On Second Thought: Bob Dylan’s “Self-Portrait” (1970)

self-portrait

by Dave Gebroe

I can remember very clearly the experience of discovering Bob Dylan’s mistakenly lambasted double-LP, “Self-Portrait.”  I was but a mere babe in the rock ‘n’ roll woods at the time – no more than thirteen – and while I’d heard of the record, what I mainly knew was that it was notBlonde on Blonde.”  If anything, it was the anti-“Blonde on Blonde.”

I unwrapped my vinyl copy, staring with stupefaction at the supposed Bob likeness that (dis)graced the cover.  In a 1984 interview, Bob admitted that he “knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes.  And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this album ‘Self Portrait.'”  Although its title insinuates full disclosure, tellingly this is actually the first Dylan album that doesn’t feature his face on the sleeve.

Flip the jacket over, and there he is gazing up at a bunch of trees – you know, just your ordinary, everyday country bumpkin.  Open up the bizarre gatefold, and one of the pictures that greets you is Dylan kneeling down next to a bunch of chickens.  Oh, so he’s a farmer now.  Put the first record on and what lightning bolt of genius greets you?  A group of female background singers warbling, over and over, “All the tired horses in the sun/How’m I supposed to get any riding [writing?] done?”  We wait for Dylan to come in.  We keep waiting.  Bob doesn’t come.  We’ve now officially tipped over from bad into WTF territory, but then we’re drenched in a thick, syrupy layer of Mantovani-like strings and  shoved beyond WTF-ville into a state of morbidly acute fascination.  It’s nothing less than a dare to the listener to bother hanging in there for the remaining 23 tracks.

If this all strikes you as overly strange, if the images and sounds are too far at odds with the notion of Dylan-as-genius for you to cozy up to, it’s possible this record’s not for you.  Frankly, you’d be missing the point entirely. “Self-Portrait” is probably the most fascinating release by a major artist in the history of music, a perversely misanthropic, fanbase-alienating, contemptuous flip of the bird to all who’d ever had the gall to put this or any other artist on a pedestal.  The only record it can be compared to in its seething antagonism toward its audience is Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music.”

The most interesting thing about “Self-Portrait” and “Metal Machine Music” is that while musically dissimilar, they achieve the same effect. The artist wants you to hate it so badly he pulls every ace from his artistic sleeve to produce the end result of making you get up and remove it from the stereo.

Is that you who just asked, “Where the hell’s the appeal in that?”  Admittedly, it does help to be a big Bob Dylan fan to like this collection, but if you’re not a big Dylan fan you’ve got far greater issues to sort out than not comprehending the perversity of cherishing what may just be a purposely terrible double album.  The typical Dylan fanatic’s debate about “Self-Portrait” generally centers around “Sure, it’s conceptually fascinating, but are the songs anything to write home about?”  This is an almost impossible debate.  The record is like performance art; it’s all about intention.

The songs themselves are like a parade of preening sideshow freaks daring you to point and laugh.  It’s a grotesque blend of queasily disparate ingredients: a hodgepodge of covers by other Dylans (such as Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon), four limp live tracks from the Band-backed, 1969 Isle of Wight performance, alternate versions of songs thoroughly undeserving of alternate versions, and a smattering of unimaginably listless originals, instrumentals, lifeless jams, and easy-listening curios.

A few of the low-lights include:

  • “In Search Of Little Sadie,” a gloriously crappy, cornpoke room-clearer that sounds like your drunk uncle whipping out his guitar at two in the morning;
  • “Woogie Boogie,” contender for most half-hearted effort in Dylan’s entire catalog.  This is possibly the lamest blues jam in existence, replete with sock-hop sax belting its way through a party atmosphere so thoroughly ersatz it practically undergoes rigor mortis before your very ears.  I just have to believe that he was conscious this sucked;
  • “The Boxer,” wherein Bob tries awfully hard to do his poorest possible impression of both Simon and Garfunkel, harmonizing in a mind-bogglingly out-of-tune manner that makes you think it has to be a parody…except that at that time Dylan was palling around with Simon in New York and out on Fire Island;
  • “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo),” in which Dylan farts out his first released version of this classic song in the form of a yelpy, honky-tonk rendering suitable exclusively for driving home drunk from mid-western strip clubs;
  • “Wigwam,” at the very least a glimpse into what a fly on the wall might be subjected to while Dylan showers;
  • Last and, yes, least, “Alberta #2” takes the cake as the very definition of “limping to a close.”  This is no grand statement of badness, that would be too good.  Instead, Dylan goes for the kill with something thoroughly tossed off and redundant.

To throw off the scent of having enacted a purposeful act of musical terrorism, Dylan was careful to also include a small handful of classically good songs, like “Days Of ’49” and “Copper Kettle.”  He then insured a sense of consistency for the listener by coating the entire enterprise in a suffocating blanket of Muzak-y strings and generic female background singers.  But he proceeded to make mincemeat of that consistency by hopscotching back and forth between two distinct singing voices: voice-of-his-generation Dylan and the froggy, nasal whine he’d previously affected for “Nashville Skyline” the year previous.  So…will the real Bob Dylan please stand up?

Or, better yet, sit out.

To understand “Self-Portrait,” you have to understand where Dylan was at this point in his life and career.  Having created such an impressive body of work, he was saddled with the baggage that comes with straddling the cusp between man and myth. When people are gaining notoriety for simply rifling through your trash for “clues,” you’ve officially got problems.

Here’s Dylan in 1984 again:

This was just about the time of that Woodstock festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit.  And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented.  So we couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere.  I got very resentful about the whole thing…There’d be crowds outside my house.  And I said, ‘Well, fuck it.  I wish these people would just forget about me.  I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to.  They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person.  He ain’t sayin’ it no more.’

Of course, it wouldn’t be Bob Dylan if there weren’t also indications that contradicted the idea as “SP”-as-joke.  For example, in Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 bio “Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography“, Dylan says flat-out: “It’s a great album.  There’s a lot of damn good music there.  People just didn’t listen at first.”

This kind of kaleidoscopic reasoning may strike some as endlessly aggravating, but back in 1970 Dylan was laying the groundwork for the mercurial, you-can’t-catch-me approach that artists like Eminem later took, defying their audience to peg them down with each turn of phrase.  To a true artist, this is a crucial step – not just donning a series of costumes, a la Bowie, but confounding expectations to a point where all that one has worked for is potentially razed to nothing, to be built back up from scratch.  Forget aesthetic truth, this seems like an imperative to the maintenance of sanity when a level of fame like Dylan’s is taken into consideration.  If he’s not one step ahead, if he just doles out all the answers like a good little monkey, we will swallow him whole, given half a chance.

Thus, “Self-Portrait” is as crucial and important a record as “Blonde On Blonde.”  The latter built the house, and the former knocked it down.  And “New Morning” was, well…a new morning.  Those with discerning taste know all too well the difference between “good-bad” and “bad-bad.”

In a 2005 interview, Dylan said, “Well my wife and kids and me would sit around after supper on a Saturday night, and we’d all put ideas into a hat.  I picked a slip of paper out of the hat, and that would be the week’s activity.  One time it might be to get myself photographed at the Western Wall so people would think I was a Zionist.  Another time it might be to get a job pumpin’ gas in Paramus, New Jersey, so the press would report I was crazy, or a sicko, or a Mormon.”

On the week of August 31, 1969 , Dylan seems to have pulled a particularly interesting slip of paper out of the hat.  I’m guessing it read “Desecrate the classics.”  The “Self-Portrait” version of “Like A Rolling Stone,” in particular, truly captures an artist setting fire to his muse.  It’s in this deflation of his biggest classic that the album is best captured in miniature.  Only three short years after utilizing the provocation of the notorious “Judas!” heckler to reach celestial heights with the same tune, backed by the same Band, Dylan reclaims “Rolling Stone” as his possession fully, to do with what he will.  Whether that means bestowing upon us the incendiary fulfillment of rock’s potential, or mischievously scrawling moustaches on his own Mona Lisa, it’s a decision that is only Dylan’s to make.  Here, he’s bringing it all back home, all right. He drives the song into the ground, underscoring the valid point that if an artist can create a masterpiece, it should be entirely up to him to fuck it up if he should so desire.  What better way for mojo to be recycled back into the canon of artistic creation than to create fertilizer out of it?

P.S. Even stranger than anything involving the actual “Self-Portrait” is the fact that there’s another album called “Dylan” that’s actually partially composed of “Self-Portrait” outtakes!  That’s like taking out your trash, deciding it stinks way too bad to be placed with the rest of your garbage, and finding a whole new dumpster in which to throw it away.

The story goes that Columbia released “Dylan” in 1973 as a revenge tactic after Bob changed labels.

But me? I’d like to think it was Dylan’s decision.

5 thoughts on “On Second Thought: Bob Dylan’s “Self-Portrait” (1970)

  1. Dave, you hit the nail on the head with this one. Self Portrait is one of the most complex gestures in rock history, simultaneously self-abnegating and self-affirming for the Bob. Thanks for bringing it back into the conversation. It deserves the attention.

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  2. Right on Dave. I like to think of this a Dylan’s funk album- funk defined as drunk as hell, playing on the porch with 3 strings busted off of your guitar. It’s an exciting listen everytime.

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  3. Absolutely right, Simple Twist-Up Dave. Gotta Travel On is one of my favorite Dylan “singles”, that has found a fine home on many mix discs. It’s especially nice since damn near no one is familliar with it.

    Maybe it’s just because I’m NO fan of Simon & Garfunkel, but I absolutely love this version of The Boxer. Missed harmonies aside, the tempo of this version is so much more appealing to me, and the raw sound fits the storyline of the song far better than the slick production and foolish percussion on the original.

    Dylan was pissed at the fans and felt that we needed to be slapped. Maybe I’m just a masochist, but I dig this disc. 🙂

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