BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
August 31, 2016
Today we talk about theft. Stealing. Purloined ideas and stories.
Elvis Costello has said, “every artist is a magpie and a thief.” I believe that statement, and there have been several well-known court cases about copyright infringement. Back in the ’70s, George Harrison was the first be nicked for this crime; it seems “My Sweet Lord” sounded a little too much like the Motown classic “He’s So Fine.”
In a bizarre case in the early ’90s, John Fogerty was sued because his new song, “Old Man Down The Road,” sounded too much like his ’60s Creedence hit “Run Through The Jungle,” for which he no longer held the copyright. Sued for stealing from yourself. Hmmm. (Excellent background on this can be found here.)
So, if the courts (and my 12th grade English class) are any indication, stealing of words and ideas happen all the time. The difference is, I believe, that artists steal from real life. And, they fictionalize and improve on what they have stolen.
After the short story master Raymond Carver died, Tobias Wolfe (known for his local novel and film entitled “This Boy’s Life”) gave a moving tribute in Esquire magazine. He recalled that Carver was ruthless in taking ideas and anecdotes from anybody. Someone at a party had mentioned watching an eagle taking a salmon and dropping it out of the sky. Sure enough, within weeks, a Raymond Carver short story had an eagle accidentally dropping a salmon on the hood of the narrator’s car. Lest we paint brother Raymond as someone who just took other’s good ideas, remember that he changed them, honed them, and remade them according to his own vision. As Carver said in an interview with Paris Review, “a little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”
Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, has said this mindset can actually be a little dangerous. This power, this using real life as material, is not the healthiest thing. As Bill Flanagan recorded in his book, “Written In My Soul,” Sting told him that the song, “‘Every Breath You Take,’ was written for one specific person. That is the power I have: If you piss me off or jilt me I’ll make you famous.”
Yikes. Sting is writing about real people and real situations.
In a CBS Sunday Morning feature earlier this year, songwriter Jason Isbell was being interviewed about his childhood, and his mother said, “We have a joke in the family: watch what you say around him—it’ll end up in a song.”
In one of his better-known songs, “Decoration Day,” he weaves an amazing story of a blood feud between two southern families. He has said it came from his own family’s history, which he was not supposed to disclose—a true story of a grudge that was big news in the south in 1984. But, again, it was injected with a healthy dose of fiction thrown in:
It’s Decoration Day
And I’ve got a family in Mobile Bay
And they’ve never seen my Daddy’s grave.
But that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway.
Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale south
And I got dead brothers in east Tennessee.
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
He had no one to fall on but me
Spoiler alert: Isbell was writing in character, from the opposite side of his family’s viewpoint. His dad is alive and well.
Another well-known American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, lifted perhaps his most famous short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” from a true tale that was being hushed up at an Army base in the 1800s. Seems an unpopular officer was kidnapped and bricked up inside one of the fortress walls. Poe asked questions about the rumor, and was told by superiors to quit talking about it.
He promised never to talk about it, but then changed the setting to European Carnival season and wrote it down! A vengeful enemy tricks his rival to follow him down to the catacombs, traps him, and bricks him in behind the wall to die. Brilliant. A very creepy and unsettling story, perhaps because it just might be true….
The final say in this matter must go to writer/artist Austin Kleon. His amazing illustrated book, “Steal Like An Artist,” and the two follow-ups (Just buy them all, right now. Trust me) are inspiring, liberating works. In his opinion, stealing done properly doesn’t pass off someone else’s work as your own; rather, it enhances it, honors its influences, and makes something entirely new. For his newspaper blackout poems, blog posts, artistic endeavors, and more fun than one guy should have, go to www.austinkleon.com.
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and often repeats the Ken Kesey adage: “It’s a true story, whether or not it really happened.”
Erik Christensen Band plays at the Fleet Reserve in Oak Harbor on Sept. 23, the Bayview Farmer’s Market on Oct. 1, the Island Arts Council Poetry Slam on Oct. 29 at the Freeland Cafe and Blooms Winery in Bayview on Oct. 30.
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