By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.

September 10, 2013 

After 41 albums, now starting on his 6th decade
as an American musical icon, Bob Dylan’s saga is nothing short of
legendary. For those of us who care about
such music, and there are a lot of us, we know the story by heart. Shiftless boy from Minnesota learns to play
the guitar & harmonica, taps into a rich vein of American folk music,
worships at the feet of the dying Woody Guthrie, starts channeling Leadbelly and
other aging bluesmen, becomes the darling of the folk/protest song movement,
turns his back on the folkies, gets booed for “going electric” but morphs into
a rock’n’roller to greater fame than he ever had before, has a motorcycle wreck
that puts him out of commission for 2-1/2 years, makes a comeback that puzzles
and frustrates everyone who wants the old Dylan back, gets written off as a
has-been over and over again but always comes back stronger than before, has a
religious conversion and pisses everyone off when he won’t play anything but
his religious tunes, gets through the religious phase but gets written off
again as a has-been, resurges with a Grammy for Best Album of the Year, and
coasts into his later years sounding like the aging black bluesmen and blue
collar folk singers he used to emulate, no longer the poster child of protest
everyone wanted him to be in the 1960’s, but now the voice of American music of
the last century.  If you’ve seen Dylan
in recent years (and I’ve seen him about a half dozen times), you’ll know that
he is resplendent in his timelessness, backed by a crack band that is
essentially a country ensemble.  His
music is more anthemic than anything anybody else is doing.  But, as always, he is playing more for
himself than his audience.  He rarely
acknowledges the audience, almost never picks up his harmonica anymore, often
spends an entire show at the keyboard rather than picking up a guitar, often
sings his old standards with different melodies than what everyone knows, always
re-inventing and toying with his art. 
But as frustrating and infuriating as he sometimes can be, as
self-absorbed an anti-showman as he often is, he still puts on a great
show.  I saw the crowd go crazy with a
Dylan cover of the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” that kicked ass more than I
think the Stones themselves could achieve.  I’ve seen his band launch into a country jazz
improvisation with the string bass player slapping and twirling the bass like
he was some kind of a crazed caricature in a cartoon.  And Dylan always caps a show these days with
a fired up, hard rocking version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which is Dylan
paying homage to Jimi Hendrix, who recorded the song in the first place to pay
homage to Dylan.  A Dylan show is an
event not to be missed.  I took a friend
once who was indifferent about Dylan before he walked into the concert—he left
the show a die-hard Dylan fan and remains one to this day. 

Which brings us to this month’s release:  “Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol.
10 (1969-1971).” This is the latest in a
long series of official bootleg releases from the Dylan camp. The Bootleg Series has been a joy, consisting
of unreleased and alternative tracks, plus several of the volumes have been
pivotal live concerts from various periods in Dylan’s long career. When Volume 10 was announced, it must have
seemed to some that they were running out of material and scraping the bottom
of the barrel.  Dylan’s 1970 album “Self
Portrait” was not well received by the critics. 
In fact, it was reviled by most critics. The album was puzzling in its day and fostered endless speculation on
whether it was an attempt at serious music or some kind of joke that Dylan was
perpetrating. Greil Marcus famously
began his review in Rolling Stone with the words “What is this shit?”  Now, Dylan has the last laugh.  He has the very same critic who trashed his
album in 1970 doing a serious re-evaluation of the music in the liner notes to
the current release. Apparently, Mr.
Marcus now thinks this is important enough shit to listen to and write about
again after 43 years.  

Given the benefit of over 4 decades of hindsight, the
original “Self Portrait” album is not nearly as bad as the critics made it out
to be.  Granted, it is a hodgepodge, made
up of covers of other peoples’ pop tunes, traditional tunes, some live tracks
from Dylan’s 1969 Isle of Wight appearance with The Band, and a few throw-off
originals. Dylan came back from his
motorcycle wreck toying with the Nashville sound and affecting a country
crooner voice that was off-putting for some people (not that Dylan’s usual
voice is all that pretty.)  Some of the
choices of covers were perplexing picks, like Dylan’s version of Simon and
Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” After his pre-accident masterpiece album “Blonde on
Blonde,” which was also a double LP, the “Self Portrait” double album must have
seemed like a bad joke at the time, an ugly foil to that greater earlier record.  But listening to “Self Portrait” nowadays,
and putting it in the context of 41 albums spanning a long career, it’s really
rather fun.  Even the Simon and Garfunkel
cover is hilarious, with Dylan duetting with himself, parodying the original by
singing both the Simon and the Garfunkel parts in a comic send-up of the Simon
& Garfunkel style.  The live tracks
with The Band are great, and some of the traditional tunes are reminiscent of
Dylan’s first album, which consisted of all covers recorded before he started
writing songs of his own.  “Copper
Kettle” stands out, a traditional folk number that was part of ex-girlfriend Joan
Baez’s repertoire going back to 1962. 

“Another Self Portrait” has been released as a 2-CD boxed
set with a booklet, and also as a 4-CD boxed set with two hardcover books, one
with the same content as the booklet in the regular release, and the second a
book of photographs of Dylan from the 1969-1971 period.  The 2 CD’s of “Another Self Portrait” contain
mostly stripped down versions without overdubs of a number of the previously
released tracks, plus unreleased tracks, and also a few tracks that have been
fancied up with extra overdubs.  The
expanded, deluxe edition has a third disc which is the complete, historic Isle
of Wight Concert from 1969.  This was
Dylan’s first paid appearance after he came back from his motorcycle
wreck.  He was living in Woodstock, NY,
at the time, and it was widely rumored that he would appear at Woodstock (he
didn’t.)  In fact, he left for the Isle
of Wight the day that the famous Woodstock music festival started.  This is the historic concert he gave at the
Isle of Wight with The Band.  Finally,
Disc Four is the original remastered “Self Portrait” album, sounding better
than ever, written off in its day as a colossal failure, but standing up better
than ever in 2013.    

To be sure, Dylan wasn’t back on top again until the
mid-1970’s with albums like “Blood on the Tracks” and “Desire.” But whether it
was originally intended as a joke or a serious release (or just Dylan thumbing
his nose at a world that still wanted him to be the Messiah), this revival of
“Self Portrait” and Dylan’s controversial 1969-1971 period begs a re-evaluation
of this music.