"Self Portrait No. 25"
Written and Arranged by Greil Marcus
Chorus: Charles Perry, Penny Marcus, Pann Wenner, Erik Bennstein, Ed Ward, John Burks, Ralph Gleason, Langdon Winner, Bruce Miroff, Richard Vaughn and Mike Goodwin
What is this shit?
(1) "All the Tired Horses" is a gorgeous piece of music, perhaps the most memorable song on this album. In an older form it was "All the Pretty Ponies in the Yard"; now it could serve as the theme song to any classic western. Can you hear the organ standing in between the beautiful strings and voices? 'Shane' comes into view, and 'The Magnificent Seven': gunmen over the hill and out of time still got to ride. It sounds like Barbara Stanwyck in 'Forty Guns' singing, as a matter of fact.
The beauty of this painted signpost promises what its words belie, and the song's question becomes the listener's: he can't ride when the horse is asleep in the meadow.
"I don't know if I should keep playing this," said the disc jockey, as the album made its debut on the radio. "Nobody's calling in and saying they want to hear it or anything . . . usually when something like this happens people say 'Hey, the new Dylan album,' but not tonight."
Later someone called and asked for a reprise of "Blue Moon." In the end it all came down to a telephone poll to determine whether radioland really cared. The DJ kept apologizing: "If there is anyone who needs . . . or deserves to have his whole album played through it's Bob Dylan."
(2) After a false beginning comes "Alberta #1," an old song now claimed by Dylan. One line stands out: "I'll give you more gold than your apron can hold." We're still at the frontier. The harmonica lets you into the album by its nostalgia, and it's the song's promise that matters, not the song itself, which fades.
"What was it?" said a friend, after we'd heard thirty minutes of Self-Portrait for the first time. "Were we really that impressionable back in '65, '66? Was it that the stuff really wasn't that good, that this is just as good? Was it some sort of accident in time that made those other records so powerful, or what?
"My life was really turned around, it affected me – I don't know if it was the records or the words or the sound or the noise – maybe the interview: 'What is there to believe in?' I doubt if he'd say that now, though."
We put on "Like a Rolling Stone" from Highway 61 Revisited and sat through it. "I was listening to that song five, ten times a day for the last few months, hustling my ass, getting my act together to get into school . . . but it's such a drag to hear what he's done with it . . . "
(3) Something like a mood collapses with the first Nashville offering, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know," a slick exercise in vocal control that fills a bit of time. After getting closer and closer to the Country Music Capitol of the World – and still keeping his distance with 'Nashville Skyline,' one of the loveliest rock and roll albums ever made – the visitor returns to pay his compliments by recording some of their songs. How does it sound? It sounds alright. He's sung himself into a corner. It sounds alright. Sign up the band.
GM: "It's such an unambitious album."
JW: "Maybe what we need most of all right now is an unambitious album from Dylan."
GM: "What we need most of all is for Dylan to get ambitious."
JW: "It's such a . . . "
GM: " . . . though it is a really . . . "
GM & JW: " . . . friendly album . . . "
(4) "Days of '49" is a fine old ballad. Dylan's beginning is utterly convincing, as he slips past the years of the song (listen to the vaguely bitter way he sings "But what cares I for praise?"). He fumbles as the song moves on, and the cut collapses, despite the deep burr of the horns and the drama generated by the piano. It's a tentative performance, a warm-up, hardly more than a work tape. The depths of the history the song creates – out of the history of pathos Johnny Cash gave "Hardin Wouldn't Run" (sounding like it was recorded in the shadows of an Arizona canyon) or "Sweet Betsy from Pike" – has been missed. The song is worth more effort than it was given.
"It's hard," he said. "It's hard for Dylan to do anything real, shut off the way he is, not interested in the world, maybe no reason why he should be. Maybe the weight of the days is too strong, maybe withdrawal is a choice we'd make if we could . . . " One's reminded that art doesn't come – perhaps that it can't be heard – in times of crisis and destruction; art comes in the period of decadence that preceeds a revolution, or after the deluge. It's prelude to revolution; it's not contemporary with it save in terms of memory.
But in the midst of it all artists sometimes moves in to recreate history. That takes ambition.
(5) When you consider how imaginative the backing on other Dylan records has been, the extremely routine quality of most of the music on 'Self-Portrait' can become irritating. It is so uninteresting. "Early Mornin' Rain" is one of the most lifeless performances of the entire album; a rather mawkish song, a stiff well-formed-vowel vocal and a vapid instrumental track that has all the flair of canned laughter.
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