#1: Bob Dylan – Self Portrait (1970)

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Fleshed out expansively on the recently released Bootleg Series Volume 10 (Another Self Portrait 1969-1970), back in 1970 the double Self Portrait album must have come as something of a nasty shock to Bob Dylan devotees after his genre-defining 60s work. Coming hot on the heels of Nashville Skyline (1969), this sprawling 24 track miscellany ranges from slight country ballads (Skyline outtakes where Dylan retains his country croon), shambolic covers (over half the album are re-treads), ragged live performances (Isle of Wight comeback gig), and leftovers from New Morning’s New York sessions. That album, recorded concurrently, would be released later the same year and again feature the core musicians Al Kooper (keys) and David Bromberg (guitar).

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We moved to New York. Lookin’ back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn’t the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There’d be crowds outside my house. 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 get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ 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: Bob Dylan 1984

The Bootleg Series update is a big improvement on the album cover, but inside the expansive gatefold there are scrapbook images including Bob in the studio, and somewhat enigmatic pastoral shots of Bob hanging in Putnam Valley upstate New York on photographer John Cohen’s ranch. The songs (six per side), and endless list of guest musicians, are displayed in a beautiful shelley volante font. Nobody cares about album covers any more, but holding Self Portrait makes me miss this lost art form all over again.

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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.”: Bob Dylan 1984

Once the album starts playing it’s certainly off to a bumpy start.

Side One: The first track ‘All the Tired Horses’, Bob is completely absent. The song also goes on for an eternity, with the repeated refrain: “all the tired horses in the sun, how am I supposed to get any riding done?”. It’s tedious but things pick up nicely when the country shuffle of ‘Alberta #1’ ensues. Bob then croons his way through a couple of harmless country ditties (‘I Forget More Than You Will Ever Know’ and Gordon Lightfoot’s pleasant ‘Early Morning Rain’) and a spirited, yet untidy ‘Days of 49’ about the 1849 gold rush. The character of Sadie pops up here (‘In Search of Little Sadie’) and there (side two’s ‘Little Sadie’) both short, catchy and definitely loose trad Clarence Ashley murder ballads. So far, so good.

 “It’s a great album. There’s a lot of damn good music there. People just didn’t listen at first.”: Bob Dylan 1984

Side Two: Opening with a beautiful rendition of ‘Let it Be Me’, a song popularised by the Every Brothers in 1960 (Dylan liked it so much he had another go at this in 1981 for Shot of Love), the Dixieland 12-bar ‘Woogie Boogie’ then inexplicably shuffles in. And then shuffles out. Perhaps overstaying its welcome, although a rather terrific sax solo at 1:22 salvages things – it’s the first track of any real insignificance. Luckily the majestic ‘Belle Isle’ follows, Dylan singing in possibly the most “straight” setting that’s been afforded Self Portrait thus far, likewise Nashville Skyline outtake ‘Living the Blues’, a quality original. The side closes with the first of four live tracks from the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival performance which was his first live appearance in three years since a near-fatal motorcycle accident. This version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is far from the totally anthemic, voice-of-a-generation version we know and love, yet Dylan gooses the song along with a down-home resilience, The Band joining him on backing vocals and sinewy instrumentation. These live cuts are the highlight of the album (especially ‘The Mighty Quinn’) from a performance now fully available via the bootleg reissue.

Side Three: This is where things get a little befuddling. All covers pieced together, the strangest being Bob Dylan-doing-Paul Simon-doing-Bob-Dylan on ‘The Boxer’ – and it ain’t pretty. Nor is ‘Blue Moon’, which would’ve wound up nicely on the contractually obliged Dylan (1973), alongside the likes of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘Mr Bojangles’.

Side Four: The final side has the free-range sprawl of the live materiel (‘Minstrel Boy’ and ‘She Belongs to Me’), the soft acoustic strum of ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and another agreeable Boudleaux Bryant cover ‘Take a Message to Mary’. Next is ‘Wigwam’ a wordless campfire singalong. Dylan’s “la-la” vocals accompanied by misplaced horns in a mariachi-like arrangement is bizarre, and was incredibly released as a single. Self Portrait closes with ‘Alberta #2’, revisiting side one’s centrepiece, albeit in a looser, more organic format. Dylan’s voice, its intonations, its lyrical phrasing, the words, still remains at the core of his artistry by album’s end.

What is this shit? This shit is, in fact Greil Marcus you crashing bore, a relatively good Bob Dylan early 70s album, in retrospect. Dylan may have been trying to destroy his own myth while simultaneously shedding his audience; however Self Portrait, the whipping post in the Dylan catalogue for over 4 decades, does have its merits, and is regularly intriguing. True, it is certainly one of the oddest chapters in an astonishing career.

  1. All the Tired Horses   ∗
  2. Alberta #1   ∗∗∗∗
  3. I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know   ∗∗∗
  4. Days of 49   ∗∗∗
  5. Early Mornin’ Rain   ∗∗∗
  6. In Search of Little Sadie   ∗∗∗
  7. Let It Be Me    ∗∗∗∗∗
  8. Little Sadie   ∗∗∗∗
  9. Woogie Boogie   ∗∗
  10. Belle Isle   ∗∗∗∗∗
  11. Living the Blues   ∗∗∗
  12. Like a Rolling Stone   ∗∗∗
  13. Copper Kettle   ∗∗
  14. Gotta Travel On   ∗∗∗
  15. Blue Moon   ∗
  16. The Boxer   ∗
  17. The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)   ∗∗∗∗∗
  18. Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go)   ∗∗∗
  19. Take a Message to Mary   ∗∗∗
  20. It Hurts Me Too   ∗∗∗
  21. Minstrel Boy   ∗∗∗∗
  22. She Belongs to Me   ∗∗∗∗
  23. Wigwam   ∗∗
  24. Alberta #2   ∗∗∗
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