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Bob Dylan's 'Self Portrait,' Now In Vivid Color

Bob Dylan in 1970, the year he released his 10th studio album, <em>Self Portrait</em>.
John Cohen
/
Courtesy of the artist
Bob Dylan in 1970, the year he released his 10th studio album, Self Portrait.

In the late 1960s, it wasn't just that Bob Dylan's music was eagerly anticipated — it was music that millions of people pored over: for pleasure, for confirmation of their own ideas, and for clues as to the state of mind of its creator. In this context, the double-album Self-Portrait arrived in 1970 with a resounding, moist flop. I don't mean it was a commercial flop; it sold well. But, with its diffident-sounding vocals and some mawkish string arrangements, Self Portrait just did not fit in with its era, with its moment in pop culture, and in Dylan history. In retrospect, that seems to have been Dylan's intent. Now, a new collection includes alternate takes, demos, and songs that weren't included in the original double-album. What emerges is a Self Portrait — titled Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 — with more vivid detail and brighter, sharper colors.

With the passage of time, with the 2004 publication of Dylan's memoir Chronicles, and from interviews with various musicians involved in the recordings, the material on Another Self Portrait can be understood as deriving from a Dylan trying to slip free from his fame, and from a cultish mystique that had only increased since his 1966 motorcycle accident. He retreated — sometimes literally, avoiding, for example, the Woodstock Festival in 1969 in favor of the Isle of Wight festival a continent away from his home. And he retreated figuratively, frequently into old songs in the public domain that sparked something in him. The original Self Portrait contained two versions of "Alberta," a song made famous by Leadbelly, but it's this third, previously unreleased version of it that turns it into a rollicking blues shuffle. It is replete with, yes, trilling backup singers, yet it also makes a distinction: It conveys an intimacy with music, but not with a mass audience. That was what Dylan was attempting during this period. He found escape — freedom — in a performance like this.

Another Self Portrait serves a more prosaic function, to be sure: as a souvenir of its time. Thus, we get a genially shambling collaboration between Dylan and George Harrison, a moment of non-transcendent meditation with some nice guitar work, called "Working on a Guru."

A key to the ongoing allure of Dylan's music lies in its ability to stand apart from its time. Robbie Robertson is paraphrased in the liner notes here as saying that Dylan would come to the studio with songs that no one could know were his or not: originals, or old obscurities from other musicians. Some of the best tunes here are stripped-down tracks featuring just Dylan, Al Kooper on keyboards, and the guitar work of David Bromberg, himself the creator of an excellent new album called Only Slightly Mad that I urge you to seek out. In 1984, Dylan told Rolling Stone that his thinking at the time of Self Portrait had been, "I wanna do something [people] can't possibly like, [that] they can't relate to." Turns out he was wrong.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.