demoralizing pursuit that he is literally addicted to, and the true Foos that he believes is inside: the astute observer of humanity, the writer with original thoughts on the human condition. 

By my lights, Talese gets high marks for these insights. Foos, too, gets high marks, in a way, for the occasional honest reflections that Talese reports him making. After numerous clandestine observations of dishonest and degrading activity by his guests he begins to refer to himself as a "futilitarian" - the word put me in mind of the aesthetics of Stanley Kubrick rather than British moral theory, not because Kubrick once famously depicted a deranged hotel manager, but because in film after film he offers glimpses of a human psyche that mounts a tremendous, but ultimately futile struggle against its own fatal flaws. Elsewhere Talese quotes Foos referring to voyeurs as "cripples" who are "flawed and imperfect" (as writers too, apparently). Foos may be slimy but he is neither stupid nor entirely deluded about himself, and that is part of what makes him an object of interest for Talese, and for us.

But apart from the interesting psychology and neo-Victorian titillation of the story there are moral issues that Talese is somewhat reserved about confronting. Foos makes it clear that he does not think his spying is morally depraved, and he has arguments to back this up. The arguments are essentially: (1) nobody can be considered harmed if they never know they are harmed; (2) there is no other way to acquire untarnished sociological data on human nature and sexuality, for letting your subjects know they are subjects would alter their behavior, and the purer data is valuable in itself; and (3) given the extent of government and corporate surveillance in society today, there is no one with the moral authority to criticize his extremely limited and petty form of surveillance. I have reformulated these theses a bit, but I believe they represent the key points of Foos's defense of his behavior as reported by Talese. There are also strong suggestions that Foos thinks most people are bigger slimebuckets than he is and don't deserve his respect, but this is an indefensible general judgment and not really a claim worth considering.

What to make of these claims? Talese does not really engage with them, at least not by way of assessing their value as arguments; but they point in the direction of fairly fundamental moral issues. Let's take them one at a time.

The easiest to deal with, I think, is the second point. There are ethical standards for conducting scientific research, and to accept Foos's view would mean jettisoning some of them wholesale. That in itself doesn't prove anything, but the consequences can be ramified. The suggestion is that it is okay to conduct research on human subjects without their knowledge or consent if it is the best way to do it and may have benefits. Suppose we want to test a new drug that we know has a negligible effect on the vast majority of people - let's say it turns one hair on their heads a slightly lighter shade of their actual hair color - but where that effect can give us important information about its use in curing an insidious disease. Let's also say that people who know they are being given the drug immediately develop resistance to it. May we dose some unaware members of the population at large with the drug? It seems obvious that we are not allowed to do that, for many different reasons. One is that we can't be sure that there won't be a few people who have severe allergic reactions to the drug; just as Foos can't guarantee that he won't slip, causing one of his guests to become aware that they have been viewed, whereupon they might suffer severe psychological harm at this knowledge. There is virtually no personally invasive act that can be guaranteed never to have consequences, so we cannot utilize subjects in this way even if we intend to cause them no harm. Kant says that we cannot use people as means to our ends no matter how great the benefits, for to do so is to devalue one of the things that defines them as human beings: their ability to exercise free will. That is a thought worth pondering whenever one is tempted to minimize the damage done to others by using them in ways they would not choose to be used.

This point has some relevance to a broader debate in another context: the use of aggregate Internet usage data for commercial or security purposes without the consent of those whose actions are being accumulated. Even if individuals cannot be identified from the data, there is no getting around the fact that it is specific actions we have taken, many of which we would not choose to share if asked, that are the source of the aggregate facts. There is something very disturbing about knowing that someone - via some software robot - is gathering information on your buying habits, Google searches, Facebook posts and the like, and either selling it to others for marketing purposes or mining its security value. We want to have a say even in this remote and apparently harmless practice because it just seems wrong that anyone can track the actions of ordinary people and use the results for their own purposes. We want to be the judges of whether our actions should be collected, categorized and cross-referenced, not Google and certainly not the likes of Gerald Foos.

So I think the research excuse goes out the door pretty swiftly. What about the  surveillance argument? If everyone does it, who is going to throw the first stone? Well, I have just more or less committed myself to the idea that Foos's "research" is on the same unsound moral ground as Internet surveillance, so clearly I think there is a relationship there. But what of the fact that civil society permits this surveillance to go on, and the government and private entities actually do it, so no one has the moral standing to call what Foos was doing "wrong"? This point is valid, but it doesn't make his activities any better, it simply means that we have failed to correct the larger social problem. Ask yourself: would we consider the government better or worse if it simply threw up its hands and overlooked invasions of privacy in every form after recognizing its own transgressions? The answer is obvious, and points to a fact that the clever but not bright Foos overlooks: that he is a kind of predator, and we always want to be protected from predators, regardless of what other faults there may be with the executive function of government. 

This point stands even if we make more allowance than we probably should for Foos's alleged "research". Let's say his research amounts to something of value; that doesn't change the predatory nature of his behavior. Keep in mind that jerking off came first - he even claimed to have sex with his wife in his attic perch, turned on I guess by what he had seen that night. One seriously doubts that he would have created this attic of iniquity if he had for some reason been unable to receive sexual gratification and only conduct his putative sociological observations. Voyeurs do not deserve to be categorized with rapists, child molesters or other sexual offenders who directly take hold of the bodies of their victims, but they are predators of a sort, who know they are (often, at least) taking advantage of subjects in a way they would not consent to. Back to Kant, someone I suspect Foos never read (or at least understood).

That leaves the victimless crime argument. Here we get into some nasty tangles. Can someone be called a victim if they never know they are a victim? Can someone be said to have been "harmed" if they did not suffer in any way whatsoever? Let's say someone breaks into your house while you are gone, but does it so carefully that they leave no trace, take nothing from you, and leave before you get back. Can we say they harmed you? Assume you live in remote woods where there are no neighbors to see these breakins. Now let's say they happen every day of your life and you never notice a single thing - have you been harmed? 

This is a little like such "metaphysical" questions as "If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it does it make a noise?" and "Isn't it possible that the universe disappears for a split second while you are asleep and comes back exactly as it was?" It's the knowledge issue: to what extent does our judgment of what is depend on our understanding of what we can know? Aristotle asked if it was possible to harm the dead. Most people don't worry about such things, but Gerald Foos and his ilk force us to consider these sorts of questions.

I will admit that my response to this argument is somewhat colored by my response to another issue of sexual ethics, specifically the issue of child pornography. As disgusted as I am that it even exists, I do not feel that viewing it should be a crime, nor even downloading it or possessing it except with intent to sell or distribute it. I have a serious problem with the notion that the mere exercise of one's sense faculties should be a crime under virtually any circumstances. You can perhaps point to viewing classified information as a counterexample, but once I again I would say, if the person has done nothing to facilitate or abet the release of such information, but just, for instance, went to some ordinary location where they had heard that such information would be available, they are guilty of no morally reprehensible act. People who create or in any way abet the creation or distribution of child pornography should face severe penalties, but people who do nothing but view it - especially online, where the practical obstacles to receiving it may be minimal - should at worst be referred for counseling.

The question for me is, what is Gerald Foos guilty of other than observing what was readily available to his senses? Certainly he was not merely opening his eyes, and allowing them to remain open as a person disrobed in his visual field. Foos created these opportunities, but what does that mean, exactly? If I happen to know that a woman regularly disrobes in front of a remote open window that is viewable from a certain angle, and I place myself there at the right time to catch a view of her, I am also creating an opportunity. What have I done wrong, exactly? Here you could say that I took advantage of the trust, built into our every day lives, that people will not go out of their way to create opportunities that involve utilizing us for their own ends. The situation is perhaps something like stealing someone's identity for a purpose that does not directly harm them financially, but entangles their personhood in something they would most likely not do if asked. Now what about Foos? He went well beyond standing in front of a window. Actually he apparently started out doing just that. (You can read the lurid details in Talese's article.) But how does his motel operation differ from that?

As I see it, the motel operation involves a similar kind of betrayal of unspoken trust, but also something even more objectionable: it involves an intent to deceive. Foos carefully constructed his viewing opportunities in such a way as to ensure that the grating in the ceiling would deceive his guests into assuming that they were simply air control ducts. He adjusted them to hide his presence, and designed the attic to keep his activities secret, all the while expecting guests to walk innocently into his lair. In handing them the keys to their rooms he conveyed an unwritten code that they would experience a certain level of privacy common to such situations, all the while knowing that they would be maximally exposed. 

This is a little like handing in a plagiarized term paper or dissertation: you actively take advantage of the code of trust (which may or may not be explicit) that this is your own work in order to get something that the other person in the transaction would not otherwise give you. It is also a bit like undisclosed corporate surveillance of office workers - keystroke counters, hidden cameras and the like. But it is not like federal surveillance of suspects for whom we have strong evidence that they may be committing crimes. This is a mistake Foos makes, perhaps a result of his experiences seeing or hearing guests do things that might throw questions on their own integrity. There may be no angels among us, but it is a fundamental tenet of a democratic society that no one can be subjected to such invasions of privacy on the basis of something like Foos's "futilitarianism". Even disregarding legal restrictions on warrants and the like, without a reason to believe that a particular individual is violating your trust you have no legitimate reason to invade their privacy. 

Foos betrayed and deceived his guests, violating the norms of society that operate in these situations, but did not refrain from charging them a fee for providing him with an opportunity to fulfill his urges and fantasies. In the big picture, they paid him for the possibility of maintaining the palace of perversion in which they were abused. What he should have done is open a motel for exhibitionists and announce to them at the outset that they would be watched, perhaps receiving some money from those who sought out such situations and offering a reasonable sum to those who might otherwise be reluctant. This might not have made him enough money to maintain the operation, but that's life.

So I have answered the third question indirectly, because I think we have to accept the idea that the notion of "harm" should be restricted to injuries that have a material effect on us, which usually means we have to be aware of them directly or indirectly, immediately or in the future. That is not the case when someone is merely watched, without further consequences. But betrayal is not limited to "harm" and carries its own moral weight. No one can be called innocent for having an affair that their spouse never finds out about, at least if the spouse would feel betrayed had it become known to them. Thus there are moral standards where the bar is lower than that of causing "harm". And in most of those cases, we as a society know what Foos's subjects may not personally know: that if we let things like this go by, we are all in danger of become the sorts of victims that Foos's guests became.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cold Plagiarism, or Your Grammie's Calling

The parrot was looking around for an opening to reclaim his spot in the cultural jungle, when what does he espy from his new lamppost in Bay Ridge but a New Yorker blog regarding the alleged filching of a certain guitar intro to the usual top contender for Greatest Rock and Roll Song of All Time. That would be... think carefully... Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator"? Warm... Blue Oyster Cult's "Stairway to the Stars"? Warmer... Traffic, "Heaven is in Your Mind"? It seems to be on the tip of your tongue. Give up? Okay, think of Led Zeppelin's 10 best songs and you will probably, towards the bottom of the list, recall a tune called "Stairway to Heaven".

Now, think of Zep's 10 most plagiarized songs, and you will probably, towards the bottom of the list... (you can finish that one).

So I read this piece by Alex Ross and I can't help feeling that he misses the whole point. What he wants to do is give us a $2 music lesson on why the guitar intro of STH is not actually plagiarized from Spirit's "Taurus", and a list of other songs and classical sources that use the same chromatically descending bass line. Whereas my take on this and every other musical plagiarism case is basically, if it sounds like one is a substitute for the other with a few musically insignificant changes, and there is a history that demonstrates the later composer had access to the earlier composition, then it is plagiarized, and if either of those are not true, then it's not. The second condition is certainly met, in the STH case; the first is certainly not. You would not notice more than the vaguest similarity between the two intros if someone had not filed a suit hoping to win something slightly better than the lottery.

This is clearly a case of bandwagon litigation: Zep's generous borrowings are legendary by now, and they have in some cases been forced to give credit where credit is definitely due. The only thing due to Spirit or Michael Skidmore is a historical glance over the shoulder for being among the numerous users of a common bit of counterpoint. Compare Page's "Black Mountain Side" with Bert Jansch's considerably earlier performance of "Black Waterside" and you can hear what sounds like note for note copying of the arrangement for extended passages. (I heard Jansch play it in Brooklyn a few years before he died and it was cleaner than he was on this YouTube video, which brought out the similarity even more.) Page said somewhere that the tune was "going around the clubs" at the time. Regardless, he copied Jansch's arrangement without giving credit. Jansch never sued, though. Skidmore's attempt to spirit away part of the fortune Page & Plant made on Stairway is just crass golddigging.

Now, I could stop there, but I won't, and here's why. As I was thinking about contributing a few words to this glittering debate I went through my earlier posts to see if I had written anything on plagiarism in rock before - mainly to make sure I didn't grossly contradict myself (though parrots tend to be forgiven for such things). But all I found was this unpublished draft, which I found so funny at points that I figured let me just go ahead and publish it.Timely it's not - seems to have been written in 2009 or not long after - but then again, in light of the present plagiarism shindig, it almost is. Ross also mentions the similar spat between the Marvin Gaye family and Robin Thicke-Pharrell Williams' over "Blurred Lines". I don't get much out of that comparison either. Not like Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy", which a YouTube poster called out as sharing a melody with 4 Non Blondes' "What's Going On?" No lawsuit there yet, as far as I know. There seems to be a pattern here.

Well, if you like this sort of f stuff, read on. Here, more or less unexpurgated except for a few comments [in brackets] is what I wrote on this general subject a few years ago.

[Begin earlier draft] 
Let me start with a trivia question: In what year did Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Metallica, Robert Plant, B.B. King, George Strait, Randy Brecker, The Eagles, Bela Fleck, Al Green, Mickey Hart, They Might Be Giants, Peter Gabriel, John Williams, BeauSoleil, Burning Spear, George Carlin, Bernard Haitink and Peter Bogdanovitch all win Grammy awards? 1979 you say? A little too early for Metallica. 1989? Come on, be brave. Try 2009. Um, deep catalogue, anyone? Or, as the judicious Ben Sisario put it for the Times, "the awards followed a familiar Grammy pattern, in which soft, reverent material beats out more aggressive and youthful music". [Metallica?] Read: the music your Grandma listens to beats the music you listen to. Isn't that why they call them the "Grammies"? [I guess this formula would not apply so well to Kendrick Lamar!]

So what could be more soft and reverent than Chris Martin and his band of Christmas carollers? Or is that snow angels? Well, as it turns out, the sandman is softer than the snowman. So Raising Sand, the odd, willowy, unclassifiable collection of soporific songs by the former Zep frontman and the country music's femme fiddle Alison Krauss got a whole lotta love from the Recording Academy, at the expense of Coldplay's Viva la Vida, which had to settle for Best Rock Album (which it certainly isn't), Song of the Year (which it probably is) and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group (which is so impossible to define that it could have gone to any n-some under the sun, where n > 1). At least Coldplay, though they've been around for a decade, is only on their 4th album, and at least it is probably their best, though you may infer that I don't think that says very much. Radiohead, who allegedly played their first gig in 1986, and recorded their one solid album (The Bends) in 1995 [yes, I know Kid A has its fans - I'm not one of them], walked off with the Alternative award, their third nomination and second award in that category. If there are any Academy members listening, please note for future reference that this category is supposed to identify tasteful alternative music, not music that is an alternative to taste. Perhaps selling out Madison Square Garden is now a quid pro quo for acceptable "alternative" offerings. OK, The Mars Volta got some yellow metallic object for Hard Rock Performance, as did the Kings of Leon (a safer bet) for Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. At least it wasn't the Killers, whose trite little pop number about humans and "dancer" has "we wants a Grammy" written all over it (you're welcome for the missing "s").

Okay, Grammie is stuck in a ditch, and where does that leave Coldplay? Helping to dig her out? But they have some digging of their own to do. With shovel number one they will have to try to convince the judge that they did not swipe the tune from "Viva la Vida" from Joe Satriani's wordless guitar piece "If I Could Fly". Shovel number two may be just a playground scoop, enough to bury the claim by the Brooklyn band Creaky Boards that Coldplay's hit tune borrowed some ideas from their song "The Songs I Didn't Write"(!). Shovel number three is a mere teaspoon, all they'll need to deal with my suggestion that their song "Clocks" bears more than a passing resemblance to Dylan's well-known "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (on his Greatest Hits Vol.2, at least one Dylan tribute album, The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and also on The Basement Tapes, though that version is more chanted than sung). Of course there is the obvious nod in U2's direction with some of Coldplay's recent rhythm tracks, and the fact that they frequently sound like a poor man's Moody Blues. Influence, you know...

What is very striking here is that while the RIAA is out filing suits against 12-year-olds for copyright violation, their friends in the Recording Academy are perfectly happy to hand out awards for material whose originality has been challenged - very publicly in the case of the Satriani tune.

Is there a smoking gun here? Is there anything to worry about here? You can state the case for a negative answer very simply. If every case of obvious similarity in popular music resulted in a plagiarism charge and maybe a copyright infringement lawsuit, there wouldn't be many artists left standing. Not every ripoff is as famous as George Harrison's rather blatant adaptation of "She's So Fine" for the Indian mysticism market, or Zep's numerous assaults on the blues and folk repertory, or Dylan's liberal use of standards from below the Mason Dixon line, or Johnny Cash's hommage to Dylan's "Don't Think Twice..." in "Understand Your Man"... There was, for example, 10CC's pretty shameless copying of Jacques Brel's "Sons of..." in "The Film of My Love", an obscure tune at the end of The Original Soundtrack. There's a ton of this stuff going on. And you can extend that to literature, going all the way back to St. Augustine, apparently, or Anthony Trollope if you prefer. This is a way of writing off plagiarism as a moral issue in general, and in pop music in particular. You just look at the volume of it, and say it's common practice, and that's that. Kind of the way, when I was teaching, some students from old Soviet-bloc countries used to tell me about plagiarizing their papers: it's normal, everybody does it, why do you have a problem with it?

The other way of looking at it is this: there's a hell of a lot of room left for creativity in popular music, even if it sometimes doesn't seem that way due to the endlessly repetitive nature of major label releases and the volume of imitations ("Is that the All American Rejects on the radio or is that some new release from Green Day?" "Did he say this song is by the Stone Temple Pilots? Gee, it sounds just like Pearl Jam!" etc.) There is really no good reason even for copying riffs and tunes in a way that doesn't meet the cutoff for copyright infringement; it may not be illegal, but it's unethical and embarrassing. No author has to copy existing texts to say something, and allusion is of questionable value to the masses who don't get it, so why not stick with originality all the way through?

Well, there you have the two poles, what to do, what to do? To me, the first and most important step is simple, honest and more or less painless: credit your sources. "So I was listening to this Satriani album right after I dropped in on a gig by the Creaky Boards and suddenly I started putting together in my head what I heard and it came out as this song. Thanks to Joe and Creaky." Second, if there is any doubt whatsoever about how close you are to what came before, pay the mechanical rights. It costs very little to pay the rights to a couple of songs on an album; it's good for the artist you (may have) borrowed from, and it keeps you honest. Third, make sure you are really adding value to the material you started with, otherwise just call it a cover, or get your own music.

The first two of these are simple. It's the third that creates all the ruckus. When an artist thinks he has added enough value to some existing material, the tendency is to call it his own, reduce the appropriated source to "influence", and forget the niceties. But when is that the case? It can be a very tough judgment to make. For example, I don't think Billy Bragg adds much to Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" in his song "Ideology"; it's a ripoff, to my ears, same tune with lyrics that repeat the idea if not the exact content of Dylan's song. So, should Bragg have credited Dylan? Probably, but... then there is the possibility (actually just presented as fact in the Wikipedia entry on "Chimes of Freedom") that Dylan got the basis of the song from Dave Van Ronk... who got it from his Mom... who got it from who knows where... To my knowledge, Dylan has never sued anyone for copyright infringement.

[End original post]

And to that I only have to add: how many artists have ripped off Led Zeppelin and not given them credit? That list goes on and on. My point, finally, is that these petty, vague, ultimately very subjective claims of copyright infringement are morally and aesthetically contemptible. I once knew a photographer who sued an artist who had taken one of his photographs, painted the scene, and sold that painting. That is pretty obnoxious, but even photographs of other photographs have been upheld as original works of art. You've got to do better than that to demonstrate mere copying. I am not convinced that most cases of alleged musical plagiarism amount to much.