Saturday, December 10, 2011

Paul Simon and the Rest of Us

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. 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.    
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?  


  1. Speaking of crimes and a$$holes: I think it's a crime that Burl Ives was ever given a microphone.

  2. Lsura Lisbeth, I know that's you ---looking for a way to have the last word on Burl, aren't you?

    Look at what happened to George Harrison after he wrote "My Sweet Lord" and he was sued for copying "He's so fine." I think that was unintentional. I think that with music especially, this is bound to happen. For further research on the subject, see the Partridge Family episode where Danny appears to be stealing Keith's songs but claiming them as his own, until they find out he is innocently absorbing them in his sleep while Keith stays up late and works on his music.

    And to answer one of your earlier questions, "Yes, we are all assholes. But some of us are more intentional about it than others."

  3. Some excellen points, FTHB, especially the Partridge Family reference. Because, as you know, many a lesson can be learned by watching that irresistible Partridge clan navigate the murky waters of life!

    Re: which is really worse - to be an intentional asshole or an unintentional asshole? hmmmm....

    and finally - NO THAT WAS NOT ME! but whomever "anonymous" is - THANK YOU! YOU ARE BRILLIANT!

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  5. A blog is a creative outlet correct? Let's not try to stifle this writers outlet by suggesting where her time is "better spent" Mr. Ryan. An artist needs more than just one creative outlet. An artist of any depth will tell you they cannot be singular in their expression. Have you seen her paint Mr. Ryan? Have you heard her speak about things other than song writing? For someone to "care" about another in this sense is to let them express themselves fully. I believe her post was more about poetic license and not just being an "asshole". It is as songwriting goes an important consideration. Let's let her decide where her time is better spent Mr. Ryan.

  6. have to agree with "anonymous" on this one, mr. ryan. i found your comment to be a bit patronizing, at the very least.

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  8. I welcome all of your comments - that's the deal.

    The post was supposed to be about my beloved Paul Simon possibly being a song-stealer, and about the challenge of trying not to be a song-stealer, and about how everybody influences everybody when it comes to the creative process, but not that much about assholes. Obviously, I could have been more precise.

    Tom, I agree that the art’s the thing that endures. And it is the art itself that affects us, inspires us, delights us, etc, - not the person. The fact that such beauty, such wonder, can be created by mere mortals is incredibly fascinating to me. That is what makes me turn my attention back to the artist and want to know more. It’s why people read the liner notes on an album or a biography – to get a glimpse of the person behind the art.

    And yes, Anonymous – this artist does need more than one creative outlet. I can’t be silenced by a few discouraging words!

    Note: I’d like to make it clear that I am not “Anonymous.” I can’t swear that it’s not my cat, however. He spends a lot of time on my keyboard.

  9. mr. tom ryan, i was not offended by your comments, just defending the blogger's right to expound.

  10. I still don't like that hack Burl Ives.