In the clearing stands a boxer, And a fighter by his trade And he carries the reminders Of ev'ry glove that laid him down And cut him till he cried out In his anger and his shame, “I am leaving, I am leaving.” But the fighter still remains
When “Self Portait” was released by Bob Dylan in June of 1970, the critical reception was awful. Greil Marcus of Rolling Stone famously started his review of the record by saying “What is this shit?” I guess rightly so, it’s kind of hard to imagine how bizarre this probably seemed back in the day to fans of 60’s rock n’ roll Dylan. I mean, I don’t think a Bob Dylan album could have possibly started stranger, with “All the Tired Horses”, a pretty bizarre (to say the least), orchestral song about not being able to get any riding done sung by a choir of women, Dylan nowhere to be heard. That one was definitely a curveball. But I don’t understand how if Greil Marcus kept listening, he could still have hated this record. Immediately following the first track comes “Alberta #1”. Maybe fans in 1970 were expecting something like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” when they read the title “Alberta #1”, but still, even if you were expecting something entirely different, it’s hard not to like this song. A great lonesome, heartbroken traditional country song, complete with twangy slide guitars and a playful bassline, this song is one of the best on the album, and one of the best of his country songs (which, by the way, he had already been doing since John Wesley Harding, so it’s not like nobody had ever heard this before.). “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” follows in Alberta’s wake in the same vein, a slow country song, but this time with a decidedly different attitude from the singer, recognizably more Dylan-esque, though still not written by Dylan. Taking the role of the lover who knows much more about his past love than her new lover, “Forgot” is much more bitter than Alberta, which begs its subject to come back, while Forgot is happy to leave its subject behind and show that he doesn’t need her anymore, definitely something Dylan would have written circa the mid 1960’s.
Like the aforementioned songs, there’s quite a few really well done traditional country songs on this record, and to go through them all would take me a damn long time, but it’s clear here that Dylan’s understanding of country and folk is very mature. I think this is what’s so great about Self Portrait. Self Portrait to me seems like a new way of seeing Bob Dylan, and for Dylan himself I like to think that this record was his revised way of seeing folk music, and roots music in general. We already know, looking back, that Dylan & The Band’s understanding of roots music was markedly more mature than his initial understanding by listening to the then-unreleased “Basement Tapes”, an amalgamation of funny, folky, bluesy, rocky, happy, sad, joking, and longing songs that captured the spirit of American music better than Dylan had ever captured it as a folksinger or a rock musician. These songs had a real shape to them, a cohesive sound, and most of all, a vision. And their poor recording only made them the more interesting and mysterious. In some ways, I think that “Self Portrait” is Dylan’s country version of “The Basement Tapes”. A ragtag group of songs that have no “cohesive” theme of subject, but rather a cohesive theme of style. Instead of doing folk songs here, though, Dylan uses country songs. “Self Portrait” is a grouping of country songs that stick together even though most of them wouldn’t stand alone (and they really didn’t, there wasn’t one single from this album that had moderate success, besides “The Mighty Quinn”, which had already been done on “The Basement Tapes”).
Seen in this light, “Self Portrait” is not such a terrible record. Alhtough, yes, it was nothing like Dylan’s previous works, and there are a lot of forgettable moments (“In Search of Little Sadie”, “Like a Rolling Stone” live version, Dylan’s cover of S&G’s “The Boxer”), there are a lot of really great moments for the new country rock that Dylan was essentially pioneering (“I Forgot More”, “Let It Be Me”, “Living The Blues”). I think it’s easy to get lost in the “what the…?!” moments and lose sight of this record’s shining stars. Not to mention, this record is overflowing with amazing musicians, both Dylan devotees from The Band, and various session musicians, who show their brilliance as American roots players throughout the record. Possibly the greatest example of the musical expertise of these musicians is on “Little Sadie” (not to be confused with “In Search of Little Sadie”). The flatpicking guitar on “Little Sadie” is perfectly executed, Doc Watson style, fast and clear. Songs like “The Mighty Quinn”, “Woogie Boogie”, and nearly all of the great country songs on this record showcase the deep understanding of the various types of American music by Dylan’s backing musicians, and in a way. of Dylan himself. Although, I think it’s fair to say, this record is, like “The Basement Tapes”, less about Dylan himself, and more about the music and the musicians. This is not such a “Dylan record” in the traditional sense, that is, a lyrical record first, with music and melody taking the backseat. Rather, “Self Portrait” is an album where the music and the tradition of the music take the front seat and the lyrics trail behind. Again, taken individually, these songs are nothing very special. None are especially potent, and most weren’t even written by Dylan, but taken as a whole, with the focus on the music and the melody, “Self Portrait” gives us a new way of seeing Bob Dylan and his music. Like the cover art itself and the fact that this is a double record, “Self Portrait” seems to be striving to be the new “Blonde on Blonde”. Although, by most standards, “Self Portrait” could never replace “Blonde on Blonde”, it serves to suggest that this is the new Bob Dylan. Like “Blonde on Blonde”, with its photograph of Dylan, its epic length and cohesive sound of rock n’ roll mixed with singer-songwriter style songs, the cover of “Self Portrait” also depicts Dylan, albeit this time in an expressionist/cubist style painting as opposed to a photograph, spans four sides of two vinyl discs, and contains within it the cohesive sound of country, rock, folk, and blues, a new defining statement from Dylan. “Self Portrait” serves to blur the lines for Dylan (literally with respect to the album artwork) between the various genres of American music that he had been playing for so long, yet all the while so separately and distinctly. This record, like its predecessor, “The Basement Tapes”, takes all of Dylan’s influences and mashes them into one giant bowl, shakes them up, and gives us a totally new product with all the tastes and goodness of the ingredients he threw in the bowl to begin with.