Should’ve Been A Classic: #3

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait (1970)

I had been planning on making the next “Should’ve Been A Classic” on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, arguing that it should be as highly regarded as his mid-sixties pinnacles.  Of course, there’s really no such a thing as an obscure Dylan record (1973’s Dylan, which has yet to be issued on CD, might be one), so it’s pretty hard to make the case that any single one of his albums is underrated.  They’re either already bona fide classics (à la Blonde On Blonde) or correctly estimated crap (I’m looking at you, Dylan & The Dead, you piece of shit).  So even though John Wesley Harding – which I maintain is his best record – is not quite of the same stature as Blood On The Tracks (a somewhat overrated record), it’s still a classic.

There is, however, one Dylan record that deserves a radical reappraisal and that, as those of you who read the title to this piece can guess, is 1970’s much-maligned Self Portrait.  A friend of mine once declared the double album to be “his masterpiece that all the idiots didn’t get”, and he was absolutely right.  I think a case could definitely be made that Self Portrait is Dylan’s masterpiece and that case will be made right now.

First off, when the album was released, it suffered from ill-advised expectations.  Coming after the smooth country of Nashville Skyline, which made some of the rock’n’roll kids rethink their adoption of the folkie icon, Self Portrait infuriated fans expecting The New Dylan Record (that album, New Morning, was already prepped and would be issued shortly after Self Portrait’s befuddling drop).  “What is this shit?” opened Greil Marcus’ famously excessive four-page reviewing of the sprawling record.  What in the fuck was the Spokesman Of A Generation doing crooning through insipid country covers and half-assed live versions of classic Dylan tracks?

However, it’s better to think of Self Portrait not as a Dylan album proper, but as collection of outtakes; a Bootleg Series Vol. 0, if you will.  In fact, that seems to have been the idea from the get-go.  Around this time, the first bootleg records began to circulate drawing from the then-unreleased Basement Tapes and 1966 world tour so it only made sense for Dylan himself to get in on the act.  Indeed, in an interview the following year he referred to Self Portrait as “my own bootleg record”.   But even as critics unfavourably compared the music of the album with that of The Great White Wonder (the patriarch of Dylan bootlegs, and indeed bootlegs in general), seeing Self Portrait as just outtakes from the Nashville Skyline and New Morning sessions also misses the point.

Despite its detractors, the album does contain some great music.  Some.  The two “Alberta”s are thoroughly pleasant exercises in country-rock, and critics generally agree that while the album as a whole may be “shit”, “Copper Kettle” at least is still a fine performance.  In his biography of Dylan, Clinton Heylin calls it “one of the most affecting performances in Dylan’s entire official canon” (although I reckon it’s a little oversung).  Also, the instrumentals “All The Tired Horses” and “Wigwam” are two of the most objectively pretty pieces of music Dylan ever created, and that’s not to mention the jaw-dropping country-funk of the The Band-backed Isle of Wight version of “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)”.

But, again, Self Portrait is more than the sum of its parts; to approach it on solely musical terms does not take into account its formal aspects.  The emphasis on cover versions of old songs, for example, not only illustrates Dylan’s debt to the history of American song, but also allows him to escape out from under the weight of being regarded a serious song-writer.  Without the expectations of creating A Work Of Art, Dylan is able to simply enjoy the act of playing music.  Given that most of the record’s cuts are essentially warm-ups for the Nashville Skyline and New Morning records, we get a glimpse into Dylan’s recording habits as the singer and his army A-list Nashville session musicians cut loose and have some fun in the studio.  This gives the album a sweet laid-back feel like the musical equivalent of a lazy summer Sunday down by the ol’ fishin’ hole.   All in all, the album manages to impossibly balance between its half-assed conception and execution and the impeccable musicianship of its players.

Though “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” and “Let It Be Me” may be schlock, you get the sense that Dylan just digs these songs as songs and, more importantly for our purposes here, he enjoys playing them.  As ace multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy stated: “I assumed … it was just stuff he’d thrown together for the heck of it”.  Check Side 1’s “Days Of 49” where even Dylan himself seems amusingly aghast at his own strained vocal:  “Oh my goodness!” he exclaims after one particularly overblown chorus.  By all objective measurements, it’s a pretty shitty performance, but Dylan sounds like he’s having fun playing it.  Indeed, many of the tracks seem to feed off the pleasant domesticity that Dylan was enjoying at the time (of course, it’s possible that like the earnest troubadour of the early 60s and the brimstone-spouting preacherman of the early 80s, the backwoods family-man of the early 70s was yet another role taken on by the Protean Dylan).

Throughout, the album exudes a spirit of playful jouissance, not unlike the career of Captain Beefheart, and this serves a double-purpose.  Not only is Dylan enjoying farting about in the studio, he is also able to slough off the weighty tag of Generational Spokesman (to the relief of one as-yet unborn Kanye West).  Dylan himself claims this as the main reason for the album.  In a 1984 interview, he explained: “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.’”

Yet Self Portrait is so much more than an elaborate career suicide; rather, it’s a deconstruction of the whole Dylan myth.  Juxtaposed with the covers of country standards like “Blue Moon” and “Little Sadie”, Dylan and his Nashvillian cohorts also tackle some more contemporary songs by a couple of pretenders to the Dylan throne, as if to suggest that the album positions Dylan in the continuity of his influences and his influence-ees.  His take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” has a mellow congeniality that outshines its original, but it’s his version of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” that really takes the biscuit and perhaps best encapsulates Self Portrait’s twisted genius.

Though Simon has suggested the song is autobiographical, many have claimed the track is really about Bob Dylan as one diminutive Hebrew resented the other’s success and abandonment of his folkie roots.   Simon, apparently, did not approve of Dylan “squander[ing his] resistance for a pocketful of mumbles”. So, here we have Dylan singing a song written about him by a song-writer who himself based his career on basically being a watered-down, sugared-up imitation of Dylan.  But the brainbending Baudrillardism does not end there:  see, Dylan’s “The Boxer” is actually a duet between two Dylans.  We have the “classic” nasal Guthrie-influenced voice, over top of which is laid the new, smooth country-croon Dylan had adopted for Nashville Skyline.  A double fuck you: while the folkies like Simon were still reeling from Dylan’s abandonment of the earnest coffeehouse scene in favour of rock’n’roll, the hipster kidz he’d picked up while rockin’ down Highway 61 were now the ones screaming “Judas!” to his ventures into Grand Ol’ Opry schmaltz.

And herein lies the sly duality of the album’s title (it also refers to Dylan’s godawful cover art, which would have surely been the most hideous cover of 1970 had Blind Faith not opted that year to issue The Worst Album Cover Of All Time).  Anyway, on the one hand, Self Portrait could be regarded as Dylan’s attempts to present his own influences (in the form of country standards), but on the other hand, it’s also Dylan’s own reworking of his public image.  And by “reworking”, I mean wholesale slaughter.

Released just two years after Roland Barthes’ famous “Death Of The Author” essay, Self Portrait seems to do just that for the author-function of Bob Dylan (which, it should be noted, is an entirely different beast from the human being born as Robert Allen Zimmerman).  Not only does the record fail to include any substantial new original songs, but Bob’s celebrated voice can’t even be arsed to show up for the opening track, “All The Tired Horses”.    Instead, we are treated to some polished (and beautifully arranged) strings over which a female chorus repeats the line “All the tired horses in the sun / How’m I supposed to get any riding done? / Mmm-hmmmm / Hmm-mmm-hmm-mm”.  It has been suggested that the minimal lyric slyly refers to the lack of original songs on the record (“how’m I supposed to get any writing done?”), although I wouldn’t discount it really being about Bob’s inability to fuck a pregnant Sara Dylan.

The absurdly pretty half-assedness of “All The Tired Horses” aside, the ultimate nail in the Dylan Mythos is the live version of “Like A Rolling Stone” that concludes the first disc.   Again, like “Days Of 49”, it’s a pretty awful performance by any objective criteria, yet within the context of Self Portrait it works.  Dylan’s methamphetamine-fuelled anthem to hipster ennui is recast as a laid-back country tune.  Gone is the speedfreak snarl, replaced instead by that now familiar syrupy croon.   The usually reliable The Band, who were absolutely cookin’ on some of the other Isle Of Wight tracks included on the record, sound like they’re about to fall asleep.  Dylan himself phones in his vocal performance and can’t even be bothered to remember the lyrics: instead of “the mystery tramp … not selling any alibis”, he mutters something about “the apple of his eye”, completely undercutting the put-down nature of the original song.  Yes, it sucks, but it’s also a work of fucking genius.

Self Portrait is definitely a bad album for those who expect Dylan to issue serious artistic statements, but to those who realize that, above all, Dylan is a trickster who refuses to be nailed down to a single identity (I’m still half-convinced that the born-again period was an elaborate – and hilarious – hoax), Self Portrait is perhaps the greatest manifestation of that mercurial genius.

Incidentally, I should mention as an interesting post-script to Self Portrait, that the Dylan album referred to at the beginning is really what most people think Self Portrait is.  Released in 1973, Dylan is also a collection of outtakes from the Nashville SkylineNew Morning era, but much shorter and weaker.  Yes that’s right; the stuff not good enough for Self Portrait.  The good folks at Columbia Records put it out has a hatchet job in retaliation for Bob leaving the venerable label for David Geffen’s upstart Asylum Records.  Lacking the sprawling scope and self-deprecatorily witty ironic conceit of Self Portrait, Dylan, well, kinda sucks.  That said, one track — “Sarah Jane” — is frickin’ sweet.  Got some more of them la-la-la’s like in  “The Man In Me”.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on October 24, 2009.

2 Responses to “Should’ve Been A Classic: #3”

  1. I was just thinking: no one ever writes anything interesting about music anymore. This post fills a void. Thanks!

    I haven’t heard the album but still can’t help but wonder aloud: isn’t it possible that he just released a pile of junk because he had become so full of himself? The musical equivalent of Picasso scribbling on napkins and demanding tens of thousands of dollars for it.

    Oh! I love Quinn the Eskimo!

    • On the contrary: it seems he put the album out because *other people* were too full of him — he no longer wanted to be a spokesman of a generation. Whether or not it’s a “pile of junk” is in the ear of the beholder, and this particular beholder is saying it’s still amazing, or at least fine, even stripped of its context. If you don’t find “All The Tired Horses” really pretty, there’s something wrong with you. And besides, just because it’s on a napkin doesn’t necessarily make a Picasso scribble not a great piece of art.

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the piece — I guess that makes two Dylan records you’re gonna have to dig up. If you liked this post, I dare you to slog through “On Captain Beefheart”. Similar ideas, but a bit more developed. And anyway, everyone needs some more Beefheart in their life.

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