Much More Than Just ‘Another’ Self Portrait
By Michael Goldberg
Bob Dylan (re)paints a masterpiece for the 10th edition of his Bootleg Series
I misheard Bob Dylan back in 1970 as I lay back on the single bed in my room at my folks suburban home in Marin County and listened again and again to Dylan’s then-new and controversial album, Self Portrait, as it played on my shit Zenith portable stereo. There were no lyrics included with the album; no liner notes. Just a very long list of musicians who had played on it. Dylan sure wasn’t offering any help in figuring out what he was up to, but then had he ever?
Self Portrait seemed confusing at first, a two-record set dominated by covers of other people’s songs. Other people’s songs? What the goddamn was the man who had intellectualized rock songwriting doing singing “Blue Moon” and ‘The Boxer’ for God’s sake?
It’s fitting that I start this column with the word “I,” and that I’m telling you about my experience, the experience of one middle class 17-year-old boy who was ignorant of the history behind many of the songs Dylan covered on Self Portrait.
I didn’t know B. Bryant, the writer of “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go),” nor F. Bryant, who along with B. Bryant wrote “Take A Message To Mary,” (both songs included on Self Portrait) were famous Nashville songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote hits for the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, George Jones and many others. Or that “Little Sadie,” which Dylan claimed to have written, had been recorded almost 40 years earlier by Clarence Ashley. Hell, I’d not yet heard of Clarence Ashley. And who were the Lomax’s, who along with F. Warner, were credited with writing the gold rush ballad “Days of 49”?
I was 17. What the bejesus did I know?
Dylan often sang in the first person. Nineteen-sixty-three’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” begins with the line, “I was riding on the Mayflower when I thought I spied some land.” His 1965 single, “Positively 4th Street,” begins, “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.” The opening track on Dylan’s new album, The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), is a demo of New Morning’s “Went To See the Gypsy” that begins, “I went to see the gypsy, staying in a big hotel, he smiled when he saw me coming, and wished me well.”
I, he, he, me and me – in the very first line.
“I use I and me and you,” Dylan told Allen Ginsberg during an interview in 1977. “It’s personal.”
It’s personal. Maybe that’s what drew me to Dylan when I heard “Like A Rolling Stone” on the radio in 1965 and flipped out. There was the voice and the music of course, but the way he sang so directly to the girl. This was between the singer and “Miss. Lonely.” And it was on the radio!
There are many layers to Bob Dylan.
But I digress and I owe you more regards what I misheard.
The original Self Portrait starts with a line I heard as “All the tired horses in the sun, how am I gonna get any writing done.”
Yes, I thought in 1970 as I tried to make sense of all those new Dylan recordings (24 tracks), after what Dylan’s been through (the infamous motorcycle accident, the wall of hateful boos that greeted his switch to rock ‘n’ roll, and all he’d accomplished including the recording of nine mind-blowing albums — most of them filled with his own idiosyncratic compositions), how was Bob Dylan going to write more songs? How could he top himself? Well he couldn’t, of course. Yes I misheard, but what I thought was sung sounded like the truth. And if he was too tired to write new songs, well what else could he do?
What follows that song (which is sung by his backup singers – no Dylan vocal) is an album of Dylan singing mostly other people’s songs. There are old songs (“Days of ’49”), pop songs (“Blue Moon”), a few by his contemporaries (“The Boxer,” “Early Mornin’ Rain”) and a few of his own oldies but goodies (including “Like A Rolling Stone” and “She Belongs To Me,” as played at the Isle of Wight in August 1969).
Self Portrait was an album of songs Dylan liked, and to some degree, songs that had influenced or impacted him. Self Portrait was Dylan as reflected through the mirror of his taste. But with Dylan, nothing is ever as it seems, so at the same time he was sharing a bit of himself, he was also fucking with us. Or was he?
In his memoir “Chronicles,” Dylan said he was tired of being “the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese.” He wanted to escape an image the media and the public had imposed on him. So, he writes, he did what he could to shake things up, including the release in 1969 of Nashville Skyline, an album of simple country songs sung in a smooth country croon we’d never heard before.
And he followed up little over a year later with Self Portrait. “I released one album (a double one),” he wrote in “Chronicles,” where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.”
Only that wasn’t true. Another Self Portrait is evidence that there were many other songs Dylan didn’t release, plus alternate takes and demos. And while there’s no reason to think Dylan wasn’t trying to escape the ‘voice of a generation’ straightjacket, the songs he recorded were no joke. This was no duck and cover operation. Critics and some of the public didn’t get it, but so what?
In 1969, even before the commercial success of his country turn, Nashville Skyline (which reached #3 helped by the pop hit “Lay Lady Lay”), Dylan was continuing to experiment with country music, but was also looking back to the old folk music (always a source of inspiration), perhaps searching for a new direction — recording old songs as he did when he and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes at Big Pink in 1967.
Dylan first recorded 11 songs during three days of sessions in the spring of 1969 in Nashville. Then over three days in March of 1970 he cut over 30 more songs in New York with musicians including David Bromberg (guitar/dobro) and Al Kooper (organ, piano). What is hard to believe, but apparently true, Dylan sent the New York tapes to Nashville for overdubs by Charlie McCoy (bass) and Kenneth Buttrey (drums) and a bunch of other Nashville cats. “He [Dylan] wasn’t even there,” Buttrey is quoted as saying in Clinton Heylin’s “Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions.”
Self Portrait was released in June of 1970 and the critical response was deafening.
With that one album it seemed at the time that Dylan instantly lost all the credibility he’d earned the previous decade. His staunchest defenders turned on him. “What is this shit?” Greil Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone.
But not me. I wrote a review praising Self Portrait that ran in the first (and only) issue of a magazine I co-published and co-edited, Hard Road (published in July 1970). I ended that review like this:
“Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman) has gone through many changes and this album is another change, another mood. Many people will dislike it because it sounds different than the Dylan they’re used to. That’s all right though because a few people will have moved along with Dylan and will really dig it.”
Yes, I liked it then and I like it now.
Oh but things might have been so different if the recordings on Another Self Portrait had been released in Self Portrait’s place. Though I still dig Self Portrait, the new album blows it away. Listening to Another Self Portrait is a revelation. Remember the first time you heard Blonde On Blonde, or John Wesley Harding?
Yeah, that kind of mindblower.
It’s a joy to listen to the album. Each song, as it plays, feels like a wondrous and unexpected gift, followed by an equally wondrous and unexpected gift.
Dylan’s voice is in your face from the first song. And you remember how there was a time when he could really sing. Once he had a voice as distinctive as the one Salinger used to narrate “The Catcher in the Rye.” Dylan used many voices in the ‘60s and ‘70s – he moved from Okie folkie to sarcasm-dosed rocker to Nashville crooner. All those voices are wonderful, so full of emotion — and they all sound uniquely Bob Dylan. Those voices, as much as his words and music, are why he is such an important figure in 20th Century music.
All of those great voices and more are on Another Self Portrait.
With Another Self Portrait we get a mix of the original Dylan songs that ended up on New Morning and his distinctive covers. Most of the 35 songs on the two CDs (there is a four CD version that also includes Dylan and The Band’s entire August 1969 Isle of Wight performance, and a remastered Self Portrait) were recorded in 1970 during the sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning. There are also a few alternative takes from the Nashville Skyline sessions of early 1969, one from The Basement Tapes, two from the Isle of Wight performance, and two previously unreleased versions of songs recorded in 1971 for Greatest Hits Vol. II.
There are demos and alternative takes, but just as impactful are seven recordings stripped of the Nashville overdubs. Those songs (two versions of “Little Sadie,” “All the Tired Horses,” “Wigwam,” “Days of 49,” “Copper Kettle” and “Belle Isle”) are heard here as they were recorded with only David Bromberg, and occasionally Al Kooper accompanying Dylan.
If I had to pick out one song to sum up Another Self Portrait, it’s the here-to-fore unheard “Pretty Saro,” a video of which appeared online two weeks before the album’s August 27, 2013 release date. “Pretty Saro” began life as an English ballad. The words to Dylan’s version are similar to those recorded in the early-to-mid ‘60s by Judy Collins, Pete Seeger and Jean Ritchie, but the music is different, and so is the melody that Dylan sings with his Nashville croon. The song lasts just over two minutes, and it is as mysterious and all-consuming as the Basement Tapes’ recording, “I’m Not There.”
It is a story old as love itself that Dylan sings to us. Down in a lone valley somewhere, “a sad lonesome place,” the singer is bidding farewell to pretty Saro, who he dreams of “wherever I go.” Pretty Saro won’t have the singer because he has neither a big house nor the silver and gold he would need to win her love. Still, he tells us that if only he were “a poet and could write a fine hand,” that he’d write her a letter and she’d understand. “But I dream of pretty Saro,” he ends the song. “Wherever I go.”
The lyrics are beautiful and haunting, but it’s not those borrowed words that have me listening again and again. It’s those minor chords that Dylan has added, and the beautiful flights his voice takes. Dylan doesn’t just deliver the words, he sings them, and there is an ache in his voice containing all of life’s defeats. A red rose that has been stepped on, that’s the lonesome sound of Dylan’s voice.
If you liked the Dylan of The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline and New Morning, you’ll like Another Self Portrait. If you are of a certain age, it may remind you of how you felt listening to the above albums when they were first released. I remember the relief I felt when in early 1968 I listened to “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the final tracks on John Wesley Harding. Dylan up in Woodstock; Dylan looking like a country gentleman on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post; Dylan making laid-back country music. It felt right, and I too wanted to get back to the country, even though I had no country to get back to having lived my whole life in that house in Marin. Oh to have a cabin in the woods, a creek nearby, and maybe an old rusting pickup to get around in. The other records that followed – Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning – contained music to accompany sitting on the front porch of that imaginary cabin.
At the time Dylan’s country voice was reassuring, a retreat from the craziness of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde or an advance past that craziness. The songs on Another Self Portrait, and the way they are sung brings back the comfort I felt listening to those albums way back then. I guess it could be nostalgia, which I’m no fan of, but I think it’s something else.
What I think Dylan accomplished on his post-Blonde On Blonde, pre-Planet Waves albums was twofold. Not only did he change his voice and give up (temporarily) the rock ‘n’ roll he’d been playing since ’65, but he simplified his songwriting. It isn’t that the songs are simplistic – mostly they’re as sophisticated, maybe more sophisticated, than his previous writing, but he dispensed with the surrealism, and the layers and layers of wild images. According to Clinton Heylin, not long after his motorcycle accident Dylan told Allen Ginsberg “he was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something.”
Dylan’s own writing became more like the old songs. On Another Self Portrait we get to hear “Went to See the Gypsy” followed by “Little Sadie.” A bunch of Dylan songs — “Time Passes Slowly,” “Only A Hobo,” “Minstrel Boy” and “I Threw It All Away” — are set among public domain songs and more recent covers including “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” Tom Paxton’s “Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song,” “Railroad Bill” and “House Carpenter.”
Mixing it up as he does, we experience Dylan as part of the American folk tradition. Where once he sat at Woody Guthrie’s feet, now he’s Woody’s equal. “Only A Hobo” is as sturdy a song as “In Search of Little Sadie” (which, by the way, is the better of the two versions of “Little Sadie” that Dylan recorded).
There are some fun ones here such as “Working On A Guru” which he recorded with George Harrison on guitar, and a version of “Time Passes Slowly” with Dylan and Harrison singing la la la la las. And as I keep listening, other favorites emerge including “This Evening So Soon,” which Dylan learned from Bob Gibson, who recorded it by it’s real title, “Tell Old Bill,” in 1958, and “House Carpenter,” which Dylan probably heard performed by Clarence Ashley on Henry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
Another Self Portrait ends with a terrific version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It’s a solo recording with Dylan accompanying himself on piano. He sings a verse we haven’t heard before: “Sailin’ around the world in a dirty gondola/ Sure wish I hadn’t sold my old Victrola/ Ain’t nothin’ like that good ol’ rock ‘n’ rolla!”
When I misheard the lyric of “All the Tired Horses” all those years ago, I guess I misunderstood. Dylan hadn’t run out of ideas. He had plenty more songs to write, and write them he did. He’s still writing them. And even so late in the game, I wouldn’t think of giving up on him. Plenty of people have been wrong about Dylan in the past, as Another Self Portrait conclusively proves.
To listen to tracks from Another Self Portrait go to NPR’s First Listen.