Recently my friend Justin, whose excellent new CD is out now (jbellmusic.com) contacted me to discuss the new Bob Dylan archival release The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait. He had some great, thoughtful things to say and some interesting questions to ask.
You and I have had several conversations over the years about the Dylan album “Self Portrait”. I can’t stand that record and I, like I believe the majority of Dylan fans (and most all casual Dylan fans) don’t understand it all. I’ve been reading article after article lately about the new re-issue and how the new collector’s edition sheds all this light on how important the record was and how it plays an integral role in Dylan’s timeline as an artist and how we are now supposed to ignore all the things he said about it being a bad record intended to “make people move on to the next artist”.
Memphis: If I can reduce the gist of the first paragraph to a single question, it would be:
Question one: Is the original album misunderstood?
Short answer yes.
Long answer: I remember the first time I ever heard it. I was housesitting and the people had it on vinyl. At that point I was a somewhat serious Dylan fan. I had all the top tier albums and a few from the second tier. (complete list) I'd always heard that Self Portrait was crap and listening at the people's house to versions of The Boxer and Like A Rolling Stone did nothing to convince me otherwise. I accepted the recieved wisdom.
Years later I got it on CD when I had just about everything else the man had ever done and I was finally down to the lowest tier - Self Portrait, Down in the Groove, Dylan and the Dead (still hate), Real Live. I still wouldn't say that I liked it as an album, but I got the sense there was something there, just buried under pointless, off-putting other stuff. Maybe it's the mix, but the Isle of Wight live tracks on the original album are so dreadful they ruin the whole thing. Even much of the studio stuff seemed like indifferent performances that were then sent off to Nashville for professional indifferent overdubs.
Two purchases ultimately helped me find the beautiful heart of these sessions. Clinton Heylin's excellent book Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions details what was recorded when and why. I then bought the album of leftovers Columbia released after Bob signed briefly with Geffen records, simply called Dylan and never released on CD. I got it new on cassette, and even that is no longer available.
Using these, plus a few other official sources (the Australia-only Masterpieces 3 disc set (solo piano version of "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue"), and Greatest Hits Vol. 2 ("Watching the River Flow", "When I Paint My Masterpeice", etc.)), I assembled for myself a sensible two disc "Complete Early '70s Dylan Collection" with some very slight remastering. I did away entirely with the Isle of Wight stuff. Hey, guess what? I really like it. Make your own! (complete track list)
So yes. Self Portrait as originally released was intentional career sabotage, a jarring mix of performances that were not really like each other or like anything he'd ever done before. It was designed to get psychotic hippies to stop bothering him, bothering his family, and invading his house. I can't blame him for trying. It was meant to force them to move on to the next prophet, the next Important Thing.
Here is the salient fact that sums up what I am trying to say by going on and on about my personal history with this group of recordings:
Self Portrait as originally released is a bad album, but it is not made up entirely of bad music.
Question Two: I’m not going to buy it, but I keep thinking about how all the extras are supposed to make it make sense: the remastering, the outtakes, alternative takes, live concert from that period, etc... I can’t help but wonder “should this much analysis be placed on the value of a pop record?”
Oh my goodness I hope so or I have wasted so very, very much of my life.
Question Three: Is an icon like Dylan not allowed a bad record?
That's a great question and in meditating on it, I realize the answer is no. Not really. When he makes a "bad record" it's usually assumed to be a good record that had some fatal flaw. It's the fault of the producer (Empire Burlesque) or the technical aspects of the way it was originally recorded (Street-Legal) or the fact that Dylan himself kept editing and re-recording until the best performances and/or the best songs were gone (Saved, Infidels, Under The Red Sky). Most of Dylan's bad records have a heartbreaking "if only" attached.
I'm actually not sure he has ever made a purely bad studio record. I will say that Dylan And The Dead truly sucks and it's mystifying why that shit came out.
Question Four: Why do people keep bending over backwards to defend it?
So many people (certainly me) are emotionally (and financially) invested in Bob Dylan being good. When he does something people think is bad we're all like, "Yeah, but..." then we try to make it better.
Question Five: At some point, doesn’t all the additional analysis make the piece of art itself seem like a scam?
In this case, the original piece of art WAS a lie, baby. The lie was, "I have nothing more to say. I am not good anymore. You might as well go away after this." Thankfully, this was indeed a lie and even in these sessions there was some really terrific music made.
Question Six: The backstory behind a piece is great, but isn’t its value to enhance, not defend a work? Especially in pop music. Couldn’t a talented wordsmith write an impassioned backstory to the sophomore release from Winger?
Another great, thoughtful question. I love to listen to music that has a huge body of good writing about it. Clinton Heylin has increased my Dylan love by at least a factor of ten, just as Ernst Mikael Jorgensen (who, unlike Heylin, is actually in charge of re-releases of the work he knows so well) has increased my Elvis love. Nicholas Pegg, David Bowie. Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles.
But it has to start somewhere. I didn't like any of those bands BECAUSE there was writing about them. I liked them intially because they were awesome. I like them MORE because I've read and thought and written about them my own self. And I can't imagine reading something about Winger because I can't call to mind a single Winger song. You would probably have to be William Fucking Shakespeare Himself to get me to listen to that.
Question Seven: No one would care in that example, but in this case isn’t Dylan’s status and “brand equity” being leveraged (and I might argue devalued) to bring artificial value to this work?
At an MSRP of $104.98 for four discs (and some books no one asked for) Dylan's brand equity is being leveraged in the grossest way possible. Yes. And people are mad on the internets. And yet people are buying it. I'll probably get it eventually. Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series (Vol. 8) did the same thing, gouging fans who wanted the complete album, not just the regular price, two disc version. I bought it and, while I wish it hadn't cost so much, I don't regret it because that extra disc had some awesome songs and performances.
Note: With the right library card (Hennepin County, for example) it is available for totally free, totally legal download at freegal.com, which is where I will be getting it. Sweet.
Question Eight: Dylan is still putting out interesting and valid records – I thoroughly enjoyed Tempest. Why in god’s name is time still being spent defending Self Portrait?
Reason for Bob: I haven't actually noticed him paying any attention to the Bootleg Series releases. He seems more invested in his new work. I don't think Dylan's going to add "Copper Kettle" to his live set or anything like that the way Springsteen added "My Love Will Not Let You Down" in 1998 when his own four disc Tracks outtakes box came out, for example.
Reason for Sony: There is money to be made.
Reason there is money to be made: There is wonderful material that truly deserves reassessment, and fans have known that for years.
I think my question for you would be this: Are you suggesting that none of this should be happening? Self Portrait should have been left as an alientating, bargain price, catalog CD people only get after they've gotten everything else the man's done?
Possibly. Not that a conversation about the work shouldn't be happening, but all the artificial explanation makes it all seem like a sham and makes me question the standalone value of other work. If the next bootleg series is the re-issue of "Dylan and the Dead" you'll feel the same way!
Question Nine: And why did I read all those reviews and articles?
You subscribe to Rolling Stone and you keep it in your bathroom. What else were you going to do?
Also, I subscribe to Songwriter Magazine and SPIN...whether or not those are also in my bathroom is irrelevant. This actually started with the NPR story, but possibly was exacerbated by the thorough market penetration in my bathroom news sources.
Memphis Evans has known J Bell since 1996 or so. His most recent project was post-production audio on Smurfs 2.
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Dylan albums I had when I first heard Self Portrait:
Bob Dylan, Freewheelin', Times, Another Side, Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Under The Red Sky, Good As I Been To You, World Gone Wrong, and The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3.
The two-disc collection I made myself thirteen years before Sony thought this material was worth revisiting:
Living The Blues
Spanish Is The Loving Tongue (band version)
Take Me As I Am
A Fool Such As I
I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know
Let It Be Me
Take A Message To Mary
All The Tired Horses
In Search Of Little Sadie
Days of 49
Early Mornin' Rain
Gotta Travel On
It Hurts Me Too
If Not For You
The Ballad of Ira Hayes
Spanish Is The Loving Tongue (solo piano version)
Can't Help Falling In Love
Big Yellow Taxi
Lily Of The West
Watching The River Flow
When I Paint My Masterpiece
You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
Down In The Flood
I Shall Be Released
p.s. Yes, I know George Jackson and Rita May were not from those sessions, but they was on the Australian "Masterpieces" box I had and I didn't have anyplace else to put them at the time.