Review: Bob Dylan, “The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait”
Today, he might identify himself as “a song and dance man,” a noble profession if there ever was one. But for decades, the man born Robert Zimmerman has been much, much more. Resistant though he might have been to the tag of “spokesman of a generation,” said generation could have done much worse. To describe Dylan’s role in the 1960s is certainly to paint with broad brushstrokes. But it can be said with some measure of truth that Dylan liberated popular music from the dominance of conventional love songs, challenged notions of what a singing voice should sound like, and popularized the singer-songwriter before the term even existed. He also gave voice in those early years to characters – real and imagined, living and dead – who couldn’t speak for themselves, frequently championing those who were oppressed, wronged, or simply downtrodden. So when Dylan announced an album called Self Portrait, it seemed possible that the songwriter who brought to life sweet Marie, Queen Jane, Maggie (of farm fame), Quinn the Eskimo, Mr. Tambourine Man, and the man who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat might be looking inward.
Instead, when Self Portrait arrived on June 8, 1970, listeners found him warbling Rodgers and Hart (“Blue Moon”), Gordon Lightfoot (“Early Morning Rain”) and most bizarrely, Simon and Garfunkel – as both Paul and Artie (“The Boxer”)! The sprawling double-LP set mixed these frankly strange pop covers with live tracks, old folk songs and new, seemingly tossed-off originals. It was also unexplainably awash in overdubs of the kind not usually associated with Dylan – right down to cooing female backing vocals. But now, the curtains can be drawn to reveal what Self Portrait might have been. The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) offers a glimpse into the man’s musical muse during that crucial time period via outtakes, alternate takes and non-overdubbed versions of songs recorded primarily for Self Portrait and its follow-up New Morning, with a handful of other detours including 1967’s The Basement Tapes sessions and 1969’s Nashville Skyline. Another Self Portrait is available in both a standard 2-CD version, and a 4-CD box also containing a remastered edition of the original Self Portrait and Dylan and The Band’s complete August 31, 1969 concert at the Isle of Wight. Over the course of these 35 songs traversing country, blues, folk, pop and rock, the period comes into focus with newfound clarity and vibrancy. The frequently stark arrangements afford a glimpse into a musical soul all but hidden on the original Self Portrait.
There’s plenty more on Bob after the jump!
The most striking aspect of Another Self Portrait is just how deeply in touch with his folk roots Dylan was during the Self Portrait sessions. Twelve tracks on the two CDs, or more than one-third of the set, are traditionals. This is the type of material explored by Dylan on his very first Columbia album, from 1962; of its thirteen songs, only two were Dylan originals. This is also the music that Dylan has returned to, time and time again, as if to get his own creative juices flowing in times of songwriting draught. (Think: 1992’s Good as I Been to You and its follow-up, World Gone Wrong.) Almost a full half of the two discs here hail from the March 3-5, 1970 sessions for which Dylan (usually singing in his Nashville Skyline croon) was joined by folk hero David Bromberg on guitar and Al Kooper on piano. Dylan and Bromberg played as one, their talents truly intertwined on these intimate studio performances.
The eighteenth century folk melody “Pretty Saro” is beautifully rendered by Dylan and the sympathetic Bromberg. The oft-recorded and oft-altered blues staple “Alberta” appeared in two versions on Self Portrait, helpfully titled “Alberta No. 1” and “Alberta No. 2.” Here, the laconic “Alberta No. 3” premieres, with Bromberg on dobro and Kooper on piano joined by Stu Woods on bass, Alvin Rogers on drums and the background vocal group of Hilda Harris, Albertine Robinson and Maeretha Stewart. (Leadbelly recorded “Alberta” in four versions, so why shouldn’t Dylan add a third version to his officially released repertoire?) “Copper Kettle,” a 1953-vintage folk song popularized by Dylan’s old flame Joan Baez, is presented Bootleg-style sans the choir and string overdubs from Self Portrait, with Dylan joined by Bromberg and Kooper, this time adding atmospheric flourishes on the organ. Occasional session chatter adds to the “you are there” mood, such as when Dylan – ever the showman - introduces “Kettle” as “one of our old favorites.” He took to the piano for a spare take of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue,” a song which surfaced as both the B-side of “Watching the River Flow” in 1971 and on the1973 Dylan outtakes compilation assembled without the artist’s participation. “House Carpenter” was first recorded by the singer in 1961 for his first album, but it didn’t make the final cut. That recording finally was released on The Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 in 1991; the older, wiser man revisited it with Bromberg and Kooper in the strong version heard here.
Dylan also found time to record songs by his contemporaries, though the selections are much more akin to the folk tradition than some of those selected for the final Self Portrait release. “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song” (“…called ‘Take Me Back Again’…”) came from the pen of Tom Paxton. On the scene during Dylan’s ascendancy and part of the same crop of hungry young songwriters with something to say, Paxton once described Dylan as a “first among equals” in their circle of friends. Eric Andersen’s “Thirsty Boots” has also been retrieved here. And though country singer Eddie Noack was a few years older than Dylan, Paxton or Andersen, Dylan clearly identified with his “These Hands” based on the evidence here; on this song and numerous others from these sessions, he pushes his expressive, oft-imitated-but-never-duplicated voice to its limits.
Some originals were recorded at the March sessions, too. Another Self Portrait opens with the Dylan/Bromberg demo of “Went to See the Gypsy,” with different lyrics than on the New Morning version. In 2009, Dylan finally denied that the song was based on an encounter with Elvis Presley, protesting that he never met The King in reality. So though the identity of The Gypsy shall, alas, remain a mystery, the song is no less beguiling. A fragment of Self Portrait opening track “All the Tired Horses” sung by Harris, Robinson and Stewart is presented here without its strings, making it all the easier to bask in those powerful voices.
New Morning – even the title of which signified an artistic rebirth – began to take shape on May 1, 1970 when Dylan was joined by George Harrison, Charlie Daniels and Russ Kunkel at Columbia’s Studio B in New York City. With producer Bob Johnston (who also helmed the March sessions), Dylan began recording an eclectic blend of material in rough-hewn versions. He also returned to his more natural, pre-Nashville Skyline nasal tone. Another Self Portrait doesn’t include such offbeat tracks as the Phil Spector/Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich “Da Doo Ron Ron,” Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and “Your True Love,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” and even the Lennon/McCartney “Yesterday.” But it does cherry-pick some truly choice highlights.
Harrison can be heard on two tracks here. There’s a palpable sense of fun to Dylan’s freewheeling “Working on a Guru,” on which Harrison tosses off loose rockabilly licks in a couple of guitar solos. George and the band are more ruminative on a sad, pretty version of “Time Passes Slowly” identified as No. 1. There are some early lyrics here – “like a cloud passing over that covers the day” in place of “like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day,” for one. George joined in on the “La la la” vocal refrain, and you just might, too. “Time Passes Slowly” was one of the songs composed by Dylan for a possible stage musical with playwright Archibald MacLeish (J.B.) based on The Devil and Daniel Webster. When plans were scrapped for the musical, Dylan repurposed “Time” and two other songs for New Morning. One month later, on June 2, 1970, “Time” was again revisited – still with Daniels, but sans Harrison, and plus guitarist Ron Cornelius and the returning Kooper and Bromberg. In this version, it sounds like a lost Joe Cocker workout. With Kooper’s church organ adding gravitas, a furious guitar attack completely reinvents the song. Dylan whoops and wails the amended lyrics with the fervor of Cocker on “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Work continued on New Morning in early June 1970 at neighboring Studio E as Self Portrait was being released to critical brickbats. (It still went Gold.) Dylan, on piano, was joined by an uncredited violinist for a stunning version of “If Not for You.” For this stately ballad interpretation, Dylan sings as sweetly and dramatically as possible, and the track has a raw intimacy not present on either his completed take (finished in August) or George Harrison’s remarkable, reinvented rendition from All Things Must Pass. The opaque, vaguely cosmic “If Dogs Run Free” appears on Another Self Portrait in a sung version with some lyric variations from its final recording (a spoken word piece with tinkling cocktail piano and scatted backing vocals). “Went to See the Gypsy” was attempted again in June, with just Dylan’s own electric piano accompaniment. Traditional tunes continued to be tackled, as well; on “Bring Me a Little Water,” Dylan’s throaty vocal sounds as if he needs some! Thankfully, backing vocalists Harris, Robinson and Stewart lather on the gospel fervor.
New Morning was generally well-received, and rightly so, but Another Self Portrait offers a tantalizing might-have-been in the form of two tracks produced by Johnston and Al Kooper featuring orchestral arrangements by Kooper and his frequent collaborator Charles Calello. (Calello also was responsible for many of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ finest arrangements.) These two songs reverse the usual pattern here of including “naked” versions of songs, instead presenting versions with overdubs. “Sign on the Window” incorporates strings in an organic fashion, while “New Morning” is a joyous, wholly invigorating eruption thanks to Kooper and Calello’s brassy horn charts. Kooper intuitively understood the songwriter’s sound, and proves with these two belatedly-released tracks that Bob Dylan could flourish in a non-traditional setting.
Another Self Portrait doesn’t strictly confine itself to the sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning, and so we’re treated to some odds and ends fitting stylistically with the other material here. The “alternate” outlook can be appreciated on “Only a Hobo” from September 1971. The song was recorded by its author in 1963, then re-recorded for Greatest Hits Volume II and scrapped. (It was also memorably covered by Rod Stewart.) The 1963 version emerged on Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3. The image of the hobo has played a major role in the Dylan mythos, so it’s unsurprising that he continued to be drawn to this song. “Wallflower” is heard here in a November 1971 take with Ben Keith on steel guitar. The song was also recorded by Doug Sahm with Dylan pitching in, and by Bromberg (who didn’t play on the recording here). Rewinding to Nashville Skyline, Another Self Portrait debuts a beautiful, heartfelt reading of one of Dylan’s most touching songs, “I Threw It All Away,” as well as a short, abortive take of the loose “Country Pie.” Like the original Self Portrait, this set also includes a couple of live tracks from the historic Isle of Wight performance with The Band of August 31, 1969, namely a raucous “Highway 61 Revisited” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” The Band also figure on the most unexpected track, a trek to the Basement Tapes stash via 1967′s “Minstrel Boy” – one of the songs performed on that August evening.
Jeff Rosen and Steve Berkowitz have produced the new collection with customary care. Greil Marcus, author of the famous “What is this shit?” review of Self Portrait has re-evaluated the LP in his incisive new essay. Michael Simmons provides another set of notes. Though the 2-CD edition contains all 35 core tracks, a deluxe version adds Greg Calbi’s new remaster of Self Portrait on one CD, and the fist commercial release of the full Isle of Wight gig on another. The slipcased packaging, too, is naturally expanded with the addition of a book of photography, memorabilia and record sleeves. Calbi is responsible for all of the stellar remastering on Another Self Portrait.
On the final track of this tenth Bootleg installment, Dylan sings an embryonic demo version (March 1971) of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Blending humor and sadness, futile optimism and crushing reality with evocative imagery and unforgettable turns of phrase, it could only have been written by one artist. And by 1971, Dylan had already written a number of undisputed masterpieces. Would even he have expected to still be at the top of his game forty years later, turning out the dark majesty of 2012’s Tempest? Even on that acclaimed album of original songs, Dylan looked to the past for stylistic inspiration – much as he did on Self Portrait. Truth to tell, there will likely never be one definitive self portrait of the artist. Nor will ”Who is Bob Dylan?” ever be conclusively answered. But The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 is no small accomplishment, as it rehabilitates the reputation of one album (Self Portrait), and sheds greater light on two more (New Morning, Dylan). Now, it ain’t so hard to discover that he really was where it’s at.