BOSTON — It was 1970 and time for the annual ritual. Photographer Peter Simon and I headed to New England Music City in Kenmore Square for the new album by Bob Dylan. “John Wesley Harding” had come out in 1968 and “Nashville Skyline” in 1969, both a retreat from his rock-revolutionary persona, but both remarkable missives, in their own ways, from the Great God Dylan.
And now “Self Portrait,” a double album so it must be a major statement, particularly given the title. A mysterious painting on the cover and a “Nashville Skyline”-ish photo on the back. Intriguing. Then back to his house — he had the better stereo — for the breaking of the cellophane and opening of the album. What the opening of the Torah must be for true believers.
The photos are nice, but don’t make much of an impression. The song list does, though, and not the one hoped for. “Early Mornin’ Rain”? “Let It Be Me”? “Blue Moon”? “Gotta Travel On”? “The Boxer”? Also in the mix were songs that looked less than promising (“Copper Kettle”) and selections from his return to the concert stage with The Band at the Isle of Wight, a hopeful sign that the old Dylan was in there somewhere.
Toto, I don't think we're in the '60s anymore.
Onto the turntable it goes. The first song — all backup singers and Hollywood strings? Then a folk song and a country song that make "Nashville Skyline" sound like "Desolation Row"? Toto, I don't think we're in the '60s anymore.
Simon and I weren’t the only ones scratching our heads. Reviews were bad to horrible. Critic Greil Marcus famously asked, “What is this s---?”
And yet, it held a mysterious sway over me, not the same as the first time I heard “Blowin' in the Wind” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” obviously, but a sway nonetheless. Something was happening and I didn’t know what it was. I don’t think I ever really did put it in perspective, but I still wore out those four LP sides looking for a clue to square the old and new personas. It was the same person, obviously. But, but, but, but.
Forty years later and it finally does makes sense thanks to the release of “Another Self Portrait,” part of Sony/Columbia Legacy’s terrific Bootleg series, Sony’s and Dylan’s effort to cash in on money going to those illegal records — now CDs — you can still find in used stores. [The official title is “Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (1969-1971).]
Last week was a repeat of the old ritual, though this time by myself. Off to Newbury Comics I went and held the $20 two-CD and $100 four-CD sets in my hand, both with, literally, another self-portrait on the cover. What the hell. Life is short. In for a dime, in for a C-note.
If you’re of the same inclination you might want to do a few pushups in advance as the package also includes a couple of hardcover books, one with liner notes and track listings, the other with period photographs of Dylan. This time after breaking the cellophane you actually have to hunt for the CDs. Once you do and you put the first one on the turnta … sorry, the CD player … there’s an instant revelation, at least for Dylanologists.
Mythology had it that “New Morning,” his next real CD — there was a throwaway of out-takes in between called “Dylan’’ — was his atonement for “Self Portrait” as “New Morning” contained all original songs. It turns out that they were conceived simultaneously, which might not be earth-shattering news, but it does shine a light on “Self Portrait.”
After his motorcycle accident in 1966 Dylan retreated to Woodstock where he and The Band made what was to become “The Basement Tapes,” the first unofficial bootleg album. (Peter Simon and I also ventured to New England Music City for that one when it came out.) It’s famous for any number of great songs, including “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “The Mighty Quinn,” but later CD bootlegs — the most famous being "A Tree With Roots" — also have Dylan and The Band singing the likes of “People Get Ready,” “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue,” “Bells of Rhymney,” "Joshua Gone Barbados," “Big River,” and “Four Strong Winds.”
He did the same thing with “Self Portrait,” this time with David Bromberg and Al Kooper. Those sessions are the core of “Another Self Portrait,” with beautifully spare renditions of many of the songs on “Self Portrait” and "New Morning," some with a slightly larger group. There are traditional songs like “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue” (again) and “Railroad Bill” and covers of folk songs by Eric Andersen and Tom Paxton, who had written some reactionary attacks on Dylan for going electric half a decade earlier. Dylan’s “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song” out-Paxtons Paxton — Dylan’s is, ironically, sparer and stands as a great example of his ability to make dispassion the essence of soulfulness. An unknown violinist backs up Dylan on piano (he's always been an underrated pianist) on a jaw-droppingly pretty “If Not For You.”
Here are Bromberg and Kooper explaining it:
Other songs go in the opposite direction — a wild, big-band version of “New Morning”; George Harrison guitar licks on a Dylan original, “Working on a Guru” (unreleased on “New Morning”); an orchestral “Sign on the Window”; a "Little Help From Our Friends" arrangement of "Time Passes Slowly"; and alternate versions from “Nashville Skyline.” And it all ends with the harbinger of things to come, a solo piano version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which The Band would later cover, but here with the lyrics:
"Sailin' round the world in a dirty gondola,
Wish I hadn't sold my old Victrola.
There ain't nothing like that good old rock 'n' rolla."
All the tracks are crisply remastered by Greg Calbi in collaboration with producers Jeff Rosen, Steve Berkowitz and others, including the excerpts from The Isle of Wight concert. The $100 version also gets you the full concert, infinitely better than the mixes on the original “Self Portrait” and bootleg albums, and a remastered “Self Portrait,” much warmer than the original junky Columbia CD.
By the way, there’s an insert promising/warning of remixes coming in the fall of all the official albums — two-CD versions with extra songs. Great. Looks like some of us will be building another house for Dylan. It would be nice for him to invite us over.
Aside from the richer, warmer sound and extra tracks, there’s a larger point that both “Self Portrait” and “Another Self Portrait” make. Before “Self Portrait,” the image of Dylan was of the genius singer-songwriter who marched to his own drummer. “Self Portrait” posits Dylan as an artist deeply steeped in the alternative Great American Songbook, one that included contemporaries like Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot, but also all the great country artists (Clarence Ashley) and folk artists (Lead Belly) who preceded him. This was hardly a departure. His very first album was mostly traditional songs, though with more of an acoustic, folk bent. One of the surprising moments in the documentary “Don’t Look Back” when it was released was Dylan singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Can Cry.”
Here he is singing the traditional "Pretty Saro."
And as Michael Simmons reminds us in his liner notes, Dylan’s two roots-based CDs in the early ‘90s, “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong” signaled an end to his ‘80s funk and, even though the songs were by others, they ushered in a new era of great songwriting and music-making from “Time Out of Mind” to “Tempest,” along with the great bands steeped in blues and country who have been accompanying him.
“Self Portrait,” then, is much more than the statement of a man trying to escape his “voice of a generation” past. In fact, a year later at Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh," he would return to singing his “protest songs,” which he had been boycotting for the previous five years.
It’s tempting, in that vein, to divide Dylan into periods, as Todd Haynes did in his 2007 film, “I’m Not There.” “Another Self Portrait” shows that’s the wrong way to think about Dylan. It, like its 1970 predecessor, is a portrait of an artist who was formed by the great American singers of the past, poised to live in the present, and set to reclaim the future. His return to critical adulation was only a few years away.
But “Blood on the Tracks” and The Rolling Thunder Revue weren’t a refutation of “Self Portrait.” They were a continuation.
This program aired on September 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.