Self Portrait, Rock Criticism and Me
With the release of Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10, there’s been yet more endless analyses of how awful Bob Dylan’s original Self Portrait album was. I have always been amused by the kerfuffle over this one.
Well, not always amused, I guess. I was 23 years old when Self Portrait was released in June of 1970. It was an exciting, strange time in my life. I can’t remember when I began actually subscribing, but I was beginning to read Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone pretty regularly. A bit later I started a fortnightly ritual: As soon as it arrived, I would roll up a joint and smoke it while I devoured Rolling Stone cover-to-cover.
I had also just bought (and devoured) a paperback copy of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, the first book where someone else articulated the kinds of things I was thinking about the music that had helped changed my worldview. During the spring semester, for a Recent American History class, I had completed a twenty-page essay, titled A Compendium of Rock: The Medium And the Message, after a McLuhan book, The Medium is the Message, that was popular my last years in college. The paper was all about rock music and its importance to me and my generation.
My friends and I were beginning to use rock music as a filter through which we could see the world, enough so that we fancied ourselves a kind of karass, vaguely interpreting a notion from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, another popular tome of the time.
And I was in the midst of my exit from the Lutheran Church-Mo. Synod. I would last another year, through a teaching stint in Roselle, Illinois, that finalized my decision to leave. Crazy as it seems now, less than two years after I started playing guitar, I was heading out to make my way as a musician. That wouldn’t work out so well, and I was almost five years from first being published. And though I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was beginning to think like a critic.
I loved Self Portrait right away. And when I read the reviews, as we’ll see shortly, I was really pissed off. I considered a letter-to-the-editor but chickened out and wound up sending my thoughts in a letter to my friend Frank Kresen, who was in Japan at the time — he had joined the Prince of Peace Volunteers to teach English in Hokkaido. It accompanied a reel-to-reel tape of the album that I copied with some equipment I checked out at Concordia Teacher’s College in Seward, Nebraska. He replied, equally enthusiastically, that the album was a look at Dylan’s darker side as he interpreted the songs of others. But it was our little secret, because the rest of the world seemingly hated it.
Here’s the part of the letter where I write about Self Portrait, which I now realize is the very first piece of music analysis I ever wrote. Reading it again today, many of the elements (literary references, righteous indignation) that became, for better or worse, my style are all in there.
I was sitting here with Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait and the new Rolling Stone review of it, written by the whole staff, who ripped it miserably. Now I’m reading the review of each song as it plays, listening with avid interest because Bob Dylan never ceases to amaze me. Paul Williams, in his book Outlaw Blues (which I got last week, a memorable work), quotes Dylan back in 1966: “I’ve stopped composing and singing anything that has either a reason to be written or a motive to be sung. The word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound.”
But the musical “experts” at the leading rock periodical still insist on looking to Dylan as the leader, the spiritual god to which we all must lay our alms for the wondrous word on what’s happening. And what say I? Leave the man alone, and accept him on his own terms. He loves country pie and Nashville skyline rags and he seems pretty happy, so why not enjoy him for what he is, and not what you want him to be?
The LP for me, then, is just what it portends to be, a self-portrait of a man musically. The cover tells the story, and the inside photos, including the session- and farm-locale shots, further reflect on Dylan’s tranquility. (Is that his farm he’s standing in front of?)
And the music? Well, for me it’s very pleasant, a pleasing change from a world that looks dismal indeed.
And poor Rolling Stone, they can’t believe that the mighty Allah can blow his lines. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a mess, they say. I disagree totally. So what if the words aren’t right? Dylan’s vocal is superb, and the Band is magnificent. But Greil Marcus is totally disillusioned. Man, can’t you just let it be?
“Living the Blues” is superb, much better than the Great White Wonder (ed. note, the very first bootleg album) version, good feeling and emotion. “Copper Kettle” is magic. Likewise “Belle Isle.” “Kettle” almost takes me back to old Missouri in 1800 and misty lakes and rivers before technology. “Belle Isle” is unusual for Dylan, a knighthood in flower song – maybe he read Ivanhoe or Sir Walter. The only song I really don’t like is “Early Morning Rain.” The vocal sounds lifeless.
But “The Mighty Quinn,” “Minstrel Boy,” and “She Belongs to Me,” all from the Isle of Wight, are very alive and well, thank you. But I suppose Greil Marcus can’t stand mistakes, damn perfectionist.
The Nashville cuts (that is, the country songs that Dylan didn’t write) are great in their own way. I’ve grown to like that kind of music.
So, Mr. Dylan, I say bravo, good job, thanks for giving me some joy. Greil Marcus — go to hell. Try to enjoy some good country music. Don’t impress us with your criticism.
Many years later, in 2002, I wrote a review of Self-Portrait for Stereophile magazine’s annual Records to Die For section. The deal is that you get 100 words each to describe two of your favorite albums — records to die for. For that year I chose a Doug Sahm live disc and Self Portrait.
The only real problems with Dylan’s most misunderstood and unheard album are the timing and the title. Were it released as The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 in 2002, it might not have dismayed critics and confused most of the rest of his audience. Dylan has long claimed it was his response to unauthorized, bootleg recordings, and that description fits — from the scattershot sequencing to the wildly eclectic repertoire. Given the current Dylan penchant for unpredictable covers in his live show, mixing up country ballads, folk standards and contemporary favorites and a sprinkling of his own songs seems downright rootsy. Most interesting is that except for his voice, Self-Portrait isn’t much different from his onstage act today. What goes around comes around. Self-Portrait takes us full circle.
I rest my case.