The Song Remains the Same or, The Agony of Influence

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” That’s according to the great T.S. Eliot. Or is it?

Debate rages (well, amongst the handful of people who are aware of — or care about — quotations like this, or literature in general) as to who actually said it. Pablo Picasso occasionally gets the attribution, as does the critic Lionel Trilling (replacing poets with artists in his version). So, even trying to correctly identify the ultimate epigram about plagiarism can lead to charges of… plagiarism. Brilliant! And, upon reflection, could it be any other way?

Harold Bloom, one of the great white whales of literary criticism who managed to produce an exhaustive body of work while not suffocating on his own self-importance, is perhaps best known for his theory (and book) The Anxiety of Influence. In it, he espouses a detailed, passionate, and ultimately over-the-top declaration that all poets are obsessed with their work surviving them (fair enough, and true of all artists to varying degrees), while grappling with the outsized impression their predecessors have left on the creative landscape. This leads to Oedipal struggles, and the opposite of hilarity ensues. Like most lit-crit, there are nuggets of unassailable truth that can be gleaned from the slog of pointy-headed pomposity. Like most lit-crit, it does art the disservice of having uninteresting theorists put themselves — and their jargon — ahead of the much-more interesting and worthwhile work ostensibly being analyzed. Like most lit-crit, it is pretty much unreadable, even for the relative handful of people who care — or are aware — of projects such as this in the first place (lit-crit is not unlike religion and political science in this regard: the only people who profess unreserved belief in it are those who practice it).

Speaking (or should I say, writing) as someone who has endeavored to cultivate a style in my poetry and prose that is sufficiently satisfying, I am quite aware of the shadows cast by those who did it first, and better than I could ever hope to do. Those reflections are both bright and dark, sour and sweet; they are indelible and impossible to ignore. And that’s the thing: you don’t want to ignore them. They inspire you as much as they intimidate you. As someone who has written a great deal about art and the people who make it, the primary impetus is always an ardent (sometimes unquenchable; other times irrational) compulsion to celebrate, and share the work. That’s all. That’s it; the rest is ability, execution and having an audience, however small, that is willing to read and respond.

When it comes to art that matters (and issues like integrity and influence), there is no question that the best artists are aware of and, to varying extents impelled by, the ones who came before them. Those touchstones can (and should) become building blocks, and the art evolves, accordingly. Thus, there are uneven but obvious lines running from the work of, say, Poe to Joyce to O’Connor to Munro. Or D.W. Griffith to Orson Welles to Scorsese to Christopher Nolan. Or, to belabor the point, bluegrass to Chuck Berry to the Beatles to R.E.M., et cetera. The subsequent generation, when it comes to authenticity and certainly innovation, will always be, to a certain extent, lacking. On the other hand, there is invariably a polish and perfection found in later versions of earlier forms. When you trace the earliest jazz from Jelly Roll Morton and follow it through to Fats Waller, on through Ellington and Parker, and then its apotheosis in Coltrane, Miles and Mingus, it makes a perfect sort of sense: each built on the other, incorporating sounds and strategies all in the service of a unique style. That, it seems to me, is the fulcrum where influence meets integrity; the result is the art that endures.

All of which brings us to… Led Zeppelin?

Few, if any, artists have been as controversial or better practitioners of Eliot’s famous dictum. It would seem both a backhanded compliment and an indictment to illuminate Led Zeppelin’s relationship to much of its early source material. The group’s plundering of myriad names and genres could be viewed as audacious, shameless, cynically calculated, intentional, cheeky, and celebratory. I think it’s easy to argue that it’s all of these — and more — but it’s mostly celebratory and ultimately, unimpeachable. To be certain, on the earlier albums the band’s aesthetic was like flypaper, and any/everything that stuck was incorporated. Zeppelin has been roundly (and rightly) chastened for the unconscionable greed (at worst) and shortsightedness (at best) that enabled it to retitle (and in some cases, not retitle!) other musicians’ work and claim it as its own. The defense that it was obvious what they were doing is equal parts disingenuous and disgusting. On the other hand, an inevitable claim — made with fervor by the uninformed and the all-purpose haters, by no means a mutually exclusive pair — is that Zeppelin simply ripped off other peoples’ work and called it their own. The reality, as reality inexorably insists on being, is much more complicated than that.

Let’s get the unarguable (and indefensible) out of the way right up front: on the first album alone, more than half the songs were borrowed, based on, or outright swiped from artists ranging from old blues legends to Joan Baez. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, “Black Mountain Side”, “Communication Breakdown”, “Dazed and Confused”, and “How Many More Times” all were initially credited as original compositions (the band did not have the temerity to not acknowledge Willie Dixon as the writer of “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Here is some irony: one of the reasons so few rock fans knew anything about this is because most of the songs in question were virtually unheard of until Zep put its imprint on them. And to be clear: none of the songs are uninspired imitations; in all cases the original and/or source material served as a point of departure which the band members, being remarkable musicians from the get-go, put their quite impressive imprint on.

So, unlike the types of songs that the British Invasion bands were covering and giving credit for, their consciences may be clear but their motives, ironically, were much less benign. In terms of integrity, give me a band who has deep roots in terms of an appreciation and understanding of all types of music as opposed to nakedly opportunistic chaps knocking off already-popular songs. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, for instance, were certainly not covering any obscure songs; they were duplicating (poorly, for the most part) songs that had some measure of renown. By the time Led Zeppelin starting incorporating source material by Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDowell, it was were wearing its beloved influences on their sleeves and, arguably, trying to share the love (too bad, for all involved, it was not a “whole lotta love” in all senses of the word). Put another way, none of these songs Zep utilized were designed or intended to be hit singles; think of the 11-minute-plus “In My Time of Dying” or the six-minute plus “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.

Other than the understandably prickly subject of attribution, it could be (and probably never has been) argued that Led Zeppelin did by far the most work to bring attention and approbation to a goodly number of obscure-to-unknown musicians. Checking out its live sets from the ’70s, where encores frequently included tunes by Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, there is simply no misunderstanding its intent: the band members love this music; they cut their teeth on it, and it still made them happy. They made the audiences happy by playing it, and presumably they turned more than a handful of people onto the original goodies. After the shamelessness and the out-of-court settlements, the song does not remain the same: there was no agony in their influences and they have in turn been copied by a thousand eager, inferior mediocrities; swiping and celebrating being the ultimate compliment. (However: if karmic justice could be rendered in cartoon fashion, Robert Plant should have noisily imploded the second he whined about the Beastie Boys sampling Zeppelin, appropriately on a tune called “Rhymin’ and Stealin'”.) In the final analysis, Zep did what it did, and it did it better than anyone of its era (ever?), and as such, offered few apologies in the process. The band remains the prototype of what T.S. Eliot was talking about when he drew his useful distinction between those who aspire and those who transcend.