aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Sunday, May 22, 2005
A flap has emerged in Israel over the popular song “Jerusalem of Gold.” Composed after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, the song quickly became a sort of second national anthem. On her deathbed, the composer confessed she hadn’t really written the melody, but taken it directly from a Basque lullaby. The revelation has set off a round of introspection and recrimination.
I heard the story, which includes the offending clip from the song along with the Basque lullaby, but what I didn’t hear is a deathbed confession. The Forward reports it this way:
In the spring of 2004, however, as she was dying of cancer, she wrote to Aldema that she needed to tell the truth. “The whole thing was a terrible accident,” she wrote. At some point in the mid-1960s, “my friend [and fellow songstress] Nehama Hendel visited me and apparently sang the well-known Basque song to me. It must have entered one ear and gone out the other one, but in the winter of 1967, as I was laboring on ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ it must have unconsciously crawled back into my mind.”
It sounds to me like the woman was tortured by the possibility that something she once heard crept into the writing of her own song. It sent me right back to Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful New Yorker article from last year, Something Borrowed: Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?
I went to see a friend of mine who works in the music industry. We sat in his living room on the Upper East Side, facing each other in easy chairs, as he worked his way through a mountain of CDs. He played “Angel,” by the reggae singer Shaggy, and then “The Joker,” by the Steve Miller Band, and told me to listen very carefully to the similarity in bass lines. He played Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and then Muddy Waters’s “You Need Love,” to show the extent to which Led Zeppelin had mined the blues for inspiration. He played “Twice My Age,” by Shabba Ranks and Krystal, and then the saccharine seventies pop standard “Seasons in the Sun,” until I could hear the echoes of the second song in the first. He played “Last Christmas,” by Wham!, followed by Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” to explain why Manilow might have been startled when he first heard that song, and then “Joanna,” by Kool and the Gang, because, in a different way, “Last Christmas” was an homage to Kool and the Gang as well. “That sound you hear in Nirvana,” my friend said at one point, “that soft and then loud, kind of exploding thing, a lot of that was inspired by the Pixies. Yet Kurt Cobain"--Nirvana’s lead singer and songwriter--"was such a genius that he managed to make it his own. And ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?"--here he was referring to perhaps the best-known Nirvana song. “That’s Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling.’” He began to hum the riff of the Boston hit, and said, “The first time I heard ‘Teen Spirit,’ I said, ‘That guitar lick is from “More Than a Feeling.”’ But it was different--it was urgent and brilliant and new.”
He played another CD. It was Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” a huge hit from the nineteen-seventies. The chorus has a distinctive, catchy hook--the kind of tune that millions of Americans probably hummed in the shower the year it came out. Then he put on “Taj Mahal,” by the Brazilian artist Jorge Ben Jor, which was recorded several years before the Rod Stewart song. In his twenties, my friend was a d.j. at various downtown clubs, and at some point he’d become interested in world music. “I caught it back then,” he said. A small, sly smile spread across his face. The opening bars of “Taj Mahal” were very South American, a world away from what we had just listened to. And then I heard it. It was so obvious and unambiguous that I laughed out loud; virtually note for note, it was the hook from “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” It was possible that Rod Stewart had independently come up with that riff, because resemblance is not proof of influence. It was also possible that he’d been in Brazil, listened to some local music, and liked what he heard.
My friend had hundreds of these examples. We could have sat in his living room playing at musical genealogy for hours. Did the examples upset him? Of course not, because he knew enough about music to know that these patterns of influence--cribbing, tweaking, transforming--were at the very heart of the creative process. True, copying could go too far. There were times when one artist was simply replicating the work of another, and to let that pass inhibited true creativity. But it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression, because if Led Zeppelin hadn’t been free to mine the blues for inspiration we wouldn’t have got “Whole Lotta Love,” and if Kurt Cobain couldn’t listen to “More Than a Feeling” and pick out and transform the part he really liked we wouldn’t have “Smells Like Teen Spirit"--and, in the evolution of rock, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a real step forward from “More Than a Feeling.” A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative…
If you missed his article and are interested at all in the topic, you must read it. Everything’s derivative in one way or another. This era we’re living in --of patenting ideas, trademarking phrases and copyrighting everything--has gone way past protecting a creator’s work. Instead we’re stifling creativity in the interest of corporate commerce.