Friday, August 30, 2013

Bob Dylan paints Another Self Portrait

Another Self Portrait, volume 10 in Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, focuses on one of the less celebrated periods in the man’s fabled history, the years 1969-1971 when he released Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning, and a two-disc Greatest Hits collection padded out with newly recorded versions of previously unreleased material. The countrified Nashville Skyline came in for its share of criticism. What was the deal with that mellifluous voice, so unlike the scratchy sound for which Dylan was famous? And what gives with a song as simple as “Country Pie” (“Oh me, oh my, I love that country pie?”) from a songwriter who later took the credit for killing Tin Pan Alley with personal and sometimes mind-boggling adventures in the surreal like “From a Buick 6” (“I need a steam shovel, mama, to keep away the dead”)?

It was Self Portrait, however, that stood out like a bloated stomach in Dylan’s discography, especially in 1970 when we were unaware that Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove were still to come. Like 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, it was a two-record set. Unlike that indisputably brilliant album, the one with “Visions of Johanna,” “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Rainy Day Women #12 &35,” and whose final side was devoted to one song, the 11 minute, 20 second “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Self Portrait was . . . strange.

Self Portrait wasn’t strange in the same sense that Blonde on Blonde was, with its title that seemed to have been arrived at in a moment of possibly drug-induced whimsy (as were song titles like “Temporary Like Achilles”), but . . . strange.

The man who killed Tin Pan Alley was resurrecting it by singing “Blue Moon,” the Rodgers and Hart standard. There were other covers, too, the first Dylan album since his 1962 debut to feature songs he had not written himself. Some were even more surprising than “Blue Moon” – commercial songs (the horror!) that had already been hits for the Everly Brothers (“Take a Message to Mary,” “Let It Be Me”) and even Simon and Garfunkel (a version of “The Boxer” done up as a wacky duet between scratchy-voiced Dylan and Nashville Skyline Dylan).

Some tracks had the kind of syrupy strings that might have sounded right on an album by Jim Nabors (TV’s Gomer Pyle was one of Dylan’s label mates at Columbia Records) or the Johnny Mann Singers, but not one by the man who gave us “Like a Rolling Stone” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

And the whole shebang opened with a Dylan original called “All the Tired Horses” whose only lyrics (“All the tired horses in the sun, how am I supposed to get any ridin’ done?”) were sung by a female chorus.

Released in June 1970, Self Portrait was greeted with surprisingly good sales (reaching #4 on Billboard), but contempt from the critics. Just about every Dylan fan knows the opening line of Greil Marcus’ review in Rolling Stone, so there’s no need to repeat it here. I’ll repeat it, anyway: “What is this shit?”

Dylan answered that question several times through the years. His most detailed and probably most honest response was given to the same magazine’s Kurt Loder in 1984. Simply put, he hoped to alienate his more fanatical fans and turn their sometimes parasitic admiration elsewhere. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a musical artist with the kind of following that Dylan attracted at his peak. His most obsessive fans were not content to listen to his records, hang his poster on the wall, or throw their undergarments on stage during one of his then infrequent concert appearances. His fans included the likes of J. Weberman, a self-styled “garbologist” who picked through his trash and harassed him in the press, demanding he get with the counterculture’s program (speaking out against Vietnam, writing more anthems for the “Movement,” etc).

Unlike Mick Jagger and even unlike the Beatles, with the possible exception of John Lennon, Dylan was not just a songwriter, musician or singer (his voice was too unconventional for that title, anyway). He certainly wasn’t anything as common as an “entertainer.” He was a seer possessing forbidden knowledge, a prophet with a clear view of what was ahead, and a judge who saw through all the world’s hypocrisies. In short, he was a man who had good reason to want to run and hide, or, to paraphrase one of Nashville’s Skyline’s best songs, to throw it all away.

Those were strange days, indeed, a period of such confusion, of so many upheavals in culture and society, that it was hoped that somebody somewhere had the answer and could sort it all out. To many, that somebody could only be Dylan. His every new 33 and a third record was greeted like a stone tablet delivered from on high, but where was the message, the mantra, the guideposts to wisdom in the seemingly haphazard collection of odds and oddities that was Self Portrait?

Coming to the original Self Portrait now, it’s doubtful that anyone would ask “What is this shit?” It’s a Dylan album, one of 40 or so that he’s released in a career that now spans half a century. Why, there’s even a Bob Dylan Christmas album with his somewhat gargle-voiced takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “Silver Bells.” Self Portrait isn’t Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks, but it wasn’t meant to be either. It’s Self Portrait. I happen to love it. This latest addition to The Bootleg Series is Another Self Portrait. Except for the cover painting of a guy who looks more to me like actor Chad Lowe than Bob Dylan, I love this one, too.

Roughly half of the cuts here are alternate takes, demos, or unreleased songs from the sessions that produced the original Self Portrait and its follow-up, New Morning. The 1969 Isle of Wight concert is represented with versions of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” performed with The Band. George Harrison turns up a couple of times, once to add his guitar to the unreleased “Working on a Guru.”

Surprisingly, an unreleased take of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” is the only acknowledgement that there once was an album titled Dylan, a hodgepodge of covers and outtakes assembled from Self Portrait and New Morning rejects that Columbia issued in 1973 after Dylan briefly left the label for Asylum Records. Never released in the U.S. on compact disc, it’s really not bad, and I thought that someone, perhaps Dylan himself, might have wanted to start rehabilitating its reputation here.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


No comments:

Post a Comment