When Bob Dylan released the original Self Portrait in 1970, it was looked upon as meatloaf by a public that was expecting steak.
No – worse: it was treated like a weird loaf made of should-have-been-discarded leftovers, half-heartedly slammed together.
Well, even that’s not completely accurate.
Actually, a lot of folks just thought it was crap – most notably Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus, whose review began with the opening line, “What’s this shit?”
The Woodstock Nation might have chosen Dylan as their messiah but the Chosen One himself wanted none of it. Self Portrait shunned anthems and torch-bearing poetic manifestos for a double-album set of pop and folk tune covers, along with some Dylan originals that celebrated his new appreciation of a quiet life at home. Hell, even Dylan’s voice on Self Portrait was an insult to many – his croon first employed on the previous year’s Nashville Skyline made even more lounge-lizardy by the choice of material. (You cannot hear Dylan’s reading of the Rodgers and Hart classic “Blue Moon” on Self Portrait without expecting him to end it with, “Thank you very much – you’ve been a wonderful audience. I’ll be here all week … and remember to tip your waitress.”)
Regardless, Self Portrait still managed to hit the #4 spot on the Billboard charts here in the US in 1970, devoid of any life-changing guidance or spiritual messages – perhaps because of car-wreck curiosity as much as anything. And when New Morning was released later that year, much was forgiven: Dylan wrote all the tunes and sang them through his nose. The people were happy (or, at least, happier).
What the latest release in Columbia’s Dylan Bootleg Series does is offer a chance for the world to revisit 1970 and reconsider things. The standard (two-disc) version of Another Self Portrait is made up of 35 rarities and previously-unreleased tunes from that period: demos, alternate takes, and unused studio performances along with some cool stuff from his 1969 appearance with The Band at the Isle of Wight Festival. (The deluxe four-disc version includes the complete set from the Isle of Wight along with a remix of the original Self Portrait album.)
That same car wreck curiosity might draw your attention to Another Self Portrait ; the fact of the matter is, this is one of the best Dylan releases in a long, long while – bootleg or new (I’m looking at you, Tempest ).
Presented in their bare-bones demo versions, “Went To See The Gypsy” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” feel lusciously raw and deeply personal. So are the pre-overdub takes of such tunes as “Copper Kettle”, “Wigwam”, “Little Sadie”, and “Days Of 49”, presented here with the original lineup of Dylan, Al Kooper on organ, and David Bromberg on guitar. On the other hand, the mix of “New Morning” offered here gives us Soul Bob – layered-on horns and all – while the orchestral overdubs on “Sign On The Window” are actually welcome, accentuating the song’s sweetness. You know all these tunes, but you’ve never heard them quite like this.
George Harrison adds guitar and just-right “lah-lah”s to “Time Passes Slowly”; he returns with a couple well-Brylcreemed rockabilly solos on “Working On A Guru”. “Play it again,” Dylan calls out before the second guitar break; Harrison laughs before launching into 38 seconds of twang perfection. You want to hear gods at play? Listen to this.
And any – any – of the stuff from the Isle of Wight is pure gold. The standard version of Another Self Portrait includes “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Highway 61 Revisted” – the former full of soulful twang; the latter a rip-snorter that showcases all sorts of Band goodness, from sweeping waves of wild-assed Garth Hudson organ and Levon Helm drum funkiness to a burst of classic Robbie Robertson string wrestling that takes the thing home.
Another Self Portrait isn’t looking for any apologies for the original’s reception; nor is it saying, “Look – this is the album that could have been.” Self Portrait served its purpose: it was a perfect way for Dylan to tell his worshippers, “It ain’t me, babe.”
Another Self Portrait serves a different purpose altogether: it makes us happy to listen to it.
I mean, Jesus … what more do you want?
Brian Robbins keeps a copper kettle on the woodstove over at www.brian-robbins.com