Self Portrait (1970)
When reviewing the album upon its release, Greil Marcus asked, “what is this shit?” For the last several years I’ve listened to this album in a very selective way – only hearing the songs that made it onto my iPod. Listening to it all at once, perhaps for the first time ever and at least the first time in close to a decade, a few thoughts occurred to me. One is that hearing this selectively will make you a bit of an apologetic. It becomes easy to make excuses when all one hears is “Copper Kettle.” One forgets how bad some of the other songs were. The other thing I noticed is that, while the songs that suck suck pretty bad, they aren’t the worst in Dylan’s catalog and they don’t lower his stature for me like they did when I first heard them. I still question several of them, but I don’t jump to conclusions that Dylan had lost it or is stupid or anything else generally disrespectful. The fact is, though, that when you release a double-album and call it Self Portrait, people are going to see it as a major artistic statement. In a way, though, this is just that. First, let’s look at its contents, then compare two of the mirrored songs. Of the album’s twenty-four tracks (I hesitate to say twenty-four songs as some songs are repeated), eight are traditional songs in the public domain. Eight are Dylan compositions, including four which were recorded life at the Isle of Wight – only one of which was new (though two had yet to be released by Dylan) – two of which are instrumentals and one on which Dylan doesn’t appear at all but on which a choir repeats the same two lines over and over for three and a half minutes. Six are covers of material popular during the fifties, including a version of “Blue Moon” which borrow Elvis Presley’s arrangement wholesale. The final two are songs by Dylan’s contemporaries, and ostensibly his competition. From Gordon Lightfoot, Dylan takes “Early Morning Rain,” a song that had been a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, whose early hits had either been traditional material or Dylan compositions. The other song by one of Dylan’s peers is “The Boxer,” a song rumored to be about Dylan. Dylan double tracks his vocal (I believe this is the only instance of this in his catalog) to sing it as a duet between his Blonde On Blonde vocal style and his Nashville Skyline vocal style. Compared to Simon & Garfunkel it’s a train wreck, but it isn’t nearly as bad as one might imagine.
One theory is that Dylan was trying to sabotage his reputation. That seems plausible enough. A. J. Weberman was founding garbology, his pioneering study of learning about people by going through their garbage, by digging through Dylan’s to prove his kooky theory that Dylan had been kidnapped by the CIA and been replaced by an Eisenhower clone (if Weberman comes out of the woodwork and comments on my blog, I’ll consider it a badge of honor). In addition to Weberman, Dylan had hippies breaking into his house looking for the meaning of life and probably a little weed. Dylan had five kids living at home with him; he didn’t need to be putting up with that. He describes Self Portrait as his attempt to make something they couldn’t possibly like. On other days, though, he’s defended it. Just because the hippie fans wouldn’t like it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like it, after all. In a way, the album suggests that to create a Self Portrait, one can’t only look to themselves because we can’t be objective about the self. That, I think, is the reason for all the covers, and some of them make perfect sense. Sure, he only put on “The Boxer” to give Paul Simon a light-hearted ribbing, but Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too” is one of the most common blues standards. Dylan adored Elvis, which explains “Blue Moon.” “Belle Isle” goes back to his close friendship with Liam Clancy. One interesting pair of tracks are tracks six and eight, “In Search of Little Sadie” and “Little Sadie” respectively. “Little Sadie” is an old murder ballad about a man who shoots his woman down and goes to sleep “with a forty-four smokeless” under his bed. Cash recorded a version as “Cocaine Blues.” “Little Sadie” is sped up. The vocal lacks any sort of nuanced. It just bounces along almost uncontrollably. “In Search of Little Sadie” is a rehearsal. Dylan is in search of the sound he wants. He changes tempos and keys at least once a verse, sometimes more. The vocal is more rough-hewn, but he sounds more invested. Right at the end he hits on the sound in “Little Sadie.” It’s like a joke. You get the same song twice, and one version is arguably the best track on the album, and the other is a lifeless museum piece, and it is like Dylan is laughing at the listener, saying “I can sound like everyone else,” or, even scarier, “don’t you wish you had heard ‘In Search of insert your favorite Dylan composition here’.” And, of course, I hold no illusions that Dylan was in search of anything on “In Search of Little Sadie.” It sounds like a rehearsal because that’s his intention. He is always aware of how the audience hears, even here, and he builds his performances around expectations. The song was cut to sound like it does. This pair of tracks is a good metaphor for how I feel about the album. It would have made a quality, though not relevatory, single album, but as a double album it feels like both a slap in the face and a brilliant “fuck you” to his fan base.
Best song: Days of ’49 – This song about the California gold rush catalogs different archetypal miners. The take is ramshackle. Dylan runs out of breath and grunts “oh my goodness.” It may not be as pretty as “Copper Kettle” or as controlled in its manicness as “In Search of Little Sadie,” but, because I want to hang out with all these people he describes, it slightly edges out both of those, my other two picks for the tracks most worth salvaging from this album.
Worst song: Wigwam – This song is considered an instrumental, but that’s unfair. The lyrics are “la-de-da-da-dee-dum.” This song was actually a top 40 hit briefly upon its release as the only Dylan single from Self Portrait and gained another wave of popularity 30 years later after being featured in The Royal Tannenbaums. Picking the worst song on this album was difficult – there were many contenders, but the sheer laziness here makes it take the cake for me.
Best outtake: Spanish Is the Loving Tongue – Two versions of this were recorded and released by Dylan. The more well-known one, which is completely horrid, is from Columbia’s revenge album Dylan. The version I have in mind, though, was released as a b-side to a non-album single circa 1971. I think it was “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Stunningly gorgeous.
Notable live rendition: I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know – The original cover of this 1953 hits for the Davis Sisters is choked by the string section. In 1986, Dylan revisited it in concert with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in a more open arrangement. Once the song was allowed to breathe, it was easy to see why Dylan liked it so much.
Rhymes: lips/fingertips (“I Forgot More”); repine/49 (“Days of ’49”); slow/Jericho (“In Search of Little Sadie”); belong/throne (“Belle Isle”) mine/mind (“It Hurts Me Too”)
Images: “Tired horses in the sun” (“All the Tired Horses”); “rampaged against a knife;” “ragshag Bill” (2-3 from “Days of ’49”); “hickory, ash and oak” (“Copper Kettle”); “a pocketful of mumbles” (“The Boxer”)
Axioms: “You can never steal away memories” (“I Forgot More”); “I’m left alone in my misery” (“Days of ’49”); “You can’t hop a jet plane like you can a freight train” (“Early Mornin’ Rain”); “Guarding fumes and making haste – it ain’t my cup of meat” (“The Mighty Quinn”); “I think that its best I soon … forget my pride” (“Living the Blues”)