The Redefinition of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait
In June of 1970, Bob Dylan released his tenth album, a two-record set with the weighty title of Self Portrait. It had a self portrait on the cover done in a style similar to the painting he did for The Band’s Music From Big Pink the year before. For most of the previous four years, with a couple of exceptions, Dylan kept out of sight, hoping to lose the voice of a generation title that had been bestowed upon him, and all that went with it. Six years before, Dylan had sworn off any direct political involvement and had phased the songs that originally made him famous out of his concerts. In 1969, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival brought unwanted attention to the town (really a village) he lived in, even though it was actually held miles away in another county. Dylan refused to appear and rubbed it in by appearing a couple of weeks later at a music festival in England on the Isle of Wight. But his fans as well as the music press, especially the then-growing alternative music press, still expected him to deliver the word. Self Portrait was clearly not the “word” by anyone’s definition.
Instead of new original masterpieces, Self Portrait was primarily a collection of covers: folk songs, country-western tunes from the ’50s and ’60s, songs by other contemporary writers, a couple of Everly Brothers classics, a pop tune and six new originals. Of the originals, one was a two-line couplet sung by backup singers, one was a hum, one was a basically pointless instrumental, which left three songs with words and lyrics.
The critical response was negative to say the least. Rolling Stone set up a firing squad led by Greil Marcus, though later publisher Jann Wenner wrote his own review in defense of the album. The response among fans was slightly gentler, with some liking it immediately, some hating it totally, and others wondering what the hell he was doing. However the ensuing years revealed a couple of things: finding two fans who were in agreement about what songs they did like was difficult, and the second as I pointed out in an article I wrote a few years ago was that Dylan fans who were either too young or born after the album’s release did not view it at all the same way that Dylan’s fans in 1970 did, because they were free of the weight of expectations. In fact many couldn’t understand why there was any controversy about it at all.
Okay, so what did I think at the time, being almost 19 and a committed fan for seven years? I thought it was Dylan you didn’t have to think about, that you could put on and have it in the background while you were doing something else. However, the conundrum was that since it was Bob Dylan, you thought about it anyway.
The problems with the original album were partially due to the sequencing which at times seemed either random or jarring with some performances sounding halfhearted. In retrospect, it was two different albums trying to be one. In 1969 following the recording of Nashville Skyline, Dylan returned to Nashville recording several country-western covers. They would be his final recordings in Nashville. A year later he started recording in New York with guitarist David Bromberg and keyboard played Al Kooper, recording a number of folk songs and songs by other contemporary singer-songwriters, who like Dylan were influenced by folk music. At the same time, and at some of the same sessions, he was also recording an album of new originals, New Morning. Several of the covers were then delivered to Nashville, where bass, drums, and other instruments, as well as string sections and background singers were added. No one knew this at the time, and whether it was Dylan’s idea or producer Bob Johnston’s idea, or their idea together remains unknown and probably will remain that way.
It should also be pointed out that during last two years prior to the release of Self Portrait, bootleg records of Dylan had started to emerge in a big way. The earliest bootlegs, most notably the double-disc Great White Wonder, mixed various recordings from Dylan’s career, in one big unidentified jumbled mess. (Later on, Bootlegs would become far more sophisticated). Many people have speculated over the years that with Self Portrait, Dylan was creating his own bootleg and duplicating that one big mess, while others have pointed out and probably rightly so, that if Self Portrait had been a bootleg, Dylan’s fans would’ve gone nuts over it.
And so 43 years later arrives Another Self Portrait, complete with a new self portrait on the cover, that happens to be whether by design or coincidence the tenth volume of The Bootleg Series.
Another Self Portrait ignores the Nashville country covers, and focuses primarily on the New York sessions with Dylan joined by guitarist David Bromberg and occasionally Al Kooper on piano. Included are a couple of outtakes from Nashville Skyline and a couple of other sessions that happened roughly around the same time, and a couple of new songs from the Isle of Wight concert. As with some of the other sets in the Bootleg Series, this is available in two versions: a two-disc version that is the Another Self Portrait album, and a four disc box set that also includes a remastered and remixed version of the complete Isle of Wight concert with The Band, a remastered version of the original Self Portrait, and a hard bound quite beautiful photo book, Time Passes Slowly.
Produced by Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz, and compiled by Rosen, the sound of the album is warm, inviting and intimate. Stripped of the excess instrumentation, the feel of the majority of the album is of a couple of a guys sitting in a room trading songs and having a good time while doing it. Dylan isn’t trying for anything special or trying to create the next masterpiece. It’s quite clear what he’s interested in doing is playing guitar or piano and most of all singing. The result is some of his most relaxed sounding vocals ever. And by relaxed, I don’t mean that he sounds sleepy or isn’t putting out. From a purely vocal standpoint, this album contains some of the best singing he’s ever done. One of the revealing things is that on the tracks that were on the original album, where it sounded at times like he didn’t really care about the song, by stripping out the excess, it’s quite clear he does.
The album is not sequenced chronologically, but by feel and related themes and ultimately tied together by the music itself. Some of the tracks have circulated among collectors, but the majority haven’t. And while the album succeeds in redefining what Dylan was doing musically, particularly in 1970, it is also very much the Bootleg Series, and there are several nods to the very first Bootleg Series released 22 years ago. One of the fascinating things about Dylan’s recording history is there always seem to be alternate versions to the alternate versions, surprises where you least expect them, and certain songs, both covers and originals that he keeps going back to and trying in different ways.
Starting out with a bare bones demo of “Went To See The Gypsy, the album weaves its way between the folk songs and the originals that would make up New Morning and various other tracks in a way that subtly builds up impact. The truly important thing about the Bootleg Series is it gives an almost behind the scenes glimpse of Dylan’s creative and songwriting process, how he will start out with a basic idea and try it innumerable ways until he finds what he’s looking for. On this album are two very different versions of “Went To See The Gypsy” and “Time Passes Slowly” and none of them are like the ones on New Morning. However, finding what he’s looking for doesn’t necessarily stop with the record. Those who attend his concerts know his songs are continual works in progress.
It is not uncommon for musicians (or any artist for that matter) when they feel the inspiration running dry to return to the source of what inspired them in the first place. In the mini-documentary Columbia put on the net to promote the album, Al Kooper says Dylan showed up with a bunch of Sing Out! magazines and started going through the songs. (Sing Out! was pretty much the bible of the folk music during the ’60s, and in addition to articles and reviews, published a number of songs in each issue, and also issued several songbooks, Reprints From Sing Out! More than likely, it was the “reprints” that Dylan showed up with, and as proof, just yesterday a friend posted a photo on his Facebook wall of two of the songs on this album right next to each other from a Sing Out! reprint.) Songbooks or not, what the album makes clear is that Dylan loves and treasures these songs. Many of the songs here such as “This Evening So Soon” and “Railroad Bill” have the spirit of his first album, though his singing and playing are far more polished and less raucous. When he starts playing the harp, he takes you right back to the beginning of his career.
Of the traditional songs and covers, there are numerous high points. At the top is the traditional ballad, “Pretty Saro.” When Dylan wants to he has a way of taking these old ballads and singing them across all the years they’ve been around. Singing in the voice he used on Nashville Skyline, Dylan takes the songs to ethereal heights in a way that borders on spooky. He is at the height of his vocal powers – check out the way he glides up to a falsetto on the line “I’d write my love a letter.” Just as Bromberg starts to equal that etherealness with a guitar solo, the song ends making you wish for more.
Last spring Dylan’s cover of Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” was released as one side of a single for Record Store Day. For years I wondered how he’d treat the song which Andersen wrote the song in the spring of 1965 for friends who were Civil Rights workers returning from risking their lives in Mississippi and Alabama. I saw Andersen sing the song not long after he wrote it at a Broadside Hoot in New York City, where I knew it was an instant classic. Upon finally hearing Dylan sing it last spring, my first reaction was if this had been on the original Self Portrait, those nasty reviews would have been quite a bit different. Backed by Bromberg on guitar, and Kooper on piano, and playing guitar and harp, Dylan treats the song with total respect and appreciation, totally nailing it on the line “All of this and more my friend, your song shall not be failed.
“Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” a song Dylan has recorded many times. This version is similar to the version on the flipside of the single of “Watching The River Flow.” But where that version was more exploratory both in the vocal and Dylan’s piano excursions, this one sticks more firmly to the melody of the song and is equally beautiful.
The cover of Tom Paxton’s “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” is simply is one of the most straightforward covers he’s done.
“These Hands” is a country-western classic written by Eddie Noack and originally recorded by Hank Snow in 1956, but covered my many other greats including Johnny Cash And George Jones. Kris Kristofferson has often told a story about a songwriter’s gathering at Cash’s house where Dylan performed this song in 1969 and blew everyone away. The version here, unadorned, will go down as one of Dylan’s great vocals.
Dylan totally reworks “Bring Me A Little Water,” a song usually associated with Leadbelly. While the first line of the chorus and the melody is the same, the verses are not the ones Leadbelly sang or the ones the Weavers sang in their pop-oriented recording for Decca. Playing piano and backed by a small band and a trio of background singers, it is one of the unexpected surprises of the album. “Alberta #3” has a similar feel with the same backup singers, Dylan on guitar and Bromberg on dobro. Tempo wise it is between the two versions of this song on the original album and may be the best of the three. Everyone seems in sync and it flows.
Another surprise is “Tattle O’Day,” also known as “Little Brown Dog,” and recorded by Dave Van Ronk as “I Buyed Me A Little Dog,” is a traditional children’s song, but also encompasses what Dylan was talking about where he said there’s mystery and truth in folk music. Dylan’s vocal again is quite straightforward and Kooper and Bromberg provide subtle accompaniment in the background.
Of the songs from the original album included here minus the excess instrumentation, the two songs that stood out on that album are the ones that stand out here, “Days Of 49” and “Copper Kettle.”
When New Morning appeared a few months after Self Portrait, it was hailed by critics relieved that is wasn’t Self Portrait as a return to form. The songs reflected Dylan’s life as a family man, but had an edgier feel reflecting a bit more tension than the songs on Nashville Skyline. I always viewed it as Dylan’s piano album since he played piano on seven of its 12 songs. The outtakes included here show the album could have gone in a number of directions. “If Not For You” is present in a slowed down version with Dylan on piano accompanied by an unidentified bass player and unknown violinist. “Went to the Gypsy,” in addition to the version that starts the album is also slowed down in a version with Dylan on electric piano, with a not mentioned bass player.
“If Dogs Run Free,” which appeared on the album as kind of a beat poem in a jazz arrangement complete with a scat vocal behind Dylan, is presented as a talking song with a soulful groove and a gospel chorus.
As kind of a reverse mirror of what was done with the Self Portrait tracks, two songs from the album are presented with overdubs. “Sign On The Window,” which has circulated for several years among collectors has a well done string section emphasizing the piano breaks between verses, and “New Morning” has a horn section. Both the string and horn arrangements were done by Al Kooper and Charles Calello. The horn section reflects the kind of innovative horn arrangements Kooper did on the first Blood Sweat and Tears album and is at least quite interesting. Dylan chose not to use either, though he did keep a brief French horn interlude on “New Morning.” Most surprising is a full band almost hard rock version of “Time Passes Slowly,” that is unlike anything on New Morning or any leaked outtake. The album ends with a solo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” with Dylan on piano. Some of the lyrics are closer to the version The Band recorded, but the fun part is when he gets to the bridge and apparently improvises “Sure wish I hadn’t of sold my old victrola/Ain’t nothin’ that good old rock and rolla.”
On August 31, 1969, played his first full concert in three years backed by The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival. The concert generated the usual controversies that seem to perpetually surround Dylan from his fee to his white suit, to the fact that he played only an hour. Four songs appeared on the original Self Portrait, but were mixed with Dylan’s voice way out front. Now for the first time the entire concert is presented remixed and remastered. As to the controversy about the length of the concert, Dylan did 17 songs which as more or less what he played at all his previous concerts. There were seven live debuts including three songs from John Wesley Harding and two from The Basement Tapes. Unlike his tour with the group three years before, Dylan played acoustic guitar throughout, and four of the songs featured Dylan playing solo. The Band had only recently started performing live as The Band a few months before, and were at the top of their game. Vocally Dylan was still in full Nashville Skyline mode.
There are several cool moments. “I Threw It All Away,” is presented more as a soul song with a cool stop after the first verse. “Maggie’s Farm” is hard blues with the Band joining in on the chorus and echoing “no more” on the verses.
After “Maggie’s Farm, The Band departed the stage for Dylan’s solo set. His first song was a total surprise, the Irish song “Wild Mountain Thyme.” Okay, I have to back up here to explain the full impact of this particular performance. In late 1970 or ’71, I visited a friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the record collection I spied a bootleg of the Isle of Wight. The sound quality was horrendous especially on the songs with the band, a mass of distortion. Then there was “Wild Mountain Thyme.” It was like nothing Dylan had ever done before. Instead of using the traditional rhythm of the song on guitar, he was using well, his Dylan style rhythm. But it was the singing. It was as if he was singing on Venus, his voice cascading in ways it had never done before embracing the poetry of lyrics. Listen to the way he sings “And on it I will put all the flowers of the mountain.” I probably played it ten times in a row driving anyone else in that house nuts. I went home and quickly found an equally bad sounding boot, and over the years bought and acquired several more versions in search of a good sounding copy, a search that is now over.
A close to equally compelling “It Ain’t Me, Babe” follows. In addition to an usual chording structure, this version seems one more of regret and sorry than anger or sadness. Dylan has done this song hundreds of times over the years in various arrangements and one of the incredible things about him as a performer is the range of emotions expressed with this song. A truly lovely though shortened version of “To Ramona” follows, and this song in particular fits his singing style. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is the only disappointment of the acoustic set. The song starts out fine, but after the first verse, he attempts a harp solo (the only harp playing of the night), quickly abandons it, rushes through the second verse and ends the song.
However things are resurrected when the Band joins him for a slow sad, “I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine,” that features a neat step-up key change for the third verse, where he repeats the final line with The Band joining in.
The first live rendering of “Lay Lady Lay” follows and it being The Band, the feel is a lot closer to Memphis that it is to Nashville. Another live debut, “Highway 61 Revisited” comes next. Not at all like the original album version, this one chugs along the smoking freight train with Levon’s drums standing out, and he also joins in at the end of each verse snarling “Highway 61.” A recast “One Too Many Mornings” comes next in a stop start arrangement, that unlike the slow surging dirge of 1966 that had the feel of being up all night is now like a frisky morning walk on a sunny day.
The next highpoint of the show is the debut of “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” with Garth Hudson on accordion. The band takes it slow and carefully and so does Dylan until he gets to the second part of the second verse when he suddenly totally leans into the song, shouting at the end of the verse “take it again,” followed by kind of mandolin style guitar solo Robbie Robertson excels at. Dylan is equally intense on the last verse.
What remains one of the strangest versions of “Like A Rolling Stone” comes next. The Band is fine, but it doesn’t really work and it seems Dylan is singing it because he has to sing it as a crowd pleaser. He seems way more engaged with the newer songs. Once the major hit is out of the way, it’s time to have fun which they do on “Mighty Quinn,” “Minstrel Boy” ending with “Rainy Women” with the Band joining in on the last line. Best new line is “They’ll stone you when you’re riding on your bike/They’ll you when you’re singing in the mic.”
Finally there is the remaster of the original Self Portrait album. The compression used in the remastering process has made the bass a bit too prominent in the mix especially on the overdubs of the New York recordings, though the other instruments are crisp and more defined. The funny thing is it doesn’t seem all that over produced after all.
Another Self Portrait makes it very clear that there was much more going on in this much maligned period of Dylan’s career than anyone thought. Is it about deep mystical insights and startling poetry? Not at all. But it about a lot of good music and most of all singing.
Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter. His site and blog can be found at http://www.peterstonebrown.com/.