I’m breaking a few of my own rules with this article. Firstly, I’ve generally avoided well-known artists in my articles: this is both due to the fact that I don’t need to tell you that hugely influential bands like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones are any good, plus I can’t really think what more I could say about them that hasn’t already been said in sweeter and more appropriate words. Secondly, I have always written about albums or artists that I thoroughly enjoy and would recommend to anyone. In writing about Bob Dylan, I normally wouldn’t be able to think of words with high enough appraisal to do his music justice. Thankfully however, Self Portrait is lacking in enough musical merit to make this a problem. It’s a rather slipshod album with many lows, and the few high points there are would probably be considered low points in any of the albums he released preceding this one in 1970. Yet despite its ragged and untidy nature, it’s certainly one of the most interesting albums Dylan ever released, if not musically, certainly conceptually.
The story goes, according to Mr. Dylan himself, that he was tired of being hailed as “spokesman for a generation” in the 60’s after his prophetic and hope-filled songs like Blowin’ In The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and so on. He claims that people were looking to him as a messiah or a hero, and being of a humble nature (yeah, right) he wanted people to realize that he was no hero, just a musician trying to make some money like everybody else. In 1969 he put out an album of straight country music called Nashville Skyline which featured simple, short compositions (including one instrumental hoedown!) and Dylan singing in a soft croon. Perhaps this was the first sign of his attempts to distance himself from the popular music scene and appear uncool. (What could be less cool than country music, let’s face it) If it was, it didn’t work. Nashville Skyline was well received both critically and commercially. Self Portrait came out the following year to a barrage of bewilderment and scathing, not unjustifiably.
Firstly, Self Portrait contained very few new compositions. The 24-track double album was filled mostly with old country/folk covers, covers from contemporary artists such as Simon and Garfunkel, and live versions of old classics. The remaining songs were mostly rather bizarre. The opening song All The Tired Horses, for example, doesn’t even feature Dylan on it. It consists of some female singers repeating the phrase “All the tired horses in the sun, how’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” for three minutes over a wonderfully schmaltzy string orchestra and organ. It’s actually one of the high points of the album. Living the Blues is a charming little country ditty that wouldn’t have been out of place on Nashville Skyline. However, the other two are extremely forgettable. Woogie Boogie is a pointless 2 minute instrumental blues song that merely sounds like a studio jam, and Wigwam, which is simply Bob going “la da da la da da da” in harmony with a trumpet and band. You can’t help but wonder what on earth he’s thinking actually putting this on record. But the worst offenders must be the live tracks. Taken from his 1969 Isle of Wight concert performance, they are shoddy, lazy and lacking in any of the zeal of their studio counterparts. She Belongs To Me is interesting musically, with a good backing from The Band, but Dylan’s voice really shows he doesn’t give a damn about the audience as long as he gets his paycheck. Quinn The Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn) is actually a guilty pleasure of mine. It had been circulating in bootleg form since 1967, and this album is its official debut. However, this version is an absolute mess; Dylan and the backing singers might as well be singing different songs in their pathetic attempt to “harmonise” and he quite inexplicably stops singing occasionally. But it’s a fun song, one that I love because of the studio version, and the live version has a chaotic, nonsensical nature that fits the absurd lyrics better I think. However, the live version of Like A Rolling Stone is quite possibly – nay, probably – the worst thing Dylan has ever released. With a slow country musical backing that completely removes the sneering, resentful tone that made the song so good in the first place, he positively destroys the song further by not only singing horribly but forgetting most of the lyrics. It’s embarrassing to listen to.
Now, to the covers. They’re mostly a mixed bag. There are some truly awful choices, awful performances, or both. Not only that, but two of the songs (Alberta, Little Sadie) are present here in two versions. In fairness, Alberta #1 is rather nice, but Alberta #2 is not much different and begs the question as to why it was included in the first place. In Search of Little Sadie features multiple time changes and styles, none of which can save the song from Dylan’s horrible singing, and the alternate Little Sadie is slightly more interesting with a sort of Cajun style, but still feels fairly pointless. Many of the covers are simply forgettable country tunes with Dylan singing in his crooning voice, although they aren’t bad in themselves. It Hurts Me Too, Let It Be Me and I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know, for example, are the epitome of mediocrity. Some of the covers are just plain awful, however. The classic Rogers & Hart song Blue Moon, as made popular by artists that your grandparents would listen to such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday, is saved only by some nice female backing singers and an interesting violin part. The Boxer, which features Dylan harmonizing with himself, is truly laughable.
However, there is some merit in Self Portrait, and it mostly lies in a series of very good covers that, despite the attacks some of the songs have received from critics, I like very much. The old folk song about the gold rush Days of 49 is very interesting, and for once Dylan actually sounds interested in what he’s singing about. A bit rough around the edges perhaps, but it’s a standout. Early Mornin’ Rain is a cover of a tune by fellow singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. This has typically been met with much derision for being lifeless and mechanical, but I’d have to disagree. I haven’t heard the original, but this one is charming with Bob really drawing each word out as much as he can to emphasize the pitiful lyrics. His harmonica playing, somewhat absent from this album, is at his most beautiful here. But despite my appraisal I can see why this song gets so much hate; much like the rest of the album, it simply has no valid reason to exist, let alone be released. Gordon Lightfoot was a singer-songwriter in the vein of Bob Dylan, and some argue he is in fact simply an inferior imitation. Thus for Dylan to make song that is a pale imitation of his own into one that’s actually his own seems to be a large step backwards. But like I said, I like it. Gotta Travel On and Take A Message To Mary are nice bluesy, country songs that Dylan and his musicians perform well. But probably the best cover, and one of the few songs that has continued to receive acclamation from this album, is Copper Kettle. A tale of bootlegging whiskey, Dylan’s vocal for once is passionate and soaring, combined with climactic strings and wonderfully bittersweet backing singing. Most definitely a minor classic on an otherwise average album.
In retrospect, Self Portrait isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. There’s no doubt that some tracks are and will always be truly abysmal, but there are a number of nice performances, good covers and interesting listens. The problem most people have with it is it’s not what they expected from Dylan. It’s easier looking back now, and with some explanatory words from Dylan, to see what he was trying to do with it. Surely it was all a joke; I mean, there’s no way anybody would intentionally release a terrible live version of their best song with so many of the lyrics obviously forgotten. If the intention was to get people off his back and confuse them, it certainly worked. The negative reaction was less on account of the quality of the music as to the actual idea behind it. Here was a man who’d been singing about how “the first one now will later be last” and “how many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” who was crooning to Blue Moon. Here was their prophet, a modern day Messiah of music, singing old country tunes. It was seriously uncool and totally polarizing. Furthermore, the title Self Portrait not only referred to the album cover painted by Dylan himself (which is truly infantile) but also to an idea, a reflection of self. It seemed to say: “These songs are what I’m really about. You thought I was a prophet, but no, I’m just a guy who likes to sing old folk and country songs. I know what you’re expecting of me, but this is what I want to do.” And of course, people didn’t want that.
“Conceptually, this is a brilliant album,” wrote Robert Christgau. I agree. If his aim was to, and I quote Dylan, “do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to,” then it succeeded resoundingly. But when all of that is stripped away, there leaves little to be desired. It’s a mess with different styles, different voices, some woeful songs, truly diabolical musicianship and forgotten lyrics. It’s certainly very interesting to see what Dylan was trying to achieve with this album, and some of it is so bad that at least it’s entertaining. But the casual listener should avoid this album like the plague, and the Dylan aficionado (such as myself) should refrain from attempting to salvage any merit in the music or lyrics as they’re almost completely devoid of it.
Words - Adam