Albums You Cannot Touch: Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait”

In addition to the customary religion and politics, it is my assertion that at the dinner table of music lovers, Bob Dylan is a topic best avoided. There are just too many strands to the story, too many reasons to love or hate (or love and hate) the man across  various phases of a 50-year career. We have the casual listeners, who prefer the scrawny, ragamuffin Dylan of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, the one who strummed an acoustic guitar, wrapping cute, clever phrases about love and “The 60’s” around a hummable melody.  Then there are the obssessives, more numerous back in the day, who used to pore over every line of a new Dylan album, scanning for metaphor and meaning, staying up all hours debating just who “Mr. Jones” was meant to symbolize in verse one (versus verse six). There also exists a third camp, for fans who, clutching their brandy snifters, would rather pontificate on how Dylan is and always has been screwing with us, continually one step ahead of his gullible audience, burying his “message” (if he should ever stoop to calling it that) so far between the lines of his songs that the listener must both scrutinize what he hears and passively let it wash over him at the same time, ultimately bringing one to a richer appreciation of the work on multiple, lasting levels.

Right, so best not talk Dylan at the table. You’re much better off just spinning Blood on the Tracks and getting on with the evening.

Ooh… Yeah! Blood on the Tracks! LOVE that one! The mid-70’s creative peak. The chill, rustic set that strikes a perfect balance between the 60’s Dylan’s acoustic and electric extremes. “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Shelter from the Storm”… these songs mark a critical sweet spot in the Dylan catalog, inviting listeners of all stripes to admire either the pretty shuffle of the instrumentation or the sublimely confessional lyrics. It’s no wonder why Blood on the Tracks is the one Dylan album everyone can agree on.

But you’re not getting off that easy, fellow Dylanologists. Not on this blog… No Blood on the Tracks for you till you earn it. Don’t you know what Dylan had to go through to get that easygoing sound? Take a seat. I think it’s time we had a little talk about Dylan’s early 70’s output…

Well, we probably won’t get through all of it. To be honest, Dylan put out some pretty unlistenable shit during this period. In fact, 1970’s Self Portrait — a double album of sloppy originals, clumsily read covers of Gordon Lightfoot and Simon & Garfunkel, live cuts from a ramshackle Isle of Wight performance with The Band, and a couple silly instrumentals for good measure — probably stands as the most egregious offender.

What was going through the man’s head? I won’t attempt to regurgitate what others have so masterfully recounted about Dylan’s mercurial early 60’s rise through the “Is he a protest singer or not?” controversy and the mysterious motorcycle accident in ’66­. Suffice it to say that, by the time he officially resurfaced in December 1967 with John Wesley Harding, Dylan was still being hounded by critics who wanted to anoint him “Voice of The Generation”. Only now the critics weren’t the naïve, specky clods Dylan had jerked around in press conferences pre-accident:  Now he had Rolling Stone magazine, vanguard of the new Underground Rock Press, to contend with.

In Gordon Mills’ original review of Harding, we see little more than the diary of a fanboy, gushing over each song on the album for more than 1500 words! And here I thought JWH was a straightforward, uncomplicated comedown after the hopped-up cacophony of Blonde on Blonde, knocked out by a guy holed up in Woodstock with his babies and some oil paints. I had no idea that on Harding “anybody can feel the return to a cooler, more hip, almost shrugged-shoulder awareness of the whole scene revolving around here.” Around where exactly? Was Dylan supposed to be some kind of hippie sage?

After such obnoxious reception for Harding (which I’ll admit left in one too many Old Testament references for critics like Mills to chew on), Dylan’s next move was to go even more straightlace for 1969’s Nashville Skyline: a meat-and-taters country album that starts with a re-hash of an old hit (“Girl from the North Country”, sung as a duet with Johnny Cash) followed by an instrumental hoedown (really? A Dylan song without lyrics?). And if that weren’t corny enough, Dylan sings the entire LP in a gentle country croon, virtually unrecognizable to fans on first listen.

And yet  the praise kept pouring in. In his RS review, Paul Nelson has nothing but sunshine for Dylan on his retreat from the confrontational. To him, Skyline “poses fewer mysteries and yet, paradoxically, offers greater rewards than any of his previous work”. It’s certainly a more nuanced assessment this time out, with no further linkages made between the Woodstock artist and the Woodstock Generation. Still, something about critics’ suppositions over Dylan’s lyrical and musical intentions — the tone, perhaps, with which Nelson, an old friend of Bob’s from his earliest Dinkytown days, closes his review (“It could well be what Dylan thinks it is, his best album.”) — must have rankled Dylan to the core.

There would need to be yet further tainting of the creative well. An album perhaps, of material so out of step with what had come before as to challenge even the most loyal listener’s perception of just who “Bob Dylan” was, and how a Dylan album or song could possibly be defined…

Right, so Self Portrait, released in the summer of 1970, more than did the job. As mentioned above, the double album was a 24-track shitshow of muzak-sounding covers, parodies of other artists (including previous incarnations of Dylan himself), putrid live renditions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs to Me”, and other such truck: all products of months in the studio, innumerable session musicians, and a concerted effort to sound bad. “I just threw everything I could think at the wall,” Dylan recalled in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume 1, “and whatever stuck, released it.”

The critics were mortified. Greil Marcus famously opened his Rolling Stone review of Self Portrait with the question,“What is this shit?”

Now here’s where it gets interesting. I’d love to share more about Greil Marcus’s review, but you’ll notice that Rolling Stone hasn’t gotten around to uploading it yet. (It should be listed between Nashville Skyline and New Morning.)

It’s an obvious attempt to sweep Self Portrait under the rug and pretend it never existed. (Need to make room for that 100 Greatest Bass Players list, I presume.) Pathetic, I say. Yet I don’t know… Perhaps influential rock historians like the editors of Rolling Stone, a publication whose enduring popularity is largely dependent on an ability to remember the music and musicians of the 60’s  as  flawless in every which way, have succeeded here in removing an entire Dylan album from the critical/cultural lexicon.

It’s not like we saw anything from Self Portrait on the I’m Not There soundtrack. Remember that album, and its bloated coterie of indie heavyweights all in a pissing contest to find and cover the most obscure Dylan songs imaginable? Sadly, Todd Haynes’s forgettable biopic is about the most accurate barometer we have on which Dylan periods are currently en vogue to hype. Late ‘70’s/early ’80 Christian period? On the soundtrack! Blonde on Blonde outtakes found only on the 1985 Biograph box set? Check! Hell, even Willie Nelson plumbs Street Legal for material.

And yet no choice nugs from Self Portrait. What gives? Admitedly, Portrait was mostly covers to begin with, and no use covering a cover. But “Alberta” is an original, and it has a nice little throwaway lyric some quirky indie chanteuse (Ingrid Michaelson?) could have easily sung:

Alberta let your hair hang low

Alberta let your hair hang low

I’ll give you more gold

Than your apron can hold

If you’ll only let your hair hang low

I’m just saying: wasn’t the entire I’m Not There project supposed to be about exploring Dylan’s and art in response to jealous critics and demanding fans at critical moments in his career? What better example than Self Portrait? C’mon Haynes: it’s right there in the title! Calling his ultimate creative kiss-off a “self portrait” is about the most glaringly ironic statement Dylan ever made! Doesn’t anybody listen to this album anymore?

I realize I’ve made it this far without saying much of anything about the actual music of Self Portrait. (Ha! Maybe I shouldn’t! Keep the critical wilderness untouched!) What I will say is that Self Portrait (The Recording) doesn’t exactly warrant a complete track-by-track analysis: Dylan ensured as much when he decided to record so many covers to begin with. But as I’ve already said, “Alberta” is a nifty little number that Dylan humorously included on the album twice (“Alberta 1” and its barely-different counterpart “Alberta 2”). I also like the choices made on several of the cover arrangements, particularly “Days of ‘49” (though Dylan forgets some of the lyrics) and “Copper Kettle” (a sweet, lilting ode to moonshine). Elsewhere, “Wigwam” is one you may recognize from the Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack (It was the album’s single! Made #3 in the Netherlands!).

But my favorite musical moment on Self Portrait has to be the hilarious cover of Paul Simon’s The Boxer, in which a pair of Bob Dylan’s — mumble-mouth ’66 Dylan and crooner ’69 Dylan — share the iconic harmony vocal:

So who is the real Dylan? And why did he choose to paint this Self Portrait? Are we even supposed to care? Eventually, Dylan would go on to top Self Portrait in the ‘purposeful shitiness’ department on another album, 1973’s Dylan, which he comprised of leftover tracks from Self Portrait (i.e., the songs that “didn’t stick” the first time around). Could it be that Dylan had something to say with these bizarre recordings all along?

But let’s not forget New Morning, also released in 1970. And the mostly-instrumental Pat Garret and Billy the Kid soundtrack. Or Planet Waves, the 1974 studio hookup with The Band…

Ugh. Is it time for Blood on the Tracks yet? Seriously guys. I think I just want to chill.


5 Responses to “Albums You Cannot Touch: Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait””

  1. February 10, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Hey — good writing, really good! You have good taste too, both in topics, links (hehe), and man have you picked a nice WP theme. The only thing that seems to be missing is an rss feed link… Oh well, I’ll come back manually, then.

    • 2 lchennig
      February 27, 2010 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Eyolf. And thanks for reading! I’ll look around for how to add an rss link. I plan to write more pieces on under-appreciated albums in the coming months. Keep kicking ass over at dylanchords!

  2. 3 Noel
    October 24, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Just a point of clarification–you can blame Bob for Self Portrait; you cam blame hime for Planet Waves (tho’ I kinda like it…some songs anyway); but you can’t blame him for 1973’s Dylan, which was Columbia’s act of revenge for his having jumped ship to Geffen’s Asylum label. Musta worked, too, since Dylan was back with Columbia immediately, as we all know. The album hit the cutout bins years ago, and is all but impossible to find, but you gotta respect Bob for including it on his website. He can acknowledge it, even if Rolling Stone can’t print Greil Marcus’s review of Self Portrait.

  3. 4 Bill
    March 22, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    How can 3 punk rockers (Clash Dead Boys Ramones etc.) drop everything when self portrait plays? Because Tom Moore was from the bummer shore that’s why!!!

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