Is Paul Simon an asshole? Is Paul Simon a thief who stole from Los Lobos (among others)? Are we all thieves and potentially assholes? A sequence of events has caused me to ponder these questions.
Let me state for the record that I'm a Paul Simon fan! And so I was thrilled to see the recent Paul Simon interview in American Songwriter Magazine. http://www.americansongwriter.com/2011/09/paul-simon-on-songwriting-i-know-what-i-know. In it, he discussed his process for writing, and it resonated deeply with me.
As I casually surfed the net for more info on my beloved PS, I stumbled upon an interview in which Steve Berlin, of Los Lobos, claimed that Paul Simon had stolen from them on his Graceland album, AND that he was a huge asshole about it. http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2008/04/rhymin-simon-no.html.
I can’t go around worrying about whether Paul Simon is or is not an asshole. But if he’s a thief, it saddens me. In the case of Los Lobos’ contribution – Berlin claims they did not receive a co-write credit for a song they brought to the Graceland project (no lyrics). Everyone would agree that Paul Simon – among others - borrows inspiration from many sources. At what point is it considered stealing? Do we all "steal" material?
Nobody is a creative island, and nobody creates in a vacuum. INFLUENCE by other artists is inevitable and I would say necessary in order to grow. If I hear a chord progression or a little riff that speaks to me, I might try to incorporate it into a song, but in a way that makes it unrecognizable as anything but mine. And many times we hear the story behind a successful song that goes something like this: the songwriter hears a phrase or expression in conversation that sticks in his brain. He takes it and forms an amazing song from it. That’s not stealing – that’s inspiration driving the creative process.
That being said, I do take care to try to verify that the lyrics and accompanying melodies I write are my own. And sometimes that can be tricky, what with all the flotsam and jetsam of information floating around in my brain. How do you know? You do what you can do, I suppose.
Back to the asshole question: it could get complicated. I mean, which comes first – the asshole or the crime?