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Is this a real case of love and theft?

Times Staff Writer

For four decades, Bob Dylan’s songs have weathered the intense scrutiny of fans and musicologists searching for their true meaning. Now the songwriter’s 2001 album, “Love and Theft,” is the subject of debate over just how literally the word “theft” should be taken.

A longtime Dylan fan who works in Japan stumbled across similarities between lyrics in several songs from Dylan’s Grammy-nominated album and passages from “Confessions of a Yakuza,” a book by a little-known Japanese doctor-turned-author, Junichi Saga.

Minnesota native Chris Johnson posted his findings in May on a Dylan-related Web site, www.dylanchords.com, citing a dozen examples in which Dylan seems to have incorporated ideas and specific phrases from John Bester’s 1991 English translation of Saga’s oral history of a Japanese gangster who was one of his patients. Johnson’s revelations, all the more intriguing because they center on the most acclaimed lyricist of the rock era, came to wider attention in a Wall Street Journal story published Tuesday.

On the opening page of “Confessions,” Saga quotes his subject saying, “My old man would sit there like a feudal lord.” In the “Love and Theft” song “Floater (Too Much To Ask),” Dylan sings, “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord.”

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Later in Saga’s book, the gangster says, “D’you think I could call myself a yakuza if I couldn’t stand up to some old businessman,” and in “Summer Days,” Dylan sings, “What good are you anyway if you can’t stand up to some old businessman.”

The Journal quoted Saga saying, “I am very flattered,” and that he would not consider suing Dylan. Dylan’s record company, Columbia Records, had no comment Tuesday.

The book’s Japanese publisher, Tokyo-based Kodansha International, “does not have any intention to proceed legally, as far as I know,” Kodansha America spokesman Ted Miller said Tuesday.

The dozen lines cited by Johnson occur in five of “Love and Theft’s” 12 songs -- half in “Floater” alone -- and represent just under 6% of the total 508 lines on the lyrically voluminous work. “There’s nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this,” Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy said Tuesday.

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“I don’t think Dylan was making any secret about borrowing when he named the record after a book,” he said, referring to Eric Lott’s 1995 book “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Race and American Culture).”

“That’s the tradition he comes from -- blues and folk songs that have been endlessly handed down and adapted, stolen, mixed and remixed,” Levy said. “That’s squarely in the tradition he’s been working in for 40 years. It’s the tradition of Woody Guthrie, who borrowed freely from Irish ballads to create his original songs.

“So no, it doesn’t change my opinion of ‘Love And Theft’ as a near-perfect record,” Levy said, “not in the least.”

Since Johnson’s side-by-side comparison of Dylan’s lyrics and Saga’s writing surfaced on the Internet, sales of “Confessions” increased slightly, moving it from around No. 65,000 on Amazon.com’s list of its most popular book to about No. 45,000, according to the Journal. On Tuesday, when the Journal’s story appeared, the book’s ranking jumped into the bookseller’s Top 200.

“We’re very happy to hear that,” Kodansha’s Miller said. In addition to “Confessions,” drawn from interviews Saga taped in the months before the gangster died of cancer, Saga has written several other works of fiction and nonfiction. Only a few have been translated into English.

Dylan’s album has sold 740,000 copies since its release, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The Dylan-Saga case comes to light just days after a story in the Times of London about a new book suggesting that Paul McCartney may have unconsciously borrowed the melody and some lyrics for the Beatles’ hit “Yesterday” from an earlier song recorded by Nat King Cole.

The fine line between homage and plagiarism has surfaced in hundreds of cases in which one songwriter has charged another with appropriating a melody, instrumental riff or lyrics.

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In some of the most prominent examples, George Harrison lost a plagiarism suit over his 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord” based on melodic similarities with the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,” and the Beach Boys eventually credited Chuck Berry as co-author of “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which recycled the melody and structure of Berry’s 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Johnson, who teaches English in Kitakyushu on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, picked up a copy of “Confessions” to learn about the seamy side of Japanese culture and was immediately struck by the similarities to “Love and Theft.”

“The matching phrases just jumped right out at me,” Johnson told the Journal. “They may as well have been printed in red ink.”


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