Self-Portrait was the first hiccup in Bob Dylan’s career. But 45 years after it was pilloried by Greil (“What Is This Shit?”) Marcus, the album is set for reappraisal. The latest in the Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 looks at Self-Portrait.
Since 1990, Columbia archivists have been combing through tapes to unearth the forgotten and the neglected gems that Bob Dylan often left off of his albums. Volume ten is the first to tackle that most problematic time for Dylan fans: the Self Portrait era. Released to near universal confusion and enmity, Self Portrait succeeded only in proving to his critics that Dylan was not infallible.
The most infamous of Dylan albums led to arguably the most famous one-liner in all of pop criticism: “What is this shit? “And so spoke Greil Marcus in the original Rolling Stone album review. It was a sentiment that has only begun to lessen in recent years with the cultural re-evlauation of this period. Sandwiched in between Nashville Skyline and New Morning, Self Portrait has always been seen as an attempt at commercial suicide. But as Another Self Portrait (1969-1970) reveals, the sessions for Self Portrait were not only inspired and productive, but the core problem with SP was not Dylan, the songs or the band. If there is to be an assignment of blame, heap it on the shoulders of producer Bob Johnston who bathed the songs in sugary washes and slathered symphonic cheese over Dylan’s goods.
Maybe Self Portrait isn’t as bad as Marcus thought it was. An intriguing collection of tunes, it holds up rather well. While hardly Dylan’s finest moment, Self Portrait is an album only Dylan would try to get away with: a one-finger salute to fans and critics alike, to people who claimed ownership of Dylan, to tastemakers and trendsetters who had written him off.
Another Self Portrait will be a boon to even the most avid Dylanphile. The recordings with George Harrison, while lacking the heat and wit of their later work as part of the Traveling Wilburys, are no-doubter homeruns. ‘Working on a Guru’ is the stuff of legend. Happily, it more than lives up to the hype. Had this cut been released in 1970 – music from a newly free Beatle and a refreshed Dylan? – the world likely would have ended.
‘Time Passes Slowly #1’, another cut with Harrison, is a subtle jam that peters out just as the groove gets cooking. Whether it could have been rounded out into shape is irrelevant; as an artifact its value is immense. With so little existing tape of Bob and George together in the studio, we can’t be harsh to the smattering of work.
‘Only A Hobo’ features folky Happy Traum on banjo. This was Dylan’s second stab at the tune. Neither this nor the original 1963 seemed to satisfy Dylan. Clearly the man had some impossibly high standards. This is one of the purest delights of the set, possibly of all of Dylan’s immense compositional wealth. At least it’s available for us to hear now.
‘Went to See the Gypsy (demo)’ is a rough, acoustic gem, its elliptical tale of an unnamed narrator, a “pretty dancing girl” and the Gypsy heavy with menace but scant on exposition. This is classic Dylan.
‘Pretty Saro,’ a Civl War era ballad will be a hosannah for Nashville Skyline fans. Dylan’s warm tobacco croon is suitably understated. Flat-out superior to anything from the original Self Portrait, its befuddling absence from the album makes about as much sense as ‘Blind Willie McTell’ getting scrapped from Infidels.
WATCH DYLAN PERFORM ‘I THREW IT ALL AWAY’ AT ISLE OF WIGHT 1970
‘This Evening So Soon’ is reason alone to buy the set. Dylan sings with a youthful bloom that hadn’t been heard since his Greenwich days. It has the warmth and honey feel of Nashville Skyline. Again we must ask: “who left these gems on the goddamn floor?”
The version here of ‘If Not For You’ is a weepy treasure: Dylan’s hoarse gargle against a piano and violin backdrop sounds like a ballad from a lost John Ford film. Then there is ‘Belle Isle’ which, mercifully, appears here without the sugary sweep of the original cut’s orchestration. There was magic in the studios, a magic that Self Portrait somehow misplaced. Well, we’ve found it now.
The Band play a big part of this set as well. While some songs, like ‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’, suggest Woodstock, other songs feature the prominent musicianship of Dylan’s best ever recruits. ‘Minstrel Boy’ is a holdover from The Basement Tapes‘ sessions. Further proof that Bob and The Band were an elemental pairing. Not as powerful as the original SP version, the rarity of this cut alone begs for your ears. A honky-tonk romp through ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ will provide succour to the most obstinate Self Portrait critic. ‘Bring Me a Little Water’ is a whisky-scorched outtake from the New Morning sessions.
While there does not appear to be a new Dylan album this year, this trove of archival delights is more of a gift than a new record could be.
“Someday everything is gonna be different, when I paint my masterpiece.” Self Portrait was not that masterpiece, however. To borrow from The Basement Tapes, nothing was delivered … nothing good anyways. But these songs prove that spread over this three-year period, Dylan was inspired. Whether through impertinence or a lack in faith, Self Portrait self-sabotage or executive error, the masterpiece that Self Portrait could have been is only getting its credit now.
WATCH A PROMO VIDEO FOR ‘LITTLE SARO’