Bob Dylan’s much derided 1970 album, Self Portrait, contains only five new compositions. Indeed, this may be at the heart of many of the complaints about the album, which has less new Dylan – to this point – than any album other than his first. It is clear that Self Portrait was not the album that a lot of his fans wanted, and the original compositions help explain why.
Of the five new songs, only three of them even featured Dylan singing. “Living the Blues” was one of the first songs recorded for the album (24 April 1969), and is among the earliest songs that he recorded using female backing vocals. This is a pretty straightforward and stripped down blues song. There is nothing particularly memorable in it, though it wouldn’t have felt terribly out of place on Nashville Skyline at all. It sounds a bit like a demo for other artists than anything else.
“Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” was one of the tracks recorded during the Basement Tapes sessions, and the version found here was from the Isle of Wight festival live recordings. This wouldn’t have been considered a new song per se, as Manfred Mann had made it a hit in 1968. It had also been unofficially released on Great White Wonder. I’ve never been much of a fan of this song, and the version on Self Portrait is pretty sloppy in places.
“Woogie Boogie” is not much of a song at all. It’s just over two minutes of driving, rhythmic piano and guitar noodling, and, late in the song, saxophone. It’s a boogie number just like the title tells you. Like many of the songs on Self Portrait, only one take was recorded and that is the one that was used (Dylan did fourteen songs on 3 March 1970 and only one, the traditional tune “Pretty Saro”, received multiple takes – and it is one of the few that wasn’t released until the recent Bootleg Series). There’s not much memorable in this one either.
“Wigwam” was another one take song, but the horns were added as overdubs later in the year. This was released as a single, and actually became a hit in a number of places (not in the US). Almost hard to believe. It is the least Dylan-ish single of all time. The lyrics are “La da da dee” over and over and over. Another Self Portrait has the original version, with just Dylan, David Bromberg (guitar) and Al Kooper (piano). It’s actually not as good – the horns really do add quite a bit of the song’s mariachi-like texture. “Wigwam” may be best recalled now for its use in The Royal Tennenbaums. I like it, but it is definitely odd.
Finally, the opening track on the album, “All the Tired Horses”, is another bizarre Dylan composition. Dylan’s website credits the lyrics thusly:
All the tired horses in the sun
How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done? Hmm.
It’s the “Hmm” that really seals it. I have to imagine that this is the song that Greil Marcus was listening to when he famously wrote as the opening of his review of the album: “What is this shit?” This is a truly bizarre way for Dylan to have opened an album – a slick production of his back-up singers singing this one refrain again and again. In all honesty, I think that it is both beautiful and hypnotic. It’s one of my favourite things on the whole album, though I agree that it is difficult to imagine as a Bob Dylan song. It’s probably the most radical departure that he had yet made. It’s like a chant. I find it very calming.
So of the five original songs on Self Portrait, I only credit “Wigwam” and “All the Tired Horses” as good, though as a song “Quinn the Eskimo” isn’t terrible, and, really, of those three the one that I like best is the one that many Dylan fans would find most troublesome.
Oh, and as for “Wigwam”, Dylan’s site credits it as an instrumental – apparently “La da da dee” don’t count as actual lyrics in the Dylanverse. Hmm.