"That album was put out because...at the time...I didn't like the attention I was getting. I [have] never been a person that wanted attention. And at that time I was getting the wrong kind of attention, for doing things I'd never done. So we released this album to get people off my back. They would not like me any more. That's...the reason the album was put out, so people would just at that time stop buying my records...and they did." Bob Dylan 1981.
If the huge body of fans that Bob Dylan had created in the sixties were expecting a so called return to form after the negative reaction to 1969's "Nashville Skyline," the record they got was an even bigger surprise. The most succinct response to the June 1970 release of "Self Portrait" was Greil Marcus writing in Rolling Stone who headed his article "What is this shit?" and went on to call it "...a concept album from the cutting room floor." He was not alone in his opinion, most of the reviews were even less kind than they had been to "Nashville Skyline" and of course they focussed not only on the paucity of original material, but also the quality of the material that was used. Comprising twenty four tracks, "Self Portrait" could realistically have been one mediocre album but it simply did not have the substance to justify a double album. Criticism ranged from "...astonishingly contemplative" in Time to "The revolution is over. Bob Dylan sings Blue Moon to Mr. Jones" in Record World, and most felt that they had a point. Of the twenty four tracks, some were instrumentals, some were different versions of the same song, there were four live tracks (and not the best) from the recent Isle Of Wight concert and a version of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" that was surely a joke. But there are a few high points, "Copper Kettle" has a superb vocal, "It hurts Me Too" and "Let It Be Me" are both stand out tracks, and there is some merit in the version of Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain," but these few highlights could not hide the overall insignificance of the album. Amazingly, it sold very well and by the end of June had grossed three million dollars, so the attempt to demystify himself that Dylan claimed that it was had proved to be a financial success. Critically it was a different story altogether.
In an album that is full of surprises, the first one comes right at the beginning. Although "All The Tired Horses" is credited to Bob Dylan it is not his voice we hear, just a female chorus repeating the mantra like "All the tired horses in the sun/How am I supposed to get any ridin' done?" ad nauseam. Syrupy sweet and mildly irritating, this does not bode well for the rest of the album. For those looking to read something into it, the "ridin'" could be taken as "writin'" as Dylan bemoans his lack of inspiration. Make of that what you will. It is followed by the first of two versions of "Alberta" with Dylan crooning in his "Nashville Skyline" voice. This smoky little country ballad is, like most of the album, inoffensive, but you have to scratch your head and ask yourself: why?
The first track that Dylan really goes overboard with the vocal is "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know" where he just seems to be trying too hard. Again, this country standard is innocuous enough, but Dylan had already proved that he could write songs equal to this, so if he was just going to be singing cover versions then why not find ones with a bit more substance? The first track to have any sort of credibility is "Days Of 49" a reasonably good song that is performed with a believable vocal. Dylan reportedly told A.J. Webberman, admittedly not the most reliable of sources, "Well, there were two good songs on SP "Days Of 49" and "Kopper Kettle"" (Webberman's spelling) after Webberman told him that the only reason "Self Portrait" was a success was because people bought it, played it once and then stuck it on their shelf. That aside, "Days Of 49" is one of the better tracks on the album. Dylan performs this simple song about an old gold miner, a forty-niner reminiscing about his youth and his companions "...a jolly, saucy crew" and thinking about "...the days of old when we dug up the gold/In the days of 49" as if it were one of his own.
Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Mornin' Rain" is another high point, I've always liked this song and I like Dylan's version of it. The laid-back approach that he uses suits the song's rich imagery of the luckless narrator who is "...cold and drunk" and has "...pockets filled with sand," a man out of time, realizing that "You can't hop a jet plane/Like you can an old freight train/So I'd best be on my way/In the early mornin' rain." The song had been recorded by Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, as well as Judy Collins who had also recorded several of Dylan's own compositions, and again, this is a song that Dylan could well have written himself, and one that seems to be a personal favourite, he performed it live several times in the late eighties and early nineties.
It is followed by the first of two versions of "In Search Of Little Sadie" (the second is simply called "Little Sadie") and the inclusion of this song once would be odd, twice it is baffling. There is little to differentiate between the two versions, the second is faster but not necessarily better and why they are sequenced with "Let It Be Me" sandwiched between them is anybody's guess. "Little Sadie," a traditional song that Dylan claims arrangement credits for has been recorded by a whole host of people, Johnny Cash included, under a variety of different names and I can't imagine Dylan's version(s) being any better or worse than any of them. As for "Let It Be Me" Dylan sings it almost as an homage to the Everly Brothers who had probably been a source of inspiration in earlier times.
Robert Shelton calls "Woogie Boogie" "...a superb instrumental, full of Fats Domino-Johnny Otis echoes" and perhaps it would be in another time and another place, but here it is one of the most insignificant tracks on the album and just screams filler.
"Belle Isle" which has its roots in the Celtic ballad tradition, has one of the better vocal tracks on the album. The unlikely and not very original story line has been used countless times, and I must be missing something here, because Michael Gray calls it the high point of the album, and Wilfrid Mellers refers to it as being "...among the loveliest and tenderest of his creations" but to me it is an unremarkable folk ballad, no better or worse than countless others.
Apart from the Isle Of Wight tracks and the two instrumentals, "Living The Blues" is the only original Dylan composition on the album, although it doesn't sound like it. Owing much to Guy Mitchell's "Singing The Blues" it sounds like Dylan in parody mood. This song had it's debut when he appeared on Johnny Cash's CBS television show the previous year, although that version was a little faster and thankfully lacks the female chorus. Hear it here. As ordinary as the preceding track, but time has shown that Dylan was writing better songs than this at the time, so again, why?
The first of the Isle Of Wight tracks is the classic "Like A Rolling Stone," and what a pale shadow of its former self it is. Two questions are raised here, if selections from that night were to be used, why were they not used in the sequence that they were performed, and why were they scattered around the album as if they were musical gems? Surely it would have made more sense to devote one whole section or even one entire side to this concert if CBS was not prepared to issue the event in its entirety as an official live album. The Isle Of Wight was not a happy experience for Dylan and he came away from it vowing never to perform in England again, a promise that thankfully proved groundless. There were a couple of high points from that evening, but this is not one of them. The performance is ragged, and Dylan, clearly unnerved by the size of the crowd, stumbles over the words and the song loses all its energy and power. Why he would want to be reminded of this event is a complete mystery.
By contrast, "Copper Kettle" is for me, the high point of the album. This is a great little song that Dylan would probably have learned in his time in Greenwich Village, and there is a version of it on Joan Baez's third album "Joan Baez In Concert" The mood of the song seems to be very much in keeping with what Dylan was apparently trying to project at this time. Laid back and lazy, "Get you a copper kettle/Get you a copper coil/Fill it with home-made corn mash/And never more you'll toil" sets the scene, and the way he sings "You'll just lay there by the junipers/While the moon is bright" is about as expressive as he gets on this entire album.
Dylan met Paul Clayton, who co-wrote "Gotta Travel On" (with Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar and Tom Six) in 1962 but was already performing the song earlier than this. It appears on the famous Minnesota tape that was recorded in the home of Karen Wallace in St. Paul Minn. in May of 1960 - the tape is of very poor quality and there was some speculation that it actually was Dylan, but it has apparently been authenticated. Dylan and Clayton (who died in 1967) became friends in those early days, "Paul was just an incredible song writer and singer. He must have known a thousand songs" Dylan said of him in 1985 and performed the song at several of the 1976 Rolling Thunder shows. The version that appears here is much in keeping with the general sound of the rest of the album.
With "Blue Moon" it is hard to believe that he is being serious and when the album was being critically panned, this was the song that most people used to illustrate how far this Dylan was from the one of four or five years earlier. It actually defies description, and at one stage was being mooted as the title for the album. If "Blue Moon" is the most unlikely track, then "The Boxer" is almost certainly the strangest. Here we get two Dylans for the price (some might say overprice) of one, as he double tracks his own voice and the result is to say the least, bizarre. Many thought that this really was a joke and that Dylan was getting back at Paul Simon who it was felt in some quarters had written "The Boxer" about him. Simon considered himself a superior song writer to Dylan and had already parodied him in "A Simple Desultory Philippic" with the last line "I dropped my harmonica, Albert" and the feeling was that in this song he saw Dylan as the boxer of the title who would not admit to being washed up, the "...whores on 7th Avenue" were the CBS executives and the chorus refrain of "...lie, lie, lie" was a reference to Dylan's well documented economy with the truth when he first arrived in New York. This is all conjecture of course and Anthony Scaduto (Dylan's early biographer) did not believe it, pointing out that the pair of them were spending time together in New York - more Dylan mythology for the conspiracy theorists.
The second Isle Of Wight track is "The Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)" and like most of the material from that set, it is pretty poor. The performance is disorganised, the Band all over the place and the harmonies, such as they are, are dreadful. Best ignored. "Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)" may well be included here as an invitation to the audience that Dylan was (apparently) trying to alienate. Another lightweight cover version, the most positive thing about it is Pete Drake's steel guitar. If you can get past the awful female chorus and opening lines "These are the words of a country lad/Who lost his love when he turned bad" then "Take A Message To Mary" is a little bit better. It is not a weighty song by any stretch of the imagination, but the vocal is good and Dylan seems more relaxed. This is also true of "It Hurts Me Too," one of the few tracks on the album that I like, because it sounds as if he means what he is singing. This is a well performed song, and the line "I don't wanna be your boss babe, I just wanna be your man" was paraphrased in 1965's "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry."
As no other version of "Minstrel Boy" exists to compare with the one from the Isle Of Wight, we have to take it on face value. It may well be that the reason there is no other version is that the song was unique to that event. Was Dylan the minstrel boy perversely chiding his audience? Whatever the case, like the two previous I.O.W. songs this was destined to be enjoyed only by those who were present, and did not warrant being recorded for posterity. Not so with "She Belongs To Me" the last song on the album from that set, but ironically the first to be performed on the night. Dylan got huge applause, but it probably had more to do with the fact that he was finally on stage after all the delays. He is in good voice here, relaxed and in control and this is by far the best of the four songs from that evening, but without wishing to be churlish, it is a pity that none of the acoustic numbers were considered for inclusion, "Wild Mountain Thyme" in particular, would have fitted into the overall (dare I say it) theme of the album.
The last two tracks have little to recommend them, "Wigwam" is pleasant but interesting only from the point of view that it is experimental. However it does tend to grow on you after a few hearings. "Alberta #2" is unsurprisingly, a second version of "Alberta #1." This is the faster and slightly better of the two, due largely to a sombre harmonica. That said, neither rendering is particularly ground breaking, and the album ends on pretty much the same understated and quizzical note that it began.
It is difficult after so much time to figure out exactly what Dylan had in mind with "Self Portrait." It is extremely unlikely that he deliberately set out to make a bad album in order to dismantle the myth that had grown up around him, and anyway the attitude of the studio musicians and CBS president Clive Davis certainly dispute that theory. "You could tell he really liked them" said Charlie Daniels, referring to the songs, and added "I think it was something he wanted to do for a long time" and Davis was supportive "Bob asked my opinion about the album's concept early on...I knew that he'd been having some difficulty coming up with his own material...so I encouraged him." A far more plausible explanation is that he really was disillusioned with the rock and roll lifestyle, and as a married man with a growing family he saw himself slipping easily into the guise of a middle of the road country crooner. As a man who has reinvented himself in so many different ways on so many different occasions, this is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Also, when you consider the amount of time and effort that went into the making of "Self Portrait" and the fact that one or two occasions aside, he treated the music very seriously, it is hard to believe that the whole thing was a joke.
But Dylan stuck to his guns, in 1984 he told Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone (referring to that period) "There'd be crowds outside my house. And I said...I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to." and of the famous cover "...there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait." and when asked why it was a double album "Well, it wouldn't have held up as a single album - then it really would have been bad, you know. I mean, if you're gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!" Whatever the truth of the matter, and whether Dylan achieved what he says he set out to achieve, we will of course never know. What is certain is that "Self Portrait" remains the strangest and least satisfying album in Dylan's catalogue, and the suspiciously swift release of "New Morning" a mere four months later (an album of totally original material) suggests that perhaps he wanted the whole sorry affair to be forgotten as quickly as possible.