Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Very Pretty Album

Have been re-reading Paul Williams' wonderful book, Performing Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan (1960-1973). This is the first part of his three-volume set on Dylan and includes the high praise of Allen Ginsberg, Sam Shepard, Jerry Garcia and Bill Graham on the cover. Of all the critical works on Dylan, it may be my favorite. (Though, granted, I haven't read many in the last decade, after devouring everything I could find earlier in my life.)  As the title implies, Williams doesn't focus on Dylan as a "poet" or songwriter as so many do, but as a performing artist. In doing so, he seems to capture the real essence of Dylan and his creative work. Sadly, Williams died this past March. I would have enjoyed reading what he had to say about Another Self Portrait.

Some selections from his comments on Nashville Skyline:

Nashville Skyline is a very pretty album. That is the best thing one can say about it, and at times it's quite enough. The worst thing one can say about it is that if Dylan had stayed at this level of originality and commitment as a performer, it would be difficult today to make an argument for him as a great artist....

There is an interesting process of simultaneous retreat and advance going on here. In this case, Dylan is retreating from the supposed meaningfulness of his words, from the oppression of his much-trumpeted (by others) influence and power as a cultural hero, while advancing into new concepts of who he might be as a performer and of what music-making is all about.... He even invents a new voice for himself—another retreat from people's ideas of who Bob Dylan is, another assertion of his identity as someone independent of who you think I am.

No one could reasonably say Bob Dylan was playing it safe with this record—it was a radical move, in the context of his career so far, a great risk. But there’s also an aspect of this music, and of the image or public identity Dylan was toying with at the time, that suggest that he was running from something, looking for a place to hide. As elusive as he’d been up to now, he seemed to be searching for a kind of performing that would expose even less of himself, specifically of what he might be feeling inside. I think he wanted music to write and sing that wouldn’t confront him with his inner feelings, wanted to escape the enemy (restlessness might be one name for it) within.

Did he succeed? No, I don’t think so. He just forced himself into a corner where he had less and less energy for performing….

In Nashville Skyline he gives his fans as little of the “old Dylan” as possible … but at the same time is almost obsequious in his desire to be accepted as one of the gang in this new (to him) world in which he fantasizes himself some kind of a) good old boy and b) enduring songwriter and performer creating classic love songs, a cross between Jimmie Rodgers and Irving Berlin.

Inevitably, what Dylan ends up creating is nothing like what he seems to be reaching for. The Nashville Skyline album is almost inconsequential…. And Dylan the country performer is singularly lacking in projected identity—it’s as if he’s used himself up just getting here—sure, he sounds relaxed, but that’s striking only by contrast with who we’ve known him to be, it doesn’t stand by itself.  There are no great turns of phrase on the record, which means none of these songs will be country classics (nothing remotely approaching ‘Your cheating heart will tell on you’). There are no real standout moments in the vocal performances, nothing that provokes awe or sends shivers down the spine. And yet…

And yet this is a magical album. It creates and sustains a unique mood, from the first note on side one to the last note open side two. The whole is tremendously greater than the sum of its parts.
From: Paul Williams. Performing Artist: The Music of Bob Dylan. Volume One, 1960-1973 (Lancaster, PA: Underwood-Miller, 1990), 250-252.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Dozen Thoughts on Another Self Portrait and Bob Dylan 1967-1971

This version was slightly revised on 09/24/2013.

1) Despite the claim in Michael Simmons’ liner notes, Another Self Portrait is not a new masterpiece painted out of old ones.  It’s more listenable than the original because it has more focus.  The purposefully chaotic range of material and arrangements on Self Portrait has been flattened into a more cohesive selection of songs and overall pleasant sound.  But it’s also less interesting.  Self Portrait may have been an artistic disaster, but it was a fascinating record that provoked a lot of energetic reaction and baffled wonder.

2) One great song (“Pretty Saro”), several good ones, some duds, and a number of unnecessary tracks.  A half dozen songs are the same tracks found on the original Self Portrait but with the overdubs stripped away.  Few of these illuminate anything.  (Despite Greil Marcus going on endlessly about “In Search of Little Sadie” as if it were an undiscovered demo of “Visions of Johanna” with Yahweh on harmonica and 2nd guitar.)  The years 1967-1971 are interesting ones in Dylan’s oeuvre, with a number of mysteries and lingering questions.  Another Self Portrait doesn’t offer much new information about that time period.

[Actually, after listening more to both Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait, I would say that some of the songs without overdubs on the new collection do reveal something - that the overdubs on Self Portrait sometimes helped.  The addition of bass, percussion and mandolin on "Little Sadie" propel that version more.  The overdubbed horns on "Wigwam" gave it more power, which it needed on Self Portrait, given its prominent spot as the penultimate song before the reprise of "Alberta #2."]

3) Dylan basically produced an earlier version of Self Portrait in 1967, when he and The Band recorded together for several months at his home in Woodstock, NY.  The 5-CD unofficial collection The Genuine Basement Tapes, which contains 105 tracks, makes this perfectly clear.  Not only does it include first takes of some of the same songs from the Self Portrait period (“Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” and “A Fool Such as I”), and Dylan’s initial attempt at a crooning voice, but the overall trajectory of the 1967 recordings is exactly the same as the later project: mixing together historic folk songs, older popular music, tunes by his contemporaries (three by Ian & Sylvia, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”), country & western, and his own original tunes, which, in 1967, were infinitely better (“Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “I Shall Be Released,” etc.).  In the Genuine Basement Tapes, Dylan and The Band fuse all of these styles together perfectly in a soundscape that’s both brand new and deeply-rooted, as opposed to the clashing mish-mash that occurs on Self Portrait.  It’s almost an entirely new genre of music: The Dylan genre. In a long, twisting journey, he would finally come back around to this sound in his post-Time Out of Mind dark-valley folk-blues statesman persona. This early version of Self Portrait has much more energy and depth than the one released in 1970 or the “new,” re-imagined version of 2013.

[The variety of genres in the 1967 material is actually greater than on Self Portrait, including rockabilly; two songs in a New Orleans style, complete with trombone; a calypso-like piece ("Joshua Goes Barbados") and, most importantly when considering the rest of Dylan's career, gospel music. "Sign on the Cross" is the best and most obvious example, but there are several tunes with a similar sound. This is due in part to Garth Hudson's organ throughout the sessions.]

4) Why haven’t any of the reviews of Another Self Portrait bothered to mention the 1967 recordings?  While the Genuine Basement Tapes are bootlegs, they’re readily available bootlegs.  One song from those sessions is included on Another Self Portrait – “Minstrel Boy” – but only as a nod to the live version from the Isle of Wright found on the original Self Portrait.  But the conspicuous absence of discussion about the 1967 recordings is strange, and, in terms of critical analysis, disconcerting.

5) One explanation: There’s an element of revisionist history going on in Another Self Portrait.  Greil Marcus, whose participation in this new release has to be one of the greatest examples of pop culture public rehabilitation ever, claims that the project came about when Dylan “sat down with the guitarist David Bromberg in March of 1970 to fool around with old songs.”  But The Genuine Basement Tapes prove that something like Self Portrait had been on Dylan’s mind, and on tape, since 1967.  Also, Self Portrait wasn’t just about playing “the old songs.”  That view of Dylan-history may appeal to fans of My Morning Jacket, but Marcus’s statement and this new release conveniently ignore a large and important chunk of the original project by not including any of the older pop classics, such as “Blue Moon,” or the songs by various contemporaries on which he had left his mark – the hits by Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Jerry Jeff Walker, etc.  Self Portrait wasn’t just a collection of “old” folk music that had influenced Dylan but, in an audacious move, also the music and musicians that Dylan had influenced since his debut in 1962. Though the original album may have been a bust, that was one of the aspects that made it interesting. I guess if you want outtakes of that part of the project, you’ll have to go back and buy the old Dylan album from 1973 that Columbia released to get back at Bob for signing with David Geffen's Asylum Records that year. 

Oh, wait, you can’t. Dylan was so bad and evidently caused Bob so much embarrassment that it has officially been "disappeared." Amazingly, in 2013, you can’t even find that jewel on iTunes or Amazon. (Actually, Amazon does offer an original 1973 8-track version for $14.99.) You can find the songs on YouTube.

So, Another Self Portrait is basically Dylan’s “portrait” of his earlier Self Portrait as seen through the eyes of his older self. It abandons aspects of the original project – the pop music and the re-interpretation of songs by contemporaries – that he abandoned in his later career, and only includes elements of his work that have become important (or popular) after his revival that more or less began with As Good As I’ve Been To You.

6) Rather than a new masterpiece painted out of old ones, Another Self Portrait sounds more like pouring new wine into old wineskins. Many of the flaws of the original still remain.  One of the main problems with Self Portrait, as well as with Nashville Skyline and chunks of New Morning, is that the essential engine of Dylan’s artistic energy is missing: his anger.  Anger, or a certain underlying darkness and cynicism, permeates almost all of his work.  Rather than calling 1969-1970 Dylan’s “Country” period, it should properly be called his Sentimental Period.  I can’t think of any other era of his career when he was so purposefully sentimental.  And it just doesn’t suit him.  (That’s also why his attempts at “country” during this time are mostly disappointing and mediocre, because he offers up a false and even elitist sentiment about rural life and ignores the pained, hardscrabble white blues at the heart of country music.)  Dylan may have been more content hanging out with his family up in Woodstock, he may have even been a better human being, but his troublesome duende fled the scene when faced with some of the soul-sucking sentiment he offered up.

7) Another flaw leftover from Self Portrait remains as well: Too many of the songs sound lethargic and uninspired. David Bromberg is a fine guitarist. I’ve seen him referred to as a “tasteful” player. But he and Dylan don’t have a lot of chemistry together. In general, their performances lack the fresh spontaneity of sittin’ on the porch just pickin’ some tunes, or the creative tension and boozy energy Dylan had in spades with The Band while working on the same kind material back in 1967. 

[Bromberg does play on the best material on Self Portrait - songs like "Little Sadie," "It Hurts Me Too," "Gotta Travel On," "Copper Kettle" and "Days of 49."  He and Dylan create a pleasant acoustic sound on these songs.  But there is a reason why bass, drums and other instruments were overdubbed onto all of these recordings.]

Dylan also seems hesitant on Another Self Portrait, like he wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do. That’s not the case on the Genuine Basement Tapes, where he radiates confidence and is obviously having fun exploring a new soundscape.  So what happened between 1967 and 1970 to cause such a difference?

8) One of the other problems with Self Portrait may provide a clue: Dylan just wasn’t writing very much or very well in 1969 and 1970. In fact, his troubles go back to the end of 1967 when he finished working on John Wesley Harding.  In 1966, he produced Blonde on Blonde, a double album, along with several high quality outtakes; In 1967, he pumped out at least three albums worth of original material with The Band, and then John Wesley Harding. In 1968, he wrote a total of two songs: “Lay Lady Lay” and “I Threw it All Away.” In fact, his complete (known) output of new, original material between late 1967 and late 1974, a period of seven years, includes Nashville Skyline, which clocks in at 27 minutes even after adding an instrumental and re-doing an old song; about four originals on Self Portrait (not including instrumentals or 2nd versions); a dozen new songs on New Morning (another short album); three new originals in 1971 (“Watching the River Flow,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “George Jackson;” and the 1973 soundtrack to Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, which basically consists of two or three new songs.  In seven years, he produced about one album’s worth of good material.  It’s as much or even more of a lost era as the commonly referred to “dark period” from the 1980s and early 1990s.

9) Dylan has some quotes that may illuminate what happened during the 1969-71 time period:
“I … didn’t sense the importance of that [motorcycle] accident till at least a year after that. I realized then it was a real accident. I mean, I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before … but I couldn’t do it anymore.” [1969].*
His motorcycle accident was in July 1966.  For the next 16 months, he produced quite a bit of interesting material, culminating with John Wesley Harding in November 1967. Then everything seemed to change.
“One day I was half-stepping, and the lights went out. And since that point, I more or less had amnesia…. It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously.” [1978]*
That might explain not only the lack of production and quality in his own material for the next several years but his hesitancy and stiltedness on a lot of the songs on Another Self Portrait.  He literally didn’t know what he was doing anymore.

10) Before listening to Another Self Portrait, I had not only been exploring The Genuine Basement Tapes but also a lot of early “country rock” and “rock country” from the same 1967-71 time period: Gene Clark’s first solo album from 1967, as well as Love of the Common People by Waylon Jennings; The Byrds (with Gram Parsons) on Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968, the two Dillard & Clark albums from 1968 and 1969; Flying Burrito Brothers from 1969 and 1970, Kristofferson’s first two albums; and in 1971, Gene Clark’s wonderful White Light, John Prine’s first album, Willie’s Yesterday’s Wine, and Waylon’s The Taker/Tulsa.  (As well as the two Gram Parsons solo albums from 1972 and 1973.)

In that larger musical context, Another Self Portrait makes me feel like Dylan’s work from 1969-1971 ultimately constitutes a great and sad missed opportunity.  Especially as I listen to The Genuine Basement Tapes and dream of versions of Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait with The Band behind him.  I’ve already put together playlists of those imaginary albums, using songs from 1967.

11) After diving into Another Self Portrait for several days straight, I woke up the next morning singing “It Hurts Me Too” in the shower.  A song from Self Portrait that’s NOT on the new collection.  Obviously, the music is very similar, but why would that song be the one to emerge from my subconscious?

12) Hopefully, Columbia will eventually release The Genuine Basement Tapes as part of its Bootleg Series.  One of the problems is that the original tapes are pretty rough sounding, recorded as they were in a living room.  Another Self Portrait definitely has the advantage in that regard, with lovely and rich studio sound that has been remixed well.  Maybe one day we’ll get to hear “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” in such beautiful high fidelity.

*Clinton Heylin. Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades: A Biography. (New York: Summit Books, 1991.) 192

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Another Side of Another Side of Bob Dylan: The Mantovani-Mitch Miller Sessions (1964): The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Deluxe Version) [Box set]

Before Bob Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, he tried going down a much different road. A true revolutionary and musical genius, Dylan worked secretly with Mantovani and Mitch Miller in August 1964 on a series of groundbreaking recordings that would finally destroy the heavy burden of being the King of Folk and forge a trailblazing path for all of popular music.  

Shocked at what they heard, record executives and manager Albert Grossman forced producer Bob Johnston to strip all of Mantovani’s strings and Mitch Miller’s choral arrangements, as well as all of the show tunes and pop songs, gutting the original two-album set that would truly show another side of Bob Dylan, and leaving the world with the thin husk of just another“folk” album.

David Crosby: “Dylan was devastated. That's when he started using drugs and treating people badly. I mean, he's a musical genius and they robbed him of a masterpiece. I was at those sessions, and he was waaaaay out in front of everybody. It was like being in a room with Charlie Parker, Cecil Taylor, Hank Williams and Bach. You think The Beatles were “experimenting” because they used a couple of violins on “Yesterday”?  Dylan had f*cking MANTOVANI! But Grossman freaked out.”

It would take Dylan six more years before he had the clout to release a double album with strings and choirs on his misunderstood pop masterpiece Self Portrait (see Columbia’s new Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol.10.). If you love Dylan crooning "Blue Moon,"it all started here...

Now, for the first time, experience Another Side the way God and Dylan intended. All of the strings.  All of the choirs.  With 44 alternate takes, outtakes, unreleased songs, alternate takes of unreleased songs, and alternate takes of previously released alternate takes, including his first attempt at “Blue Moon,” yet another version of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” (with Trini Lopez), and “Surrey with Fringe on Top.”

David Crosby: “Wait, I may not have been at those sessions. Maybe it was McGuinn. It’s a little fuzzy...  No, I was there, too, because I remember Andy Williams was hanging out a lot with Bob then.  You’ve never heard anything until you’ve heard Bob and Andy doing 'All I Really Want to Do.'  It's not just a song anymore - it's like a spiritual revelation or revolution. America would've been a very different place if they had let Bob sing with Mantovani and Miller. We probably would've pulled out of Vietnam a lot earlier. Bobby and Martin would still be alive.  You just don't know what might have happened.”

The Deluxe Version of Another Side of Another Side includes the complete Perry Como Television Show Rehearsal Session from September 1964.  Hear Perry and Bob croon sweetly to “It A’int Me, Babe,” “Spanish Harlem Incident” and several selections from My Fair Lady.

With new liner notes by the late Nat Henthoff.

“I wrote a glowing review of Another Side when it came out in ’64. But I was a complete idiot. I want to publicly apologize for that misguided piece of writing. Frankly, Another Side pales in comparison to Another Side of Another Side.  It’s clear now that Bob Dylan was and is a musical genius, that he had a much bigger concept of music than the suits at Columbia, and that the real masterpiece was stripped away from him by bean counters and philistines.”

Until now.

The entire history of rock and roll and popular music will have to be re-written 
when people hear Another Side of Another Side of Bob Dylan: The Mantovani-Mitch Miller Sessions (1964): The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Deluxe Version) [Box set]

Get your croon’ on.