Peter Robinson on Dylan’s ‘Another Self Portrait’

Dylan white suit

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This review article was originally commissioned by Terry Kelly (in memoriam) and first published in The Bridge (2013). It is reprinted here on the occasion of Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday.

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‘If I was a poet’: on Another Self Portrait
Peter Robinson

I suppose it was bound to be a disappointment. A friend and I had hitchhiked down from Liverpool with rucksacks and sleeping bags. In August 1969 I was just a kid of sixteen. Not much of the music has stayed in my mind: ‘Proud Mary’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ played over the sound system between sets, Richie Havens, and The Band offering thoroughly recognizable performances in their signature styles, both perfectly audible through a functioning PA system. Then, finally, after all that waiting, a weekend of physical discomfort, acute homesickness, and incipient agoraphobia, on came Bob Dylan in a white suit that seemed slightly too big for him. It was very late in the evening when he appeared and the field full of folk had grown pretty restless, as can be sensed from the voice introducing him, trying to get all those people to sit down. It is difficult to characterize what happened next, and, strangely enough, the third CD of Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), doesn’t really help to call it up, even when, with the help of YouTube fragments, I try, perhaps because, as the words of ‘Open the Door, Homer’ put it, you should ‘Take care of all of your memories … Because you cannot relive them.’

dylan album

First of all, as is now familiar enough, unlike The Band and Richie Havens, the songs didn’t sound the same. Suddenly The Band had turned back into a cross between the Hawks and the Crackers, making it up as they went along (or so it seemed): you can hear on this new CD the dramatic change of rhythm between Dylan riffing through the chords of ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and Robertson coming in with that descending sequence, or the key adjustment between Robertson’s first go at the opening riff to ‘Rainy Day Women’ (their final encore), and the key that they eventually play it in. For practically the last lines he sings, Dylan improvises a verse about how ‘They’ll stone you when you’re singing in the mike’. Was he having difficulty with it? His mesmerizing ducking and weaving around the thing means that he’s sometimes just off-mike at the opening of the lyric after a guitar solo. But what had he done to the tune and changes of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’? Did he have the right harmonica in the frame for that perfunctory solo on ‘My Tambourine Man’? What had happened to the other verses of ‘To Ramona’? Had he forgotten the words to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’? And what had become of the PA system between when Robertson was playing on The Band’s set and when he did his solos on Dylan’s songs? Suddenly there was the most piercing feedback shriek on some of his high notes. The only ‘new’ song Dylan played was ‘Minstrel Boy’. And no sooner had he told us it was ‘Great to be here, sure is’ than he was gone. Up we stood and started to file off in a great, bedraggled pilgrimage, there and then, towards the ferry at Ryde. Once at its pier, I spent the rest of the night in a queue, attempting to doze, sitting upright on my rucksack, until the next morning’s first ferry hove into view and finally let us on.

A couple of years later, I came across two bootleg LPs in a Bradford record shop: one was called Waters of Oblivion, with a blank CBS orange middle, which turned out to be the original ‘Basement Tapes’ acetate of fourteen songs; the other, with a white middle, was The Isle of Wight concert. Waters of Oblivion was a high quality pressing that played all the way through without jumping, and the sound was good. The other was a genuine bootleg in the other sense: there were jumps, the sound was wildly unbalanced and overladen with crackle and the shrieking feedback on Robertson’s guitar was particularly piercing. So perhaps some of my disappointed memories of the actual concert – coloured as they were by homesickness – are inevitably inflected by my experience of attempting to relive it from this pressing. Yet there were things on the album that got right inside me, in particular the acoustic versions of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and the sublimely unexpected, at the time baffling, crooned version of ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’. The versions of ‘She Belongs to Me’, ‘I Threw It All Away’, ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’, ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Highway 61’ all ingrained themselves as definitively memorable variants, and I only wished I could hear them properly.

In the accompanying material to this release Michael Simmons writes that ‘There’s no Dylan Bootleg like an officially sanctioned Dylan Bootleg. The perfect combo of access, knowledge, sequencing, state-of-the-art engineering, cover design and full-immersion wisdom is delivered under the Dylan imprimatur.’ Don’t get me wrong: I’m immensely grateful that Another Self Portrait has been released and have enjoyed all of it in different ways and to different degrees, but I can’t help feeling that this protests too much – as if Keith Richards really were Jack Sparrow’s father, or this release had any real relation to piracy or bootlegging. I felt this most acutely with the third CD of the Isle of Wight concert. It is so beautifully state-of-the-art re-engineered, the feedback still there but turned down to a point where it doesn’t obtrude, that listening to it is exactly like my enjoyment of the 1966 ‘Judas’ concert (which, taking place when I was a mere thirteen, had been beyond the possibility of my attending). I can actually listen to those 31 August 1969 performances in a way that I couldn’t at the time and have not really been able to access since. Yet why have we had to wait so long to hear a decent recording of that wonderful ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’? It’s been so long, in my case, that all I have learned from it about poetry and music and art predates, and is not really added to by, my ability to hear it properly.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I have improvised something of a homemade aesthetic from those few minutes of music. The most important element is the overt contrast between what the lyric says and how the singing says it: this is a most painfully moving and sorrowful way to announce that your interlocutor might as well ‘get lost, because you’ve got me wrong, and, anyway, I’m with someone else’. The syncopated pause and stop-change rhythm between the penultimate and final verses, or the suspended final note hanging on a high, strummed, suspended E-sixth chord are sublime. The re-evocation of the tune with those lovely descent on ‘no, no, no’, and all the other descanting discoveries bring such a range of articulated feelings into the meaning of the words that the entire performance expresses a condensation of conflicted emotion about a relationship ending such as you don’t tend to get in popular music. There, for the most part, the usual approach is to reinforce the one idea of the lyric (when vocally understood by the performer) with the notion of a suitable ‘backing’. By playing lyric, voicing, and musical accompaniment off against each other, Dylan lifts his art into the realm of poetry where what makes it good will likely be a complexly contrapuntal relationship between sound and sense, a composed and inexhaustible sound sense.

But let me just get any other residual disappointments over by reviewing that list of benefits to an authorized ‘bootleg’. Access: the photographs of tape boxes on the deluxe version indicate the existence of Dylan’s ‘Dock of the Bay’ and ‘Universal Soldier’, something called ‘When a Fellow’s Out of a Job’, and ‘Ball and Stripes Rag’. That’s not ‘access’, that’s tease. Knowledge: there’s nothing written here to indicate that the version of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ (first CD, track 5) is not the same take as the piano-and-vocal-only version on the B-side of ‘Watching the River Flow’. This one has a much more lyrically melodic piano style (so much so that I wondered if it might be played by Al Kooper) and is attributed to the Self Portrait sessions, while the one on the single’s B-side has clearly Dylan-style piano, in the manner of ‘The Man in Me’, making it seem an outtake from the New Morning sessions. What is absolutely definitely wrong is where it says on the ‘sleeve’ notes that Kooper is playing a piano on ‘Copper Kettle’, he’s audibly playing an organ. While, more uncertainly, is Dylan playing the organ on the second ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ or is it Kooper? Clinton Heylin has it as played by Kooper in Behind Closed Doors: The Recording Sessions 1960-1994. I may well be wrong, but to my ear both this ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ and that ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ sound like Dylan singing to an accompaniment, not him singing to his own. As for full-immersion wisdom, I offer just one question: however beautifully unexpected, and gratefully received (like crumbs from a banquet), what is that all too brief Basement Tape version of ‘Minstrel Boy’ doing on this album? The track listings date it as ‘circa 1967’, so that’s a whole two years outside the dates on the Another Self Portrait subtitle.

There is a kind of reason, which is also indicated by those two real bootlegs I bought in Bradford back in autumn 1971: the Basement Tapes and the Isle of Wight Concert are bound together by the fact that the 1969 concert was the only time (until some three decades later) that Dylan acknowledged how in 1967 he’d gone down in a flood of songs, by singing a couple of them in public – and, amazingly enough, despite his noting Manfred Mann’s hit in one brief bit of talk to the Isle of Wight audience, he still hasn’t officially released the 1967 version of ‘The Mighty Quinn’, or, for that matter, the ‘Waters of Oblivion’ with meaningful lyric delivery and without that madly ascending chorus we got on the 1975 so-called Basement Tapes [he has now]. Then, finally, sequencing: the conception of appropriate ordering of material used here is that of the randomized anthology. The first CD makes more sense to me than the second, but that’s because 12 of the 17 tracks are from the March and April 1970 sessions in New York with David Bromberg and Al Kooper. They have a coherent soundscape and make sense as a project. Inserted in the middle of them are (differently interesting) a ‘Time Passes Slowly’ with George Harrison and a band from January, ‘Only a Hobo’ with Happy Traum from a year later, that ‘Minstrel Boy’ from three years before (the soundscape couldn’t be more different), another take of ‘I Threw It All Away’, barely different enough to be worth including, and a sketch of ‘All the Tired Horses’ with the backing singers from May 1970.

The second CD has 5 more tracks from the March-April Bromberg and Kooper sessions, scattered among a mélange of other things. There must be someone authoritative out there who thinks Dylan enthusiasts (the likes of me, as it were) couldn’t have coped with all 17 of these on the first, followed by the outtakes from New Morning and other odds and ends (‘lost time is not found again’) on the second. It is possible to disagree with Greil Marcus about some things, not least about whether it was ‘shit’ or not back then, as equally when he writes here: ‘An empty “Railroad Bill” says that some of the old songs needed to be buried in the ground for another twenty years.’ But ‘That’s really nice’ – as Al Kooper can be heard to say – at the same song-take’s end. What’s ‘really nice’ about all 17 of these tracks is that they are a coherent statement: they resemble the Basement Tapes where an exploratory and tribute-like relationship to the musical heritage and the contemporary singer-songwriter scene shows an artist communing with the sources of his emotional world (both, for instance, share versions of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’). They show how Dylan would repeatedly return to his well-springs to renew himself and strike off in fresh compositional directions, and, what’s more, they show no problem whatsoever with a sense of how the material should be presented: directly, with just a few musicians, foregrounding the voice and delivery, creating a relaxed, down-home, music-making atmosphere.

The outtakes from New Morning are quite different. They exemplify a strangely carefree, or maybe even careless, approach to how the songs could be framed. The lyric and attitude of ‘If Dogs Run Free’ characterizes this experiment: ‘If dogs run free / Why not me / Across the smoke of time?’ Well, indeed, why not: and some of them are movingly alive, helping also to de-familiarize and refresh the official studio album that has accompanied me through life. The piano and violin version of ‘If Not for You’ is far better, because more lyrically engaged in the delivery, than the take with George Harrison that showed up on the first Bootleg Series release back in 1991 – and is only overshadowed by the brilliantly swinging originally released version. Yet in most of these cases the judgment about which version to release does seem spot on: the orchestral overdubs are too much; the horn version of ‘New Morning’ is intriguing but over-emphatic; the only possibly better version of ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ is the acoustic demo with Bromberg; the originally-released scat version of ‘If Dog Run Free’ is definitive, and appropriately a jazz parody, with Kooper on piano, all the way down to the ‘yeah, baby’ addressed to the backing singer.

So, the picture we were given back then by the journalists and pundits (‘what is this shit’), and which Dylan seems strangely to have internalized, judging by the ‘New Morning’ chapter of Chronicles, looks, in the light of Another Self Portrait, to have been all back to front. New Morning, lovely and under-rated as it is, was not a return to form, but a carefully gathered, selected, and sequenced collection of effective takes for original songs written in a fairly dry patch, at a time when Dylan was revisiting roots and environments so as to recharge his batteries, rather as he had done in 1967 in the aftermath of the tour and accident. Self Portrait and equally Dylan (the supposed CBS revenge release, which includes some beautiful things such as ‘Sarah Jane’ and yet one more ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’) were misrepresentations of recordings that, if released in appropriate formats, would have shown them, though perhaps only with hindsight, as coming out of Dylan’s core artistic personality and overall achievement.

But what about the weirdly un-Dylan country voice, you ask? Well, it’s foreshadowed in 1966. Think of him trying to play ‘I Still Miss Someone’ on a piano in Cardiff, alongside Johnny Cash (the duet of which from the Nashville sessions is another high point of Dylan’s vocal virtuosity). Similarly, if you listen to ‘I Can’t Leave Her Behind’ in the Glasgow hotel room with Robertson, or at moments in some of the live show performances of ‘Just Like a Woman’, there’s that private, melodically intimate, emotionally sensitive Dylan voice that he didn’t let out much until 1969, and only briefly even then. My favourite on Another Self Portrait, vying with ‘Thirsty Boots’ and ‘This Evening Too Soon’, is ‘Pretty Saro’. ‘If I was a poet and could write a fine hand’, he sings with such lyrical finesse, producing yet again that complex poetic sound sense by which you achieve heart-rending expressiveness by denying that you have access to it. Looking up this traditional song on the Internet, I found it exists in a number of versions with different numbers of verses and variant lyrics. Among these is one that has ‘If I was a merchant and could write a fine hand’. But it would have been impossible to sing that ‘merchant’ version with all the paradoxical complexity that Dylan gives to the word ‘poet’ – a title which had haunted him in his Sixties hey-day (‘they’re all poets … all poets’, as he mutters at the Albert Hall in 1966 when introducing the Hawks). No, he isn’t a poet, and yet, in singing the word here, he becomes one.

So, finally, can you relive your memories? Is lost time not found again? The fourth CD, the remixed original Self Portrait, is worth it not least to revisit what is, to my ear, one of Dylan’s very best covers. His treatment of ‘In the Early Mornin’ Rain’ lifts it aloft in pursuit of the disappearing plane with an expressiveness that, for me, leaves the song’s author, Gordon Lightfoot, firmly on the ground. Then there’s ‘Copper Kettle’, ‘Belle Isle’, ‘It Hurts me Too’ … just to mention a few of the ones I carry around. So, as I say, I’m immensely grateful for the release of these CDs, despite the fact that they are not issued with quite the respect for occasions of composition and recording that would make them fully trustworthy and intelligible. The sort of thing I have in mind as such would be the as-yet-non-existent 3 CD deluxe edition of Blood on the Tracks [now released]: the first one containing the hastily withdrawn album of New York takes, the second reoffering the actually released and largely Minneapolis-recorded album, and the third pulling together a selection of unused songs and de-selected takes already released on Biograph and the first of the Bootleg Series – alongside others such as a wonderful acoustic blues guitar and bass rendering of ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ that’s recently been going the rounds. Or, while we’re asking (all I have to do is dream, can’t I): what about the 5 CD fully re-mastered but un-tampered with Basement Tapes? Another Self Portrait gives a huge hint of what could be done with fully operating access, knowledge and wisdom. It ends with a version of ‘When I Paint my Masterpiece’ that reaffirms the existence of a not-quite-finished song: what happened to the bridge in the take with Leon Russell included on the More Greatest Hits double album? Where did The Band get the lyrics for their middle-eight on Cahoots with that equally wonky ‘gondola / Coca Cola’ rhyme? Whatever the answer to this and other such questions, Bob Dylan doesn’t need now, and didn’t need then, to worry about when he’d paint his musical masterpiece. He’d already painted, and would go on painting, plenty of them.

Peter Robinson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading and the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press. The author of many books including collections of aphorisms, short stories, two works of fiction, and various volumes of literary criticism, he has been awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize and two Poetry Book Society Recommendations for some of his poetry and translation. His 2020 publications were a sequence of poems, Bonjour Mr Inshaw (Two Rivers Press), and Poetry & Money: A Speculation (Liverpool University Press). Shearsman Books published his Collected Poems in 2017 and they will bring out The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & Memoirs in Autumn 2021 as well as the volume of critical essays Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work edited by Tom Phillips.

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