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

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