Mark Richardson says just about everything I would want to say about Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), the richly rewarding tenth volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series. It’s hard not to see Dylan flipping the bird with the title of this new collection, given that the original Self Portrait (1970) has generally been regarded as one of Dylan’s most embarrassing outings. Here’s Richardson:
By most accounts, Dylan was hurt by the initial savaging of Self Portrait, and rushed out its 1970 follow-up, New Morning, to put the album in the rearview as quickly as possible. Later, there was a sense that he wanted to scrub it from his own history. In interviews, Dylan sometimes suggested that Self Portrait was deliberately bad, thrown together as a way to confuse his audience or provoke the media into moving on to someone else so that he could have more privacy in raising his family.
Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defense mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.
Another Self Portrait complicates the narrative. Considering the strength of these alternate takes, demos, stripped-down mixes, and live cuts, it’s a little hard to believe that these were the cast-offs from what was perceived to be an artist’s worst album. Many of the songs come from the sessions for New Morning, but there were no clear lines between Self Portrait and New Morning sessions in 1969 and 1970. Akin to Neil Young’s later method, Dylan at the end of the 60s seems to have been about recording songs first, lots of them, and figuring out how they fit into an album later.
The new collection, as Richardson illustrates, offers an occasion to rethink the original’s reception — “What is this shit?” Greil Marcus famously began his review for Rolling Stone — and to return to the double LP itself. Richardson again:
The deluxe version [of Another Self Portrait] also includes a remastered version of the Self Portrait album proper. Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke. But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them.
Here Mark and I part ways, at least slightly. I have a soft spot for Self Portrait, partly for its underdog status, and partly because it’s one of my two birth-year Dylan albums, which as friends know I take to be more significant by far than astrological signs or birth order. Those biases notwithstanding, I agree that Self Portrait really does sound better than the conventional wisdom would suggest lo these forty-odd-years on: I like to put it on in a mellow mood, late evening, lights dimmed during dinner, when I want to listen to turn-of-the-Seventies Dylan but don’t really want to go back to Nashville Skyline or forward to Blood on the Tracks. It’s refreshingly non-canonical. It holds a place in my vibe-schema somewhat similar to Willie Nelson’s Stardust, if a little more ramshackle and occasionally raucous. But I find it less sloppy and weird than Richardson’s backhanded defense would have it. I think it’s quite deliberate in its presentation, or obfuscation, of “Bob Dylan.” Its agenda, I think, was to pull Dylan to the background and put the spotlight on the songs, or maybe even on the idea of songs: what they are, why we listen to them, why and how the good ones survive.
To say Self Portrait is deliberate isn’t to say it is “deliberately bad,” as Richardson puts it, following Dylan’s own lead: “Stories were printed about me trying to find myself,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles, Vol. 1. Greil Marcus quotes this passage in his terrific liner notes to the new compilation: “I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.” Marcus pretty much accepts this explanation of Self Portrait and New Morning without question, and Richardson can’t quite shake it either. Marcus especially isn’t ready to reconsider his original impression that Self Portrait was shit. To Marcus, the virtues of Another Self Portrait have everything to do with stripping away the original’s missteps. The “unadorned” versions of songs on the Bootleg Series anthology put the originals “in a closet,” make them feel “lifeless.” It’s as if Another Self Portrait exists simply to justify both Marcus’s snap impression of the original Self Portrait in 1970 and his subsequent devotion to that self-portrait’s Original.
When I say I find Self Portrait to be both deliberate and not deliberately bad, here’s what I mean: The very things that critics have taken for years to be signs of Dylan being less-than-serious about this album, I think, at this point, we can recognize as having more to do with his fascination with songwriting itself. The album gets two stars on allmusic.com. Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes it as “a deliberately sprawling affair that runs the gamut from self-portrait to self-parody, touching on operatic pop, rowdy Basement Tapes leftovers, slight whimsy, and covers of wannabe Dylans from Paul Simon to Gordon Lightfoot.” The other way to see it, and they way I would argue for, is that Dylan recognizes in those wannabe Dylans the potential for enduring songwriting. It’s true: I’d rather listen to the versions of “The Boxer” and “Early Morning Rain” from Self Portrait than the ones recorded by Simon and Lightfoot, but I don’t think this is just about one-upping his lesser contemporaries. It’s as if Dylan, in covering these songs, invites us to consider the phenomenon of cover songs — or recorded music — altogether. These are songs. And he’s recording them. And that’s that.
Take “Take Me As I Am,” the closing song from Side 3, a song by Boudleaux Bryant. It had been recorded in the previous three years by Dottie West, Conway Twitty, and Ray Price. Compared to their countrypolitan pablum (especially the versions by Twitty and Price), Dylan cuts the song like a knife and lays its flesh bare. He sang “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which had been a huge hit for the Davis Sisters in 1953, and sang it like he was returning to his faux Appalachian roots. He was doing 50s revival before the 70s hit full swing, and he was doing it a little bit country and a little bit rockabilly and roll. His version of “Blue Moon” is even less expected: it takes the music of his childhood — a song written by Rodgers and Hart almost a decade before Dylan was born, a song of his parents’ generation, squaresville, exhausted — and seeks to give it CPR:
Don’t trust anyone over 30 indeed. This song was pushing 40.
The message here seems to be that songs live, they carry on. The existence of recorded sound shouldn’t fix songs in time. Self Portrait underscores this argument in its inclusion of multiple versions of the same song: two “Alberta”s, two “Sadie”s. Maybe this argument is nowhere more forceful on Self Portrait than in Dylan’s covers of his own songs — the live versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs to Me.” Here he takes what are already canonical Dylan songs and gives them a proto-Rolling Thunder preview: up-tempo, bluesy, a waterfall of descending arpeggios on the later verses of “Rolling Stone.” In such moments, Dylan took his own songs and released them into the atmosphere, like aluminum Warhol pillows. (The existence of even more — and more varied — versions of these and other songs on Another Self Portrait only seals this reading.)
The live versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs to Me” were recorded in 1969, during Dylan’s set at a festival on the Isle of Wight. In that set he turned his own songs inside out, rejected folk and rock-n-roll both in favor of country. It was as if he pushed his own songs into a time machine, sent them back to rub shoulders with his sources. We hear them live on Self Portrait, with 150,000 audience members screaming over the opening and closing of the tracks. This underscores the question of self-presentation. Dylan covering Dylan. Rearranging himself, as it were. His songs are worth rearranging as much as any others. Hadn’t he already been covered enough? One of the other Isle of Wight tracks on Self Portrait, “Minstrel Boy,” again invokes concerns Dylan would stick with for half a decade or more, at least through the Rolling Thunder Revue: the place of the singer as vehicle for the song, the role of the song in granting identity to the singer.
In Self Portrait, Dylan gave us an autobiographical mixtape before such a thing really existed. It’s a self-portrait in which the self struggles to disappear, but it’s also a self-portrait made up of early impressions and source material: read this and you will understand me, it promises, winking. Ellen Willis, two or three years earlier, had Dylan pegged as much as anyone ever had: “Many people hate Bob Dylan because they hate being fooled,” she wrote.
Illusion is fine, if quarantined and diagnosed as mild; otherwise it is potentially humiliating (Is he laughing at me? Conning me out of my money?). Some still discount Dylan as merely a popular culture hero (How can a teenage idol be a serious artist? At most, perhaps, a serious demagogue). But the most tempting answer — forget his public presence, listen to this songs — won’t do. For Dylan has exploited his image as a vehicle for artistic statement. The same is true of Andy Warhol and, to a lesser degree, of The Beatles and Allen Ginsberg. (In contrast, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were creatures, not masters, of their images.)
Self Portrait, an album about being not quite thirty (the way Double Fantasy was an album about being 40), starts with a song called “All the Tired Horses,” in which three female backup singers and sweeping strings back a lead vocalist who never manages to take the mic. He trots out tired horses one by one, and sure enough, they still have spark. And they have more than a little bit to say about the horse-whisperer. I’m a little tipsy, probably, but is this Self Portrait reminding anyone else of “I’m not there”?