Monday, July 11, 2011

Karas v. Robertson

Cryptomnesia is a phenomenon that has always fascinated me -- especially as it applies to songwriting.  For those not familiar with the term:

Cryptomnesia occurs when a forgotten memory returns without it being recognised as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original. It is a memory bias whereby a person may falsely recall generating a thought, an idea, a song, or a joke, not deliberately engaging in plagiarism but rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.  Source:  Wikipedia

A guitarist myself, I can't even tell you the number of times I've put together a series of chords only to realize that I've basically just re-written, for example, a Ryan Adams or Elliott Smith tune (which in turn, creates great anxiety that one is physically incapable of writing their own songs without the fear of plagiarizing, which is itself called, the anxiety of influence).  And for the record, I'm in no way claiming to be even in the same stratosphere as Adams or Smith; rather, my point is that certain melodies or riffs stick in your memory more than others, and if you like them enough, your fingers naturally fall into those positions. Anyway. This isn't about me, so back to my original point.   

This phenomenon afflicts not only amateurs, like yours truly, but the big-leaguers as well.  Recall the case of Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, where George Harrison was sued for "borrowing" parts of The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" (written by Ronald Mack) for his own "My Sweet Lord."  As it turned out, Harrison was ordered to pay damages despite the Court's finding that his borrowing was "subconscious."  On Harrison's cryptomnesia, John Lennon had this to say, "He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that. It's irrelevant, actually—only on a monetary level does it matter. He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off."  So much for getting by with a little help from your friends.

Maybe because I have a morbid curiosity with this occurrence, but I think my ear is always on the prowl for other examples in everyday music.  Sexy trait, I know.  So, I present another possibility for debate.  This one involves Robbie Robertson, of The Band, and a one Anton Karas.  Anton who, you ask?  Karas, was a Viennese zither player who achieved international acclaim after composing the theme to Carol Reed's The Third Man, which was later used (and renamed) as the theme to the Orson Welles' radio show, The Lives of Harry Lime.  The song, simply entitled, "The Third Man Theme," is perhaps the most famous song to feature the zither, and barring a major zither comeback, the only famous song to feature this most curious instrument.  In any event, I'm on a recent kick of listening to old time mystery radio shows [insert un-original insult here] and in particular, The Lives of Harry Lime, and I couldn't help but notice that the theme to Harry Lime and the "Theme to The Last Waltz" are strangely similar.  Now this is where it gets really freaky.  As I'm typing this, I'm just seeing that The Band actually covered "The Third Man Theme" on their album Moondog Matinee. I swear on all things holy, I did NOT know this beforehand.  So, my music genius aside, I think I just confirmed my theory, by sheer accident, that Robertson was in fact influenced (consciously or subconsciously) by the "Third Man Theme" when he composed the "Theme to The Last Waltz" (e.g. the arrangement, the phrasing, the picking style, the instrumentation, etc.). But judge for yourself.  And Robertson, if you happen to get sued by some distant relative of the Karas family because of this post, I do apologize in advance (as Levon Helm snickers to himself).
"Theme to The Last Waltz":


"Third Man Theme":


The Band's rendition of "Third Man Theme"


WeightStaff said...

My own curiosity piqued, I delved further and found a quote by Peter Viney, foremost Band scholar and frequent contributor to the encyclopedic Band website,, known simply amongst Band geeks as, Hiof.

In his notes on the Moondog Matinee album, Viney has this to say about "The Third Man Theme":

"The Third Man Theme was regarded as almost a comedy pastiche at the time of release, though the subsequent Theme from The Last Waltz demonstrated that they had more where this came from."


WeightStaff said...

Very nice to see some new content here. Well written post.

The Band's version sounds like the theme to Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Anonymous said...

everytime I hear GD's Bertha, I hear Wilco's Wilco (the song) off of Wilco's Wilco (the album). anybody else hear it? no...maybe its just me.

i always thought the theme from last waltz sounds strangely familiar, like some weird music box i had as a kid.

welcome back weight. great set of posts.

Anonymous said...

i meant bertha sounds like wilco's "you never know" off of Wilco the album.

p.s. levon live tonight in Central Park

amtatunc said...

I am currently watching the third man and every time they pay Harry's theme I think of the theme music from Curb your Enthusiasm. Thank you for confirming my suspicion that there s more then a passing similarity between the two.