Dylan’s Another Self Portrait: why did he throw it all away?

Dylan’s Another Self Portrait: why did he throw it all away?
Dylan in 1971
Dylan in 1971

Well, knock me down with a feather! Dylan produces new album that’s not only melodious and beautifully sung, but revelatory, too, casting new light on a period in his career generally held in low esteem by fans, including myself, and deeply suggestive of something else that might have been.

Plenty has been written in the last week or so about the latest official instalment from Dylan’s unreleased archive, the Bootleg Series (we’re up to volume 10 now), so I won’t recapitulate the whole story here. Suffice it to say that Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) is in some ways the most revelatory of the whole series.

What we have here are alternate and stripped-down versions of songs released on the infamous Self Portrait album and – most spellbinding – songs recorded in the same period but never released – indeed entirely forgotten.  There are two discs, with songs falling roughly into two groups. The first CD mostly comprises songs recorded prior to Self Portrait, and is where you find the real jewels of this set: amidst alternate versions of some of Dylan’s own songs are unreleased versions of traditional songs.  The second CD offers alternate versions of Dylan originals from Self Portrait, New Morning, and Nashville Skyline, plus remastered live recordings from the set performed by Dylan and the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival.  In many cases, the differences in these versions are striking, and make you wonder what the original Self Portrait might have been.

What it might have been was an anthology of American music – blues, folk, old-timey, country and pop tunes – but it came out all wrong, with songs slathered with syrupy strings overdubs and good stuff discarded in favour of some decidedly dodgy recordings – Dylan duetting with himself on the amateurish version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer was either a bad joke or a serious loss of judgement.

As much as ordinary mortals can fathom what goes in the mind of Bob Dylan, we know a bit more now about where he was coming from perhaps, having heard a much more spartan version of what this might have been two decades later on the albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and listened to Dylan present his radio show Theme Time Radio on which he celebrated all forms of American music – from jazz and blues, through country and R&B to classic pop of the fifties and sixties.

But back then, at the start of the 70s, was the heyday of the singer-songwriter, and Dylan was regarded as the greatest of them all.  To fill an album with songs written by others was taken as a sign that you had lost your mojo, and were playing a bad joke on your followers. Moreover, Dylan had gained a huge reputation as a protest singer, so we expected any new album to contain lyrics of social criticism.  The worst thing about Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning for many of us back then was the overriding tone of domestic bliss and bucolic rapture.  For Christ’s sake, the cities were burning and there was a war going on: was this the best that the voice of a generation could do?

Dylan hillside

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

That was New Morning, a rapturous collection, apparently rushed out quickly by Dylan to obliterate the stain on his career represented by Self Portrait (notoriously rejected as ‘shit’ by Greil Marcus in his review for Rolling Stone that basically set the seal on the album’s reputation).  The general interpretation of Self Portrait in subsequent decades has been that it represented a deliberate act of career destruction – he just ‘threw it all away’ in order to get the rest of us off his back. But just as easily it could represent just one more example of Dylan’s legendary misjudgements in the choices he has made about what to put on, or leave off, an album.

As Mark Richardson observes in his thoughtful review for Pitchfork:

Though we’ll never know exactly what he was thinking, the idea of Dylan making a poor album on purpose never made sense. He worked with too many top-shelf musicians that he cared about, and had friends and colleagues investing too much time, to make something that would embarrass them. It seems more likely that the “intentionally bad” storyline was a defence mechanism for a mysterious artist who did, after all, have a pretty hefty ego and was deeply aware of his own talent. So it’s reasonable to conclude that Self Portrait was a strange and all-over-the-place album because, for one reason or another, that’s the kind of album Dylan wanted to make at that time.

Dylan tapes

Whatever the circumstances that led Dylan to release the sickly-sweet, sloppy, sprawling Self Portrait, the artefact delivered to us in 2013 is a different kettle of fish entirely.  Even before considering the tunes themselves, the remixing and the remastering, there is the fact that Dylan sings beautifully, in a voice far removed from the gravelly rasp of later years, a voice tender and expressive and melodious.  Mark Richardson again:

That is where the deep and immense pleasure of this set resides: hearing melodies – some new, some old, some borrowed – performed by a distinctive singer at the height of his powers.

Dylan has seldom recorded more lovely vocals that here on his beautiful unreleased reading of the traditional English folk ballad Pretty Saro, or on alternate versions of such songs as Belle Isle or Copper Kettle, with its bucolic, if not intoxicated, refrain:

You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Loveliest of all is the remastered, achingly beautiful rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme performed solo at the Isle of Wight.  James Reed,  writing in the Boston Globe, was entranced like me:

The joy of Another Self Portrait is hearing the music for its own merit. This is Dylan at his most tender-hearted, finding his way around songs that clearly made an impression on him. Because so much of the material is traditional or written by others, it allows you to ruminate on Dylan’s interpretive skills.

Anyone who claims Dylan can’t sing, or that he’s not the most soothing of singers, has never heard his previously unreleased version of “Pretty Saro” included here. His voice is soft, delicate, as if it’ll buckle under the weight of the song’s heartache over losing his beloved.

Listening to the album a few times you begin to realise that it’s not only that songs that were messed up on Self Portrait have now had the excess of overdubbed strings removed; it’s the rediscovered ‘lost’ recordings – traditional songs and songs by Dylan’s song-writer contemporaries that astonish, too. Dylan offers tribute to Tom Paxton with his lesser-known tune, Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song, This Evening So Soon is a version of Tell Old Bill by Bob Gibson, an old buddy from the Greenwich Village days, and there’s a great version of Thirsty Boots, written by another overlooked contemporary, Eric Andersen.

Mark Richardson puts it like this in his Pitchfork review:

The real revelations on the first disc are the unreleased versions of songs from the public domain … the songs Dylan grew up with and studied… The versions here of “Railroad Bill”, “Little Sadie”, “Pretty Saro”, and the especially powerful “This Evening So Soon” are brilliant showcases of his ability to inhabit old material and make it his own. And they benefit from the generally spare and acoustic sound. Dylan started his career singing traditional folk songs, but his understanding of them eight years later was far richer.

A picture begins to emerge of the album that might have been: Dylan’s own Anthology of American Music, a foretaste of 1992‘s Good as I Been to You and 1993‘s World Gone WrongSelf Portrait was top-heavy with less than inspiring versions of country and western standards such as I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know (recorded by just about every Country artist going, from Tennessee Ernie Ford by way of Skeeter Davis to Patti Page and Dolly Parton) and two songs written by Boudleaux Bryant, the man who probably wrote more country and western hits than anyone (including ones for Jim Reeves); indeed, the strings and vocal stylings were reminiscent of a distinctly square Jim Reeves LP such as one’s mother might have in her collection.  There were also passable versions of pop songs that Dylan had grown up with in the fifties, such as Blue Moon and the Everly Brothers’ Let It Be Me.

Dylan Portrait session

Imagine, instead, an album that truly lived up to its name: a self portrait of Dylan in the form of an intimate, acoustic session where, along with a handful of trusty musicians (David Bromberg on guitar, Kenny Buttrey drums, Al Kooper organ and piano, Happy Traum banjo, and Charlie McCoy on bass), he presented a showcase of the songs that had informed his musical sensibilities – a blend of blues and country, folk and pop.  Well, we’ve finally got to hear it – or something like it – albeit 40 years later.

Significantly, perhaps, the collection opens with a demo recording of Went to See the Gypsy, Dylan’s lyric apparently inspired by an encounter with Elvis in Las Vegas:

Went to see the gypsy
Stayin’ in a big hotel […]

Outside the lights were shining
On the river of tears
I watched them from the distance
With music in my ears

I went back to see the gypsy
It was nearly early dawn
The gypsy’s door was open wide
But the gypsy was gone

There’s another demo of  When I Paint My Masterpiece, a simple recording of just Dylan and piano, the song best known  through the Band’s superb arrangement with with mandolin and accordion released on Cahoots in 1971.
Other highlights of this magnificent collection for me include the thrilling remastered recording of Dylan and the Band tearing through Highway 61 Revisited at the Isle of Wight; an exuberant alternative take of New Morning with horns; Copper Kettle, stripped of strings with just David Bromberg’s shimmering guitar and Al Kooper’s delicate organ noodles for decoration; a 1971 recording of Only A Hobo with Happy Traum on banjo and harmony vocal that has the feel of an impromptu Greenwich Village coffee house session.

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Time Passes Slowly probably gives us the clearest sense of where Dylan’s head was at in those days.  It’s represented here in two very different try-out versions: one with a rambunctious overture from Al Kooper, the other a folksy account with George Harrison adding guitar and harmony vocal.  Another rather lovely New Morning alternate take is If Not For You, done solo at the piano with violin accompaniment.
And so it goes on: previously unheard (even un-bootlegged) versions of folk standards such as Pretty Saro, Railroad Bill, Bring Me a Little Water and House Carpenter and Belle Isle that sit well alongside contemporary folk classics like Tom Paxton’s Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song and Eric Andersen’s Thirsty Boots.

Another Self Portrait cover

Mark Richardson, the reviewer for Pitchfork, is clearly of a younger generation than mine, many of whom were perplexed, outraged even, by Self Portrait when it appeared in 1970.  He writes:

Returning to it, it’s hard for those of us a generation or two younger to understand the reaction to it not because it paled in comparison to the greatness that came before, because it obviously did. If you’ve spent any time listening to Bob Dylan’s 1960s catalog, you are still trying to wrap your head around the thought that one person wrote the 56 songs on Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline between 1965 and 1969. Self Portrait, next to these records, in that moment, must have seemed like a joke.

But later generations hear it differently. We’ve discovered Self Portrait in the used bins, torrent downloads, and streaming services alongside records like Street Legal, Saved, Empire Burlesque, Down in the Groove, and Under the Red Sky. And in this broader context, it sounds quite good, another weird and sloppy record from a guy who released a lot of them.

Hearing Self Portrait now, alongside the fantastic music now released on Another Self Portrait, casts Dylan’s efforts in the recording studio at that time in a whole new light, Richardson rightly suggests, arguing that the collection further cements Dylan’s Bootleg Series as one of the most important archival projects in modern pop history.

We’ll probably never know why Dylan, after recording all these wonderful tracks, decided to discard them and release something entirely different. Never mind; 40 years late, we have a gem to treasure

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand
And rivers that ran through every day
I must have been mad
I never knew what I had
Until I threw it all away