Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)
When Bob Dylan released Self Portrait – his 10th album – it was perceived as some strange fuck-you to the world. A tentative come-out-from-hiding that was head-scratchingly lazy. Covers, country odes, folk odds and sods, some live tracks that felt like strays, all with that strange croon; for an artist like Dylan to call an album Self Portrait – you can imagine the fans were beside themselves waiting for the revelation. They’d had the revolution already. And now…
But, no. It was a dud. At least that’s what so many seemed to think. Funny what time does after it slips away. Greil Marcus started his review at the time, famously, with “what is this shit?” Here, for the 10th entry into The Bootleg Series Marcus is on hand to provide the (great) liner notes.
So Another Self Portrait, as the subtitle for this set tells us, is the alternative telling of the tale from around this time. Not just the Self Portrait record but also New Morning and the first real sidestep in his career, Nashville Skyline.
This version of events – these demos, unreleased rarities and alternate versions – is very easy on the ear, free from expectations, though somehow it feels like The Bootleg Series is worthy again. Sure, the recent volume featured publishing demos and curios but too often the series was simply offering up live gigs; this attempts to get back to that original three-volume box - a peek/peak behind the scenes.
Some of what you’ll hear here is so much better than what went on the record – in the case of Self Portrait certainly. New Morning hangs together well for mine, I love that album. But there are some amazing versions of the songs in sketch form, Dylan singing Went To See The Gypsy alone at the electric piano is a highlight.
Just as often as the songs are stripped down/stripped back they’re also dressed up – here you’ll hear horns and strings, band versions – even (live) versions with The Band. You’ll also hear Dylan bringing up a few old songs from the world’s other greatest songwriter, Public Domain. I kept thinking of that comment from Robbie Robertson around the time of The Basement Tapes, how they couldn’t tell what songs Dylan had written and which ones he’d found/appropriated.
The closing demo of When I Paint My Masterpiece feels so perfect here – not just to close this project off; to make a statement – not just as the best version of the song by anyone but because it feels like a song that was around forever, that Dylan just somehow discovered it, plucked it (as it were).
There’s so much joy here too. As a songwriter Dylan was taking risks in being the low-key man about home. Think of how back at his spite-fuelled/filled best/worst/ugliest he was venting out questions as statements (Ballad of A Thin Man). New Morning is filled with statements as questions – finding the bliss in the family home, “have a bunch of kids who call me Pa”.
Here’s a sign then from another window. Or another angle from that same window.
And this is (actually) what it’s all about.