Self Portrait Revisited

Self Portrait is beautiful to listen to, an evolution in attitude and sound that works as well as anything Dylan has ever done.” – Rolling Stone, 1970  

“…a portrait of a generation. Self Portrait is as much a portrait of you and me as it is of Bob Dylan.”

Bob Chorush, Los Angeles Free Press, 1970

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I first listened to Self Portrait in 1979.

I was 16 and Dylan was my hero, my musical lexicon and the inspiration to express myself through words.

Self Portrait was in a ‘Sale’ in the local record store for $2.00, so I bought it, along with New Morning, which was the same price.

Without knowing the ‘furore’ surrounding it, I put it on and listened with an open mind.

I really liked his versions of Blue Moon, Let It Be Me, Copper Kettle, Early Morning Rain and especially It Hurts Me Too. I thought The Boxer was hilarious, and assumed it was Dylan simply having a laugh.

The album also made me realise that he actually had a sweet voice – like on ‘Corrina, Corinna’ off ‘Freewheelin’.

I wasn’t keen on the Isle Of Wight tracks – they seemed muddy, lumbering and lacklustre.

New Morning sounded like another side of Self Portrait and, apart from If Not For You and Father Of Night, I liked every song.

They were all different and really interesting – like If Dogs Run Free, with the strange woman singing over it; the cool, spoken observations of Three Angels; the sweet sorrow of Sign On The Window and the rough masculinity of One More Weekend or The Man In Me.

At the time, the albums made a nice interlude between listening to the heavy wordiness of 1978’s Street Legal and the scary apocalyptic Slow Train Coming.

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A lot of time has passed since I was 16.

Life’s rich tragedies, comedies and maladies of love have followed me all over the world and I have played, seen and listened to a lot of music.

Central to my soundtrack, of course, has been a vast body of work by this Bob Dylan character. Though not my favourite Dylan records, I always listened to those two albums, because they were friendly, happy and so well performed.

OUT NOW on SONY/Columbia/Legacy.

OUT NOW on SONY/Columbia/Legacy.

And now suddenly, unexpectedly, the Sony vaults drop ‘Another Self Portrait’ into my iPod – a staggering array of covers, demos, stripped-down alternate takes and the entire 1969 Isle Of Wight gig, remixed and remastered.

It has been such sweet agony – waiting for it to arrive, waiting for the opportunity to sit and finally listen to it.

No distractions, no expectations, just a quickening pulse and open ears.

Sometimes life is great.

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A personal set of first reactions.

1 – Went To See The Gypsy (Demo)

The intimacy is startling. Dylan’s rhythm guitar sounds great and Bromberg grows in confidence as the song evolves, finding his way and delivering some lovely licks.

Dylan’s voice is just wonderful.

2 – Little Sadie

Breathless and eager, with sweet acoustic runs by David Bromberg.

3 – Pretty Saro

I adore the freedom of his voice – like wandering horses, wild in raining fields. The flutters and swoops, delicate then brash, are fantastic.

This is definitely a favourite.

4 – Alberta #3

Love the piano and the girls. It rolls along brilliantly.

5 – Spanish Is The Loving Tongue

Superb recording.

What a great singer. His voice has a timbre so full of expression and soul – soft, harsh, funny and sad.  Very natural – which is why I like it.

There is no artifice, nothing between that voice full of heart and my ears.

6 – Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song

Doesn’t do much for me really, but it’s not unpleasant.

7 – Time Passes Slowly #1

Love the sound of the start. It’s got that earthy masculinity that makes me want to go and chop logs.

8 – Only A Hobo

As a big fan of ‘loose’, I am surprised to find myself wishing they’d done another take and weaved the two voices together a little better.

9 – Minstrel Boy

This makes me picture old film footage…some rarely seen animal…the commentator excitedly whispering “and here he is…in his natural habitat…singing without restraint…”

Great.

10 – I Threw It All Away

My favourite off Nashville Skyline and this version is good but not really better. I prefer the singing in the original.

11 – Railroad Bill

The playing and recording is fantastic and Dylan clearly enjoys the vocal – sounding warm and weary, travelled and beery. He can find the essence of any song, it seems.

With Doug Kershaw at Self Portrait sessions.

With Doug Kershaw at Self Portrait sessions.

12 – Thirsty Boots

Dylan hits just the right feel with this song. He is charming and treats the song with great respect. His voice sounds wise and innocent at the same time.

My only wish with this lovely recording is that he had not blown his harp but allowed the guitar runs to have a little space…but I guess no-one is going to say ‘Hey, Bob, easy on the harp there…”

13 – This Evening So Soon

Although I like the guitar and piano, this doesn’t do it for me. I can’t stand the sound of the harmonica and the song leaves me pretty cold.

14 – These Hands

The interplay between voice and guitar is wonderful in the first few bars. It reminds me of some of the performances on Good As I Been To You – just younger and a little sweeter on the ear. You can tell, just by the guitar playing, that it is the same guy.

Bromberg’s guitar work is tremendous too.

15 – In Search Of Little Sadie

It’s nice to hear the raw whooping voice and Dylan’s excellent rhythm guitar, as well as Bromberg’s embellishments. I prefer it to the original.

16 – House Carpenter

This would be at home on John Wesley Harding. It has the same style of keening vocal and shrill harp. It even fits thematically. I like the way it builds, with a loping, ominous drive, like a funeral march up a steep old hill.

There’s a touch of mountain call, some country preacher and a taste of the Hebraic cantillation that Ginsberg spoke of in the notes to Desire.

It’s ace.

17 – All The Tired Horses

Lovely to hear those women’s voices so close…

"Let's do it in C...but I'll probably change it just before we record."

“Let’s do it in C…but I’ll probably change it just before we record.”

18 – If Not For You

I have not heard a version of this song that I like…until now.

It’s odd, definitely, but works because of the commitment Dylan has in his voice. The fiddle is lovely and compliments the molasses in Dylan’s lower tones.

It is a simple love song and this treatment compliments such a pure volition.

19 – Wallflower

Again, I think this is better than any other version I’ve heard.

The version with Doug Sahm is great, but I like this more. Perhaps it’s the intimacy, the sparse arrangement and slower tempo…but it works for me.

20 – Wigwam

Da da da da da….

21 – Days Of 49

I never enjoyed this song on Self Portrait. It sounds way better stripped down, with the piano, guitar and voice working together to create a dramatic tension.

22 – Working On A Guru

This sounds like they had a blast. George Harrison’s unrehearsed soloing is cool, with Dylan’s laughter at the end sounding beautiful.

23 – Country Pie

It’s a funny song but Dylan doesn’t seem to be grinning too much. The released version has more wit, more energy to my ears. The band is great though, just great .

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26 – Copper Kettle

Again, this naked version is a joy to hear. The over-dubs hid it to some degree.

The organ is just awesome! Kooper has summoned a playful, ghostly spirit that runs around and laughs through it.

Brilliant.

27 – Bring Me A Little Water

I adore this track. Dylan’s lusty, throaty rasp is filled to the brim with blind confidence and the arrangement is sublime.

He could have done it this way on the 1978 tours.

28 – Sign On The Window

What a strange experience. Like seeing your uncle in drag – you smile with recognition and then realise he’s wearing a dress, a wig, pearls and too much make-up.

I can’t decide whether to give him a hug or walk away…

The whole thing is brilliant and crazy but, like Cohen’s ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’, or The Beatles ‘Let It Be’, I don’t think the horns, strings, bells and whistles really help the songs, but it sure sounds interesting.

29 – Tattle O’Day

I’m still in shock from the previous track…but this surreal farmyard tale is sounding good.

30 – If Dogs Run Free

Just brilliant.

I love the guitars, the vocals, and the chorus of heavenly women. I can hear Elvis humming in the background.

Superb.

31 – New Morning

Hearing these over-dubbed versions now is like watching a film of Jackson Pollack painting…backwards.

I prefer the work without everything layered on, but it is really interesting.

32 – Went To See The Gypsy

I’m a big fan of electric piano and enjoy this immensely. It’s a beautiful song in any disguise.

One Way Sign

33 – Belle Isle

His voice again sounds far better with air around it, than on the closed-sounding Self Portrait over-dubbed track. I can hear him, hear that lithe and plaintive voice and feel the warmth and humour in his heart.

34 – Time Passes Slowly #2

Again, I am filled with praise for the musicians and love the sound that has been captured here. I could trade this version for the one I have loved for all these years – it’s great.

The guitar runs (on the left) between the verses are treasures on their own.

35 – When I Paint My Masterpiece (Demo)

Simply beautiful.

The middle eighth section is discovered anew and really works.

Dylan’s rhythmic stabbing at the keys and his voice calling out so vital and free… so human, so celestial, so great.

He really is something else.

Who else would rhyme ‘gondola’ with ‘old Victrola’?

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 “He not busy being born is busy dying” – Bob Dylan.

 

One of the many reasons I like Bob Dylan is because he is always on the move. Although he shows respect for the past, he doesn’t glorify or settle in it. He doesn’t do nostalgia.

His gigs are always different and he works hard to keep his songs alive and kicking, changing the arrangements, keys, delivery and tones.

This collection – like the original Self Portrait – shows how he can look back while moving forward and trying something new.

He is a master musician, lyricist and this new set shows what a great singer he was in 1970/71.

As I write, my 8 year-old daughter is listening to it, nodding and singing along to ‘All The Tired Horses’.

She knows absolutely nothing about him – she simply likes him and his “funny voice”.

I feel the same way.

New York City 1970. Photo by John Cohen.

New York City 1970. Photo by John Cohen.

 

Record Store Day release by Sony/Columbia.

Record Store Day release by Sony/Columbia.

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The Isle Of Wight concert

(31 August 1969)

In the audience and/or VIP area to see Dylan were George Harrison, fellow Beatles John Lennon (“the audience was waiting for Godot or Jesus”) and Ringo Starr. Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones were there, along with Eric Clapton “Dylan was fantastic. He changed everything … The audience couldn’t understand it. You had to be a musician to understand it.”), Pattie Harrison, Yoko Ono, Maureen Starkey, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, Françoise Hardy, Roger Vadim, Donald Cammell, Syd Barrett, Elton John and others.

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“Musicians have always known that my songs were more than just words, but most people are not musicians” – Bob Dylan.

The re-mastering and re-mixing is a triumph. It captures Dylan with The Band perfectly. Everything sounds crisp, well-balanced and real. There are bum notes, stumbles and mic-boom, but that is part of the ‘live’ experience.

I find the whole show a little lacklustre but there are some absolute treasures nonetheless.

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Maggies Farm is awesome. I love the version on Hard Rain but this is just as good, if not better.

The Band play brilliantly throughout the whole set, and it is an absolute joy to hear them again. Levon Helm, in particular, shines on this recording. His drums and (apparently un-mic’d) backing vocals are a treat.

The start of Lay Lady Lay is really funny – Dylan forgets the descending chord sequence and Robbie reminds him and off they go again, with a shout of “yeah…” 

I like that kind of stuff, because it is what actually happens at gigs all the time.

IOW

To Ramona is beautifully delicate and fluttery and the two John Wesley Harding tracks sound amazing – it’s a real treat to hear them performed live – and it makes me wonder what the album might have sounded like had Dylan recorded it with these guys.

(Quinn The Eskimo) The Mighty Quinn rolls along perfectly and Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 works as a classic festival closer. It would certainly have been appropriate when I went to festivals.

I find Dylan’s vocal on some tracks a little contrived, style-wise. I love that he is trying out a new kind of delivery but it seems strained on a few of the songs and, well, occasionally gets in the way.

The whole set is loose-limbed, laconic and fun and I can imagine it was a great way to end the evening.

I doubt I’ll listen to it a great deal, but I’m glad I have it.

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Photos by John Cohen/Al Clayton/SONY/Associated Press.

Thanks to Dag Braathen.

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