40 Years of Self Portrait
by Peter Stone Brown
On June 8th, 1970, Bob Dylan released his tenth album (not counting Greatest Hits), and his second 2-Lp set, Self Portrait. It was the first Dylan album to be unabashedly and resoundingly panned by virtually every music critic in the country, most notably by Greil Marcus, who led what amounted to an assassination squad of writers in Rolling Stone magazine, in a review that famously started with the line: “What is this shit?”
It is safe to say that a hefty portion of Dylan’s fans at the time were also bewildered. Some dismissed him forever, and others took a long time to come back, and the albums Dylan released in the following few years did little to change that assessment. However, what the various Dylan discussion forums on the Internet have revealed over the years is that people who came to Dylan later on, who were either too young or not even born at the time, who didn’t have the expectation that every album was going to be a new masterpiece, and more importantly, deliver the word or the state of the union – these fans view the album totally differently, usually not in a negative context or anything remotely close to it. In fact, many of them at the very least like it, and can’t understand why it was ever the subject of controversy.
By 1970, record albums had become far more than just collections of songs on a disc by those working in the general area of what had become to be called rock music, an unfortunate term that included a broad variety of genres. Dylan wasn’t then, isn’t now, and never was a “rock musician.” At the time of Self Portrait, Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam war seemed like it would never end, and the country was divided, in turmoil (sound familiar?). Whatever causes Dylan once might have been linked with, usually against his will, were also fractured and basically blowing in the wind.
So the missing prophet in action, the guy everyone, including other musicians, were looking to for answers, releases this double-record set, with a seemingly important title, implying that it would reveal the real Dylan. Perversely, the majority of the songs were covers. On the new songs, one was a song that had been a hit for Manfred Mann, which everyone already knew, one was instrumental, one was Dylan more or less humming, one was exactly two lines that he didn’t sing or play on, and in the end it came down to two new “Dylan” songs. In addition, two of the covers are done twice in different versions.
The remaining songs are split between country songs, old folk and blues songs, a couple of songs by other contemporary singer-songwriters, a pop tune and a couple of live tracks, the first live tracks (other than those on Newport Folk Festival recordings and the flipside of a lone single) to be released by Dylan.
Self Portrait was recorded in the spring of 1969 in Nashville, in the late winter and spring of 1970 in New York City, with the live stuff was done at the Isle of Wight concert in 1969 – at the time Dylan’s only post motorcycle accident full concert appearance. Then, as was found out later, many of the New York tracks were sent back to Nashville, where producer Bob Johnston overdubbed strings, vocals and other instruments. All of this was thrown together in some sort of order that sort of maybe kind of makes sense or maybe it doesn’t.
What is clear is that following the recording of Nashville Skyline, Dylan was obviously at the very least toying with the idea of putting an album of straight country and western cover songs, working for the most part with the same crew of musicians who had been on Nashville Skyline, plus some other Nashville studio stalwarts. For the sticklers out there, it should be noted this would also be the same rhythm section he’d been using on record since Blonde on Blonde – Charley McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. The songs were classic country and honky tonk songs of the ’50s and ’60s, originally recorded by such artists as the Everly Brothers, George Jones, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and several others.
The sessions in New York, recorded closer to the release of Self Portrait, could also be viewed as Dylan toying with the idea of making, for lack of a better term, a folk album. As noted above, the songs were a combination of old ballads, blues, bluegrass tunes, and songs by other contemporary songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, Eric Andersen and Buffy Sainte-Marie. For these sessions Dylan dropped the vocal style he’d been using on Nashville Skyline and the successive sessions in Nashville, and returned to something approximating his pre-Nashville Skyline voice. It should be noticed that at one of the sessions George Harrison showed up (though he does not appear on Self Portrait) and several older Dylan songs were recorded, as well as some old rock and roll songs. Some of these sessions would be the beginnings of Dylan’s next album, New Morning.
Where the Nashville sessions were slick and tight, the New York sessions were loose by comparison, at times even sloppy. For these recording dates, Dylan recruited guitarist David Bromberg, the first of three musicians who attended Columbia University at roughly the same time in the late ’60s who would work with Dylan in the ’70s. Bromberg was building a reputation as the hot acoustic guitar player in New York City at the time, mainly due to his work with Jerry Jeff Walker. A few years before Walker and Bromberg played live on Bob Fass’ all night show, “Radio Unnameable” on WBAI and recorded “Mr. Bojangles,” which quickly became one of the most requested songs on WBAI. When Walker finally recorded the song, on the album the same name, his first for Atco Records, the Bromberg version was so produced and slick that on his next album, he included the version recorded on Fass’ show.
Over the years, there’s been many theories floated about Self Portrait, and all of them make sense. Dylan, depending on what mood he’s in and what position the clouds and stars are in the sky, has both defended the album and knocked it. During the couple of years prior to the album, bootlegs had emerged in a big way – Dylan, of course, was and is a major target of bootleggers. In some ways, Self Portrait resembled one of the most famous Dylan bootlegs, Great White Wonder, the first big bootleg in music, which has songs from various places – it mixes the Basement Tapes with tracks recorded very early in his career, outtakes from Bringing It All Back Home, and even a song which Dylan performed on Johnny Cash’s TV show that would appear on Self Portrait in a studio version, Living The Blues.
Another theory is that Dylan, who had split from manager Albert Grossman (though not many people knew this at the time) simply did not want to give Grossman, who had a hefty percentage of publishing royalties, any more good songs.
The third theory is Dylan simply had writer’s block. The opening song of the album, “All the Tired Horses,” sung by a trio of women backed by one acoustic guitar and a string section, is a couplet sung over and over again, “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any riding done?” This is followed by “Hmm” signifying humming. So of course Dylan fans, being well… Dylan fans, started reading the tea leaves and immediately assumed riding meant writing. The point is that when artists aren’t inspired, they will often go back to what inspired them in the first place. And so this album could easily be viewed as an album of the music Dylan heard that inspired him to begin with. And this was something he would do quite a few times in his career, perhaps more effectively later on. And even Greil Marcus had to admit “All The Tired Horses” was a gorgeous piece of music.
Ultimately all of these theories make sense, combined with the joker side of Dylan’s personality. There are many Dylan fans who have argued on discussion forums that if Self Portrait had appeared as a bootleg, the very people who put it down would shouting its praises to the mountains. Maybe. At the time I first heard it, I felt a couple of different ways. I never thought it was quite as bad as the critics did, but I didn’t think it was all that wonderful. It was Dylan you could eat corn flakes to. It was Dylan you didn’t have to think about. The problem with the last sentence is that it was Dylan, so you ended up thinking about it anyway, and ended up wondering if this is what his work is gonna be like forever.
What made the album stand out at the time was the absolute lack of drive and emotion on a good deal of the songs. And it wasn’t just that they were covers. Dylan had done some incredible cover songs before and after the album, where he sang with startling intensity, such as “Moonshiner.” But much of the album had a feel like, well shucks, I’m just gonna have a nice old time sittin’ back and running through some of my favorite songs. Ultimately what made the album disappointing was Dylan’s covers quite often were nowhere near as good as the original versions of the songs, or even other versions of the songs. If you heard Doc Watson sing “Little Sadie,” there was no reason to hear Dylan sing it, and if you heard George Jones do “Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go,” it’s the same story.
How do I feel about the album four decades later? Well, I listen to it all the time in the car, but not in the order of the album. I’ve left off some stuff like “The Boxer,” where Dylan’s idea of harmony is singing in two different voices – I added some stuff from the same sessions that came out on the “Dylan” album, and left off the Isle of Wight songs completely, so I wouldn’t have to hear Dylan sing, “Mystery tramp with the apple in his eye.”
Is there good stuff on the album? Definitely. A lot of thought went into slowing down “Copper Kettle” to make it into the true showpiece of the record, and Dylan sings it with true conviction. If Dylan had sung everything with the energy of depth of feeling he shows on “Alberta #2,” the album would’ve been an entire different story. Or if Dylan had sung the entire album the way he sings the last verse of “In Search of Little Sadie,” there would have been no bad reviews whatsoever. Sometimes, I think if he’d done one more take of “Days Of 49,” he would’ve totally nailed it. In the end, it’s just a collection of songs that you can put on and go sit on the porch and look at the stars, and every once in a while a guitar solo, or a dobro lick, or a harp solo will kind of grab you. And I don’t think it was meant to be much more than that.