T for Tom

Day 10 – Self Portrait – 1970

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 2, 2016

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As I enter the 70s, I can’t shake the feeling that things are going to start getting weird. I know that Blood On The Tracks and the Basement Tapes haven’t yet arrived, but neither have Saved or Oh Mercy. Truthfully though, that feeling is transforming: I haven’t heard a single bad record yet.

Sure, the variety speaks to all kinds of music fans, and there’s something for everyone. Dylan has been all over the place, and you could spark any debate by asking what’s his best record. But 10 albums in now, and I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed one of them. Only one, Nashville Skyline, is passé, but even then it wasn’t a bad listen; that is, I enjoyed hearing it even if I didn’t have to.

This proclamation is the strongest indictment of what Self Portrait could possibly purport to be, a amalgamation of all the things Bob Dylan had ever done but no one had heard just yet. It’s a rambling, strewn-about collection of B-sides, live cuts, and discarded tracks dating throughout the Nashville years that paint a picture of a Bob Dylan who’s never been sure of himself, at least in some ways – if the man who gave us “Masters of War” can later be seen covering “Blue Moon”, then there’s an issue of confidence or understanding that the artist never got over. The voice as well travels all the incarnations of Dylan’s pipes – mostly hinging around the recent Nashville crooner, but still at times youthful, sprite, and nasally, and occasionally passing between the two in a single song.

While in interviews immediately following the release of Self Portrait where Dylan sought to fight back against the critics, and even throughout his life as he disposed of this record as joke, there’s a sense that even he never knew quite what he was doing. Like the reduced, slower version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” which albeit pleasant, seems strange to hear the artist redoing the crowned best-song-ever, or in a word, unnecessary.

An admitted joke sometimes discarded as a purposeful piss-off, Self Portrait was, according to Dylan, scrabbled together in minutes to tell the people he “wasn’t their leader.” The Beatles had just broken up, Woodstock had come to an end, and Dylan says over and again that he just wanted to be with his family. So he went to the studio, put together a couple originals, and then cobbled it with 15 or so unwanted songs from all around his own past.

At the time, it was a demonizing move. It’s been called the worst record of all time, and even the album cover was painted in less than five minutes by Dylan himself, receiving no less than the same scorn as the album’s content.

But I have this image in my head…

…I see Dylan in the studio, sometimes in a chair in a backyard, and even on a bus traveling from show to show. I see him by himself playing his guitar and like any good artist, trying out different things. I see him playing country music, singing instrumentals, and coming up with western choruses that fill the prairie night. Picasso often said for the critics who didn’t think he could paint, he had to mimic everyone first before he could break away. These are Dylan’s attempts at the same.

My lasting impression is that I love it. It is still endearingly beautiful, and the underlying truth is that Dylan is still saying something even when he isn’t trying. Through the beautiful chorus of “Let It Be Me” or the swooning verses of “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” we should learn that even the brightest, most active mind is attracted to and can be changed by love. The music is still moving and wonderfully composed, and there’s a lot of funk present here that makes me want to dance. The words don’t always have to be in protest.

It is sea change – its now the 70s, Dylan is doing things his way, and this record is his lighthouse. It may be unnecessary, but it still came from Bob Dylan, and we should be thankful.


Song: Minstrel Boy

Originally I had chosen “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)” because it’s a far superior song, but I woke up this morning and realized it didn’t feel like a Self Portrait song. That song is “Minstrel Boy.” A song that drags so slow it’s feet are almost nailed to the floor. A gypsy chorus, a cry for help, and a slow blues.

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