Unlike some, I did not ‘hate’ Self Portrait when it was first released in 1970. I bought it, of course. I listened maybe twice, and that was it. I remember playing it again after reading Michael Gray’s interesting chapter in Song & Dance Man in 1972, disagreed with Michael’s response (his word, as I recall, in a piece devoted to how one should respond to the album) and put the discs back on the shelves for forty years or more.
And now, on the fourth play of 'another' self portrait, I know that I love almost all of these stripped down versions, no longer saturated in strings and soaked in satin back-up vocals, but succinct and to the point, with Bob singing softly and sublimely, crooning comfortable country.
Another Self Portrait is, amongst other things, the way that Self Portrait may have started life in Bob’s head. I have no idea what possessed him to add those overdubs; but, in retrospect, it was not the material but the overdubs to which we took exception at the time and which provoked the famous opening line of Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone: “What is this shit?”
Now we know. This is serious shit.
It is serious in the sense that it is a portrait of the artist as a young man – and as a more mature man.
Here we have his odds-and-ends musical heritage – his folk and blues and pop and rock ‘n’ roll. It looks back (although we shouldn’t) to his first albums, and shows us much of the raw material for that extraordinary outpouring of 1964, 1965 and 1966.
Importantly, it also points the way towards those under-rated masterpieces, New Morning and Planet Waves.
In fact, New Morning is well represented here, but the assemblage of outtakes and re-mixes from that album (a favourite, as I recall, of those who didn’t like Bob) add little to our understanding of what was going on in Bob’s head at the time. It is the fact that he was doing country at all which was significant.
Think back, those of my contemporaries, to that time: country music was redneck music. Country fans supported Nixon and supported the war.
The embracing of this music by Bob was on a different level to that of Gram Parsons and the Byrds, for example.
This was Bob delving into Americanarama, as he is doing on his current tour. This was Bob doing what Bob does best – reinventing, restructuring, recreating what makes American music American. I mean specifically so. If the themes of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were universal, his sojourn in Woodstock with The Band took him back to his roots and the roots of every American. “Love that country pie.”
It was about Bob, three years after we had last seen him, being there, with us, in the UK.
And I feel the same now. In 12 months, we’ve had Tempest and now Another Self Portrait. "If not for you", it certainly is for me.
It is very serious shit.
Today from the everysmith vault: Guess ...