Bob Dylan - Self Portrait
Episode date - August 3, 2007
If you play Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” album today, it may be hard to discern what the fuss was all about. Sure, it’s obvious that it isn’t a stellar effort, but it is certainly listenable, in an ordinary way.
In 1970, though, the album was met with complete and utter disdain. Attempting to comprehend Dylan’s motivation, Robert Christgau wrote, “I don’t know anyone…who plays more than one side at a time. I don’t listen to it at all.” Greil Marcus - the same guy who wrote an entire book/treatise on Dylan’s Basement Tapes, and also wrote the liner notes when those songs were officially released in 1975 – was much more blunt. He opened his Rolling Stone review for “Self Portrait” with the following sentence; “What is this shit?”
In a palpable sense, “Self Portrait” was a logical and simple extension of those much-lauded “Basement Tapes.” In 1970, though, critics didn’t hear it that way. Marcus might have been the most blunt, but virtually all other reviewers concurred with his sentiment. At the height of rock and roll’s politicization and its popularity as a force for change, Dylan released the most listless album of his entire career. In the ‘70s, such self-slanderous indifference was tantamount to treason, and the critical reaction reflected this.
From Dylan’s perspective, he felt absolutely no affiliation with the ‘Woodstock Nation,” and perhaps “Self Portrait” was a deliberate attempt to telegraph this sentiment, or maybe it was simply a natural extension of the stylistic aberration that he called “Nashville Skyline.” That album had a few highlights but it was confounding to hear Dylan singing lazily about “Country Pie” and “Peggy Day.”
I can’t help but wonder if what might have happened if “Self Portrait” was released as a single album. With some judicious editing, I’d bet its reception would have been drastically different. “Alberta,” “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” “Copper Kettle,” “Little Sadie” and “Early Morning Rain” could have sounded brilliant in another context. Delete the ridiculous ‘practice’ take of “Little Sadie” (self-consciously titled “In Search of Little Sadie”), the lackluster reinterpretations of classic songs that sprinkle the album, and a few of the god-awfully ill-informed cover tunes like “Blue Moon” and “The Boxer” and what’s left is a legitimate extension of “Nashville Skyline.” It might have even appeared relevant to the critical naysayers. As it is, though, “Self Portrait” retains its place as Dylan’s most irrelevant album, with the possible exception of “Dylan,” which bears the rather dubious distinction of collecting outtakes from this period of his career.
This show attempts to compile and analyze some of the music released during Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” era. It is certainly not his most influential work, but you might be surprised to hear that a certain charm has flourished and outlived the harsh words of critics with thwarted expectations.
Here’s a list of songs featured in this show;
All the Tired Horses
She Belongs To Me (live at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1969)
Alberta No. 1
I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know 5) Early Morning Rain
In Search of Little Sadie
If Not for You (version with George Harrison)
Big Yellow Taxi
Watching the River Flow
I Shall Be Released