When Bob Dylan released his double-album Self Portrait in June 1970, the critics hated it. Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus famously wrote in disgust and bewilderment, “What is this shit?”
Marcus and the others missed the point then. Self Portrait is a terrific piece of work by Dylan, an artist who does what he pleases and, as Bob Marley once put it, makes the crowd follow him. In 1970, he felt like singing covers. The result was wonderful. His voice sounded beautiful. The guitars crackled. The production was terrific, too.
So, why people slam the album in 1970? I suspect that the timing couldn’t have been worse for this album. The Kent State massacre had occurred six weeks earlier. The war in Vietnam continued to rage on. Young people in the U.S. and around the world were protesting everywhere. They looked to their poets and songwriters for guidance, leadership and inspiration.
Neil Young and his bandmates rush-released a new song called Ohio, in protest of Kent State. It was well received and burnished Young’s reputation as a man of the people. Dylan, for his part, came out with Self Portrait, which featured, among other songs, a cover of Blue Moon. No wonder people were confused by Dylan and upset with him.
Now, critics and fans get another opportunity to appreciate Self Portrait, the latest gift in the terrific “Bootleg” series that Dylan and his management have been putting out since 1991. We can appreciate the music without thinking about the fury of the times in 1970. And the music holds up beautifully, too.
The deluxe version of the release features some real treats, such as a well mixed CD of the Aug. 31, 1969 concert by Dylan and The Band (backing him up, brilliantly as ever), performed at the Isle of Wight festival in England — marking Dylan’s only official concert from mid-1966 to 1974. Plus, the original Self Portrait album has been re-mastered and it sounds really nice.
The discs containing never-released versions of covers, outtakes from New Morning and Self Portrait and other diamonds in the rough are what stand out. Dylan’s singing voice is otherworldly. He is trying hard to break new ground with these recordings, and succeeds on a grand level.
Take Pretty Saro. It is a thing of beauty. Dylan doesn’t sound like anyone else and expands his distinctive Nashville Skyline vocal to something entirely new. He is a masterful singer, putting his stamp on the tune, lovingly.
Dylan clearly loves this music. Sure, he knew that he was countering the trends of psychedelic rock and 10-minute drum solos and drug-filled music. He was simply picking his guitar and singing in a straight-forward way — because that was what was in his heart.
It’s also fun to note how a song like Went to See the Gypsy, supposedly written about a real or imagined meeting between Dylan and Elvis Presley, took shape. This is a new set of lyrics for the most part, from what appears on New Morning, with a different arrangement. Dylan is a restless artist, constantly innovating. This quality shines through on Another Self Portrait.
The album chronicles Dylan’s work from 1969 to 1971. This is often referred to Dylan’s “middle period,” the span between the artist’s mad 1966 tour and the comeback concerts in 1974.
But to give this music that kind of description seems to belittle it. Dylan never had a middle period. He was evolving all the time. This is a great period for him, one of his most evocative of all. He is searching to capture a new kind of sound and push the boundaries of his talents to create something memorable.
He succeeded wildly.