21. “Fools,” Van Halen

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South Park, American Dad and Ugly Betty stole from me.

Seriously? What’s your damage now?

Nice to have you back, Imaginary (Valley Girl-voiced) Reader. I’m saying that these shows stole my intellectual property. Without actually knowing it. They all stole from my unpublished novel.

Ugh. Can I go now?

No, just listen for a minute. I had a series of scenes in my novel where the characters spoke to each other as their World of Warcraft-style characters, just talking about everyday things. A few years after I wrote it, I saw this same concept played out on South Park and American Dad. And, while I never watched Ugly Betty, one day I saw Rebecca Romijn on a talk show and she mentioned her character on the show was called Alex Meade. I had a character in my book called Alex Mead.

Um, you said it was unpublished, right? So how could they steal from you? Duh.

Well put, Imaginary Reader. And that’s exactly my point. They didn’t, really, we just pulled from the same strand of ephemeral inspiration – wherever it is that people who create get their ideas.

And this is what bothers me about the Sam Smith/Tom Petty business, and many of the other similar situations that have gone before – from George Harrison to Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga. And, to be clear, I can take or leave Sam Smith’s music and I’ve never been a die-hard Petty fan. But it always seems to play out like the second person to come up with a similar idea is a plagiarist. But in many cases it’s either a case of unconsciously borrowing a similar melody, because the original song is ingrained in your subconscious. Or else it’s a complete accidental coincidence, as was obviously the case in my situation. That being said, of course, I’m sure there are cases of downright thievery.

Okay. Point taken. So what about the Van Whatever song?

Right, thanks for getting me back on track. This song reminded me of all this because it seems like yet another instance of it, but one I’ve never heard mentioned anywhere before. “Fools” comes from the album Women and Children First, which came out in 1980. The White Stripes song “Rag and Bone” was released 27 years later on the album Icky Thump. But they both feature the exact same guitar riff. I googled the two songs together and nobody else seems to have noticed this.

Jack White is known for borrowing from and being heavily influenced by blues greats like Son House and Robert Johnson, and is quite open about it, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest a Van Halen connection. They’re both great guitar players, but they’re also very different guitar players. One uses plastic garage sale guitars and the other builds his own guitars because he wants every note to sound perfect. And White isn’t exactly known for his two-handed tapping technique.

Speaking of which, you get to enjoy some magnificent meandering by Van Halen, from soulful and bluesy to frantic and metallic, until the 1:20 mark, when the riff in question bounces at you. Ba ba ba ba bababa baaaa. White, characteristically, gets right to it. (Sorry about the grainy live video of “Rag and Bone,” it’s the best YouTube had to offer.) Ba ba ba bababa baaa.

The songs aren’t the same, the melodies are different, but that’s the same riff. White builds on it a bit, but the base is the same. And it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all part of the history of music, the history of rock and roll. It’s all about borrowing and learning from everyone who came before you, whether you’re doing it consciously or not. I’m just glad the producers of South Park, American Dad and Ugly Betty were able to learn a little something from me.

Ugh. Gag me with a spoon.

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