Dylan and George Harrison

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After I posted some comments about The Concert for Bangladesh a little earlier, I stumbled accidentally across this gem, which is in some ways better than anything from the actual film. It’s Bob Dylan and George Harrison singing “If Not For You” from the rehearsal for the show (the song didn’t make it actually into the live performances).

On the one hand, the video documents what Joan Baez and others had already proven – singing a duet with Dylan is tough, because his phrasing can be pretty variable. Indeed, it might be one of the reasons that this wasn’t done live – you don’t want to have two of the biggest stars on the planet sort of faltering through a song in front of 20,000 people.

On the other, I like this video because it seems to point to something simple – that two of the biggest stars on the planet can just be friends. Dylan and Harrison seemed to really understand each other. They performed each other’s songs, and they even will form a band together. It was always evident that of all The Beatles, George was the one that Dylan connected with most (Paul seemingly least). By all reports, they hung out a lot around this period, and you can see that a bit here.

Walking the dog tonight I re-listened to the recordings that Dylan and Harrison produced on May 1, 1970. Bjorner reports thirty-seven tracks were recorded on that day. I have twenty of those, but there were also multiple takes of “Sign on the Window” and “Time Passes Slowly” for New Morning, and probably some false starts.

It’s not a great bootleg because George doesn’t sing, except on “Your True Love” (the Carl Perkins song), which would be the primary appeal of hearing them record together. Harrison mostly just plays guitar and the two of them (and bassist Charlie Daniels and drummer Russ Kunkel) are just jamming (“Your True Love” ends with laughing and Dylan says “That’s an oldie”, as if he’s surprised to have remembered it, and they are just dredging things out of their minds). They cover a number of Dylan tunes, possibly at Harrison’s request (you can hear Dylan explain that he can’t remember the chords for “Please Crawl Out Your Window”), and one Beatles song (“Yesterday”, a song Dylan was definitely not born to sing). They even cover, lamely, “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron”.

The best thing to come out of the session, I guess, is “Working on a Guru”, a loopy Basement Tapes sounding piece that gently mocks Harrison’s connections to the Hare Krishnas. It was released on Another Self Portrait. It’s an inessential, but fun, tune.

The Dylan/Harrison sessions took place one month after The Beatles broke up, and before Harrison began working on All Things Must Pass. The visit apparently inspired Harrison’s “Behind That Locked Door”, his country-Hawaiian song that is read as a tribute to Dylan (who was seen to be hiding his talent by doing all of the covers that appeared on Self Portrait (and will soon appear on Dylan)). I have to say, I had never heard this theory before tonight. I always thought that song was just romantic mush (though with awesome steel guitar). Judge for yourself if Harrison is writing about Dylan:

Concert for Bangladesh

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“I’d like to bring you all a friend to us all, Mr. Bob Dylan”. With those words, George Harrison surprised the sold-out matinee crowd at Madison Square Garden during the Concert for Bangladesh. Actually two concerts (afternoon and evening), The Concert, held on 1 August 1971, was one of the first rock benefits of this size and scope, and laid the foundation for numerous charity rock shows in the decades that followed.

Organized by George Harrison, the shows featured fellow Beatle Ringo Starr (John Lennon pulled out a few days before the event, apparently when Yoko Ono was upset that she was not invited; Paul McCartney was never going to appear because he was sulking about the legal dramas from the break-up of the band), Eric Clapton (in severe heroin withdrawal), Billy Preston, Leon Russell and Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. It raised $250,000 for Bangladeshi relief, administered by UNICEF, and continued to raise money through the film and soundtrack.

The two shows were Dylan’s first significant stage show in two years, since the Isle of Wight, and he’d been finished touring for five years at this point. The story is that he almost failed to appear, showing up at the sound check the night before and panicking at playing for such a large crowd. In the film, you can see Dylan’s afternoon set (well, four of the five songs) beginning at 1:09, and just before he introduces him Harrison clearly goes to check to see if Dylan is actually come out on stage.

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Dylan did five songs backed by Harrison, Starr (on tambourine), and Leon Russell: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, and “Just Like a Woman”. “Love Minus Zero” didn’t make the film or the album, but of the others it’s probably “Just Like a Woman” that receives the best version. In the evening show “Mr Tambourine Man” replaced “Love Minus Zero”, but that also doesn’t show up on the recordings of the show.

This is some of the earliest really high quality video recording of Dylan. Yes, he can be found in the Newport Festival footage of Murray Lerner, and in footage from his two British tours, but this is the kind of  well shot, close to the action camera work that would become quite common only later. There is a bit of a sense of being on stage with Dylan here, and he definitely seems like a much different performer than he did five years earlier.

The entirety of the Concert for Bangladesh film is online on Vimeo (I still haven’t bothered how to embed Vimeo clips, just click through), but here’s a YouTube clip of “Just Like a Woman”. The entire concert is really worth watching if you have an hour and a half. Clapton really isn’t that good, but it’s interesting to hear Harrison doing some of the late Beatles material live for the first time. Also, UNICEF was promoting the fortieth anniversary of the show two years ago, so if you do watch it on Vimeo rather than buying it, you might want to make a donation. Sadly, forty years later and the problems UNICEF deals with are no less acute.

Bob Dylan, Fact-checker

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One of the more bizarre Dylan bootlegs is a recording of a phone call between the singer and the infamous “Dylanologist” AJ Weberman from January 1971. I listened to this a couple of years ago while driving to Fernie, BC after it hit the web on OpenCulture.com, and I thought it was fascinatingly weird (I can’t find that link, but the whole thing is on YouTube). I didn’t know who Weberman was at the time – I’d never heard of him. I listened to it as a) a bizarre experience of copy-editing/fact-checking as Dylan disputes a number of statements attributed to him in an article Weberman was writing about him, and b) an interesting look at a certain kind of disappointed Dylan fan and Dylan’s interaction with him.

Weberman spends a good chunk of the discussion complaining that Dylan has sold out – that his newest albums, Self Portrait and Nashville Skyline, lack the political bite of Dylan’s older material, and of the material produced by contemporary songwriters. He slags Johnny Cash (whom Dylan defends) and urges Dylan to use his wealth and power for good rather than contentedly singing country songs about how happy he is. It’s a point of view, I guess, even if it’s not really one that I share.

Listening again to it today, having read about Weberman, it strikes a much different tone. I now know that Weberman is the guy who rifled through Dylan’s garbage to do “research” on him, that Dylan accused him of harassing his children, and that Weberman protested in front of Dylan’s Greenwich Village home. He has published a number of essays about Dylan, arguing that he is a Nazi sympathizer and Holocaust denier. With this awareness, hearing him talk about the hidden messages that Dylan has hidden in his albums (you can hear them when you play it backwards!), and his accusations that Dylan is just a reactionary capitalist fall a little flat, to say the least. Weberman seems to think that most of Dylan’s songs are written about Weberman, and has taken his obsessions to somewhat disturbing rhetorical lengths.

Two moments stand out for me from the recording. First, the discussion at about 39:00 in about who are better songwriters than Dylan. Weberman suggests Credence Clearwater Revival, to which Dylan simply replies “Bullshit”. Gordon Lightfoot is, Dylan says, “alright”, while John Lennon gets a “no, no” and George Harrison gets a thoughtful “maybe”. It’s a funny little exchange.

The second is at the end. After spending almost an hour on the phone with a man that he once physically assaulted, and who he accused of stalking his family, you have to wonder why Dylan gave him his phone number. And then you really have to wonder why Dylan would say to the man he has repeatedly called “a pig” throughout the hour, “see you Monday”. There’s a lot going on here, but I think most of it is probably best left undiscovered.

Weberman’s website was apparently seized when he lost a defamation case, which says a lot. Here he is from 1969 rifling through Dylan’s garbage on YouTube. No, really.

 

 

New Morning

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Dylan’s 1970 sort of did me in – two albums, one of them a double-album, was just a tad too much for me in what was, by far, the busiest week of my term at work. So before I flip the switch over to 1971, a mildly belated final word on New Morning, Dylan’s “come back” album from the Self Portrait (which my friend Rusty, in one of the comments, called “the first passive-agressive concept album”, a comment so good we need to move it to the front page for all the world to see).

New Morning is a whole order of magnitude better than Self Portrait. It might be fun to play the role of contrarian and make an elaborate argument that the received wisdom isn’t so, but I would find that disingenuous. New Morning really is a lot better. It’s far from perfect – indeed, it may have his worst song so far (“If Dogs Run Free”) – but it has really genuine highs.

New Morning actually begins incredibly strong. “If Not For You” is one of Dylan’s great romantic masterpieces, and this is a lovely version of it. “Day of the Locusts” is quite different – a cynical report of accepting an honorary degree in music from Princeton: 

I put down my robe, picked up my diploma

Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive

Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota

Sure was glad to get out of there alive

 This is one of the songs that I didn’t know well (it seems that Dylan has never performed it live), but that I really like. It’s got a feel that really anticipates albums like Desire, particularly a song like “Isis”, which is a period that I really enjoy. This one foreshadows a really great period for Dylan. This is then followed by “Went to See the Gypsy”, which is the best thing on the album. So everything is clicking along wonderfully.

And then we hit the brick wall, hard. “Winterlude” is, I suppose, meant to be funny. It’s just annoying rather than goofy. The closing lyrics:

Come out tonight, ev’rything will be tight

Winterlude, this dude thinks you’re grand

 Are some of the worst of all time. And it’s still downhill – “If Dogs Run Free” ends the side. There is another version of this on Another Self Portrait, by the way, without the scatting, which is only not good, rather than actively awful. Still, this version is just terrible.

Side two opens with the title track, and it’s a pretty good one. I like the way Dylan sings this very slight but extremely happy little ditty. It’s probably my second favourite thing on the album. 

“Sign on the Window” is the song from this album that I had the most difficulty getting a handle on. It’s not a song that sticks in my mind, so it sounds new to me every time I hear it. I don’t like the bridge at all – with the piano it sounds like something from Elton John or Billy Joel. “The Man in Me” I’ve already written about. It’s fine. Like side one, the second side sort of runs out of gas. “Three Angels” and “Father of Night” don’t have a ton to recommend them. “Three Angels” is actually a bit of a nothing. Recorded on June 1, 1970, it was produced on the same day as “If Dogs Run Free” and “Winterlude” (and “The Man in Me”), likely one of the least best days for Dylan in the studio ever.

So, overall there’s quite a bit to like on this album. It’s literally half good – I think that exactly half of the songs are really good, and half I’d jettison. Still, that’s a pretty good ratio, all things considered.

 

“The Man in Me”

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When I used to teach Film Studies at the University of Calgary, my favourite class to teach was the one I did three times on The Coen Brothers. It’s really the only class that I feel like I ever mastered, and it always went incredibly well. After a while I developed an off-shoot of the class, and I taught a course on The Big Lebowski. We watched that film thirteen times during the semester (we also watched things that it is playing off like The Big Sleep and Robert Altman’s The Long Good-bye). My students were initially wary but I consider it one of my great triumphs that, a week after the class ended, The Plaza Theatre here in Calgary had a screening of the film as a fundraiser for the local food bank (not sure of the connection, to be honest) and every one of my students showed up to see it a fourteenth time, most with their friends in tow. They had all become obsessed with this film.

If you watch The Big Lebowski every week for three months, you cannot hear “The Man in Me” as anything other than the soundtrack to a bowling montage. T Bone Burnett, credited as the “musical archivist” on this film, picks a relatively obscure Dylan song as a near perfect encapsulation of the film’s themes.

I’m not sure that I would like this song as much as I do if I didn’t love this film, but as I say, I cannot hear it any other way. I listen to the CD in my car and I can actually see in my mind’s eye the celebrating bowlers as the chords change. It has been absolutely repurposed for me.

“Went to See the Gypsy”

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“Went to See the Gypsy” is the best song on New Morning, and, I have decided in the last couple of days, one of the best songs Dylan ever wrote. I can’t get enough of this one – it’s utterly fantastic. Nonetheless, here’s my problem with it:

Am I required to believe Bob Dylan?

I haven’t spent a lot of time on this project thinking about who specifically Dylan was writing about on any of his songs. You tell me that “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” is about Edie Sedgwick? Ok, fine. “She Belongs to Me” is about Joan Baez? Sure, if you say so. I don’t want to know who Mr. Jones is. These aren’t the questions that keep me up at night.

The one thing that I know in my heart of hearts, however, is that “Went to See the Gypsy” is about Bob Dylan meeting Elvis Presley. Clinton Heylin mentions this fact in his notes in The Complete Album Collection. Actually, he uses the word “allegedly inspired by” but he also gives the date of the meeting as having occurred in January (1970). I mean, it has to be about Elvis, right? Here’s the first verse – substitute “Elvis” for “The Gypsy” and read it:

Went to see the gypsy

Staying in a big hotel

He smiled when he saw me coming

And he said, “Well, well, well”

His room was dark and crowded

Lights were low and dim

“How are you” he said to me

I said it back to him.

How else do you think that the meeting of America’s most important singer from the 1950s meeting America’s most important singer for the 1960s is going to go? Have you been to Graceland? Elvis liked dark and crowded, lights that were low and dim!

The second verse makes it even more clear:

I went down to the lobby

To make a small call out

A pretty dancing girl was there

And she began to shout

“Go on back to see the gypsy

He can move you from the rear

Drive you from your fear

Bring you through the mirror

He did it in Las Vegas

And he can do it here”.

“He did it in Las Vegas!” Elvis’s legendary run at the International Hotel in Vegas began in July 1969, shattering all Vegas records, and then it resumed in 1970. And it had dancing girls!

Bridge:

Outside the lights were shining

On the river of tears

I watched them from the distance

With the music in my ears.

“The music in my ears” confirms it.

Final verse:

I went back to see the gypsy

It was nearly early dawn

The gypsy’s door was open wide

But the gypsy was gone

And that pretty dancing girl

She could not be found

So I watched that sun come rising

From that little Minnesota town.

And that’s what makes this among the best Dylan songs ever – the way that he sings “that little Minnesota town”, his first direct invocation of life in Hibbing, where he grew up listening to Elvis, who was rising like a sun over America. It’s a song of lament – of missing out on his idol – but also of self-assessment. It’s a great, great song.

Except.

Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone’s Douglas Brinkley in 2009:

“I never met Elvis, because I didn’t want to meet Elvis… I know The Beatles went to see him, and he just played with their heads.”

What the fuck?!

“Elvis was truly some sort of American king. Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went… I don’t know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil.”

Again: WHAT THE FUCK?! Are you kidding me? Dylan never met Elvis? How is that even theoretically possible? I mean, he WROTE A SONG ABOUT IT!

I can’t unhear Elvis in this song – I really can’t. That is what this song is about. Period. End of discussion. And if that means I have to assume Bob Dylan is lying to me (and to Rolling Stone), well, it wouldn’t be the first time, now would it?

Al Kooper played on the original and also covered it. He’s never lied to me, so here’s his version:

“If Dogs Run Free”

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Just a quick announcement. I have moved on from Self Portrait to New Morning, Dylan’s other 1970 release, for the rest of the week. It’s a short album at only 35 minutes long, and, having listened through it twice at lunch, I have to say that I will NOT be listening to “If Dogs Run Free” again this week. I will be hitting “Next” every single time. This is a serious contender for worst Dylan song of all time and I just can’t take it anymore.

If I wanted to listen to beatnik poetry I’d listen to this:

Also, I had no idea that this song had been turned into a children’s book. I hope it didn’t include a CD.

That is all.

Self Portrait (Cover Songs)

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Everyone loves a cover song. My social networks were filled all last weekend with people posting links to Bruce Springsteen covering “Royals” and “Stayin’ Alive” while on tour in Australia and New Zealand. The idea of seeing someone like Springsteen doing live versions of songs so outside his traditional wheelhouse has a ton of appeal, and the YouTube clicks piled up.

Everyone hates a cover song. Especially when it’s Bob Dylan doing the cover version. Self Portrait, as I have mentioned over the past several days, has four types of songs: live versions of earlier recordings; Dylan versions of established traditional songs; new compositions; and, Dylan’s version of contemporary pop songs. It’s this last group that makes Self Portrait such a despised album.

Dylan had been doing covers for a while. A Tree With Roots has quite a number of them, from “People Get Ready” to “Folsom Prison Blues”. It’s not surprising – these are the types of things that musicians do when they’re hanging out, when they’re jamming, when they’re testing the sound set-up of a recording studio. It’s fun. But no one seemed to find the covers on Self Portrait fun, except, just maybe, Dylan himself.

While Self Portrait isn’t nearly as bad as its harshest detractors say that it is, it is clearly the worst thing that Dylan has released up to this point in time. It’s often sloppy, there are no exemplary songs, and some of it is just plain loopy. The pop covers are, generally, the worst part of the whole album.

I’ve come to agree one hundred per cent with the theory that this was Dylan’s attempt to meet the bootleggers head on. First, it is absolutely clear that Dylan hates bootlegging. You’ll have noticed that I often do not link to an album version of Dylan’s songs when I am writing about them. That’s because he and his record company seem to always have them pulled from YouTube, even though there are ways to monetize that exposure now. If he won’t have things on YouTube, where he can earn money from it, imagine how much he dislikes the actual bootlegs. He’s always been clear on that front.

The success of Great White Wonder must have been a mystery and an annoyance to him. In interviews from the period he has expressed his disdain for people releasing material that he would not have released himself, and he has wondered why people wanted work that he considered unfinished. Self Portrait has that feel – not just in the duplication of songs and in the selections from the Isle of Wight – but in the overall tone of “Dylan rehearsing, and playing around”. It doesn’t sound like a serious album. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to imagine that Dylan or anyone at Columbia thought his version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” was a good recording. It is, by any professional measure, awful. But it is the type of thing that would have been bootlegged, so Dylan bootlegged it himself.

This is the only way that I can make sense of Self Portrait as an album. There are individual tracks that make sense to me, but the whole package only works in comparison to hotel room recordings. Seen from that angle, it’s sometimes better than that material. Seen as a well thought out album – it’s inconceivable. Given the fact that the earliest songs on this album were recorded almost a year before the later ones (the sessions were in April and May 1969 and then again in March 1970), and given the fact that the 1969 tracks included the pop covers “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know”, “Let It Be Me”, “Take a Message to Mary”, and “Blue Moon” (plus “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues”, which haven’t been commercially released even after Another Self Portrait), it seems believable that Dylan released this material simply because it seemed that if he didn’t someone else would.

To my ears, virtually every pop cover is dispensable, with the possible exception of “Copper Kettle” and “Take a Message to Mary”. The version of “Copper Kettle” without the overdubs on Another Self Portrait is actually pretty great – they definitely should not have missed with that. That one is absolutely a keeper.

The lowlight is a toss-up. Dylan’s version of “Blue Moon” is probably the single song that, more than anything else, doomed this album. Such a square song, and so artlessly done. But for me the worst offender has to be “The Boxer”. The fact that this was released on an album from a major recording company is pretty astonishing. I’m not sure who is singing with Dylan on this – the session information at bjorner.com doesn’t say, although it indicates only that on 3 March 1970 the only two people in the studio with him were David Bromberg and Al Kooper. I don’t know their voices well enough to venture a guess. Whichever it was, he didn’t know the words to this song and he sings along just slightly behind Dylan. This is the same way I sing along in my car – you know, where you fill in what you don’t know by mumbling and then belting out the parts that you do know. This is the most lost version of this song you can possibly imagine, and had it been unearthed as a bizarre curiosity on one of the Bootleg Series albums it would be heard a few times and forgotten. On a serious release, though? You can’t be serious.

So, to sum up, Self Portrait: Not as absolutely awful as some people say it is, but I still feel a bit like I may have wasted four days thinking about it. “Alberta #2” and “Days of 49” and “Copper Kettle” are all not terrible, but that’s about the best that I can say about it. Oh, and I don’t care who knows it: I like “All the Tired Horses” too.

Tomorrow I’m diving into New Morning, Dylan’s comeback from his first bad album.

Self Portrait (Original Compositions)

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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.

Self Portrait (Traditional Songs)

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For many, Self Portrait was the beginning of the end of Bob Dylan. A self-indulgent mess of a double-album (which is packaged as a single CD in the Complete Album Collection, which I mention for no real reason other than to note that Blonde on Blonde was two discs), apparently it has been ranked as one of the worst albums of all time.

So, first, that seems nuts to me. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of days now and I still like the four live tracks from Isle of Wight (my affection for “Minstrel Boy” is starting to fade…), and I’m not sure how any album could be a “worst of all kind” contender if it has at least four good songs on it. So that’s four of twenty-four – let’s see what we can add to the total.

The album also includes seven covers of “traditional” songs or “folk songs”. Dylan hadn’t been doing covers since his very first album and the home recorded tapes that appeared around the same time. This was a harkening back to his roots from the twenty-nine year old songwriter, and not necessarily what people expected from him or wanted from him. Ironically, covers of traditional songs is one of the hallmarks of the basement tapes as they appear on A Tree With Roots (though not on the material from those sessions that was circulating in 1969 and 1970), and also on GWW. The bootlegs proved that there was still a strong demand for Dylan covering traditional music. Funnily, the same Rolling Stone critics who adored GWW were the ones who also crapped all over Self Portrait.

The fact is that not all of these covers are good, but, in all honesty, they’re at least as good as the material on A Tree With Roots, and generally better than that on GWW. And, yes, that doesn’t make them good in an absolute sense.

One of the real oddities of Self Portrait is that Dylan included two songs twice. “Alberta #1” and “Alberta #2” are different takes on the same song originally made famous by Lead Belly. The second one is the stronger version, with better guitar and harmonica, although the back-up vocals don’t really add that much to it. There is an “Alberta #3” on Another Self Portrait that also has a nice harmonica opening, and which is much more spare. It’s probably the best of the three versions, because it is the least produced. It’s no Lead Belly, but it’s listenable.

Similarly, “Little Sadie” shows up twice on the album (once as “In the Search of Little Sadie”). This is one of my favourite banjo tunes – I have more than thirty different recordings of this currently on my phone, most featuring only banjo and fiddle. It’s a song that I can play this pretty passably. When we would play this as a class at my banjo class we would always annoy our instructor by singing it the way Dylan does, which is, frankly, insane. The first version of the song on the album is fine, but “In the Search of” version is just quite terrible. There is a stripped down cut of the latter on Another Self Portrait – it doesn’t improve it much at all. This is pretty close to everything that annoyed me about the worst parts of A Tree With Roots. So no points for these two.

Of the others, “Days of 49” is actually pretty good. This version sounds like it comes from later in his career by about a decade – if this had been on one of the Christian albums it would have seemed more at home. It trails off somewhat bizarrely at the end, but I’d have to count this as a pretty good version of this.

“Belle Isle” doesn’t have very much to recommend it – it is literally “fine”. “It Hurts Me Too” is another dud.

Hmm. That doesn’t strike me as a very good record of quality. I’d keep “Alberta #2” (#3 if I can take tracks from the Bootleg Series) and “Days of 49” and probably jettison the rest. What is interesting, though, is that pretty much of all this (well, maybe not “In the Search of”) is just as good, if not better, than the basement material that people were scrambling to get. It has been suggested that Dylan saw Self Portrait as his authorized bootleg – like A Tree With Roots it combines traditional covers, covers of pop hits, and some new compositions. I’m not sure if that’s correct, but the traditional songs on this are pretty akin to the others he was doing at the time, and all are better produced.

Now the pop covers, that’s an entirely different matter….

Try Clarence Ashley on “Little Sadie” – this is near perfection (seriously, this could not be improved one little bit):