Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Columbia)
By Wallace Wylie
Perhaps the most infamous moment in the documentary Dont Look Back is when Donovan performs ‘To Sing For You’ for a twitching Bob Dylan and his entourage. During Donovan’s sweet and simple song Dylan can hardly contain his conceit, blurting out “Hey, that’s a good song, man”, before eventually launching into ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. The exchange highlighted Dylan’s maturity in comparison to Donovan’s wistful naivety, though to be fair to Donovan he was in fact, and remains, five years younger than Dylan. The songs seemed to exist in different worlds (though I do think the line “crying like a fire in the sun” has always struck me as something of a clunker), and the documentary has forever cemented Donovan’s reputation as pretender to Dylan’s throne, a mere boy whose art shrivels when placed next to the master’s creations. How ironic, then, that within four years Dylan would be struggling to write lyrics that came close to the quality of ‘To Sing For You’, and his fans and critics would go on to champion this struggle as some kind of artistic triumph.
We’ve all read too much about Dylan as it is. What nobody seems to mention, however, is that, even before his legendary motorcycle crash, his artistry was in decline. Blonde On Blonde is without a doubt Dylan’s Sgt. Pepper: an overrated album that relies on a few heavy hitters but fails to meet the standards set by his previous releases. Take away ‘Visions Of Johanna’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, and ‘4th Time Around’ and suddenly things look pretty bleak. Bland rewrites of earlier, better songs and functional blues workouts dominate the album. From a production and playing standpoint it sounds great, but the songs don’t match the sound. It’s around this time in Dylan’s life that facts become rather scarce.
As far as the music industry was concerned Dylan fell off the map for a while. He crashed his bike. He raised a family. He jammed with The Band. He goofed around. He finally returned in 1968 with John Wesley Harding, an almost perfect album filled with cryptic, Biblical ruminations. The last two songs, though, indicate that something happened during John Wesley Harding. Instead of the lyrical complexities and allusions of the previous 10 songs, closing numbers ‘Down Along The Cove’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ sound light and carefree. They are also rather dire, from a lyrical perspective. Nothing too awful, just a lot of bland “moon in June” rhymes that indicate a lack of inspiration. I say something must have happened during the recording of the album because these last two songs were not anomalies but actually predict the Dylan of Nashville Skyline. It seems that by 1969 Bob Dylan had forgotten how to write Bob Dylan songs.
Nashville Skyline, as indicated, picks up where John Wesley Harding ended except Dylan can’t even produce 10 new songs. There’s a rerecording of an old number, a throwaway instrumental, and then eight actual songs. Here is a man who once sang “Darkness at the break of noon/Shadows even the silver spoon/The handmade blade, the child’s balloon/Eclipses both the sun and moon/To understand you know too soon/There is no sense in trying” except now he was singing things like “Peggy Day, stole my poor heart away/By golly, what more can I say/Love to spend the night with Peggy Day” and “Oh, the moon is shinin’ bright/Lighting everything in sight/But tonight no light will shine on me”. Critics scratched their heads and wondered if Dylan was making a political move by associating himself with white working-class music, and some have suggested that Dylan banged his head so hard in the motorcycle crash that he had to relearn how to write songs.
Whatever the reason, it’s apparent that Dylan was not the songwriter he once was. Despite this, Nashville Skyline has become a favourite album among many Dylan fans (with Blood On The Tracks being the most treasured). It appears to have functioned as some kind of Never Mind The Bollocks, discovered many years after the fact for white suburban American music fans who grew up on alternative music but were looking for somewhere else to go. After exploring Dylan’s ambitious and daunting earlier material, Nashville Skyline is something of a respite from greatness. Ultimately it makes for a pleasant listen, but the words lack wit or any kind of playfulness. Its popularity may rest on the fact that its easy platitudes seem within reach of the average, educated, American suburbanite who sees profundity in hackneyed observations and imagines that the mundanities Dylan sings about on Nashville Skyline represent some kind of simple truth. Never mind those brilliant lyrical displays of Highway 61 Revisited; give me the homespun crock of Nashville Skyline. I can sing like that. I can dress like that. I can be that. Yes, Nashville Skyline is Americana’s true beginning point. It just took a couple of decades before its impact began to be felt. One man’s inability to write as good as he once did sparked an entire movement for people who lacked the necessary ambition to create something groundbreaking.
Wait, this is supposed to be an album review, right? Excluding a couple of live tracks, a couple of Nashville Skyline outtakes, a leftover from The Basement Tapes, and a few extra curios, most of the material on Dylan’s new Bootleg Series collection stems from the sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning, the two albums which followed Nashville Skyline. At the time, Self Portrait was greeted with derision, as opposed to New Morning which was greeted with relief. Sure, New Morning wasn’t a classic, but it was better than Self Portrait. However, while New Morning remains relatively ignored to this day, Self Portrait has picked up a cult following, even though the initial reviews remain as true as ever. People love trash and culturally reviled items and as such Self Portrait has its champions.
The problem with Self Portrait is that it sounds like a mess. It sounds like it was thrown together with five minutes to spare. It also has almost no Bob Dylan songs on it, which makes the greatness of Another Self Portrait’s first disc all the more astounding. The slapdash of Self Portrait is gone and, instead, every song flows effortlessly into the next. The version of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ which opens the set sounds suitably enigmatic, the lyrics a vast improvement from Nashville Skyline. The first disc works because it presents the songs from Self Portrait and New Morning as if they were from one gigantic session, so Dylan originals brush up against his many cover versions. We get a heartbreaking “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’, followed by a rendition of Tom Paxton’s ‘Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song’ where Dylan captures the mixture of sadness and laughter perfectly, and then we’re treated to ‘Time Passes Slowly’ with George Harrison on guitar and backing vocals which blows the original version away. Almost everything works, and one suspects that, if the first disc in this collection had been the follow-up to Nashville Skyline, then Dylan would have sailed into the 70s with his reputation intact.
Disc Two doesn’t work quite as well. It opens with a dreary, piano and violin reading of ‘If Not For You’, a song that sums up everything wrong with this period of Dylan. Many champion this song’s unsophisticated message as if it captures some simple, eternal truth about love that Dylan’s earlier work managed to miss. “If not for you/Babe I couldn’t find the door/Couldn’t even see the floor”. Now, I love my wife, but I feel confident that if we had never met I would still be able to locate doors and floors with ease. Earlier Dylan numbers such as ‘Love Minus Zero / No Limit’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, and ‘ Mama, You Been On My Mind’ all capture the complexities of love in a far more convincing manner than ‘If Not For You’. There are no simple truths to be found in this song, only simple lies and easy platitudes that roll off the tongue without a second thought. If Donovan had played this song to Dylan on that fateful night he would have been laughed out of the room. The song was later covered by George Harrison and within a few short years both Harrison and Dylan had gone through messy divorces. One has to assume that after the divorces they were able to leave rooms without too much trouble.
The second disc feels more akin to the original Self Portrait in that it feels disjointed and uneven. There’s a pointless alternate version of Nashville Skyline highlight ‘Country Pie’, the only song on said album which has any humour or joy in the lyrics. The versions of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ and ‘Time Passes Slowly’ are inferior to the ones heard on the first disc, with the reading of ‘Time Passes Slowly’ from the second disc sounding like Joe Cocker’s Beatles cover ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. There are, however, still highlights to be found. ‘Copper Kettle’ without overdubs can stop you in your tracks, and ‘Sign On The Window’ with added strings stuns, even as it predicts the coming of Elton John. Despite its flaws, disc two is still better than the original Self Portrait. More care has been put into the track listing, and even the songs that don’t work at least sound like they all belong on the same album.
Another Self Portrait is better than it has any right to be. Dylan at this time was clearly in the midst of some kind of artistic crises. New Morning came out in 1970 and it would be 1974 before Dylan put out his next studio album, Planet Waves, and it was no classic either. Dylan was out of energy, out of inspiration, and out of ideas. He turned, as he often does, to traditional music to help him through this rough patch but Self Portrait sounded lazy and confused. Another Self Portrait corrects the past to a certain extent and allows a fair amount of enjoyment to be had from Dylan’s 1970 recording sessions. Yet if you come away from this release with a feeling that those years of ‘69 and ‘70 were actually golden years after all, then we have a problem.
The five albums Bob Dylan released from ‘63 to ‘65 represent the high point of his art. Given the complexity, the delivery, the wordplay, the hilarity, the agony, the sheer overflowing genius of these years, why would anyone pick something like Nashville Skyline as their favourite Bob Dylan album? Imagine, if you will, a world-famous chef known for her innovative creations. Her dishes have regularly turned the culinary world upside-down. Then, while depressed and uninspired, she hears word that she must prepare a large meal for some important people. Unable to think of anything, she knocks out a quick pasta dish with some plain pasta sauce. Nothing fancy. Great pasta, but ultimately it’s still just pasta. Imagine then if 40 years later people talked about that pasta meal like it was the highlight of her career, as if it were some kind of conscious choice, a statement about the nature of pasta and society. So it goes with these barren years for Dylan.
The recordings from Another Self Portrait are desperate, the work of a man not sure what to sing or how to sing it. That it often succeeds is a testament to Dylan’s survival instincts, not his genius . From day one Dylan has possessed the ability to stare down the world, to look it straight in the eye and talk complete bullshit. You shouldn’t steal melodies from old folk songs and new friends if you can’t walk down the street the next day with a mile-wide grin and a bullshit yarn to charm your victims. When Dylan roared, his genius was unquestioned. Since 1965 that roar has never been consistent. Sometimes it is barely a whimper. Yet when it does rise up you almost want to forgive him for all his missteps and failures. In 1969 that roar was receding, and Dylan was looking for a place to hide.
That some suburbanites and wannabe folkies have built a career on imitating genius in a fallow period says more about the aspirations of the average Americana dude than it does about Dylan himself. Dylan hid out till he was ready to stare down the world again, and it took a failing marriage to inspire his genius to come out of hiding. Another Self Portrait shows one of the places he hid. It can certainly be a great place to visit, but to wish to live there artistically would be a mistake. There are no simple truths here. There is just a millionaire recording artist with time on his hands, recording songs that he enjoys singing. If you view it as any more than that, then you’ve fallen for Dylan’s bullshit and the aura of greatness that surrounds him that demands we view his every move as some kind of clever ploy to fool the critics. It’s really just a man with nothing to say trying to make enough songs for an album. He was better than this before, and he was better than this afterwards, and that is the kind of simple truth that many Dylan fans have a hard time understanding.