Bob Dylan Reviews
Album #10, Self Portrait
Columbia Records, 1970
In Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, he writes in the chapter entitled “New Morning,” “I released one album–a double one–where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.”
Bob Dylan’s, Self Portrait, is one of rock and roll’s most notorious album duds. It’s also one of the few albums in the artist’s canon that few people, critics included, have actually sat down and listened to in its entirety.
Hype is a funny thing. Coming off an impressive run of nine solid, and universally lauded albums in the 1960s, Bob Dylan released an album that puzzled fans, yet again, but also garnered one of the most infamous reviews of any album in rock and roll. Greil Marcus’ scathing Rolling Stone review of the album opens with, “What is this shit?”
Self Portrait is not a great album, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation claims. Self Portrait is, rather, an experimental album, possibly intentionally executed by Dylan to kill some of the spotlight swarming his life.
Let’s take a look at Dylan’s current predicament: In 1966, he had survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, that no doubt opened his eyes a bit. He was fed up with the media and his fans labeling him the messiah of rock and roll and a voice of his supposed generation. He seemed completely ready to ditch this built up “false persona” in lieu of a normal life with his family in upstate New York.
Nashville Skyline had left listeners and critics, “scratching their heads” as Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume 1. By the end of the decade that made him a star, Dylan was ready to move on. He recalls spreading rumors that he was going to retire from music all together. He took a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and wore a skull cap in front of the press just so he could be written up as a zionist and ultimately shed the baggage of his followers.
That Self Portrait’s title alludes to Dylan trying to show the world his true side (or perhaps an imagined-self that would send obnoxious his fan-base and critics alike running) shows that once again, Dylan was eager to send a message to the public.
The music on Self Portrait is not bad, it’s just not as good as everything that preceded it.
The 24-song collection is comprised primarily of studio B-sides from the Nashville Skyline sessions, covers of traditional and contemporary folk and rock songs, and a handful of live tracks recorded with The Band at the Isle of Wright Festival.
What’s striking about Self Portrait is that it’s a mish mosh of songs carrying no overlying message or theme, setting it apart from the previous nine records. Nashville Skyline came as a surprise to some but at least it felt like a concise exercise, channeling a love of country music and showcasing a new style of singing. Had Portrait been released solely as a “bootleg record,” much like the still-ongoing Bootleg Series that would eventually arise, the album might not have incited Marcus and others to impale Dylan and call this album the end of his career.
If you look at the year Self Portrait was released, it’s understandable that many fans felt betrayed by Dylan.
1970 saw The Beatles’ breakup, not to mention Simon & Garfunkel (but more on that later). Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both bought the farm, and a wave of long-winded progressive art-rock from Europe seemed to be ready to explode. It was a sudden and harsh end of a fruitful decade for rock and roll.
Leading up to the release of Self Portrait Dylan had given the public plenty of warning signs that he was an unpredictable artist unwilling to play into the media’s portrait of his place in the world. Why fans and critics would be that shocked by Portrait remains the album’s biggest mystery.
Self Portrait opens with the enchanting but bizarre “All the Tired Horses,” which upon first listen must have seemed even more out of left field than Skyline’s introduction of Dylan’s country crooning voice.
“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any riding done?” This is how Portrait opens. Sung by three gospel singers and set to swelling strings and a simple guitar riff, the song instantly puzzles the listener, but does so in a surprisingly beautiful way.
Some view the song’s sparse lyrics as a nod to the fact that the album is admittedly void of the epic Dylan songs we’re used to. “How am I supposed to get any riding done?” could easily be mistaken for “How am I supposed to get any writing done?” which some see as Dylan saying that he’s done writing the “protest songs” that the masses still expect.
At only two lines, it’s also worth mentioning that this song is the only track on side one that is a Dylan original, the remaining songs being covers and arrangements of traditional folk tunes.
The cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” is forgettable but feels like a direct spawn of the Skyline sessions.
“In Search of Little Sadie” gets things moving at the end of side one, and carries into its sister song, “Little Sadie” on side two. The arrangement of a traditional folk ballad about a man coming to grips with the fact that he murdered a woman in cold blood is actually a perfect Dylan song. It wouldn’t have felt out of place on say, John Wesley Harding.
The “Sadie” tracks differ only in terms of instrumental arrangements, and both feature choppy production, again giving the impression that Portrait truly is an officially released collection of outtakes and bootlegs.
“Woogie Boogie” is a fun instrumental that again feels like an extension of the Skyline songs, most notably “Nashville Skyline Rag.” The song builds to an eventual onslaught of brass culminating in a rip-roaring sax outro. The song, which was written by Dylan, is the result of an artist no doubt having fun in the studio. It’s an ode to “the blues” that Dylan so often returns to in his career and is an all around standout track on Portrait.
“Belle Isle,” another arrangement of a traditional folk song, carries on with the crescendo of strings first heard on “All the Tired Horses” and is one of Portrait’s more tender moments, save for the fact that Dylan’s vocals seem off key. Nevertheless, the tale of a man falling in love with a mysterious Celtic maid on “the banks of Belle Isle” is enough to warrant the song’s beautiful orchestral arrangement.
The live version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded a year earlier at the Isle of Wright Festival, is not the best live cut of the song available, but it captures perfectly the time of its recording. The Band’s presence is understood with Garth Hudson’s organ and the backup vocals from Robbie Robertson and company playing a vital role in the late 60s sound.
Self Portrait was officially released before the monstrous double album with The Band, Basement Tapes, but many of the songs on Portrait seem to be rejects or leftovers from those fruitful sessions. The version of “Like a Rolling Stone” is also an early sign of how Dylan would often deconstruct and alter his songs throughout his career. To this day no single live version of his hits are the same. His music always seems to evolve over time, taking on new forms–sometimes improving, sometimes causing fans to cringe.
The live version of “She Belongs To Me” (taken from the same 1969 concert) is another noteworthy example of this idea. Dylan’s songs take on different lives over his career. It’s an aspect of his music that fascinates some and infuriates others. Still no matter how you feel about it, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t keep things interesting.
Self Portrait’s most famous song, that is to say the only one people seem to reference when talking about the album, is “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” one of the album’s more successful covers and easily one of Dylan’s more underrated songs. Period.
Again blending strings, backup female vocalists, and a simple, albeit off-key vocal style from Dylan, this song seems to be one of several tracks on Portrait that carries a similar style and mood. Combined with “Belle Isle,” “All the Tired Horses,” and “Let It Be Me,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” takes the tenderness of Nashville Skyline and ups the production ante by adding, dare I say, a Phil Spector “wall of soundesque” level of instrumentation.
The song, a cover of a traditional folk song set during the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States is an ode to back-country moonshining. Its a romantic portrait of the love of homemade whiskey and a lawlessness that was required to keep this passion alive during a time when the taxman wanted a piece.
Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak
Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them just a-filling in the pale moonlight.
Listening to “Copper Kettle” you again get the feeling that, like many of the other folk songs recorded throughout Dylan’s career, this is a song and a setting in America’s past that Dylan cherishes deeply. It chronicles the kind of simple life Dylan yearned for.
Unfortunately unlike “Copper Kettle,” not all of the covers on Self Portrait end up as successful. The most criticized examples being Dylan’s lackluster covers of “Blue Moon” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”
“Blue Moon” is a rock and roll standard that has been covered by a countless array of different musicians. Perhaps Dylan wanted to join the party, perhaps he just likes the song; whatever the reason, Dylan pulls out his “Lay Lady Lay” vocals but does little else to amp up the performance. It’s not that the version is horrible, it’s just boring, predictable and doesn’t bring anything new to the fold.
On Nashville Skyline Dylan’s crooning, soft-toned vocals work best when paired with “Girl From the North Country.” Here he takes one of his immortal classics and sheds new light on an otherwise familiar sound (this move is aided by Johnny Cash of course). Dylan’s “Blue Moon” sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound like, which does the song a disfavor.
On the other hand, Dylan’s rendition of “The Boxer” is one of Self Portrait’s moments that must have really inspired Greil Marcus to famously open his Rolling Stone review with such a harsh choice of words.
Many of posited that “The Boxer” is one of the Dylan’s more humorous offerings. It has been seen as a parody of a song by one of his contemporaries that he either respects or loathes. Some see it merely as Dylan messing around in the studio, possibly while under the influence of something that toys with one’s judgement. Whatever the reasons are for the song’s existence, the fact remains that the cover just doesn’t work.
For starters, Dylan records a duet with himself, channeling both the scratchy Dylan vocals we grew accustomed to throughout the 60s with the country crooning imagined in Nashville. It’s an interesting move that, in this writer’s humble opinion, backs the argument that this is a song in which Dylan is poking fun at “The Boxer,” a classic song recorded by musicians who have truly beautiful voices at their disposal. Whether or not this is a direct response to something personal between Simon and Dylan remains unknown.
Dylan has always had a very subtle sense of humor. It pops up on songs throughout his career, and most notably during his mischievous probing of the media during his now infamous interviews. You don’t have to look farther than Dylan’s most recent album of Christmas songs set to blues and polka music to realize that behind those serious eyes there is a clever and dark sense of humor.
Self Portrait is hardly Dylan’s worst record to date (many argue that its sloppy follow-up compilation of Portrait outtakes, Dylan, is an even more dismal affair) but it still remains one of his most discussed mishaps.
During the eighties Dylan went through creative slumps that produced songs that make the music on Portrait seem like classic Dylan. What Self Portrait teaches us is that the media does in fact have power over listeners.
During the research for this entry I discovered a fan-made documentary on Self Portrait. What’s most striking is how many of the commentators who bash the album have never listened to the record all the way through. This is, of course, a sign of an unsuccessful album, however, when taking into consideration that Self Portrait contains 24 tracks, it should be assumed that amidst the duds there are some high notes.
Had Self Portrait been released simply as a collection of bootlegs and B-sides more people wouldn’t be as quick to follow suit and judge the songs. Countless magazine lists heralding the supposed “Worst Albums of All Time” place Portrait on a pedestal of disdain. Instead, I feel that Self Portrait is one of Dylan’s more curious moments in his career. How else should he have started a new decade? How does one follow a string of immortal, game-changing albums? Dylan would follow Portrait the same year with New Morning, one of the artist’s most underrated albums to date and one that garners this title because it comes in the wake of Portrait’s dismal press.
Self Portrait enabled Dylan to personally diminish the hype revolving around him, ultimately allowing him to start over and take his music into a new direction. He did this when he alienated fans by going electric, he would later do this during his “born again” years, and in the 90s, when his music and style changed so drastically that he worked diligently to attract a completely new fan base to his music.
David Bowie is often labeled a “the chameleon of rock and roll” for his many musical and physical transformations over the years, but its Dylan who really makes the best use of this career concept. For Dylan, the music always came first. The collection of songs on Self Portrait are exactly the kind of songs you would expect Dylan to release. He is a lover of obscure Americana and folk music (his current radio program showcases this passion perfectly) and he has always yearned to shed his musical skin for something new and less obvious.
Self Portrait is possibly Dylan’s most fascinating career move and is an album that demands to be revisited at least once more by skeptics. It’s not perfect but succeeds at capturing a moment in Dylan’s life and musical career. Sure The Basement Tapes is the better double album, but that documents, first and foremost, one of the truly rare and magical musical pairings in rock and roll.
Greil Marcus is a prolific music writer and his admiration for Dylan’s canon is unprecedented, however, one can’t help but think that his now infamous Rolling Stone review might have been the exact response Dylan was looking for at the time. It’s as if he walked right into the trap which makes Dylan’s persona as trickster and media manipulator, all the more intriguing.
Essential Tracks: “All the Tired Horses,” “In Search of Little Sadie/Little Sadie,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” “Bell Isle”