This Week in Music, August 27, 2013: Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait,” naked

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 —
Another Self Portrait (1969–1971)

Archival release (Columbia)
Photos by John Cohen

Music publicity is kinda like medical ethics, in these four words: “First, do no harm.” Which makes Columbia’s campaign for the latest Bob Dylan official-bootleg extravaganza all the more remarkable. Self Portrait, you see, was almost universally derided by critics when it appeared in 1970. You might think Columbia would want to avoid that negative history in the press release for The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 — Another Self Portrait (1969–1971). Instead, the headline brandishes these four words:

“What is this shit?”

That, in fact, was the opening salvo in Rolling Stone’s first take on the original double album — not so much a standard review as a marathon track-by-track conversation between critic Greil Marcus and several of his colleagues at the time, including the magazine’s co-founders, Jann S. Wenner and Ralph J. Gleason.

Parts of the Marcus piece were, shall we say, rather opaque, but this was crystal-clear: “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 performances 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.”

This was clear, too: “In the record industry, music is referred to as ‘product.’ . . . Self Portrait . . . is the closest thing to pure product in Dylan’s career, even more so than Greatest Hits, because that had no pretensions.”

Indeed, one of the things that bothered Marcus and his crew so much was that the album was anything but a focused self-portrait. Rather, it was “a concept album from the cutting-room floor” — “a throw-together album” of traditionals, covers of Dylan’s contemporaries (“Early Mornin’ Rain” is by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Boxer” is by you know who), some live recordings with the Band at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, and just a handful of original songs. Plus, um, “Blue Moon.”

Nearly 15 years later, Dylan would tell Rolling Stone that Self Portrait was a deliberate affront to what he saw at the end of the Sixties as a certain strain of obsessive, leechlike fan. And 20 years after that — for 2004’s Chronicles: Volume One, the first part of his autobiography — he wrote this: “I just threw everything I could think of at the wall, and whatever stuck, released it. And then I went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.”

Dylan’s next album, New Morning, followed Self Portrait by a mere four months. Stocked with new originals, it was praised to the skies, comparatively speaking. As we have since learned, the material and the recordings for both albums shared the same basic genesis in time. Self Portrait, however, turned out different because producer Bob Johnston had the reels for that album sent to Nashville, where he went into overdub overdrive.

As liner-note writer Michael Simmons says here: “The critical response Self Portrait received was equal measures nausea and catatonia. The orchestrations were considered redolent of Lawrence Welk and a sonic betrayal of The Revolution . . . .” And as Robert Christgau wrote: “The production . . . ranges from indifferent to awful. It is possible to use strings and soprano choruses well, but Johnston has never demonstrated the knack.”

Dylan Another photo2

Now comes Another Self Portrait, tempting us to ask another four-word question:

“What’s all this then?”

Well, it’s the same sort of thing that Paul McCartney wanted us to hear all those years ago: Let It Be Naked. As Simmons explains, Another Self Portrait was prompted by the recent discovery of a pre-Nashville mix reel in the Sony archives. The result is two CDs of demos, alternate takes, previously unreleased songs, and more — the original session masters without overdubs. Plus, in addition to the notes by Simmons, there’s a “revisionist” essay by Marcus.

That’s right: Instead of stopping at merely quoting the “shit” line, Columbia has invited Marcus himself to weigh in with a New Opinion, as it were. And for the most part, he likes what he hears. Once again, the prose can be dense, but he’s lucid about the unadorned version of “In Search of Little Sadie.” This performance, “purposefully without affect, an Appalachian weather report, keeps its counsel: It was small before and it’s small now. What is again ‘In Search of Little Sadie’ is a revelation.”

Marcus is at his best describing “Copper Kettle”: Without its “flood of Nashville sweetening,” he writes, “you are in a different world. Here, Bob Dylan really does disappear. 1970 disappears. The Sixties never happened. A moonshiner is telling you why he does what he does: so he can lie back and think about nothing, forever. The voice is so clear, so convincing, so plainly the voice of someone who has weighed life’s choices and made his, that it shames your own compromises. With the guitars so slight they could be hands waving in the air, and Al Kooper’s piping organ, which would be erased on Self Portrait, coming up slowly as the voice of the singer’s nighttime dreams, it’s as if the words too have disappeared, as if the song doesn’t need them, as if the singer can communicate without even opening his mouth, by pure will.”

I can’t do any better than that, so I won’t try. Instead, I’ll direct you to a promo on YouTube as well as these album highlights, courtesy of Columbia and NPR.

Then there’s this:

Dylan Another boxshot final

Behold the Deluxe Edition, which supplements the basic release’s two CDs with two more discs: the complete Isle of Wight show and a remastering of Self Portrait. It also includes two hardcover books for housing the essay, the liner notes, and photos.

So . . . what was once intended as Dylan’s own bootleg response to bootlegs is now in the artist’s revered Bootleg Series. What was once “shit” is now art. We live in interesting times.