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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Another Self Portrait)

THE BOOTLEG SERIES VOL. 10: ANOTHER SELF PORTRAIT (1969-1970; 2012)

CD I: 1) Went To See The Gypsy; 2) Little Sadie; 3) Pretty Saro; 4) Alberta #3; 5) Spanish Is The Loving Tongue; 6) Annie's Going To Sing Her Song; 7) Time Passes Slowly #1; 8) Only A Hobo; 9) Minstrel Boy; 10) I Threw It All Away; 11) Railroad Bill; 12) Thirsty Boots; 13) This Evening So Soon; 14) These Hands; 15) In Search Of Little Sadie; 16) House Carpenter; 17) All The Tired Horses;
CD II: 1) If Not For You; 2) Wallflower; 3) Wigwam; 4) Days Of '49; 5) Working On A Guru; 6) Country Pie; 7) I'll Be Your Baby Tonight; 8) Highway 61 Revisited; 9) Copper Kettle; 10) Bring Me A Little Water; 11) Sign On The Window; 12) Tattle O'Day; 13) If Dogs Run Free; 14) New Morning; 15) Went To See The Gypsy; 16) Belle Isle; 17) Time Passes Slowly #2; 18) When I Paint My Masterpiece.

The farther you go, the harder it gets to push out new incarnations of «The Bootleg Series» that would not merely be of historical interest, but actually worthy of Bob's general reputation and enjoyable to the average ear without having to be preceded by a three-hour lecture on how Bob Dylan changed the world in so many ways. The Witmark Demos was already something like the equivalent of Vol. 25 of Leo Tolstoy's Collected Oeuvres, located so far down the bookshelf that only professional philologists ever get there. But with Vol. 10, the Bootleg Series Team and their grumpy old endorser from Hibbing, Minnesota, have found an unpredictable and exciting twist that clearly shows — «Dylan still got it» even when it comes to digging around in forty-year old trash that most people would have probably recycled a long time ago.

This, in fact, is nothing less than «Dylan's revenge»: a double CD of demos, outtakes, and alter­nate cuts from his least critically respected era — the year of Self Portrait (which everybody hated) and New Morning (which everybody could have hated were it not for it being the follow-up to Self Portrait). Was the team crazy or something? Not in the least. Even as the original ter­minator-style reviews of Self Portrait pretty much secured the album's encyclopaedic status of «Dylan's lowest creative point», over the years, more and more people came to realize that the record was really «not all that bad» — meaning, of course, that it was pretty good, as long as you did not hold it up to the standards of a Highway 61 Revisited. All one had to do was wait — and Dylan waited just long enough. The timing could hardly be better: with his string of derivative, non-revolutionary, but still modestly brilliant artistic successes in the 1990s and 2000s he got fans and critics alike to recognize and respect that «Dylan cannot always be great, but he can be consistently good». And here comes a memo of the distant past — just admit it, guys, I've always been at least consistently good, even when you said I stunk. Just let it go. Drop a load. You've always liked Self Portrait, I'm sure, you were just too embarrassed to admit it.

To drive the final nail in the coffin of Self Portrait's musical-Frankenstein legend, none other than Greil Marcus, the author of the original famous «what is this shit?» review, is called in to repent and atone for his sins by writing a new set of liner notes. Honestly, I have not even opened them — I am just amused by the power that Bob Dylan has over people. Of course, he may have also reiterated what other reviewers have said: many of them, so as to save face, published glowing reviews along the lines of «Dylan was on such a creative roll in 1970, really, it is a pity and a shame that his outtakes were actually so much better than the official record. Yeah, truly and verily, the only thing that is better than ʽCopper Kettleʼ and ʽBelle Isleʼ without the orches­tral overdubs is ʽDays Of '49ʼ without the rhythm section!»

This is all rubbish, of course. Self Portrait was cool (including Bob's romantic takes on ʽBlue Moonʼ and ʽLet It Be Meʼ, rather than excluding them), and Another Self Portrait simply adds to that coolness. If there is one thing that it adds to our understanding of Dylan circa 1970, it is that the man was not merely driven by the desire to release something «humble» and «epochally irrelevant» to get the Messiah-seekers off his front porch — he really was exploring various musical avenues and corners, even if that exploration so often focused on material written and recorded by other people. It was all just a part of the general plan to «get back to the roots» (which he shared with the Beatles, the Byrds, and quite a few other people around the same time) and it worked far more often than it did not.

Of those songs that have previously been available only in real bootleg form, most would have fit in well on Self Portrait, although I do not feel like spending much spacetime discussing them — mostly a mix of blues, folk, and country oldies and a few originals, ranging from the stylishly romantic (ʽPretty Saroʼ) to the epic western (ʽRailroad Billʼ) to the working man's song (ʽThese Handsʼ) to even a satirical send-up of Jimmy Reed's classic style (ʽWorking On A Guruʼ); only the cover of Eric Andersen's ʽThirsty Bootsʼ, a stately song of consolation and repose, makes a humble swipe at «classic» status, but somehow remains in­complete. Still, it is kinda fun to imagine all of them, along with a few early versions that would later be reworked for New Morning, making it on to the regular Self Portrait and turning it into a triple album. What would Greil Marcus have said in 1970?

The most interesting stuff, actually, is not the «naked» versions of songs that did make it to Self Portrait (I personally do not mind the strings and backing harmonies on ʽCopper Kettleʼ at all), but those early versions of New Morning songs that are often completely dissimilar to their official equivalents. ʽIf Dogs Run Freeʼ, in particular, is an actual song here rather than just a recital, with a gospel chorus to boot; ʽNew Morningʼ itself is aggrandized with a horn section, giving it a flashy «Stax» feel; ʽTime Passes Slowlyʼ opens up in full-blast rocking mode, and ʽIf Not For Youʼ features a retro-romantic, if not too well polished, violin part from some wannabe Jascha Heifetz — I can see why Dylan ended up hating the idea, but it was funny while it lasted. Collectively, these songs are very different in aim and scope from the final «homebrewn», relati­vely minimalist product, and, as good as New Morning ended up anyway, it would have been interesting to see it as this far more ambitiously conceived project; the album would have no obvious equivalent in the rest of Bob's catalog.

Two of the songs also feature additional numbers from Bob's 1969 Isle of Wight gig with The Band, but if you're lucky, you might end up with the 3-CD deluxe edition whose bonus disc con­tains the show captured in full. Since it was Bob's first official gig after a three-year break (and would also be the last, an appearance at Harrison's Bangla Desh concert excepted, for another four or five), everything is as crude as it seemed on the official Self Portrait, but not without its own period charms — this is where Bob would sing (for about half of the show) in his «angelic» voice, putting a special spin on oldies like ʽIt Ain't Me Babeʼ and ʽTo Ramonaʼ, butchering ʽI Pity The Poor Immigrantʼ in the process, and, together with The Band, turning his old rockers into rambling, half-drunk traveling minstrel show ballads. Not a great show, but a fun experiment — and another live Dylan album that sounds nothing like any other live Dylan albums. Plus, that Robbie Robertson guitar solo on ʽQuinn The Eskimoʼ, cleaned up and remastered, has never sounded more fiery and inspirational.

Happy to say that I have no qualms whatsoever about giving this one a thumbs up — I, for one, have liked (and sometimes even loved) Self Portrait since the day I first heard it, and it is only natural to extend that liking to Another Self Portrait, since it sort of lets you in much deeper on Dylan's general state of mind at the time.

1 comment:

  1. I know you are not big on the Basement Tapes which would explain your silence on Bootleg #11, but it is more than a month (or two) since the release of Bootleg #12 and surely you have a few words to say about THAT?

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