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There’s not much video of Bob Dylan from 1970, because he barely appeared in public, with the exception of receiving an honorary doctorate from Princeton in June. He played no shows at all, and the only real document of his playing that year other than his two albums (and the recently released Bootleg Series album) is his appearance in a documentary about the great banjo player, Earl Scruggs.

Dylan recorded two songs with Earl and two of Earl’s sons in December 1970, and the film was released in 1972. It’s available on YouTube (below) and the whole thing is really worth watching. The Dylan parts – “East Virginia Blues”, a traditional tune, and “Nashville Skyline Rag” – are the first two things on the video if you only want to see his part. Of course if you turn it right off you’re missing out on Scruggs at the home of Doc Boggs, and it really just gets better from there.

Scruggs was an amazing musician and his influence on banjo may be stronger than any other musician’s influence on the playing of any other instrument. To say that almost all bluegrass banjo players fashion their playing style after Scruggs is an understatement. The first time I attended American Banjo Camp, which has more bluegrass players than clawhammer players (the style I play), I innocently asked someone at lunch why all the bluegrass players use two metal finger picks and a plastic thumb pick (why aren’t they all metal?). He stared at me dumfoundedly and said “that’s what Earl uses”, like I had just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. “That’s what Earl does” was all the reason any banjo player needed for any decision they made, and the desire to achieve the Scruggs sound is powerful among amateur players.

For much of the 1960s Scruggs and Dylan would have been seen as occupying enemy camps, and indeed many might see them as such even today. Their playing here is great, even if on his own composition Dylan has an intimidated look in his eyes that says “man, this guy is a real player!”.

Self Portrait (Introduction)

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I woke up this morning at 3:00am, or, as my body clock knew it, 6:00pm Singapore time. To pass the time with the rest of the household asleep, I caught up with Robert Shelton’s biography of Dylan, No Direction Home. Yesterday I said that he largely ignored the Isle of Wight concert – that was incorrect. He actually does give it four or five pages, and notes that he was there, watching from the back about a quarter mile away. That said, he didn’t like it much.

Shelton also didn’t much like Self Portrait, but then again nobody else seems to have either. Actually, the album sold quite well (peaking at #7 on the charts), but it was reviled by the critics. When I posted the album cover as my Facebook avatar last night it immediately generated a discussion about how terrible this album is.

Self Portrait is, in many ways, the album that inspired this particular project. I downloaded Bootleg Series 10: Another Self Portrait when it came out last year, and listened to it a few times and thought it was pretty good. That album made me acutely aware of how little I knew of Self Portrait and New Morning, Dylan’s two 1970 albums, other than the fact that one was detested and one adored, and that they were recorded in quite close proximity to each other. I thought maybe I should sort that out, and that in turn led to this year long project.

When I was done with the Shelton (well, not done, but I’m up to the 1974 chapter and don’t want to read ahead), I turned to Dylan’s own autobiography, Chronicles v. 1. He has a shortish chapter in that about New Morning, although the chapter is almost as much about Self Portrait. It’s a great chapter in a great book. Dylan’s concerns are voiced in his own words very convincingly: after Woodstock became Woodstock ™ his “fans” and people who wanted things from him began to descend on the town where he lived with his five children, showing up on his property (he says on his roof). He acquired guns to protect his kids, and, finally, was forced to flee the town for New York. There he had to deal with people like A. J. Weberman leading protests against him in front of his house. Weberman felt that he’d sold out. Dylan is very eloquent about one thing: He didn’t want to be the spokesman for this generation, or any other one. I guess when a group like The Weathermen name themselves for something you wrote and then start blowing people up, you might want to just spend more time with your children too.

Dylan writes in Chronicles that he was aware that Herman Melville died almost forgotten. Moby Dick pushed the limits and nothing else he ever wrote was paid the attention that it was. He aspired in 1969/1970 to Melville’s status: kill the beast. Just disappear. Don’t tour. Don’t perform. Just escape into obscurity. He argues that Self Portrait was his effort to dump his fame.

It didn’t work, of course, but it did upset a lot of people. Greil Marcus famously opened his (insanely long) Rolling Stone review with “What is this shit?” before going on for about twenty pages about the album’s highs and lows. Marcus’s distaste is funny to me in retrospect, given that he wrote a whole book about The Basement Tapes, which are far more uneven (Marcus’s review is the second chapter in his collection Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010, and his New York Times review of New Morning is the third). Look, Self Portrait is uneven, but it isn’t a complete disaster.

The whole of Self Portrait is too long, too contradictory, too fascinating to deal with in one post. I already dealt with four of the songs, all of which are from the Isle of Wight concert. I’m going to write three other posts breaking the album into sections: pop song covers, traditional songs, and new Dylan songs.

In the meantime I’m going to have a nap. Did I mention that I’m still on Singapore time?

Isle of Wight

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Bob Dylan sort of famously didn’t play Woodstock, a concert that was held not far from where he was actually living in 1969, but did play the Isle of Wight Festival two weeks later. It was his first complete concert in just over three years, and only his second live performance in that time (the other being at the Woody Guthrie Memorial shows). The festival attracted 150,000 people, and Dylan headlined the final night. Robert Shelton, in his biography of Dylan, basically downplays the entire thing, devoting only a couple of sentences to it, while other fans note that it was a widely bootlegged performance. Wikipedia makes it out to be quite the party, with a VIP booth near the front of the stage that included three of the Beatles (not Paul), three of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Jane Fonda, Elton John, Syd Barrett and others. The show drew considerably larger crowd than the previous year, partly based on the rumours that the Beatles were going to join Dylan on stage and not just at the after party (where, apparently, they played an early acetate of Abbey Road).

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Dylan’s set was only an hour. He reportedly had another eight to ten songs rehearsed and would have played them if the audience had seemed to want it. The British press reported that he was semi-chased off the stage by an audience that (once again) didn’t get what he was doing, but other reports indicate that Dylan thought the whole thing went really well and that he was in a good mood after it, but that he performed for just an hour because the crowed seemed burned out. They do seem a little tired. They respond well to (the remarkably awesome version of) “She Belongs To Me”, the first song of the show, but their enthusiasm noticeably tails off as the evening progresses.

The whole show was released last year as a bonus disc on the triple CD Another Self-Portrait. The recording is excellent, but it’s hard to gauge the audience response. The way that it is recorded it sounds like a small, appreciative crowed – certainly not 150,000 people. They react tremendously well to the older material like “Mr. Tambourine Man”, but seem a bit lost at the country versions of some of the material.

While this wasn’t the first time that Dylan had performed new arrangements of established hits – something that has been his hallmark as a live performer for the past forty years – many of these versions are quite different than the recorded versions. “Like A Rolling Stone” is unrecognizable to the crowd from its musical intro – no one claps until the end of the first line as it is clear that they don’t see the song coming. Dylan messes up the lyrics, which is probably a function of the three year hiatus. I really like this version, but it is clear that the crowd doesn’t. I do laugh every time Dylan and Robbie Robertson forget the lyrics to the chorus.

Speaking of Robertson, The Band is really great here, and it’s another example of how unfortunate it is that Dylan wasn’t regularly touring for this eight year period. Musically, this is a very strong show, and given that almost every Dylan tour begins with a fairly weak show but gets stronger as it goes on (although some of them then burn out by the end), one can only imagine how good this group would have been had they done a dozen or more shows.

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The show featured a lot of recent Dylan from the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline era, material that otherwise didn’t get a lot of live performances, plus very unusual versions of “Maggie’s Farm” and “Highway 61 Revisited”. Three songs from the show wound up on Self-Portrait, including “Minstrel Boy”, which received its public debut at this show.

I’m a fan of this show. I wish that he had done the other eight songs. I wish that it had been the launch of a tour. I wish that we didn’t have to wait until 1974 for more live Dylan with The Band, and that we didn’t have to wait for Planet Waves for a full album by Dylan and The Band. The collaboration between Dylan and The Band has another six years (weeks) to run, but this is that rare glimpse of how great things could have been. How good is it? It’s so good that I even listen to the version of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” that ends the set!

A few words on this video. First, I have no idea where it came from or what its purpose was. It’s an almost twelve minute documentary from French television about people going to the festival. It spends more time filming people on the ferry than it does on anything else. Second, I have no idea why they use the insanely dramatic music to show hippies getting off of a ferry! Third, I like the fact that the voice-of-god narrator calls Dylan “their pope”. Talk about dramatic over-statement. Fourth, the bongo playing! Fifth, footage of people sleeping through The Who’s set (they performed the entirety of Tommy, I’d have slept through it too), which indicates that maybe the crowd was truly dead by end of the weekend for Dylan. Finally, they devote twelve long minutes to Dylan’s comeback show, and then the only footage of him they use (beginning at 10:30 if you want to jump directly to it) is of “The Mighty Quinn”? Really? “The Mighty Quinn”?!?! I guess it was a hit at the time for Manfred Mann…

A word on the second video. Colour footage (though no sound) of Dylan performing as seen from the VIP box to the side of the stage. You get to see all three of The Beatles in this clip (what the hell is on Yoko Ono’s forehead?), but not the other celebrities. Sort of a bizarre thing, but there you have it.

A word on the third video. Handheld footage from close to the stage of “I Threw It All Away” credited to Bobby Dylanski, presumably in an effort to end run Columbia’s lawyers trolling through YouTube. Then the sound drops out and you can watch Dylan perform “Maggie’s Farm” without hearing it. You can sync it with your recording if you really try. Then the sound comes back for “Highway 61 Revisited”, “One Too Many Mornings” (sound quality is brutal here), “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” . I do wish the bootlegger would have invested in a tripod….

Nashville Skyline

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It’s been a rough week for blogging, what with a trip to Singapore, jet lag and a conference taking up most of my time, and then a trip back from Singapore. I haven’t had as much time to think about Dylan as I would have liked. Fortunately, Nashville Skyline is a really short album.

How short? Just 28 minutes, with no song longer than 3:43. Throw in the fact that the album contains Dylan’s first instrumental release (“Nashville Skyline Rag”, which is one of the longer songs on the album) and it’s just under 25 minutes of songs (if we want to hold to the song/tune division). Throw in the fact that the lead track is a cover of an earlier song (“Girl from the North Country”) and now we’re down to about 21 minutes of new material to consider. Hell, it’s almost an EP.

I listened to Nashville Skyline a few dozen times this week, mostly at departure lounges. Unlike John Wesley Harding, with which I was generally unfamiliar, this is an album that I knew reasonably well, and it’s one that I have long enjoyed. After a string of albums with songs that I began to skip every time I would play the album, there is nothing on Nashville Skyline that deserves to be skipped. If there are no songs that I would rank as all time greats, there are also none that I actually dislike. It’s a really solid effort that helped usher in the country-rock genre. It may have seemed odd from Dylan at the time, particularly given how many of his contemporaries were turning towards psychedelia, but it was also a hit, and one of his best-selling albums.

I’ve covered a few of the songs already, including “Girl From the North Country”, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, “Lay Lady Lay” and “To Be Alone With You”. That doesn’t leave an awful lot still to discuss. “Nashville Skyline Rag” is fine. Given his prominence as a lyricist and songwriter, this is an odd inclusion for any album, but it a solid enough piece. “I Threw It All Away” was the first single from the album (and the only one that I didn’t bother to write about as a single), with its heavy organ tones and slowly methodical crooning. It’s a really simple, but effective, song about loss and regret – one of the few downbeat songs on an album that is otherwise a statement about a man who is content with his life at the time.

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“Peggy Day” is a song that gets very little attention, but is probably the one that I enjoyed most this week – “Peggy night makes my future look so bright”. Everything works well on this exceedingly slight love song from the piano to the guitars. It’s the type of song that sounds like it was written in the 1920s, and I mean that as a compliment.

“One More Night” is a hyper-country song, particularly with the guitar picking. This song desperately called out for a banjo. “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” is another classic country song, this time a cheating song. Kris Kristofferson was a Nashville studio janitor at the time Dylan recorded this, and this is the kind of thing that you could have imagined him writing. Finally, “County Pie”, the shortest song on the album and one of the shortest that Dylan ever officially released, is, by far, the slightest thing not only on the album but one of the least significant things Dylan ever recorded. It’s not really good, but it’s so short that you can’t really object to it, and the guitar playing is good.

So: good album. Not in the “greatest of all time” category, but almost completely devoid of bad songs. Better than John Wesley Harding, but it’s not a blow-out or anything. Starting tomorrow I’ll be shifting to the two 1970s albums – the disastrously received Self-Portrait and the return to form New Morning – neither of which I’m expecting to enjoy as much as this one.

Here’s “I Threw It All Away” from the Johnny Cash Show, June of 1969 (two weeks before I was born!):