Self portrait

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

All the tired horses in the sun
How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?

I was brought up on Bob Dylan. My parents had ten records in their music collection (aside from children’s LPs). There were two ‘Classics for Pleasure’ albums, Joan Baez in Content Volume II, a Joan Baez EP featuring her version of ‘Plaisir d’Amour’, and the first six Dylan albums. My parents were not social rebels, still less followers of what was happening to pop music in the early 1960s, but the sincerity of Dylan’s music clearly spoke deeply to them. Equally clearly, they abandoned him once he picked up an electric guitar and started to produce what must have sounded like noisy pop music, precisely the sort of sounds from which his earlier records have stood out as offering something different, something genuine, that spoke not just to the young of America but to a young couple raising a family in Tunbridge Wells.

I don’t recall them playing the records much while I was around, but I knew the sleeves and every word of the liner notes. Then, when I was seven or eight, a teacher at my school asked if anyone’s parents had records by Dylan or Baez, because she was keen to find the lyrics to Dylan’s song ‘Masters of War’. That night my mother transcribed the lyrics for me and I took them triumphantly to school the next day. Did that teacher then go off and earnestly sing Dylan’s anti-war masterpiece at some party? I do hope so. One can hope to change the world, even if you’re a young primary school teacher, armed only with an acoustic guitar, and living in Herne Bay. The truth will sing out, wherever you are.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy

Dylan slowly started seeping into my consciousness, even as I was listening to the music that you were supposed to like at that age – T. Rex, Slade and so on. The dam burst when my father bought a book of Dylan’s lyrics for my mother. I’m not sure that she read it much, because I didn’t give her the chance. The book became my bible. I knew every word of every Dylan song (such as I thought the book represented) long before I had heard the vast majority of them. Each album that I now played from my parents’ collection or started to buy for myself was a process of amazed discovery and I finally heard the tunes and arrangements to words that I could recite by heart.

By the age of sixteen I was the world’s leading authority on Bob Dylan – or at least north Kent’s leading authority. The effort I had previously put into knowing all that there was to know about football (the history and statistics always appealed to me more than the game itself) I now transposed to Dylanology. I knew every song, the history and import of every song, I knew as much of Dylan’s personal history as the muddled historiography of that time would allow, and I loved the poetry – not the poetry of words alone, but poetry enriched and made fully apparent through tunes, musical forms, and that rasping voice that sung the truth even while it continually wondered just what truth it was looking for.

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

The rest of the history can be told quickly. I saw Dylan when I was seventeen at Earl’s Court (ten rows from the front – I’ll swear he saw me waving), then at the Blackbushe festival in 1978. I’ve seen him play three or four times since then. I weathered his ‘born again’ phase, lost interest around the mid-1980s and sold all my albums when I was in need of the money. Then at some point in the late 1990s I saw on TV a ballet of some sort based on early Dylan recordings I’d never heard before, and was entranced. They came from The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991, a collection of material Dylan had never got round to releasing.

The quality of songs and the performances was astonishing – the stuff he had rejected was so much superior to that which the rest of the music world was earnestly publishing. I had ended up like my parents, rejecting the pap of pop and discovering the sincerity of Dylan the singer of songs that were timeless. And then he released Time out of Mind, and it was like all that had gone before was apprentice work. Glorious album after glorious album then followed, plus an Oscar-winning song (‘Things have changed’), an exceptional, innovative autobiography (Chronicles), exhibitions of his paintings, a Martin Scorsese-directed documentary, even a turn at being the best DJ ever (Theme Time Radio Hour). And so on.

The Dylan paintings from the two versions of Self Portrait, plus Dylan himself centre
The Dylan paintings from the two versions of Self Portrait, plus Dylan himself centre

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

In the middle of Bob Dylan’s grand career is an album – a double album – that angered the critics, bewildered the majority, and has been a guilty pleasure for the few. Self Portrait was released in 1970 while Dylan was in recovery from the absurd intensity for him of most of the previous decade, plus a motorcycle accident. It came after the surprise of Nashville Skyline, his country music album, but if that effort left audiences baffled, Self Portrait made them angry. It was a ramshackle collection of mostly other people’s songs, indifferently presented, erratically produced, and ranging from soupy standards such as ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’ to disastrous versions of songs that wanted no cover version such as ‘The Boxer’, to tunes like ‘Wigwam’ where the people’s poet simply sang la-la-la. Throughout Dylan affected the crooning singing voice that made Nashville Skyline such a surprise. For those seeking the ongoing message on how to think, Self Portrait was more than a disappointment – it was an insult.

That said, many liked it. It was Dylan’s first number one album (in the UK), and when I came across it six or seven years later I was initially puzzled but found myself liking the songs in spite of everything. Though there were some lapses in taste, mostly it it was a collection of songs that it was good to sing, and which lingered in the mind – precisely why Dylan chose them. I loved the two versions of Clarence Ashley’s ‘Little Sadie’, one a conventional up-tempo take close to the original, the other (‘In Search of Little Sadie’) a bizarre, stop-start deconstruction. I loved the melancholic female chorus singing ‘All the Tired Horses’ over and over again. I loved the wistfulness of ‘Copper Kettle’, the rich storytelling of ‘Days of 49’, the cheesy ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and the romance of ‘Belle Isle’. It didn’t matter which were Dylan’s songs and which the songs of others.

Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it roll?
Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

Time has passed on, and Self Portrait has regained some respect, even if Dylan himself has been dismissive of it. It seems to fit naturally alongside Dylan’s first album (most of which featured other people’s songs), his two revelatory folk standards recordings, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, even the bizarre Christmas in the Heart, and certainly the profound understanding of traditional songs – old and new – that Dylan showed throughout Theme Time Radio Hour. Dylan works within a grand tradition. Sometimes it is his songs that he contributes to that tradition; sometimes he sings the songs of others, and often it is hard to tell the one from the other, as he borrows tunes and phrases from others while producing songs that countless others have borrowed, adapted and made their own.

Now comes Another Self Portrait, tenth in the series of official ‘bootlegs’ that have made available Dylan’s unreleased recordings in exemplary packages which rewrite music history. The albums Dylan released in his original prime were only one part of his legacy; the bootleg series has widened and enriched that legacy so that past Dylan is in a constant process of reinvention even as Dylan today pushes forward with new albums as fresh and arresting as his first.

Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

Another Self Portrait is a collection of outtakes and alternative versions from Self Portrait and the album that followed it, New Morning. It is the album that Self Portrait was meant to be, released at a time when we are better able to understand it. Certainly part of the problem with the original record seems to have been producer Bob Johnston’s uncertainty over how to treat this material. The plainer renditions here, losing strings and overdubs, certainly help (though some big production surprises remain – ‘New Morning’ with horns, a swooping surge of sound at the start of ‘Time Passes Slowly’). The original album’s severe lapses, such as ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Blue Moon’, are gone, while beautiful renditions of Eric Andersen’s ‘Thirsty Boots’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘Annie’s Gonna Sing Her Song’ fit in harmoniously with ‘Days of 49’, ‘Belle Isle’, ‘Railroad Bill’ and an impassioned ‘This Evening So Soon’, all traditional songs.

There is a sensational, menacing take on ‘House Carpenter’ (taken from Clarence Ashley but based on an old English ballad), a louche ‘If Dogs Run Free’ minus its scat singing, two versions of the cryptic ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, and particularly pleasingly some excellent live recordings from the 1969 Isle of Wight festival of which previous recordings have made it sound like the concert was a mess. Here were get a jaunty ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that more than matches the original, and the deluxe version of the CD features a third disc with all seventeen of Dylan’s performances from the concert, which sound so terrific you wonder why on earth it wasn’t released as a separate album in the Bootleg series.

The best is always yet to come
That’s what they explain to me
Just do your thing, you’ll be king
If dogs run free

Another Self Portrait rewrites history in that it presents a wiser take on recording sessions from forty years ago that were a reflection of uncertainty from the artist and the producer. It presents an argument that says this is what was really meant. It is an historical judgment, reviewing the past from the vantage point of the present. It takes us away from the linear understanding of an artist’s progression, album by album, and suggests that only now, as we recognise that Dylan the troubadour sees his art as part of a grand tradition of American song, can what he tried to do in 1970 be understood and appreciated. Many of us rather liked Self Portrait at the time, for all its blemishes, but Another Self Portrait loses the blemishes and rediscovers purpose. At last the album’s title make sense. It is a portrait of Dylan through American song, and a portrait of ourselves.


  • The whole album, including the extra disc with the Isle of Wight concert, can be heard on (via iTunes)
  • An exhibition of Dylan’s art is featured at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 5 January 2014


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