Today, Bob Dylan released Volume 10 of his official bootleg set entitled Another Self Portrait. The 2-disc collection captures outtakes and alternative versions from 1969 to 1971, during which he released Nashville Skyline (1969), Self Portrait (1970), and New Morning (also 1970). The 4-disc version includes his 1969 live set from Isle of Wight, two books, and a remastered version of Self Portrait.
To properly understand this era, Dylan’s previous stages and personas must first be understood. Bob Dylan was essentially created by 20-year old Robert Zimmerman in 1962, emerging from obscurity to play American folk music - and soon thereafter - protest songs, performed solo with guitar, harmonica, and voice. These songs promoted him to be the leader of the early 1960s folk revival, the pinnacle of which he played at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech - 50 years ago this week. Albums such as Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and the incredible The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) – full of seriousness, angst, and totally devoid of the humor of its predecessor – vaulted him the top of a movement. He was seen as a sort of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left, a position he did not want. He was called by some “the spokesman of a generation;” by others, a “prophet.” Today, Wikipedia says Dylan was the “reluctant figurehead of social unrest.”
Rather than be, in his words, the “archbishop of anarchy,” he abandoned folk songs for Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), before he shocked the world by plugging in, famously “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival 1965. He released three albums during this incredibly productive 14-month period – Bringing it All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (also 1965), and Blonde On Blonde (1966). All the while, he was shaking the music industry with raucous live performances with The Hawks, soon to become The Band.
These electric albums comprise my former favorite Dylan era, and their epic intensity is difficult to overexaggerate. While he was creating new sounds, he was doing for rock-and-roll what he had once done for folk: reviving its past. And as with his folkier albums, the sounds and the lyrics are simultaneously loose and on a knife’s edge.
At this point, it should be stated that, yes, Dylan is most known by these two distinct phases which have earned him many accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. During its presentation, President Obama said of Dylan, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music.” Time Magazine referred to him as a “master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation.” And yet, while Dylan was broadening his fan base from folk to rock and beyond, he was alienating his old protest movement fans, and in turn, was heckled with taunts of “Judas” and was subjected to an onlaught of bizzare interviews that showed signs of a different kind of departure.
By mid-1966, Dylan was tired. Many justifiably speculate that the combination of his brutal touring schedule and his drug regimen had worn him down. He found himself wanting, in his words, to do nothing. He soon got that chance; on July 29, 1966, he was involved in a motorcycle accident of questionable severity – supposedly breaking his neck - outside his manager Albert Grossman’s house in Woodstock, NY. Much has been hypothesized about what happened and why, but one thing was certain: Dylan’s upcoming world tour was cancelled as he entered years of convalescent leave, thus beginning the greatest transformation of his career.
Over time, the post-motorcycle accident era has become my favorite. By no means do I mean this era was his most dynamic, nor am I saying his songs or that the resulting handful of albums are his best. But he gained a sense of space and comfort in the songs he wrote (or covered) with a range of voices and styles. He was able to escape whatever demons he was battling to spend much-needed time with his family. He was a father now, raising three kids with his wife - all of which was previously unknown to the public – in a house in the artists’ village of Woodstock, NY.
His songs during this period sound happier. That doesn’t mean, to paraphrase Townes Van Zandt, that they are “Zippity-Do-Dah.” But he certainly sounds more relaxed, humbled, and more comfortable with himself, returning to traditional folk songs to reinterpret some of those older sounds and define new ones. He was unbound.
He spent his days writing songs both for himself and for others to record, thereby fulfilling his contractual agreements. He recorded what is now known as The Basement Tapes – rock music’s first bootleg – at a pink house, being rented by The Band, in West Saugerties, NY, in which they eventually recorded the epic albums Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). In the middle of these sessions, Dylan returned to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding (1967), a simpler, more straightforward album with numerous Biblical references.
As the late 1960′s raged on, along came the Woodstock Festival, literally in Dylan’s backyard. He rejected the hippie counterculture, and returned again to Nashville to record Nashville Skyline (1969), a full-on country album using a crooner voice. The kitschy sound of the short album - full of steel guitar and spare in lyricism – contains some of his greatest songs and is considered the forerunner to ”alt-country” (whatever that is).
Pushing his bounds further, Dylan released what was basically a bootleg of his own, Self Portrait (1970). This album just might be the greatest trolling in music history. The Rolling Stone magazine review of the double album of strange live interpretations and overdubbed cover songs performed while musicians ”tried out” studios, famously read “What is this s–t?”
About two-thirds of which is actually pretty enjoyable, if you understand what Dylan’s doing here. The album starts with “All the Tired Horses,” which Time deemed one of Dylan’s worst songs. It’s is beautiful, lush with strings, and Dylan’s voice notably absent. Female singers repeat the line “All the tired horses in the sun – how’m I supposed to get any riding done?” I think that, with this album, Dylan’s telling the public to back off; he’s taking a break here. And again, Dylan was doing what he had always done: sticking it to critics and fairweather fans. In this case, he’s also sticking it to his record label and soon-to-be-former manager Al Grossman.
A short 3 months later, New Morning (1970) was released, bringing a mellow sound with a muted voice. The album is an understated return to seriousness, finding Dylan on piano for many songs, loaded with backup singers and subtle guitars (both acoustic and electric) as Dylan sings gushy, introspective, and autobiographical songs. It is one of my favorites.
Dylan went on to have more hits (and more eras): he toured with The Band again in 1974; he released two more pillars, Blood on the Tracks (1975) and Desire (1976) shortly thereafter, touring with the Rolling Thunder Revue in between; he appeared onstage for The Band’s Last Waltz in 1976; he underwent a Christian conversion and released subsequent gospel albums in the early 1980s; and he found a new voice with original bluesy material, beginning in the late-1990s with Time Out of Mind (1997), commencing the era we are in now, with Tempest released just last year.
Greil Marcis, the critic who wrote the aforementioned critique of Self Portrait, has also written the liner notes for this new release, Another Self Portrait. He now says: “Another Self Portrait opens up as new territory: roads shooting out in all directions. …Every listener to this set will find his or her center around which everything else revolves; so many of the performances have the depth, and the oddness, to work that way.”
Listen to “Pretty Saro” here
The acoustic demos, outtakes, alternate versions of familiar songs, covers, and a few collaborations with George Harrison create even more space than the original albums; it’s downright sparse. And for those familiar with his canon, there will be few surprises here.
See short documentary on Another Self Portrait here
The 2-disc set ends with a demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” one of Dylan’s most well-known songs, where he dreams of a time to come, when all is done. It is an intimate reflection, and I think a poignant milestone near the end of his career. Dylan’s masterpiece is, after all, being able to do what he has done throughout his career: He creates music that opens up possibilities within the minds of others. That’s his gift.
That’s what he was doing throughout those previous eras, and that’s why there is so much discussion every time there’s a “new Dylan album.” His albums are always, in some way, art: sometimes holding up a mirror, sometimes allowing others to project their own images onto his music, but always open to interpretation. To use an example from Greil Marcus’ original review of Self Portrait:
“Four sons gaze at the painting on the museum wall. “It’s a painting,” said the first son. “It’s art,” said the second son. “It’s a frame,” said the third son, and he said it rather coyly. The fourth son was usually considered somewhat stupid, but he at least figured out why they’d come all the way from home to look at the thing in the first place. “It’s a signature,” he said.”
This set is another Dylan signature. Interpret it however you want. His songs allow the mind to wander in between the spaces - to hear what it wants, and to appreciate songcraft - and hopefully inspire others to paint their own masterpieces.
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