Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Bob DYLAN: Self Portrait




(#78: 11 July 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: All The Tired Horses/Alberta #1/I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know/Days Of 49/Early Mornin’ Rain/In Search Of Little Sadie/Let It Be Me/Little Sadie/Woogie Boogie/Belle Isle/Living The Blues/Like A Rolling Stone/Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)/Gotta Travel On/Blue Moon/The Boxer/The Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)/Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)/Take A Message To Mary/It Hurts Me Too/Minstrel Boy/She Belongs To Me/Wigwam/Alberta #2

Was this the shit?

It is 1973, and the Italian entertainer Adriano Celentano, somewhere in the middle of an equilateral European triangle between Cliff Richard, Serge Gainsbourg and Guy Debord, is promoting his then current single “Prisencolinensinainciusol” in the days of unlimited Italian television budgets when anyone could do anything they fancied. This video is, strictly speaking, a collage of two separate television performances of the song, but the overall picture looks committed to both its time and the future. Somewhere between glam stomp and revolutionary march, Celentano stakes a claim for English as he hears and recognises it; the words are intentional gibberish, the intention being bifold; first, to convey the notion, the importance, of direct impact over literal meaning in pop, and second, to reclaim the cruciality of his own language – this is how I recognise your language, he says, but this is my language and I am proud of it. Let’s see if the two can co-exist in a sort of universal love, or at least understanding; Celentano has claimed that the song was also a protest about the impossibility of communicating with a fellow human being in an age whose technocracy was about to overwhelm flesh and blood, the word “Prisencolinensinainciusol” supposedly standing for and perhaps meaning “universal love.” Its ruthless custard pie marching song is perhaps partially inspired by the work of John Kongos, but its most pressing influence – expressed directly in Celentano’s closing harmonica solo – is that of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” One couldn’t imagine “Prisencolinensinainciusol” existing without the precedent of Dylan any more than without the inspiration of Fellini, and perhaps the anti-inspiration of Mussolini.

The song’s parent album Nostalrock is not easy to track down but well worth the effort; get past its deliberately confrontational cover, which wouldn’t get past any censor now, and we encounter a thirty-eight minute seminar on the meaning of the language of pop. The record is constructed as a fleeting assemblage of key moments in the singer’s pop life, mostly classics from the fifties, interspersed with fragments of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “In The Mood,” reminders of the music Celentano would have heard in his youth despite, or because of, its being expressly vietato by Mussolini, together with remembered breezes of street corner serenades, all held together by the insistent thread of “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” He goes back to Johnnie Ray’s “Cry” and dares you to laugh. He does “I Will Drink The Wine,” the intentionally bathetic right-wing ballad Paul Ryan persuaded Sinatra to sing, or tricked him into singing, in 1971, and subtly warns the listener against not laughing; near the song’s end he breaks off, asks his band whether it should be “take” or “drink” the wine, and warbles a grunt of a coda. Most importantly, and with a more than decent band behind him, he goes straight to the core of the magic of words-in-themselves which first dazzled him when they were new; he charges through “Tutti Frutti” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” with absolute phonetic conviction. Finally a run through “Shake, Rattle And Roll” is violently alternated with the returning “Prisencolinensinainciusol”; the record collapses and an exaggerated English gentleman congratulates Celentano on understanding English so well, only for the singer to reply that he never learned the language. Eventually a dispute in Italian escalates and the record ends with a punch-up, complete with splintering wood, breaking glass and so forth.

The singer has trashed expectations and assumptions, demanding that if anyone is going to approach and address a song, he or she must do so as though they already owned it; make it theirs, make it sing differently but with no less force or power. It is Celentano’s own self-portrait and perhaps it’s the phonetics, the unusual vowel emphases of his rock covers, but throughout the record he sounds curiously like a rejuvenated Bob Dylan.

All of which brings us to the issue of this most problematic of double albums, even if its author never intended it to be a “problem.” On the rear sleeve photograph he is in a farmyard with some chickens (Celentano: “Brrrrrrr chickens in my head they keep the cold...”), looking towards an unexplained horizon, or maybe just the back of a shed. Throughout most of the record’s seventy-four minutes he scarcely sounds like Dylan, and for substantial stretches he is absent from the music, when he is not actually, or actively, disengaged from it.

From a forty-years-ago perspective it shouldn’t really matter. If Dylan wanted to stick out four sides of his 1970 family album just to let us know that he was still around – although the most disturbing factor of Self Portrait is that he strives to be as little around as possible within its brightly spaced cloisters – then why not? Weren’t the Beatles doing as much, or as little, at the same time? Except that even through the mess of Let It Be emerges a fierce picture of a group still looking out for each other, even if they have grown to detest each other. Dylan had the advantage that, his family notwithstanding, he only needed to look after himself. As with Let It Be, there is the discernible scent of beating the bootleggers, although the sequencing and selections are so disorientating as to drive listeners back to Great White Wonder or A Thousand Miles Behind as sharply as possible.

But is Self Portrait not shit?

It is not a wholly listenable album but once begun you don’t really have any choice but to listen the whole way through. It tends to be heaviest when it wants to be light, most insubstantial when wishing to make a profound point, even if the point were “nothing’s profound.”

But why the fuss? It was four decades ago, Bob was filling in time with fillers before his next “proper” record, a nice, half-thought big throwaway. Why the air of residual despair which still prowls its Cubist corners?

At the time it was taken as a signal towards the end of everything and “everything” meant the dream, the baby boomers’ lontano, the fake whirlwind which fluttered under our noses and promised that the wind would henceforth forever change direction because Dylan was like Noah and Moses combined, a natural leader who still couldn’t avoid the flood. No matter that he’d given two years’ clear warning that he didn’t want to deal with this stuff any more; people had the irritating habit of still expecting “stuff” from him.

I mean, for fuck’s sake, why can’t I just be Gordon Lightfoot or Paul Simon, and I don’t mean that “just” to mean “merely”?

What do you want from me?

Information?

Well, you MIGHT get it. I’m not going to say you’ll agree with it or like it but there will be some coming, somewhere you’re not expecting the wind to fly.

ArrivalFlying winds. Three unaccompanied female voices, unaccompanied that is save for some rich echo. An acoustic guitar whispers its way in, then strings rise as the screen expands to welcome in the blueness. A fine orchestration, worthy of Jack Nitzsche. Low ‘cellos and basses provide the soil from which the high violins will bloom towards the brighter incline. Over and over, a sun rising:

“All the tired horses in the sun,
How’m I supposed to get any riding done?”

Hmmmmmm…

…and it IS majestic, the hidden Dylan classic that the guy at the counter who sold me the CD of Self Portrait warned me about; the most perfect thing on the record (since so much else of it strives manfully to be “perfect” but not necessarily Dylan-perfect)…and it takes us right back to entry #3, to “Oh! What A Beautiful Morning”…well, hello there, is everything still OK? Is it really only fourteen years? My, you’d hardly recognise the landscape. Its sun is brilliant, its promise limitless. Even at the moment of the gentle pizzicato fadeout you hardly realise that there’s no Dylan on it.

The Chimes Of Big Ben
But here he is, his voice hanging lower than Alberta’s head, harmonica buzzing in like a wasp trapped in a sewer grate. There’s a hint of hangdog Leonard Cohen here (as there is on his actual self portrait, which resembles Laughin’ Lenny rather more than it does Baffling Bob) but ever-faithful Pete Drake sneaks in to let us know that, actually, it’s worth hanging on here; not necessarily for this song, but for what it’s suggesting, as Dylan’s harmonica settles into something recognisable (but not ’65-6 recognisable) and bass and electric guitar curl up behind him like a couple of contented hamsters.

A, B & CLook, if he wants to do Jim Reeves, let him (on Pick Of The Pops this weekend past Dale Winton passed over a 1967 hit by Reeves, “I Won’t Come In While He’s There,” which could have served as an alternate title for this album). Except what’s he doing with his voice? Engelbert sobbing? Neil Innes tongue-sticking? What does he want Nashville to make of him? Is he that bothered?

Free For All
Not The Band, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that; it’s the chance for his first big setpiece on the album but he’s still ‘phoning in his regrets. Al Kooper’s piano absolutely makes the song while Dylan stretches his larynx and mind back to “the days when we dug up the gold.” Somewhere in the murk of the mix a bass harmonica snarls like a tethered Rottweiler. “Oh my goodness!” he exclaims at David Bromberg’s acoustic. He tangles his “old”s and “gold”s into unreclaimable diagonalistics. The song is old; not for the first time on the record he has the opportunity to seize and snarl old back into new but something in him is still holding back; like, does he really HAVE to keep inventing stuff? What is in it for anybody?

The Schizoid Man
No shame in being Gordon Lightfoot; quite the reverse, in fact. But listen to Lightfoot’s original, soaring sixties recording of his signature song and his initial defiant bonhomie sweeps dramatically between registers, just as he gradually gives up the pretension that the winds buffering him aren’t really bothering him; he stands on his peak of abandonment and discovers only further grey fog, he cajoles the song’s sadness into meaning. Dylan sings it as though he went out to work that morning and left his Sainsbury’s coupons in the other jacket.

The GeneralSplinters of acoustic guitar and drums push us into Dylan’s hoarsely high vocal. Despite its being a murder ballad he approaches it like Lennon did “Sexy Sadie” and with a good deal less gravitas (that is not necessarily a bad thing). He’s playing with the implications of the song’s structure and turns it into a mini-Abbey Road medley. His punk whine of “County Jail!” and subsequent pantomime self-response of “Oh yes they did!” suddenly inject a degree of franticity into him. “Ohhhh NO!!” he yelps. The musicians take the hint, slow it down, but the tempo and keys keep changing, almost randomly. It’s Dylan inventing Beck and so everything finally falls to bits but at least he’s having fun challenging his inbuilt computer.

Many Happy Returns
“Let It Be Me” – back to the Everlys for the third album running; what did they mean in 1970, other than a remembrance of happiness passed? Phil and Don sing it like pseudo-tough kids who have dropped the stance and are now prepared to admit vulnerability and loneliness; their transformation from sneer to something approaching femininity is very striking and touching. Dylan does it Wayne Newton-style. Who is he trying to be? If nothing else, the musicians, especially Kenny Buttrey’s drums, sound rather more involved here than they did with the Lightfoot. But Dylan is somewhere else and what sort of navigation is he offering to us, other than back to – someone else’s? – beginnings.

A, B & C (Slight Return)
“Sadie” done “properly.” “Properly” meaning a backing track which appears to be playing at 78 rpm, guitars threading their way into something that sounds like a Highland reel.

And it ends side one of the vinyl because wasn’t that all that albums in 1970 meant?

Either you pushed out the prog widescreen and Made A Statement or the wise guys who’d already done that in ’66 or ’67 knew you didn’t really have to bother with the concept of the album as coherent entity. But this wasn’t quite proto-blog airs of familiarity at work – well, here we are, this is what I’ve been doodling the past week or so, isn’t it purty? – and not quite the solidifying stench of Album-As-Marketable-Product either. Dylan knew that in 1970 he could’ve put out a quadruple album of him blowing his nose without a sleeve and it would still have gone triple gold and topped the chart anyway.

The trouble was that people in 1970 expected more.

More “stuff.”

More of that stuff he’d promised them, half a decade previously, when both he and we knew that he could do anything. The problem – if it is a problem; I haven’t quite worked it out yet – is that for some forsaken (by God?) period in ’65, ’66, he did what most people who were around then perceived to be more than “anything.”

Husband and father: why, therefore, do I need to DO anything?

Because once I did “something” and have to carry that around like a weighed-down dog lead labelled “PROMISES.”

Apparently.

Look, if I want to put out a scrambling rave-up instrumental called “Woogie Boogie” then I will. You didn’t have any objections to “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).”

Actually “Woogie Boogie” is one of the best things on the record; a fast shadow-box rave with raspberry bleating horns with a lovely, throaty tenor solo slurring and howling around 55º between Flip Phillips and Frank Lowe, just about to burst into free when a guitar pick abruptly brings the tune to an end (how would a remix of Highway 61 with Ornette’s Double Quartet have gone down?). Dylan seems to be most present when his physical voice is absent. Most involved when thinking about the days before rock ‘n’ roll.

Speaking of Van Morrison, “Belle Isle” wouldn’t have been at all out of place on any of his albums from the last thirty years or so – compile a mixtape of the one phenomenal track on each of them and you’d probably end up with Van’s masterpiece – but The Man would probably have injected more peat into the song’s slightly startled veins; a Newfoundland folk song which found its way there from a couple of ancient Irish laments (“Loch Erin, Sweet Riverside” and “The Lass Of Dunmore”) and the string arrangement veers from the inspired – its empathetic downward bend in response to Dylan’s weary “more than my heart can endure” – to the outskirts of 101 Strings. Dylan too is only intermittently committed to the song; his “the lad that has left me” is jumbled up in his tongue to sound more like “the laugh that has left me” and the effect of pathos is immediate. But he doesn’t sound like someone to whom the seventeenth century could represent or offer any kind of refuge.

Dance Of The Dead“Living The Blues” comes out of its predecessor’s maundering mourning pretty explosively. The pink cartoon intro – plastic organ, but it’s fun! – prepares us for the Monkees, but instead Dylan gets straight into an Elvis “Stuck On You” groove, complete with Jordanettes backing vocals and Buttrey’s militaristic drums. It has a very instinctive swing to its resigned swagger and Charlie Daniels’ lead guitar is purposive and propulsive. The musicians sound more committed than any of the non-Canadian musicians elsewhere on the record; when Dylan grunts, “deep, down, in, SIDE!” the whole band (especially Robert Wilson’s piano) leaps up like mutually nascent newts onto his staccato promise. Dylan’s “If you see ME (up a syllabic octave) this way” now sounds like a man back in control, perhaps even in command. Drake adds some pertinent slide comments as a postscript. Dylan does Elvis; it was one of the best ideas he had at the time.

Checkmate
But then we go to the Isle of Wight and…well (or as Elvis says approximately 721 times on Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, his very own Self Portrait: “Weeeelllllll…”).

Instantly I think of Cobain, on Top Of The Pops, singing “Teen Spirit” a laryngitic octave down and dynamiting the song’s chances of getting to number one, and wonder if we are getting to the nub of things.

But then Kurt did not go on TOTP wearing an expensively-cut suit and the air of Minnesota’s Young Republican Businessman Of 1969.

Well, who’s to say this wasn’t what the song meant to its writer in 1969? That he was not quite throwing it away, sticking his tongue out at it, but that it didn’t interest him that much any more.

You want the TRUTH? I’m not that bothered about it now. It belonged to then and it might belong to you but…

(well, we’ll come to “She Belongs To Me” later)

Even though there was no internet in 1970, there was still the dilemma of the carbon footprints everyone leaves behind. Today it doesn’t matter; you can grow and alter as a human being, find new perspectives about things and people you’d previously dismiss, but Google has no respect for evolution – look for A, B or C and you’ll find them, pickled in 1999 or 2005, their fleeting opinions now standing as unalterable aspic.

If you were Dylan back then, though, your footprints endlessly came back to haunt you; because once, one afternoon in 1965, you ATTACKED this song, WENT for it and aimed to DEMOLISH everything both you and we knew with it, and then again, in some draughty “God Save The Queen” auditorium in Manchester, you made it even harder (“PLAY FUCKING LOUD!”), temporarily made all the rest of your age’s rock ‘n’ roll seem like a trifling joke. The “Albert Hall” recording still bounds out at you like a reproachful, extinct Bali tiger. Whereas the Isle of Wight “Stone” rolls around like…Wayne Newton at a Spiro Agnew fundraiser.

Or at least HE does. His musicians had other ideas.

The music was indifferently recorded but dammit, when you hear Levon Helm’s gong-like ride cymbal crown his pummelling response to Dylan’s flaccid “make a deal,” you know that The Band are as hard as they had ever been, that THEIR fire hadn’t been forgotten. Helm’s drumming might be my favourite thing about Self Portrait; his fire alarm ride cymbal tings and modified Motown brawny beat placing him somewhere between Tony Williams and Benny Benjamin. So what if the song’s author throws away “pawn it, babe” like a contemptuously discarded four-year-old gum wrapper? Garth Hudson’s organ – perhaps my second favourite thing about Self Portrait – is deep and truthful throughout, as forlorn as William Alland’s reporter thumbing through the watched pages of Thatcher’s memoirs in Kane but as loving as Jed Leland finally remains to the old bastard; if Orson can’t be bothered to be deep any more – and why did he need to be, in 1969? – then I’m more than happy to do it for him. Basically The Band walk all over Rich Ray Stevens Dylan and make the song matter, still, even when nothing else has continued to matter.

The thing about the charts is that they are capricious, whimsical, luck and marketing-driven. Deep down we know it’s all a trick, but we can’t take our souls off it; the unsatisfiable urge to put everything in some kind of order in order to remind ourselves that this is how we live, or lived. But the gradual, proportionate growth in popularity which leads itself to number one albums is often misleading, and sets quantitative bars which don’t always equate with “qualitative.” So Self Portrait could from some angles be described as Dylan’s “best” album because it is so true to his mindfucking, expectation-twisting ways – the “auteur” theory if we must – and the most truthful (because so determinedly evasive) picture of himself as an artist. And if we take number one status as equable with quality then we have to bow to the presumption that Self Portrait is a better album than Highway or Blonde because, well, it got to number one and the other two didn’t. But then didn’t it get to number one BECAUSE of the expectations which had built up as a direct result of Highway and Blonde? This doesn’t mean that the Self Portrait “Like A Rolling Stone” is automatically “better” than the one on Highway and 45 which got a whole book written about it, but it’s the one which gets written about directly in this tale, whereas Highway and Blonde did the commercial business for sure, but had the bad luck to be up against the Beatles or the Stones or The Sound Of Music, and it may be that all three of these were more immediately approachable to ‘65/6 mass British audiences. But then he went away, and the craving increased, and so he ended up in a two-year situation where everything he put out went straight to number one because…well, because once he promised, and we wanted to hear the outcome of those promises. Even if he misses out a whole verse of what was once his greatest promise.

And then the record moves into its truest and most surprising promise.

There are some old moonshiners, somewhere in Tennessee, in the darkness, and they’ve done as they’ve damn well pleased since they were told not to two hundred years ago. They are dimly aware that their time is coming to an end, that there are other, more modern types wanting to squash their way into the bootlegging action. The air of quietude in “Copper Kettle,” a song which sounds as old as America, is partly based on fear – “Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke” – and partly on resignation; they’ve lucked out for this long and it’s the world, rather than the tech mobsters, which is superseding them. They are all old, the mountain passes and caves they populate as inaccessible as those of Afghanistan, and they can hold out for as long as they need or, more likely, want.

It is quite the most beautiful and true thing on the record. The horses are still tired but the Cinemascope voices and strings return, this time with real purpose, even or especially if that purpose is condolence. Organ, vibes and acoustic guitar provide a bed with enough feathers to enable repose and sleep. The distant refrains, like bells (can Jimmy Brown still be living?), the piping high organ like the simmering surface of boiling liquor, and, above all, Dylan’s performance, as committed and regal as anything he’s ever done; his rattlesnake ramble of “Mo-ho-ho-hoonlight,” his sudden “thought you’d never see 1965 again?” rasp of hacksaw on the “ROT” of “ROTten wood,” his sorrowful but compassionate final cry of “Pa-hale moo-hoonlight,” his sudden Mt St Helens eruption of “WE AYN’T PAHYYD!” On one side, behind him, the spectre of Don Charles’ “Walk With Me, My Angel”; on the other, still in front of him, beyond that Western which he ultimately would make – but then we had no way of knowing about Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid in 1970 – there is R.E.M.’s “Swan Swan H.” Suddenly we have Bob Dylan back.

And just as suddenly, he slips away again.

Hammer Into Anvil
Back into Elvis movie song land, in fact; but even Elvis had moved on from here – in his 1969 “I’m Movin’ On” he is determined to grasp the future with all available and most unavailable limbs. Despite the repeated mantra of “Johnny can’t come home,” however, the Dylan of “Gotta Travel On” is still the rolling, moderately amused rambler of Harding, minus a certain spark, or reason.

It’s Your Funeral
Beyond the Perry Como’s Dominican Republic Thanksgiving female choir of Dylan’s idea of “Blue Moon” lies a convenient semi-truth; it struck me very forcibly but in truth the idea had been fermenting for some while – Dylan’s overwhelming ambition on Self Portrait is to be Dean Martin. That ghost which the Sun Elvis had once orbited, or even inhabited, in his reading is only palpable in Doug Kershaw’s meaningful stare of an acappella fiddle coda. Elvis’ “Blue Moon” played as though the moon were being viewed from Venus. Dylan, in contrast, is happy to laze in the lounge but doesn’t have the effortless self-forgetfulness (which merely covers a fiercer self-belief) of a Harry Nilsson to pull this off.

Conveniently, Dino did record his own version of “Blue Moon”; it appears on his 1964 album Everybody Loves Somebody and proves that 1970 Dylan was further away from him than – say – Bobby Sherman. Backed only by a quiet jazz rhythm section, so quiet they appear to be playing with mufflers on so as not to awaken the neighbours, Dino effortlessly inhabits the song’s alternating rays of desperation and awakening hope; his “really” in “someone I really could care for” bends like a benign, pipe-smoking River Nile and so secure is his undemonstrative assurance that by the time his saviour arrives he can sit back in the song and let it carry him; by the time he reaches the climactic “I heard someone whisper, please adore me” his natural authority makes him realise that he himself is saviour as well as saved. He just needs the patience and the confidence to be himself. In contrast Dylan’s vo-dee-oh-does, quivering like an uneaten butterscotch jelly, makes me think of – the Temperance Seven?

Change Of Mind
Whereas Dylan’s “The Boxer,” where he roughly – very roughly, as in, the two vocal tracks just do not fit, melodically, rhythmically or in any other way imaginable - overdubs himself, school music class singalong style, is – what? Hinge and Bracket? He runs dispassionately through the song’s emotional hoops as though shopping for batteries at Halford’s on a Monday and contempt begins to get the better of him. This was the point where even Lena began to twitch and ahem and the point is…what was the point? What was he trying to communicate by putting this on an album? That he was, in his way, ABOVE Paul Simon? That he rattles off his song as though to say, ha, Brill Building punk, you think you’re it, well I’m here to tell you DIFFERENT? “That’ll show that Paul Simon and Art Carney who’s boss,” quipped a hard-of-pitching Dylan. I go away, he sneers, and in my absence you go for…THIS? You wonder why he didn’t just put out a quickfire Bontempi organ cover album of the whole of Bridge Over Troubled Water and have done with it; it’s easily Dylan’s “Ito Eats,” the least listenable thing in his catalogue (and that’s saying something), and it has to be a non-Warholian banana peel – there’s something admirably perverse (as long as you don’t have to pay money for it or listen to it repeatedly) about the anti-art of putting “The Boxer” as track sixteen on a double album, as though daring his listeners to sit through it. A later Lou Reed would have admired the gesture.

Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My DarlingBut then “WeeeeeeeeEEEEEELLLLLLL!” he hiccups and we’re back with The Band and the Isle of Wight and a messy but enjoyable take on Manfred Mann’s big bubblegum hit from ’68 – this “Quinn” is much closer to the Manfreds than the Basement – and while Dylan quickly subsides back into boredom (“Every-BOD-y!”) The Band do their best to make the track shine; Levon just misses his cue into the second chorus but the musicians pretty well take the song over. “Whoa, guitar now!,” Dylan (if it’s him) whoops, Lonnie Donegan-style, as Robbie Robertson takes over for a fine solo, Helm’s clanging cymbal as necessary as oxygen.

Living In HarmonyTwo further revisits to the House of Bryant and the Everlys, neither of which sounds particularly committed, and despite all the scheduled traps for the unwary analyst (“Why must you always try to make me over?”) and “Take A Message To Mary” finding him in the record’s deepest lyrical trouble – he’s robbed a stagecoach, got caught and sent down for life (the third time on this record that he ends up in jail) and doesn’t want his fiancée to know; Don and Phil sing it with heartbreaking, suppressed emotions, keeping their countenances while knowing full well that countenance has vacated the premises – Dylan again addresses both like…Rudy Vallee? In “Message” that siren chorus returns and there is a minimally baroque air to the arrangement but even the series of trapdoor harmonic modulations which ends the song fails to convince us.

The Girl Who Was Death
“It Hurts Me Too” is, contrary to the sleeve credits, an Elmore James song, and a pretty well known one at that – the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had it as his party piece at Grateful Dead concerts until he expired – and Dylan’s minimal reshuffling of its ingredients borders on the insulting. You still here, he’s asking us. Why are you sitting through this shit (so it WAS, at least in part, “this shit”), as though inventing Michael Haneke? You’re still waiting for answers, fulfillment of promises? You’ll still be waiting when I’m advertising sherry or guesting on The Love Boat? Look, it’s product; you wouldn’t shut up about wanting stuff from me, I give you stuff, I’m practically giving you my family snaps here, and it’s not enough? I’m not HERE anymore, and when I do get back to “HERE” it’s going to be a different “HERE” and it’ll be the last thing you expect.

Once Upon A TimeTwo more cuts from the Isle of Wight concert. “Minstrel Boy” is probably the best overall of these four tracks – though certainly the best performances never made it to Self Portrait – with its lovely harmonised introduction, followed by Helm’s cymbal tickles mutating into snare hiccups, then a slow blues sweep with a wriggling acoustic guitar merging with Helm’s tingling cymbals as if sounding a wake-up alarm call. Robbie’s electric solo is visited by feedback and sounds terrific. I forgot Dylan was on it.

Then, finally, “She Belongs To Me,” rushed off with a contempt almost equal to that of his “Boxer”; get this old shit out of the way – what do you mean it’s not shit? – but The Band won’t let him read the laundry list; Robbie again provides a superb guitar solo, Richard Manuel contributes barrelhouse piano commentary, and the highlight is Garth’s half-second blast of power pop organ. Eleven tracks on from “Like A Rolling Stone” and I still can’t quite tell whether the audience on the latter are cheering or booing. In any event, “Belongs” is cut off swiftly and adroitly before we get a chance to hear what the audience thought, or felt. Didn’t I always want to be Hank Williams, and anyway how much Hank have you suckers even heard?

Fall Out
And you thought that was it?

Once again, a simple acoustic guitar trickles its way into the picture, only to be followed by…the Brotherhood of Breath?

EH??
Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath arose out of the South African kwela/post-bop/free jazz group the Blue Notes, who were for a time managed and produced by Joe Boyd, the man at the mixing desk when Dylan played Newport in ’65. At this time the Brotherhood, who were still a relatively new ensemble, were part of Boyd’s troupe of freethinking musicians, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake being among the others. Certainly the deliciously ragged horn lines on “Wigwam,” to which Dylan needs to do and say no more than hum along, with its contrapuntal low trombones and proclamatory, Protestant hymnbook trumpets and saxes, are pure Brotherhood – and how the hell did THAT find its way into this portrait? Dylan is closing the record down with a sunset to parallel the opening, prematurely tired sunrise; a cautious farewell, with piano, cymbals and perhaps the feel of something like Zappa’s “Sofa” stripped of its cynicism. The band, the players, the old men and women, fade graciously into the distance, and all that’s left is a coda; a polished retake on the opening song, after which Dylan straps on his boots and lets his harmonica lead him out of the album’s meadows, not all of them barren.

It is the bookending duopolies of tracks which bring the merest sense of structure to Self Portrait; in ages to come this sort of thing would have been entitled Odds And Sods or Sci-Fi Lullabies, throwaways, gap fillers, bits of business. But “we” wanted nothing less from the Dylan of 1970 than the Bible, written over again and again – “we” in inverted commas because I was too young to get involved in the 1965/6 Dylan Means Something/Is The Future/Our Only Hope business, and well, two generations down the track, does this particular tower of song really continue to bug us that much in its semi-usefulness? Only in the sense that “they” might have wanted Dylan to do more than just coast, as if the future of art were secure only in his hands, although I think Greil Marcus hit on a deeper woe in his original Rolling Stone (ha!) piece; the sixties were over, and what, we slowly gasped in gathering horror, if this were the shape of albums to come – random scribblings, a few diamonds but hey, soon we’ll all have computers and can pick and choose what we want to listen to; can’t we? – or what “rock” was always doomed to turn into; churning, efficient, template-pleasing “product.” Did anyone who bought Self Portrait and kept it in our charts for nearly four months listen to it more than once? There are about half a dozen tracks which I still wish to revisit regularly, and of these perhaps only “Copper Kettle” offers “substance” as well as the subtlest and direst of warnings to its audience about what might overtake the old, harmless moonshiners. And if this were the picture of himself Dylan wanted us to see in 1970, there isn't a corresponding Low-style eradication of self throughout the record; he might not give a damn half the time, but he's unmistakeably there. But then I turn straight back to “Prisencolinensinainciusol” and its effortless mischief masking a radical reclamation of personal language, and wish Dylan were sometimes more like Chris Marker.

2 comments:

david said...

I find it amazing that 'Self Portrait' got to number one. My first Dylan album was his next, 'New Morning' and, although I bought a copy of this to complete my collection a few years ago (for three quid, when one of my favourite Nottingham stores closed down) I've never played it all. I do remember a friend used to have a copy that he used as a comedy record, especially 'The Boxer'. As a result of your extensive write up I have added 'All The Tired Horses', 'Days of 49' and 'Copper Kettle' to my iTunes library. Thanks.

Sam said...

I am reading these through from the start, but thought I'd fast forward to comment on how much I am enjoying them. Your writing is both fevered and informative, like much of the best pop music. It's great stuff and a wonderfully ambitious project. Please Keep it up!