If you are more than just a casual fan of Bob Dylan, you probably already know Greil Marcus’s famous opening line in his review of Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait in Rolling Stone. Just about any article I’ve read that has referenced the album at any length over the years has trotted out the quote -- as has everything I’ve read recently on Dylan’s latest installment (the tenth) in his ongoing Bootleg Series -- Another Self Portrait. I won’t repeat the quote here [You can Google it] but I will say that my initial reaction, while not as vitriolic as Marcus’s, was not entirely dissimilar.
At the time, I thought the album was a total (although not entirely unlistenable) train wreck -- a hodgepodge of folk, rock, country, blues, Tin Pan Alley, hokum, and even musical theater. You get Dylan’s take on “Rogers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” and the surreal spectacle of folkie Freewheelin’-era Dylan dueting with his alter-ego, Nashville Skyline Country Bob, on Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” The one thing there is precious little of is original Bob Dylan compositions -- and those seemed like retreads and throwaways. “All the Wild Horses”-- WTF? The live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s set with The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival of 1969 is barely alive. With Dylan in his Country Bob mode, it pales in comparison to the savage take from Before the Flood with Dylan on fire and in full-snarl mode.
Over the years my perspective on Self Portrait has, shall we say, evolved. Marcus’s classic tome on American music, Mystery Train, had inspired me to delve deeper into our nation’s musical heart and psyche. Then there was the emergence of the No Depression movement in the 1980s. While the well-scrubbed folkies of the 1960s were primarily concerned with their precious authenticity, alt.country artists explored the darker and more arcane aspects of our musical traditional -- what Marcus would later refer to as “Old Weird America.” All of this predisposed me to be more receptive to Self Portrait when I stumbled upon it again in the early 1990s -- around the time Dylan had returned to his early folk roots on Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong (and, to a lesser extent, 1988’s Down in the Groove). This time, I heard it in another way -- no longer as a train wreck but rather as a sprawling and alternately pleasant, perplexing, maddening, and glorious mess. Along with the dross, there are some worthy cuts -- Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain,” lovely takes on an old country classics “Take Me as I Am” and “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” Dylan’s own “She Belongs to Me” from the aforementioned Isle of Wight set, and an old moonshiner ballad -- “Copper Kettle” -- that Dylan somehow managed to make sound elegiac.
Apparently Marcus’s perspective has evolved as well, judging by his enlightening essay in the accompanying booklet. Both the earlier and new collections draw heavily on traditional folk songs. It is not difficult to see how they fit into Marcus’s “Old Weird America.” There are eleven traditional songs encompassed in twelve cuts. (“Little Sadie” is reprised as “In Search of Little Sadie.”) Dylan also covers two of his early contemporaries, Tom Paxton (“Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song”) and Eric Anderson (the beautiful “Thirsty Boots”) -- two of the too few folk artists from that time who were not shackled to traditional folk conventions but simply were creative songwriters who just happened to fall into the folk category.
Another Self Portrait is actually a slightly misleading title. Of the 35 cuts, only 16 -- less than half -- are actually songs either on Self Portrait or from those sessions. Nine, including a couple of repeats (“Time Passes Slowly” and “Went To See the Gypsy”), are from New Morning -- which was recorded concurrently with and released a mere four months after Self Portrait. [The two albums share much of the same personnel: guitar master David Bromberg, pre-Devil-went-down-to-Georgia Charlie Daniels on bass, multi-instrumentalist and expert arranger Al Kooper, and drummer Russ Kunkel.]
Nashville Skyline, from 1969, is represented by two cuts. The beautifully rueful “I Threw It All Away” is virtually interchangeable with the version on the record, while “Country Pie” flat out crashes and burns. “Minstrel Boy” is an unfinished toss-off from The Basement Tapes session. The Greatest Hits Volume II sessions with Happy Traum yields “Only a Hobo,” which by all rights should have made it onto that album. You could put the two cuts taken from the Isle of Wight concert into the Self Portrait column, since that album poached three of tracks from that set as well. Richard Manual’s barrelhouse piano and Levon Helms’s ragged but righteous back-up imbues the rollicking “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with a drunken good-time quality, while “Highway 61 Revisited” rocks steadily.
The first disc opens with three cuts featuring just Dylan and Bromberg -- Dylan’s “Went to See the Gypsy” and the traditional “Little Sadie” and “Pretty Saro.” Right off, two things are striking about these tracks. One is the subtle and beautiful interplay between Dylan and Bromberg’s guitars, which makes we wish that they had done a complete album together. The other is Dylan’s singing. There is none of the affectation that carried over from Nashville Skyline to parts of Self Portrait. Dylan’s tone is sweet, his pitch true, and his phrasing expert. The longing and regret he brings to “Pretty Saro” and a later track, the gorgeous and wistful “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” is heart-breaking while is utter lack of emotion in “Little Sadie,” a tale of casual murder, chillingly brings to mind Johnny Cash’s version of “Delia.” I have defended Dylan as a vocalist for years. I will concede the point that his singing is an acquired taste. However, I refuse to concede the point that he could not sing. Dylan had a much better instrument than people realize. Just listen to his voice soar on “Thirsty Boots.” Yes, I said it soars.
“All the Wild Horses” -- minus the Montovani-style strings -- closes out the disc one. As on Self Portrait, it features Hilda Harris, Albertine Robinson, and Maeretha Stewart -- but not Dylan -- on vocals. Without the strings, it has an understated beauty. “If Not for You,” performed as a ballad with Dylan alone at the piano, opens disc two and is a revelation. It is followed by a sparse arrangement of the sweet “Wallflower.” The next cut, “Wigam,” could easily be incidental music from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the Sam Peckinpah film that Dylan scored (and which includes “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”) and in which he plays Billy’s (Kris Kristofferson) enigmatic sidekick Alias. “Copper Kettle” has none of overdubs but all of easy charm of the Self Portrait version. “If Dogs Run Free” is nothing like the jazzy version on New Morning, with its spoken verses and a sung chorus. While I prefer the New Morning version, this one is interesting if only for the sake of comparison. The song “New Morning,” here with its Stax-like horn arrangement, absolutely cooks -- especially when the chorus kicks in.
The collection ends on a lovely grace note -- a demo of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” with only Dylan’s voice and gospel-tinged piano. It sums up Another Self Portrait perfectly. Like its predecessor, Another Self Portrait is not a masterpiece in and of itself, but the palette from which it was created fills the canvas with many lovely shapes and colors. - Jon Geffner
Mr. Geffner is musician, writer, and pop-rock aficionado.