Tangled up in Bob



A couple of years ago, I received a contract from the University of Iowa Press for a book we are currently calling In Dylan Town: A Fan\’s Life. It is about Dylan fans in general and one fan in particular, me. I read the contract quickly, signed it ecstatically, and started to work on fulfilling my side of the bargain. At that point I had completed only 50 pages and a rough outline.

That detail matters because Clause 8, the one on permissions, jumped out at me as a potentially challenging task. Although I had heard cautionary tales about music projects and how long it takes to secure permissions, licenses, and copyrights, to say nothing of how expensive they can be, I forged ahead because, well, I’m not particularly cautious.

But Clause 8 haunted me. Sometimes, when I was cooking dinner or falling asleep, its language about \”obtain[ing] promptly and at the Author’s own expense all permissions necessary\” returned to me. So did the section on \”Rights and Permissions\” in the press’s \”Author Guidelines,\” especially the bullet point about song lyrics: \”Songs often have considerable commercial value, and so ‘fair use’ is defined very narrowly.\”

Whenever any of my colleagues or students would ask how obtaining permissions was going, I would say something vague about getting ready to work on them.

But I finished my second draft almost on schedule and finally knew, a little later than was ideal, what permissions I actually needed to request. So began the next part of my journey. It was one for which my early adolescence as a young nerd would serve me well.

Back in my wonder years, when my hair was cut in a flattop and butch-waxed in front and I wore muscle shirts and faux baseball cleats, I wrote every U.S. senator about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 so that I could see their answers come to my home’s mailbox on their official stationery. I still have the letter from Everett M. Dirksen, who had a signature as unruly as his notorious mane.

My back pages matter because, as I began the work of getting permissions, I realized that I had been preparing for this gig for years. After decades of deconstructing movies like The Big Lebowski and Chinatown, I could see myself transforming the possible deal breaker of not getting necessary permissions into a movie about a middle-aged academic with Dirksen hair and a Dylan attitude solving a significant case. The way I saw it, the action was rising. I just had to get the right people to sing and then to sign.

The Dylan fans in my book’s final chapter—the folks who attended Dylan Days in Hibbing and the Duluth Dylan Fest to celebrate Dylan’s birthday in 2013—had talked with me on a train called the Blood on the Tracks Express, in a restaurant-as-Dylan-­museum called Zimmy’s, and through both email and snail mail. Our conversations seemed to me textbook examples of the fourth bullet point related to \”quotations from interviews.\” No problem.

Then there was the essay one of my daughters had written about Dylan for her high-school theology class. Her words were clearly \”quotations from unpublished documents not your own,\” addressed by Bullet Point 2. When the English-department chair who hired me years ago asked me if I liked Dylan more for having written about him, I had my Afterword and chalked up another one for Bullet Point 4.

I had a great time matching my sources with my contract requirements and the press’s guidelines. It was even more fun putting my signed, sealed, and delivered permissions in my accordion folder than it had been getting those letters from Dirksen, Mike Mansfield, and Eugene McCarthy back in the day. All of my interviewees and the unpublished writers whom I quoted signed official release forms.

The musicians were more complicated. I had been warned about them. Very much in passing, I quoted songs by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams, David Byrne, Graham Nash, Robbie Robertson, and Led Zeppelin. I drew on a line here or a phrase there because that’s how we pop-culture fans and teachers are. Song lyrics are the street poetry of our time. Putting them in print, though, is easier said than done.

I quickly learned that there are two kinds of rights for musical pieces—rights to the songs themselves and rights to particular recordings. I also learned that there are so-called performing-rights societies, which go by the alphabet-soup names of ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Academic gumshoe that I was becoming, I began following a variety of leads, hoping for the best but ready to \”write around\” what did not work out.

The lines I quoted from Dylan songs, however, were hardly passing references. They would lose almost everything in translation or paraphrase and were, without exaggeration, the heart of the matter. I had knowingly quoted at least 68 moments from Dylan’s songs. Without permission for those lines and phrases, my book would be dead in the water.

As I waited to hear from Dylan’s \”people,\” I thought about David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, particularly his taking on the notion of intellectual property. I had liked Shields’s claim that no one has a copyright on reality, and I liked it even more now, when it so clearly fit my needs.

I revisited Jonathan Lethem’s Harper’s essay \”The Ecstasy of Influence,\” which argues for the cribbing of earlier creations to make new art, in language that is mostly plagiarized from other sources. Lethem also calls for a return to what the scholar Lewis Hyde describes as \”a gift economy.\”

I read and reread David Yaffe’s \”Don’t Steal, Don’t Lift,\” a chapter from his book Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, in which he too reflects on Dylan’s use of the work of others. It gave me hope that perhaps Team Dylan might be amenable to my request.

I also reread my contract with Iowa with an intensity that I never had as a law student, looking for anything that might allay my fears. All I could see was that I had to do what I said I would do. I could not claim that I was an artist drawing on other artists and, at the same time, pass myself off as a writer for an academic press complying with the rules of that game.

I slept unsoundly for a few nights as I wondered what fate would befall me if Dylan’s people refused permission. What if they took two years and then said no? What if they wanted a million dollars?

Mercifully, I caught a couple of lucky breaks. The first was that Dylan, unlike most popular musicians, owns the rights to both his words and his recordings. The second is that a saint named Callie Gladman at Special Rider Music responded to my first query within three days and told me to list the songs I quoted from exactly as they are cited in Bob Dylan—Lyrics, 1962-2001, send a few samples from my draft, and stay tuned.

A mere nine days after I put my request in the mail, I received the following email (which I have permission to quote): \”Hi David, I received your manuscript. All look fine. We can approve of this for a $500.00 processing fee. Let me know if this works for you and I will send you a license to sign. Thanks, Callie.\”

Beside myself with excitement and relief, I had the clueless audacity to write the following words 10 minutes after receiving her email: \”Callie: I very much appreciate your promptness. The quick approval is great news to me. I was hoping the fee would be a bit less, given that this is for an academic press and it is a small first printing. If there is any way to make it less than $500, I would be most grateful. If not, however, tough-negotiator-that-I-am, I gratefully say yes and please send the license my way. I will send a check your way, if that is how it’s done. Thanks and be well, David.\”

Forty-one minutes later, no doubt after some high-level meetings, perhaps involving Bob himself, I received this email: \”Hi, David, That is our normal fee for this type of book, however I can reduce it by $100 if you like—for a total of $400. Let me know. Best, Callie.\”

I accepted their counteroffer without pondering the phrase \”this type of book\” and started telling fellow professors, various lawyers, my students, and my kids the story. I bragged a bit about Bob and his people walking their talk about the folk tradition and \”it all being one song.\” I even alluded to his album Good as I Been to You by throwing into my boasts something like \”good as he’s been to me.\” The reference wasn’t lost on the real Dylan fans.

Shortly after I received my contract for License #2496—suitable for framing and signed by the general manager of Team Dylan right above my own signature—Joni Mitchell’s people turned me down flat for the eight words I had requested. I made Paul Simon’s people a counteroffer, suggesting that I drop the words about a onetime love but keep some about being lost and pay 40 percent of their asking price. They agreed, and I’ve received License #2391. The Stevie Wonder negotiations are proceeding. Lucinda, Warner-­Tamerlane, and I are in a triangulated relationship. Byrne, Nash, Robertson, and the Zeppelin are missing in action.

The stack of permissions documents—the agreements and the ones that are pending—is one-quarter the height of the manuscript and growing. Looking at it all makes me think about not only my Test Ban Treaty letters but also Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, in which he envisions a time when quotations from art critics would be more prominent in museums than the canvases they were describing.

I worry that I may have done something wrong in the paperwork and that some of this is too good to be true. For now, though, it all seems good enough to me. In fact, it feels so good that I am unable to resist the temptation to invoke, rather than to quote without permission, those occasional philosophers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about want and need.

If my reference is not ringing any bells, you can find exactly what I am alluding to right there in broad daylight on the final track of Let It Bleed. The title of the song is \”You Can’t Always Get What You Want.\”

In the case of Dylan’s lyrics, I got both what I wanted and what I needed. You can quote me on that.

Author Bio: David Gaines is an associate professor of English at Southwestern University. His first book is tentatively titled
In Dylan Town: A Fan\’s Life (University of Iowa Press) and will be published in the fall of 2015, barring unexpected legal issues.