Bob Dylan's 'Self Portrait,' Now In Vivid Color

Sep 10, 2013

In the late 1960s, it wasn't just that Bob Dylan's music was eagerly anticipated — it was music that millions of people pored over: for pleasure, for confirmation of their own ideas, and for clues as to the state of mind of its creator. In this context, the double-album Self-Portrait arrived in 1970 with a resounding, moist flop. I don't mean it was a commercial flop; it sold well. But, with its diffident-sounding vocals and some mawkish string arrangements, Self Portrait just did not fit in with its era, with its moment in pop culture, and in Dylan history. In retrospect, that seems to have been Dylan's intent. Now, a new collection includes alternate takes, demos, and songs that weren't included in the original double-album. What emerges is a Self Portrait — titled Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 — with more vivid detail and brighter, sharper colors.

With the passage of time, with the 2004 publication of Dylan's memoir Chronicles, and from interviews with various musicians involved in the recordings, the material on Another Self Portrait can be understood as deriving from a Dylan trying to slip free from his fame, and from a cultish mystique that had only increased since his 1966 motorcycle accident. He retreated — sometimes literally, avoiding, for example, the Woodstock Festival in 1969 in favor of the Isle of Wight festival a continent away from his home. And he retreated figuratively, frequently into old songs in the public domain that sparked something in him. The original Self Portrait contained two versions of "Alberta," a song made famous by Leadbelly, but it's this third, previously unreleased version of it that turns it into a rollicking blues shuffle. It is replete with, yes, trilling backup singers, yet it also makes a distinction: It conveys an intimacy with music, but not with a mass audience. That was what Dylan was attempting during this period. He found escape — freedom — in a performance like this.

Another Self Portrait serves a more prosaic function, to be sure: as a souvenir of its time. Thus, we get a genially shambling collaboration between Dylan and George Harrison, a moment of non-transcendent meditation with some nice guitar work, called "Working on a Guru."

A key to the ongoing allure of Dylan's music lies in its ability to stand apart from its time. Robbie Robertson is paraphrased in the liner notes here as saying that Dylan would come to the studio with songs that no one could know were his or not: originals, or old obscurities from other musicians. Some of the best tunes here are stripped-down tracks featuring just Dylan, Al Kooper on keyboards, and the guitar work of David Bromberg, himself the creator of an excellent new album called Only Slightly Mad that I urge you to seek out. In 1984, Dylan told Rolling Stone that his thinking at the time of Self Portrait had been, "I wanna do something [people] can't possibly like, [that] they can't relate to." Turns out he was wrong.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Bob Dylan's history is being reopened again with the release of "Another Self-Portrait (1969-1971): the Bootleg Series Vol. 10" on Columbia Records. The collection features 35 tracks from the recording sessions for the albums "Self-Portrait," "New Morning" and "Nashville Skyline." Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's a fascinating collection that adds to our appreciation of Dylan's range and ambition.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING SESSION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

BOB DYLAN: Let's just take this one. You ready? (Singing) I went out last night to take a little round. I met my little Sadie, and I brought her down. I run right home and I went to bed with a 44 smokeless under my head.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In the late 1960s, it wasn't just that Bob Dylan's music was eagerly anticipated. It was music that millions of people pored over for pleasure, for confirmation of their own ideas, and for clues to the state of mind of its creator. In this context, the double-album called "Self-Portrait" arrived in 1970 with a resounding flop.

I don't mean that it was a commercial flop. It sold well. But with its diffident-sounding vocals and some mawkish string section arrangements, "Self-Portrait" just did not fit in with its era, with its moment in pop culture, and in Dylan history - which, in retrospect, seems to have been Dylan's intent.

Now, a new collection includes alternate takes, demos and songs that weren't included in the original double album. What emerges is a self-portrait with more vivid detail and brighter, sharper colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DYLAN: (Singing) Sylvie is a good ol' gal from Florida, so they say. She came up here last April to pass some time away. Now, won't you bring me a little water, Sylvie? Bring me a little water now. Bring me a little water, Sylvie, for my tired brow. Sylvie came...

TUCKER: With the passage of time, with the 2004 publication of Dylan's memoir "Chronicles," and from interviews with various musicians involved in the recordings, the material on "Another Self-Portrait" can be understood as deriving from a Dylan trying to slip free from his fame, from a cultish mystique that had only increased since his 1966 motorcycle accident. He retreated, sometimes literally, avoiding, for example, the Woodstock Festival in 1969 in favor of the Isle of Wight Festival a continent away from his home.

And he retreated figuratively, frequently into old songs in the public domain that sparked something in him. The original "Self-Portrait" contained two versions of the song "Alberta," a song made famous by Lead Belly, but it's this third, previously unreleased version of it that turns it into a rollicking blues shuffle. It is replete with, yes, trilling backup singers, yet it also makes a distinction. It conveys an intimacy with music, but not with not with a mass audience.

That was what Dylan was attempting during this period. He found escape, freedom in a performance like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALBERTA")

DYLAN: (Singing) Alberta, let your hair hang low. Alberta, let your hair hang low. I'll give you more gold than your apron strings can hold if you'll only let your hair hang low.

TUCKER: This collection "Another Self-Portrait" serves a more prosaic function, to be sure, as a souvenir of its time. Thus, we get this genially shambling collaboration between Dylan and George Harrison, a moment of non-transcended meditation with some nice guitar work called "Working on a Guru."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKING ON A GURU")

DYLAN: (Singing) Rain all around, windshield wipers moving, water on the ground, sure don't feel like grooving. Working on a guru. Working on a guru. Working on a guru before the sun goes down.

TUCKER: A key to the ongoing allure of Dylan's music is its ability to stand apart from its time. Robbie Robertson is paraphrased in the liner notes here as saying that Dylan would come to the studio with songs that no one could know were his or not, originals or old obscurities from other musicians. Some of the best tunes here are stripped down tracks featuring just Dylan, Al Cooper on keyboards and the guitar work of David Bromberg, himself the creator of an excellent new album called "Only Slightly Mad" that I urge you to seek out.

In 1984, Dylan told Rolling Stone that his thinking at the time of "Self-Portrait" had been, quote, "I want to do something people can't possibly like, that they can't relate to." Well, turns out, he was wrong.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Dylan's "Another Self-Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I PAINT MY MASTERPIECE")

DYLAN: (Singing) Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble. Aged footprints are everywhere. You can almost think that you're seeing double on a cold, dark night by the Spanish Stairs. Got to hurry on back to my hotel room, where I got me a date with a pretty little girl from Greece. She promised she'd be right there with me when I paint my masterpiece.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. You can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. Our blog is on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.