BOB DYLAN IN THE 1970s
"Well, it wouldn't have held up as a single album—then it really would've been bad, you know. I mean, if you're gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!" - Bob Dylan
It would be easy to start this article off with the usual talk of how much of a kicking Self Portrait received upon its release in 1970, but as Dylan admirers, we all know it wasn't appreciated upon release. Of course that's a massive understatement, for the album was widely mocked, rubbished and verbally shat on by every critic across the land. Where was the mercurial Dylan of the mid sixties? Had he lost it in the motorbike crash? Had his detours into commercial "hick" music on the likes of Nashville Skyline affected his brain? As one of the biggest voices in the press asked when the album first hit the shelves, Mr Greil Marcus: "What is this shit?"
Admittedly, Self Portrait is a very curious set, basically a double album of covers, bits and bobs and half done ideas. But consider the literal idea of a "self portrait" as a painting, which can either be a perfect photo-like copy of its subject, or a rough-around-the-edges, splash of abstract features. Funnily enough, it's often the latter that seems more expressive and captures the true essence of the person sitting for the portrait. This is how I view Dylan's Self Portrait. It's a free form expressionist painting, what Pollock might have done with sound. But that's just one view of the record. My mind reaches ever more varied conclusions every time I hear it again.
Dylan's own views of the record have changed drastically over the years, ranging from pride to amusement to indifference. In the 1971 book on him by Anthony Scaduto, Dylan told the author, "There's a lot of good music on there. People just didn't listen at first." In 1974 however, he claimed the album was scraped together. His most revealing interview came in 1984, when he went a little further into the Self Portrait controversy to Rolling Stone.
"At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident, which put me outta commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realized I was just workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids. I'd also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn't know anything about. But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he's got the people there that want one. I didn't want that, though. And I said, "Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's go on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't givin' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else." But the whole idea backfired Because the album went out there, and the people said, "This ain't what we want," and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, "Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait." And to me, it was a joke!"
If Dylan thought it was a joke, his army of followers missed the gag. Dylan was approaching 30 at the time, and in the sixties/early seventies pop and rock world, 30 was practically ancient. Had their hero grown "old" and resided himself to middle of the road pap? Had he really become Dylan the crooner, and was this new Kermit the Frog voice the only way to express himself? People were genuinely shocked.
Some 46 years later though, you have to ask just what were they so shocked about? After all, Dylan was a baffling artist from the very beginning. He was the voice of the people, whether he liked to be or not, singing folk protest anthems that stuck up for the minorities and the ones without a voice of their own. He had angered his worshippers, this twenty four year old man, by going electric and bringing his songs into the rock arena. Dylan goes pop! The outrage! After his crash, he'd stunned them again with the sparse John Wesley Harding, released in 1967, a gorgeous but stinging record with acoustic, bass, drums and ear splitting harmonica. Dylan was loved for his way of shaking up the apple cart and taking things in new directions. It seems odd today that his audience couldn't see past the lush strings, delicate croon and half baked ideas, and understand where Dylan was coming from. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
If Dylan really did make the album to shatter his own myth - and why shouldn't we believe him? - you can understand why he might have wanted to do so. He was a man who felt like his blood was being sucked from his body, by both the label men and some of his more vampiric followers. But these followers were no longer on board for the music, the poetry and Dylan's wonderful world view, but for Dylan the man, and who he was, or more to the point was not, behind the songs. This was the aspect of celebrity which Dylan struggled with. And who can blame him? Fame these days is one thing, but imagine being Dylan the Prophet back in the late 1960s. A quiet man like Bob must have been in his own personal hell. Ironically though, and inevitably given Dylan's natural appeal and his audience's obsession for him, Self Portrait only made him more of an enigma. It backfired to say the least.
My own opinion on Self Portrait tends to change slightly from time to time. I always like it, no question, but I often wonder am I enjoying the album for what it is on a musical level, or because it's a statement by Bob Dylan. Am I one of those people who fall for his mystique, his eccentric aloofness? Am I of a mind to suggest that everything Bob does is genius, or some prophetic statement about himself and us all? I hope not, but I do often believe I am more won over by the approach and idea of Self Portrait, rather than the work itself. Like a piece of challenging act, you are often not dazzled by the technique itself, but floored by the concept behind it. I view Self Portrait the same way, as a bold concept and statement about Dylan's status as a reluctant icon.
The outtakes of Self Portrait and its speedy follow up New Morning were made available on the 2013 release, The Bootleg Series Vol 10: Another Self Portrait, and on that double set was some genuine gold, much of it stronger than what made it on to the two records. Some of the material put out on that collection are among my personal favourite Dylan recordings. And I must stress, the released version of Self Portrait also has its fair share of gems too, in between the more baffling material. Perhaps a single album would have been a good idea after all.
Alberta #1 is a wonderful, understated piece with a cool Dylan vocal, laid back drums and a nice harmonica solo; perfectly passable Dylan fare; not extraordinary by any means, but a song that would have fit snugly on to any classic Bob record. It's hard to imagine anyone getting genuinely riled up by a song like this. However, I can see the ranting and raving Dylan converts and followers, who hung on his every word back in the late sixties, rearing back in horror at his genuinely beautiful cover of I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know, his voice in full on Nashville Skyline mode. With sweet musical accompaniment, Bob makes the song his own. The slide guitars and plucking acoustics back up his smooth vocal quietly.
Days of 49 is solid Dylan too, a cover made his own with a charismatic vocal and sparse backing of bass and drums, plus a little brass on the chorus. It's a great moment on the album, in my view one of the finest tracks here. His take on Gordon Lightfoot's Early Mornin' Rain is a strange addition, but a decent retelling too, while In Search of Little Sadie is a little messy, less effective than Little Sadie which follows on the second side. A traditional classic, also done nicely by a favourite band of mine called Trees, Dylan handles it with ease in his croony voice, with manic bongos, slapping acoustics and tidy bass on musical back up.
I even admit to liking Woogie Boogie, a jagged rock and roller with nice piano, brass and guitar interplay. It's often slagged off as inconsequential, but personally I love the groove the band get going. Brief songs like Belle Isle and Living the Blues are nice enough, though they don't shake the needle too much. The Isle of Wight 69 recording of Like A Rolling Stone is excellent however, a cool reimagining of the classic number with a more laid back vocal.
The most acclaimed song from Self Portrait is Copper Kettle, written by Albert Beddoe but made Dylan's own with an understated arrangement of acoustic, bass and female backing vocals, not to mention the subtle and effective strings at work. Joan Baez made it famous in the early 1960s, perhaps explaining Dylan's decision to cover it on his own Self Portrait. After all, Baez had been an important character in his early years, and no Self Portrait would be complete without an appearance by the queen of folk herself. The vocal is off key, but there is passion to his performance that lifts it up above the flaws in the recording.
I heard Dylan's cover of Blue Moon a lot when I was growing up (it was a curious favourite of my dad's when I was a kid), and I must say for me it's the definitive version, although that might be more to do with my familiarity with it rather than the recording's merit. In truth though, it has that kind of backing I love from the Self Portrait/New Morning era; shuffling drums, heavy bass and clear acoustics. The violin solo is beautiful too.
Though his cover of Paul Simon's The Boxer is questionable, it's a nice enough version, with a curious double vocal mix that does distract the listener somewhat. On a side note to this odd choice of cover, Paul Simon often seems to have been riled up that he's considered "second place" to Bob Dylan, but then again so is everyone else, so he's in good company. However, over 40 years after Dylan paid homage to Simon on Self Portrait, he was still irritated by his inferiority to Dylan.
"I usually come in second to Dylan," Simon moaned recently, "and I don't like coming in second. In the beginning, when we were first signed to Columbia, I really admired Dylan's work. The Sound of Silence wouldn't have been written if it weren't for Dylan. But I left that feeling around The Graduate and Mrs Robinson. They weren't folky any more. One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I've tried to sound ironic. I don't. I can't. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He's telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time."
Simon was also sulking that Bob turned down his request for a duet. However, knowing Dylan's marvellously eccentric behaviour, Simon should not have been surprised. And Dylan's quietness and reluctance to speak out about things gives him an air of class, as well as some vaguely frustrating mystery, and he is above slagging matches in the press. Simon however, he's another matter.
"I consider him one of the preeminent songwriters of our time," Dylan told USA Today in 1999, just before touring with Paul. "Every song he does has got a vitality you don't find everywhere." His kind words for Simon seem to explain his use of The Boxer on the apparently personal Self Portrait record. Then again, it could also just be a casual, last minute addition to fill some vinyl space. Or, perhaps, even a joke. Who knows?
For me, one of the additions that makes the sense most, and indeed sticks out from the set, is the Isle of Wight version of She Belongs to Me, a wonderful song when it first appeared on record and perhaps even stronger in the live setting of 1969. These moments, more frequent than most people choose to believe, are the reason it's worth sticking Self Portrait out to the end. And in the end is the charm of Alberta #2, a fitting finale to a most perplexing set.
I am not sure if Dylan was happy or put out by the album's negative response. If he aimed for a turn around of his reputation, he might have been pleased by the bile. But the truth is that he probably didn't even care. It's true that Bob often comes across as arrogant in his indifference (his recent low key reaction to the Nobel Prize seems to have annoyed folk who don't get the way Dylan is and always has been), but his shrugging attitude is actually refreshing. Singers, celebs and people in the spotlight are often so desperate to please us, to get good PR, to say the right things and keep their fans, that Dylan's refusal to be led or influenced by anyone or anything has made him a true artist for some 55 years. Self Portrait, in my view, is about so much more than its content. It's a statement, and a statement from Bob Dylan cannot really be ignored.
Griel Marcus, the very critic who pissed all over Self Portrait back in 1970 for Roling Stone, recently spoke of the record. "A few years ago, Mojo asked me to come back and listen to the record again and write about it again," he said. "I tried really hard to listen to it and hear where I might have been wrong. The stuff that I liked before sounded even better. The stuff that I didn't like before, like the Everly Brothers Let It Be Me, was worse. I don't know why he released the version he did. Maybe it was meant to be a moat to keep people away."
Keeping people away or not, 46 years later and this is totally irrelevant. Like historic paintings from centuries past, we now judge them for their artistic and aesthetic content, not for the reasons they were created. When enough time passes for critical reactions and artist's defences to disappear out of importance, all that remains is the work. As actor and director Dennis Hopper says in the documentary The American Dreamer, "A man only leaves his work. I'll be dead one day." Viewing Self Portrait as a stand alone piece of work reveals a flawed, mischievous and confusing record, but one with enough going for it to make it work on its own merit. Yes we talk about Dylan's reasons for making it, but the real issue now is how it stands the test of time. Ignore it's Bob Dylan all together, and it really is, dare I say it, a pleasant album. Putting aside the harsh battering it took, and you would think Self Portrait was just a nice, laid back, easy listening, ditty filled record from fifty years ago - which, in a lot of ways, it is.