Self Portrait No. 25
Perry, Jenny Marcus, Jann Wenner, Erik Bernstein, Ed Ward, John Burks, Ralph
Gleason, Langdon Winner, Bruce Miroff, Richard Vaughn, and Mike Goodwin
What is this
(1) "All The Tired
Horses" is a gorgeous piece of music, perhaps the most memorable song on
this album. In an older form it was "All The Pretty Ponies In The
Yard"; now it could serve as the theme song to any classic Western. Shane comes into view, and The Magnificent Seven: gunmen over the hill and out out
of time still got to ride. It sounds like Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns singing, as a matter of fact. Dylan is not singing.
The beauty of this painted signpost
promises what its words belie, and the song's question "How'm I gonna get
any ridin' done?" - becomes the listener's: you can't ride when the horse
is asleep in the meadow.
know if I should keep playing this," said the disc jockey, as the album
made its debut on the radio. "Nobody's calling in and saying they want to
hear it or anything ... usually when something like this happens people say
`Hey, the new Dylan album,' but not tonight."
someone called and asked for a reprise of "Blue Moon." In the end it
all came down to a telephone poll to determine whether radioland really cared.
The DJ kept apologizing: "If there is anyone who needs ...
or deserves to have his whole album played
through it's Bob Dylan."
After a false beginning comes "Alberta #l, " an old song now claimed
by Dylan. One line stands out: "I'll give you more gold than
your apron can hold." We're still at the frontier. The harmonica lets you
into the album by way of its nostalgia, and it's the song's promise that
matters, not the song itself, which fades.
it?" said a friend, after we'd heard thirty minutes of Self Portrait for the first
time. "Were we really that impressionable back in '65, '66? Was it that the
stuff really wasn't that good, that this is just as good? Was it some sort of
accident in time that made those other records so powerful, or what?
life was really turned around, it affected me - I don't know if it was the
records or the words or the sound or the noise maybe the interview: `What is
there to believe in?' l doubt if he'd say that now, though."
We put on "Like A
Rolling Stone" from Highway 61 Revisited and sat through it. "I was listening to that
song five, ten times a day for the last few months, hustling my ass, getting my
act together to get into school ... but it's such a drag to hear what he's done
(3) Something like a mood
collapses with the first Nashville offering, "I Forgot More Than You'll
Ever Know," a slick exercise in vocal control that fills a bit of time.
After getting doser and closer to the Country Music Capital of the World and
still keeping his distance with Nashville Skyline, one of the loveliest rock and roll albums ever made - the
visitor returns to pay his compliments by recording some of its songs. Haw does
it sound? It sounds alright. He's sung himself into a corner. It sounds alright.
Sign up the band
GM: "It's such an unambitious album."
JW: "Maybe what
we need most of all right now is an unambitious album from Dylan."
GM: "What we need most
of all is for Dylan to get ambitious."
JW: "It's such a. . ."
GM: ". . . though it is a really . . ."
GM & JW: "...friendly album..."
"Days Of '44" is a fine old ballad. Dylan's beginning is utterly convincing,
as he slips past theyears of the song (listen to the vaguely bitter way he
sings "But what cares I for praise?"). He fumbles as the song moves
on, and the cut collapses, despite the deep burr of the horns and the drama
generated by the piano. It's a tentative performance, a warm-up, hardly more
than a work tape. The depths of the history the song creates - out of the
pathos Johnny Cash gave "Hardin Wouldn't Run" (sounding like it was
recorded in the shadows of an Arizona Canyon) or "Sweet Betsy from Pike"-
has been missed. The song is worth more effort than it got.
hard," he said. "It's hard for Dylan to do anything real, shut off
the way he is, not interested in the world, maybe no reason why he should be.
Maybe the weight of the days is too strong, maybe withdrawal is a choice we'd
make if we could...." One's reminded that art doesn't come - perhaps that it
can't be heard - in times of crisis and destruction; art comes in the period of
decadence that precedes a revolution, or after the deluge. It's prelude to
revolution; it's not contemporary with it save in terms of memory.
in the midst of it all artists sometimes move in to re-create history. That
(5) When you consider how
imaginative the backing on other Dylan records has been, the extremely routine
quality of most of the music on Self Portrait can become irritating. It is so uninteresting.
"Early Mornin' Rain" is one of the most lifeless per forrnances of
the entire album: a rather mawkish song, a stiff well-formed-vowel vocal, and a
vapid instrumental track that has all the flair of canned laughter.
questions: The four sons gazed at the painting on the museum wall. "It's a
painting," said the first son. "It's art," said the second son.
"It's a frame," said the third son, and he said it rather coyly. The
fourth son was usually considered somewhat stupid, but he at least figured out
why they'd come all the way from home to look at the thing in the first place.
"It's a signature," he said.
(6) "In Search Of Little Sadie"
is an old number called "Badman's Blunder" (ar sometimes
"Badman's Ballad" and sometimes "Little Sadie') that Dylan now
claims as his own composition. As with "Days Of '49," the song is superb
- it's these kinds of songs that seem like the vague source of the music the
Band makes - and what Dylan is doing with the tune, leading it on a switchback trail,
has all sorts of possibilities. But again, the vocal hasn't been given time to
develop and the song loses whatever power it might have had to offer, until the
final chorus, when Bob takes off and does some real singing.
This bit about getting it all down
in one or two takes only works if you get it all down. Otherwise it's at best "charming"
and at worst boring, alluding to a song without really making music.
Imagine a kid in
his teens responding to Self Portrait. His older brothers and sisters have been living by
Dylan for years. They come home with the album and he simply cannot figure out
what it's all about. To him, Self Portrait sounds more like the stuff his parents listen to than
what he wants to hear; in fact, his parents have just gone out and bought Self Portrait and given it to
him for his birthday. He considers giving it back for Father's Day.
To this kid Dylan is a figure of myth; nothing less, but nothing more. Dylan is not real and the album carries no reality. He's never seen Bob Dylan; he doesn't expect to; he can't figure out why he wants to.
(7) The Everly Brothers' version of "Let it Be Me" is enough
to make you cry, and Bob Dylan's version is just about enough to make you
listen. For all of the emotion usually found in his singing, there is virtually
none here. It is a very formal performance.
should go whole-hog and revive the Bing Crosby Look, with its emphasis on five-button,
soft-shoulder, wide-collar, plaid country-club lounge jackets (Pendleton probably
still makes them). And, like Der Bingle, it might do well for Dylan to work a
long-stemmed briar pipe into his act, stopping every so often to light up, puff
at it, raise some smoke and gaze, momentarily, toward the horizon, before
launching into [this is John Burks in Rags, June 1970] the
next phrase of `Peggy Day'. Then, for his finale the big `Blue Moon'
production number with the girls and the spotlights on the mountains - he does a
quick costume change into one of those high-collar 1920s formal shirts with the
diamond-shaped bow tie, plus, of course, full length tails and the trousers
with the satin stripe down the side, carnation in the buttonhole, like Dick Powell
in Golddiggers of 1933. Here comes Dylan in his tails, his briar in
one hand, his megaphone in the other, strolling down the runway, smiling that
toothpaste smile. "Like a roll-ing stone......
(8) "Little Sadie" is an alternate take of "In Search Of... " I bet we're going to hear a lot of alternate takes in the coming year,-especially from bands short on material who want to maintain their commercial presence without working too hard. Ordinarily, when there are no striking musical questions at stake in the clash of various attempts at a song, alternate takes have been used as a graveyard rip-off to squeeze more bread out of the art of dead men or simply to fill up a side. "Little Sadie" fills up the side nicely.
"It's a high school yearbook. Color pictures
this year, because there was a surplus left over from last year, more pages
than usual too, a sentimental journey, `what we did,' it's not all that
interesting, it's a memento of something, there's a place for autographs, lots
of white space, nobody's name was left out ... It is June, after all."
(9) On "Woogie Boogie" the band sounds like
it's falling all over itself (ar maybe slipping on its overdubs) but they hold
on to the beat. With no vocal, there's as much of Dylan's feel for music here
as on anything else on Self Portrait. If you were a producer combing through a
bunch of Self Portrait tapes for something to release, you might choose
"Woogie Boogie" as a single - backing "All The Tired Horses,
Self Portrait most closely
resembles the Dylan album that preceded it: the Great White Wonder
bootleg. The album is a two-record set masterfully assembled from an odd
collection of mostly indifferent recordings made over the course of the last
year, complete with alternate takes, chopped endings, loose beginnings, side
comments, and all sorts of mistakes. Straight from the can to you, as it were.
A bit from Nashville, a taste of the Isle of Wight since you missed it, some
sessions from New York that mostly don't make it, but it's Dylan, and if
you wanted Great White Wonder and Stealin' and John Birch
and Isle of Wight and A Thousand Miles Behind, Self Portrait
will surely fill the need.
don't think it will. It's true that all of the bootlegs (and the Masked
Marauders, which was a fantasy bootleg) came out in the absence of new
music from Dylan, but I think their release was related not to the absence of
recordings but to the absence of the man himself. We are dealing with myth,
after all, and the more Dylan stays away the greater the weight attached to
anything he's done. When King Midas reached out his hand everything he touched
not only turned to gold, it became valuable to everyone else, and Dylan still
has the Midas touch even though he'd rather not reach out. It is only in the
last two years that the collecting of old tapes by Dylan has really become a
general phenomenon, and there are many times more tapes in circulation than are
represented on the bootlegs. There is a session with the Band from December of
1965, live albums, ancient recordings, tapes of Dylan at the Guthrie Memorial,
with the Band last summer in Missouri, radio shows from the early sixties. It
sometimes seems as if every public act Dylan ever committed was recorded, and
it is all coming togeth–er. Eventually, the bootleggers will get their hands on
it. Legally, there is virtually nothing he can do to stop it.
He can head off the theft and sale of his first
drafts, his secrets, and his memories only with his music. And it is the
vitality of the music that is being bootlegged that is the basis of its appeal.
The noise of it. Self Portrait, though it's a good imitation bootleg,
isn't nearly the music that Great White Wonder is. "Copper
Kettle" is a masterpiece but "Killing Me Alive" will blow it
down. Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding are classic
albums, but no matter how good they are they lack the power of the music Dylan
made in the middle sixties. Unless he returns to the marketplace, with a sense
of vocation and the ambition to keep up with his own gifts, the music of those
years will continue to dominate his records, whether he releases them or not.
If the music Dylan makes doesn't have the power to enter into the lives of his
audience and Self Portrait does not
have that power - his audience will take over his past.
(10) Did Dylan write "Belle
Isle "? Maybe he did. This is the first time I've ever felt cynical listening
to a new Dylan record.
In the record
industry, music is referred to as "product." "We got Beatle
product." When the whirlwind courtship of Johnny Winter and Columbia was
finally consummated everyone wanted to know when they would get product. They
got product fast but it took them a while longer to get music. Such is showbiz,
viz. Self Portrait, which is already a triple gold record, the way
"O Captain! My Captain!" is more famous than "When Lilacs Last
In The Dooryard Bloom'd," is the closest thing to pure product in Dylan's
career, even more so than Greatest Hits, because that had no pretensions. The
purpose of Self Portrait is mainly product and the need it fills is for
product - for "a Dylan album" - and make no mistake about it, the need
for product is felt as deeply by those who buy it, myself included, of course,
as by those who sell it, and perhaps more so.
As a throw-together album it resembles the Rolling
Stones' Flowers; but it's totally unlike Flowers in that the
album promises to be more than it is, rather than less. By its title alone Self
Portrait makes claims for itself as the definitive Dylan album which it may
be, in a sad way - but it is still something like an attempt to delude the
public into thinking they are getting more than they are, or that Self
Portrait is more than it is.
"Living The Blues" is a marvelous recording. All sorts of flashes of
all sorts of enthusiasms spin around it: The Dovells cheering for the Bristol
Stomp, Dylan shadow-boxing with Cassius Clay, Elvis smiling and sneering in Jailhouse Rock ("Baby you're so square, I don't care!").
The singing is great - listen to the way Bob fades off "deep down insyyy-hide," stepping back and slipping in that last
syllable. For the first time on this album Dylan sounds excited about the
music he's making. The rhythm section, led by the guitar and the piano that's
rolling over the most delightful rock and roll changes, is wonderful. The girls
go through their routine and they sound - cute. Dylan shines. Give it 100.
". . .
various times he thought of completing his baccalaureate so that he could teach
in the college and oddly enough [this is from A Rimbaud Chronology, New
Directions Press] of learning to play the piano. At last he went to Holland,
where, in order to reach the Orient, he enlisted in the Dutch Army and sailed
for Java in June of 1876. Three weeks after his arrival in Batavia [Charles
Perry: `We know Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it seems he's found
his Abyssinia'] he deserted, wandered among the natives of the jungle and soon
signed on a British ship for Liverpool. After a winter at home he went to
Hamburg, joined in a circus as interpreter-manager to tour the northern
countries, but the cold was too much for him and he was repatriated from
Sweden, only to leave home again, this time for Alexandria. Again, illness
interrupted his travels and he was put off the ship in Italy and spent a year
recovering on the farm at Roche. In 1878 he was in Hamburg again, trying to
reach Genoa to take a ship for the East. Once more he tried to cross the Alps
on foot [Charles Perry: `We know Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it
seems he's found his Abyssinia'] but in a snowstorm he almost perished. Saved
by monks in a Hospice, he managed to reach Genoa and sail to Alexandria where
he worked as a farm labourer for a while. In Suez, where he was stopped on his
way to Cyprus, he was employed as a ship-breaker to plunder a ship wrecked on
the dangerous coast at Guardafui. Most of the first half of 1879 he worked as
foreman in a desert quarry on Cyprus, and went home in June to recuperate from
(12) "Like A Rolling
Stone" - Dylan's greatest song. He knows it, and so do we. Not only that,
but the greatest song of our era, on that single, on Highway 61 Revisited, on
the tape of a British performance with the Hawks in 1966. If one version is
better than the other it's like Robin Hood splitting his father's arrow.
1965: "Alright. We've done
it. Dig it. If you can. If you can take it. Like a complete unknown, can you
We could, and Bob Dylan took over.
All that's come since goes back to the bid for power that was "Like A
"Can you keep up with this
train?" The train no longer runs; I suppose it depends on where your feet are
from the Isle of Wight is in your living room and Dylan is blowing his lines,
singing country flat, up and down, getting through the song somehow, almost
losing the whole mess at the end of the second verse. You don't know whether he
dropped the third verse because he didn't want to sing it or because he forgot
it. It's enough to make your speakers wilt.
Self Portrait enforces or suggests a quiet
sound. "Like A Rolling Stone" isn't "Blue Moon" but since
most of Self Portrait is more like "Blue
Moon" than "Like A Rolling Stone, " and since it is a playable
album that blends together, you set the volume low. But if you play this song loud-really loud,
until it distorts and rumbles you'll find the Band is still playing as hard as
they can, for real. Their strength is cut in half by the man who recorded it,
but volume will bring it back up.
Some of "Like A Rolling Stone" is still there. A splendid
beginning, announcing a conquest; Levon Helm beating his drums over the Band's
Motown March (ha-bump barrummmp, ba-bump barrummmp), smashing his cymbals like
the glass-breaking finale of a car crash; and best of all, Garth Hudson finding
the spirit of the song and holding it firm on every chorus. Near the end when
the pallid vocalizing is done with, Dylan moves back to the song and he and the
Band begin to stir vp a, frenzy that ends with a crash of metal and Bob's
shout: `JUST LIKE A ROLLING STONE!" There is something left.
"BAM! Once upon a time ..." The song assaults you with a deluge of
experience and the song opens up the abyss. "And just how far would you
like to go in?" "Not too far but just far enough so we can say we've
been there." That wasn't good enough. "When you gaze into the abyss,
the abyss also looks back at you." It peered out through "Wheel's
On Fire" and "All Along The Watchtower , " but it seems Dylan
has stepped back from its edge.
The abyss is hidden away now, like the lost mine of a
dead prospector. "Like A Rolling Stone," as we hear it now, is like a
fragment of a faded map leading back to that lost mine
I once said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily. I still would.
But not an album of Dylan breathing softly.
Why does "Copper Kettle" shine (it even sounds like a hit record)
when so many other cuts hide in their own dullness? Why does this performance
evoke all kinds of experience when most of Self
Portrait is so one-dimensional and
restrictive? Why does "Copper Kettle "grow on you while the other
Like "All The Tired Horses, " it's gorgeous. There are those
tiny high notes punctuating the song in the mood of an old Buddy Holly ballad
or "The Three Bells" by the Browns, and that slipstream organ, so
faint you can barely hear it you don't hear it, really, but you are aware of it
in the subtlest way. There is the power and the real depth of the song itself,
which erases our Tennessee truck-stop postcard image of moonshining and moves
in with a vision of nature, an ideal of repose, and a sense of rebellion that
goes back to the founding of the country. "We ain't paid no whiskey tax
since 1792, " Bob sings, and that goes all the way back - they passed the
whiskey tax in 1791. It's a song about revolt as a vocation, not revolution,
merely refusal. Old men hiding out in mountain valleys, keeping their own
old moonshiners are sitting around a stove in Thunder
Road trying to come up with an answer to
the mobsters that are muscling in on the valley they've held since the
Revolution. "Blat sprat muglmmph ruurrrp fffft, " says one. The audience
stirs, realizing they can't understand his Appalachian dialect. "If you'd
take that tobacco plug out of your mouth, Jed," says another whiskey man,
"maybe we could understand what you said."]
What matters most is Bob's singing. He's been the most amazing singer of
the last ten years, creating his language of stress, fitting five words into a
line of ten and ten into a line of five,
shoving the words around and opening up spaces for noise and silence that
through assault or seduction or the gift of good timing made room for
expression and emotion. Every vocal was a surprise. You couldn't predict what
it would sound like. The song itself, the structure of the song, was barely a
clue. The limits were there to be evaded. On "Copper Kettle" that all
happens, and it is noticeable because this is the only time on Self Portrait that it happens.
all great poets - like Wallace Stevens - are great singers, " Dylan said a
year ago. "But a great singer - like Billie Holiday - is always a great
poet." That sort of poetry - and it's that sort of poetry that made Dylan
seem like a "poet" - is all there on "Copper Kettle," in
the way Bob charges into the lines "... or ROTTEN wood.. ." fading
into "(they'll get you) by the smo-oke..." The fact that the rest of
the album lacks the grace of "Copper Kettle" isn't a matter of the
album being "different" or "new." It is a matter of the
music having power, or not having it.
(14, 15, 16)
. . . very
highly successful in terms of money. Dylan's concerts in the past have been
booked by his own firm, Ashes and Sand, rather than by [this is from Rolling
Stone, December 1968] private promoters. Promoters are now talking about a
ten-city tour with the possibility of adding more dates, according to Variety.
"Greta Garbo may also come out of retirement to
do a series of personal appearances. The Swedish film star who wanted only `to
be alone' after continued press invasions of her life is rumoured to be
considering a series of lavish stage shows, possibly with Dylan . . ."
And we'd just sit there and stare.
(14) "Gotta Travel On." Dylan sings "Gotta
(15) We take "Blue Moon" as a joke, a stylized
apotheosis of corn, or as further musical evidence of Dylan's retreat from the
pop scene. But back on Elvis's first album, there is another version of
"Blue Moon, " a deep and moving performance that opens up the
possibilities of the song and reveals the failure of Dylan's recording.
vaguely aided by a string bass and guitar, form the background to a vocal that
blows a cemetery wind across the lines of the song. Elvis moves back and forth
with a high phantom wail, singing that part that fiddler Doug Kershaw plays on
Dylan's version, finally answering himself with a dark murmur that fades into silence. "It's a revelation,"
said a friend. "I can't believe it."
There is nothing banal about "Blue Moon." In formal musical
terms, Dylan's performance is virtually a cover of Elvis's recording, but while
one man sings toward the song, the other sings from behind it, from the other
(16) "The Boxer": remember Paul Simon's "How
I Was Robert MacNamared Into Submission," or whatever it was called, with
that friendly line, "I forgot my harmonica, Albert"? Or Eric
Anderson's "The Hustler"? Maybe this number means "no hard feelings." Jesus,
is it awful.
into the studio to set up the Weathermen, he wrote the Yippies' first position
paper, although it took Abbie Hoffman a few years to find it and Jerry Rubin
had trouble reading it. A quote:
I'm gonna grow my hair down to my
feet so strange till I look like a walking mountain range then I'm gonna ride
into Omaha on a horse out to the country club and the golf course carrying a New York Times shoot a few holes
blow their minds.
"Ah you're full of
shit [said Abbie Hoffman in Woodstock Nation] he's gonna be in England tonight,
don't pull that shit on me."
"Nah I ain't kiddin,
Abby-baby, he called up and said he might come..."
"You think he'd dig
running for president?"
ain't his trip he's into something else."
him, Mike?What's he into?"
know for sure but it ain't exactly politics. You ever met him?"
about seven years ago in Gertie's Folk City down in the West Village. I was
trying to get him to do a benefit for civil rights or something ... hey Mike
will you introduce us? I sure would like to meet Dylan ... I only know about meetin'
him through Happy Traum. . ."
"There's an easier way
... Abbs ... I'll introduce you. In fact he wants to meet you . . ."
Portrait make you want to meet Dylan? No? Perhaps it's there to keep you away?
(17) "The Mighty Ouinn" sounds as if it was fun to watch. It's pretty much of a mess on record, and the sound
isn't all that much better than the bootleg. The Isle of Wight concert was
originally planned as an album, and it's obvious why it wasn't released as such
- on tape, it sounded bad. The performances were mostly clumsy or languid and
all together would have made a lousy record. Two of the songs had something
special about them, on the evidence of the bootleg, though neither of them made
it to Self Portrait. One was "Highway 61 Revisited, " where Bob and the Band
screamed like Mexican tour guides hustling customers for a run down the road:
"OUT ON HIGHWAY SIXTY-ONE!" The other was "It Ain't Me,
Babe." Dylan sang solo, playing guitar like a lyric poet, transforming the
song with a new identity, sweeping in and out of the phrases and the traces of
memory. He sounded something like Billie Holiday.
certainly a rather odd "self portrait": other people's songs and the
songs of a few years ago. If the title is serious, Dylan no longer cares much
about making music and would just as soon define himself on someone else's
terms. There is a curious move toward self-effacement: Dylan removing himself
from a position from which he is asked to exercise power in the arena. It's
rather like the Duke of Windsor abdicating the throne. After it's over he
merely goes away, and occasionally there'll be a picture of him getting on a
(18) "Take Me As I Am Or Let
Me Go." The Nashville recordings of Self Portrait, taken together, may not be all
that staggering but they are pleasant - a sentimental little country melodrama.
If the album had been cut to "Tired Horses" at
the start and "Wigwam" at the end, with the Nashville tracks sleeping
in between, we'd have a good record about which no one would have gotten very
excited one way or the other, a kind of musical disappearing act. But the Artist
must make a Statement, be he Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, or Tommy James and the Shondells.
He must enter the studio and come out with that masterpiece. If he doesn't, or
hasn't bothered, there'll be at least an attempt to make it look as if he had.
If Dylan was releasing more music than he's been - a single three times a year,
an album every six months or so - then the weight that fixes itself on whatever
he does release would be lessened. But the pattern is set now, for the biggest
stars - one a year, if that. It's rather degrading for an artist to put out
more than one album a year, as if he has to keep trying, you know? Well,
three cheers for John Fogerty.
of what happened in the middle sixties, our fate is bound up with Dylan's
whether he or we like it or not. Because Highway 61 Revisited changed the world, the
albums that follow it must - but not in the same way, of course.
(19) "Take A Message To Mary ":
the backing band didn't seem to care much about the song, but Dylan did. My
ten-year-old nephew thought "It Hurts Me Too" sounded fake but he was
sure this was for real.
RALPH GLEASON: "There was this cat
Max Kaminsky talks about in his autobiography who stole records. He stole one
from Max. He had to have them,
you know? Just had to have them. Once he got busted because he heard this
record on a juke box and shoved his fist through the glass of the box trying to
get the record out.
`We all have
records we'd steal for, that we need that bad. But would you steal this record?
You wouldn't steal this record."
wouldn't steal Self
Portrait? It wouldn't steal you either. Perhaps that's the real tragedy, because
Dylan's last two albums were art breaking and entering into the house of the
can hardly be much older than song-stealing. It's part of the tradition. It may
even be more honorable than outright imitation; at least it's not as dull.
Early in his career, Bob Dylan, like every other musician on the street
with a chance to get off it, copped one or two old blues or folk songs, changed
a word or two, and copyrighted them (weirdest of all was claiming "That's Alright
Mama," which was Elvis's first record, and written - or at least written
down - by Arthur Crudup). As he developed his own genius, Dylan also used older
ballads for the skeletons of his own songs: "Bob Dylan's Dream" is a
recasting of "Lord Franklin's Dream"; "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine"
finds its way back to "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill"; "Pledging My
Time" has the structure, the spirit, and a line from Robert Johnson's "Come
On In My Kitchen"; "Don't the moon look lonesome, shining through the
trees," is a quote from an old Jimmy Rushing blues; "Subterranean
Homesick Blues" comes off of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey
Business." This is a lovely way to write, and to invite, history, and it
is part of the beauty and the inevitability of American music. But while Dylan
may have added a few words to "It Hurts Me Too," from where he sits,
it's simply wrong to claim this old blues, recorded by Elmore James among
others, as his own. That Self Portrait is characterized by borrowing, lifting, and plagiarism
simply means Bob will get a little more bread and thousands of people will get
a phony view of their own history.
frenzy, the strength of new values in the midst of some sort of musical
behemoth of destruction, the noise, the power - the totality of it! So you said well, alright, there it is ...
The mythical immediacy of everything Dylan does and
the relevance of that force to the way we live our lives is rooted in the three
albums and the two breakthrough singles he released in 1965 and 1966: Bringing It All Back Home,
Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, "Like a Rolling
Stone," and "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Those records
defined and structured a crucial year - no one has ever caught up with them and
most likely no one ever will. What happened then is what we always look for.
The power of those recordings and of the music Dylan was making on stage,
together with his retreat at the height of his career, made Dylan into a legend
and virtually changed his name into a noun. Out of that Dylan gained the
freedom to step back and get away with anything he chose to do, commercially
and artistically. In a real way, Dylan is trading on the treasure of myth,
fame and awe he gathered in '65 and '66. In mythical terms, he doesn't have to
do good, because he has done good. One wonders, in mythical terms of course,
how long he can get away with it.
(21) "Minstrel Boy" is the best of the Isle
of Wight cuts; it rides easy.
The Band plays pretty on "She Belongs To Me" and Dylan runs through
the vocal the way he used to hurry through the first half of a concert, getting
the crowd pleasers out of the way so he could play the music that mattered. Garth
Hudson has the best moment of the song.
Vocation as a Vocation: Dylan is, if he
wants to be, an American with a vocation. It might almost be a calling - the old
Puritan idea of a gift one should live up to - but it's not, and vocation is
is no theme richer for the American artist than the spirit and the themes of
the country and the country's history. We have never figured out what this
place is about or what it is for, and the only way to even begin to answer
those questions is to watch our movies, read our poets, our novelists, and
listen to our music. Robert Johnson and Melville, Hank Williams and Hawthorne, Bob
Dylan and Mark Twain, Jimmie Rodgers and John Wayne: America is the life's work
of American artists because they are doomed to be American. Dylan has a feel
for it; his impulses seem to take him back into the forgotten parts of our
history, and even on Self Portrait, there is a sense of this vocation; Bob is almost on
the verge of writing a Western. But it's an ambitious vocation and there is not
enough ambition, only an impulse without the determination to follow it up.
has a vocation if he wants it; his audience may refuse to accept his refusal
unless he simply goes away. In the midst of that vocation there might be something
like a Hamlet asking questions, old questions, with a bit of magic to them, but
hardly a prophet, merely a man with good vision.
(23) "Wigwam" slowly leads the album to its end.
Campfire music, or "3 AM, After The Bullfight." It's a great job of
arranging, and the B-side of the album's second natural single, backing
"Living The Blues." "Wigwam" puts you to bed, and by that I
don't mean it puts you to sleep.
Portrait, the auteur, and home movies: "Auteur" means,
literally, "author," and in America the word has come to signify a
formula about films: movies (like books) are made by "authors," i.e.,
directors. This has led to a dictum that tends to affirm the following: movies
are about the personality of the director. We should judge a movie in terms of
how well the "auteur" has "developed his personality" in
relation to previous films. His best film is that which most fully presents the
flowering of his personality. Needless to say such an approach requires a
devotion to mannerism, quirk, and self-indulgence. It also turns out that the
greatest auteurs are those with the most consistent, obvious and recognizable
mannerisms, quirks, and self-indulgences. By this approach Stolen Kisses is a better film
and Jim because in Stolen Kisses we had nothing to look for but Truffaut while in Jules and Jim there was this
story and those actors who kept getting in the way. The spirit of the auteur approach
can be transferred to other arts, and by its dictum, Self Portrait is a better
album than Highway
61 Revisited, because Self Portrait is about the auteur, that is, Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited takes on the
world, which tends to get in the way. (Highway 61 Revisited might well be about Dylan
too, but it's more obvious on Self Portrait, and therefore more relevant to Art, and ... please
don't ask about the music, really ... )
Now Dylan has been approached this way for years,
whether or not the word auteur was used, and while in the end it may be the least
interesting way to listen to his music it's occasionally a lot of fun and a
game that many of us have played (for example, on "Days Of '49" Dylan
sings the line "just like a roving sign" and I just can't help almost
hearing him say "just like a rolling stone" and wondering if he
avoided that on purpose). One writer, named A. J. Weberman, has devoted his
life to unraveling Dylan's songs in order to examine the man himself; just as
every artist once had his patron now every auteur has his critic.
(24) Self Portrait is a concept album from the cuttting-room
floor. It has been constructed so artfully, but as a cover-up, not a
revelation, Thus "Alberta #2" is the end, after a false ending, just
as "Alberta #1 " was the beginning, after a false beginning. The song
moves quickly, and ends abruptly. These alternate takes don't just fill up a
side, they set up the whole album, and it works, in a way, because I think it's
mainly the four songs fitted in at the edges that make the album a playable
record. With a circle you tend to see the line that defines it, rather than the
hole in the middle.
the auteur, and home movies, cont.: We all play the auteur game:
We went out and bought Self Portrait not because we knew it was great music -
it might have been but that's not the first question we'd ask - but because it
was a Dylan album. What we want, though, is a different matter - and that's
what separates most people from auteurists - we want great music, and because
of those three albums back in '65 and '66, we expect it, or hope for it.
wouldn't be dwelling on this but for my suspicion that it is exactly a
perception of this approach that is the justification for the release of Self
Portrait, to the degree that it is justified artistically (the commercial
justification is something else - self-justification). The auteur approach
allows the great artist to limit his ambition, perhaps even to abandon it, and
turn inward. To be crude, it begins to seem as if it is his habits that matter,
rather than his vision. If we approach art in this fashion, we degrade it. Take
that second song on John Wesley Harding, "As I Went Out One Morning,"
and two ways of hearing it.
J. Weberman has determined a fixed meaning for the song: it relates to a dinner
given years ago by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at which they
awarded Bob Dylan their Thomas Paine prize. Dylan showed up, said a few words
about how it was possible to understand how Lee Harvey Oswald felt, and got
booed. "As I Went Out One Morning," according to Weberman, is Dylan's
way of saying he didn't dig getting booed.
sometimes hear the song as a brief journey into American history. The singer
goes out for a walk in the park, finds himself next to a statue of Tom Paine, and
stumbles across an allegory: Tom Paine, symbol of freedom and revolt, co-opted
into the role of Patriot by textbooks and statue committees, and now playing,
as befits his role as Patriot, enforcer to a girl who runs for freedom - in chains,
to the South, the source of vitality in America, in America's music - away from
Tom Paine. We have turned our history on its head; we have perverted our own
it would be astonishing if what I've just described was on Dylan's mind when he
wrote the song. That's not the point. The point is that Dylan's songs can serve
as metaphors, enriching our lives, giving us random insight into the myths we
carry and the present we live, intensifying what we've known and leading us
toward what we never looked for, while at the same time enforcing an emotional
strength upon those perceptions by the power of the music that moves with his
words. Weberman's way of hearing, or rather seeing, is more logical, more
linear, and perhaps even correct, but it's sterile. Mine is not an answer but a
possibility, and I think Dylan's music is about possibilities, rather than
facts, like a statue that is not an expenditure of city funds but a gateway to
we are to be satisfied with Self Portrait we may have to see it in the sterile
terms of the auteur, which in our language would be translated as "Hey,
far out, Dylan singing Simon and Garfunkel, Rodgers and Hart, and Gordon
Lightfoot . . ." Well, it is far out, in a sad sort of way, but it is also
vapid, and if our own untaught perception of the auteur allows us to be
satisfied with it, we degrade our own sensibilities and Dylan's capabilities as
an American artist as well. Dylan did not become a figure whose every movement
carries the force of myth by presenting desultory images of his own career as
if that was the only movie that mattered - he did it by taking on the world, by
assault, and by seduction.
an attack on the auteur approach, as it relates to film, Louise Brooks quotes
Goethe, and the words she cites reveal the problem: "The novel (the film)
(the song) is a subjective epic composition in which the author begs leave to
treat the world according to his own point of view. It is only a question,
therefore, whether he has a point of view. The rest will take care of
- Rolling Stone, July 23, 1970
As the formal
end of the 1960s approached, in some circles dread over the supposed event was
as great as the nagging feeling that upon the dawning of the first day of the
year 2000 the world will be rendered unrecognizable, assuming it still exists.
The notion was that as the clock struck midnight on January 31, 1969, some
spirit of invention and resistance peculiar to the time would magically
disappear, and all those who had felt privileged to, as the Chinese proverb has
it, "live in interesting times," would immediately turn into
pumpkins. Given that in previous years Bob Dylan had been seen as a pathfinder,
a trailblazer, his Self Portrait was felt by many, I think, as the first true
sign that this bad dream was coming true: that in the coming decade adventure
would be replaced by entropy, creation by repetition, the sense that every day
could be different with the certainty that every day would be the same. And you
know, for a while, that's exactly how it was.
- Greil Marcus, 1999