By Bob Ruggiero
Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10
“What is this shit?”
It is the most famous review opening line in all of rock journalism. And it was penned by Rolling Stone‘s Greil Marcus in 1970 in an attempt to explain the unexplainable Bob Dylan Self Portrait double album to an audience still desperate for the Bard of Hibbing to claim his “spokesman for a generation” title.
But Dylan himself was just as uninterested in that moniker–or any other–in ’70 as he was in ’62. And Self Portrait‘s oddball, hodgepodge collection of folk and pop covers, instrumentals, live cuts, and weak originals (jacketed with a hideous painting by Dylan) remains the most reviled release in his catalogue.
See also: Five Great Albums That Got Scrapped
At the time, it was viewed as a deliberate slap in the face to his fans, and in subsequent interviews and his own book, Chronicles, Dylan doesn’t exactly contest that theory.
So it’s not surprising the announcement that the latest version in Dylan’s Bootleg Series would be dedicated mostly to the 1970-71 recording sessions that produced both Self Portrait and better follow up New Morning was met with equal derision.
Yet, amazingly, the demos, alternate takes, unreleased tracks, and different arrangements of released material here go a long way toward acting not only as a mea culpa, but to spotlight the talent of Dylan’s then musicians du jour guitarist David Bromberg and keyboardist Al Kooper.
And while the material doesn’t support the fawning over some critics have already given it (we’re talking to you, David Fricke), it does go a long way in showing vision to what Self Portrait could have been.
Most numbers are sung in a version of the “country crooning” voice that Dylan debuted on Nashville Skyline and unconvincingly told interviewers he got as a result of quitting smoking.
Highlights include unreleased tracks that could have come from a stripped-down Basement Tapes or John Wesley Harding session (a gentle “Pretty Saro,” the lilting “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song,” the buoyant “Thirsty Boots,” and the plaintive and epic “House Carpenter”).
Familiar SP tracks take on whole new meaning either when stripped of overdubs (“Copper Kettle” and “Little Sadie” work better spare, “Days of ’49” takes on a quiet desperation), or with dubs added (a horn-drenched “New Morning,” a soft violin coloring Dylan’s just-voice-and-piano “If Not For You,” a drums-and-thunder “Time Passes Slowly”).
There’s even some fun with unreleased “Working on a Guru” (Dylan and noted guru-loving pal George Harrison trading tasty licks back and forth), and the shaggy dog tale “Tattle O’Day.”
The set closes with the demo for “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” One of Dylan’s most masterful compositions, it is filled with regret, dashed ambitions, and romantic desperation cloaked as a mindless European fling. And it’s devastating in this spare demo version.
Another Self Portrait shows that Bob Dylan – like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young – has bursting vaults of “discarded” material that is just as good and sometimes better than what they’ve actually released. And the entire Bootleg Series has been worthy. Now, Dylan’s team, where are those unvarnished “Basement Tapes” and the full New York Blood on the Tracks sessions?
A couple of notes: In a bit of not-unintended irony, Greil Marcus writes the reappraising liner notes. The four CD deluxe set also includes a remastered version of the original Self Portrait as well as the complete set from Dylan and the Band at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival.