http://assets-s3.rollingstone.com/assets/images/album_review/portrait-1355439517.jpg Self Portrait

Bob Dylan

Self Portrait

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June 8, 1970

The Four Questions: The four sons gazed at the painting on the museum wall. "It's a painting," said the first son. "It's art," said the second son. "It's a frame," said the third son, and he said it rather coyly. The fourth son was usually considered somewhat stupid, but he at least figured out why they'd come all the way from home to look at the thing in the first place. "It's a signature," he said.

(2) "In Search of Little Sadie" is an old number called "Badman's Blunder" (or sometimes "Badman's Ballad" and sometimes "Little Sadie") that Dylan now claims as his own composition. As with "Days of '49," the song is superb – it's these kinds of song that seem like the vague source of the music the Band makes – and what Dylan is doing with the tune, leading it on a switchback trail, has all sorts of possibilities. But again, the vocal hasn't been given time to develop and the song loses whatever power it might have had to offer, until the final chorus, when Bob takes off and does some real singing.

This bit about getting it all down in one or two takes only works if you get it all down. Otherwise it's at best "charming" and at worst boring, alluding to a song without really making music.

Imagine a kid in his teens responding to Self-Portrait. His older brothers and sisters have been living by Dylan for years. They come home with the album and he simply cannot figure out what it's all about. To him, Self-Portrait sounds more like the stuff his parents listen to than what he wants to hear; in fact, his parents have just gone out and bought Self-Portrait and given it to him for his birthday. He considers giving it back for Father's Day.

To this kid Dylan is a figure of myth; nothing less, but nothing more. Dylan is not real and the album carries no reality. He's never seen Bob Dylan; he doesn't expect to; he can't figure out why he wants to.

(7) The Everly Brothers version of "Let It Be Me" is enough to make you cry, and Bob Dylan's version is just about enough to make you listen. For all of the emotion usually found in his singing, there is virtually none here. It is a very formal performance.

"Bob should go whole-hog and revive the Bing Crosby Look, with its emphasis on five-button, soft shoulder, wide-collar, plaid country-club lounge jackets (Pendleton probably still makes them.) And, like Der Bingle, it might do well for Dylan to work a long-stemmed briar pipe into his act, stopping every so often to light up, puff at it, raise some smoke and gaze, momentarily, toward the horizon, before launching into [this is John Burks in Rags, June 1970] the next phrase of 'Peggy Day.' Then, for his finale – the big 'Blue Moon' production number with the girls and the spotlights on the Mountains – he does a quick costume change into one of those high-collar 1920s formal shirts with the diamond-shaped bow tie, plus, of course, full length tails and the trousers with the satin stripe down the side, carnation in the buttonhole, like Dick Powell in Golddiggers of 1933. Here comes Dylan in his tails, his briar in one hand, his megaphone in the other, strolling down the runaway, smiling that toothpaste smile. "Like a roll-ing stone . . . "

(8) "Little Sadie" is an alternate take of "In Search of . . . " I bet we're going to hear a lot of alternate takes in the coming year, especially from bands short on material who want to maintain their commercial presence without working too hard. Ordinarily, when there are no striking musical questions at stake in the clash of various attempts – alternate takes have been used as a graveyard rip-off to squeeze more bread out of the art of dead men or simply to fill up a side. "Little Sadie" fills up the side nicely.

"It's a high school yearbook. Color pictures this year, because there was a surplus left over from last year, more pages than usual too, a sentimental journey, 'what we did,' it's not all that interesting, it's a momento of something, there's a place for autographs, lots of white space, nobody's name was left out. . . . It is June, after all."

(9) "Woogie Boogie" is fun. The band sounds like it's falling all over itself (or maybe slipping on its overdubs) but they hold on to the beat. There is as much of Dylan's feel for music here as on anything else on 'Self-Portrait.' If you were a producer combing through a bunch of 'Self-Portrait' tapes for something to release, you might choose "Woogie Boogie" as a single – backing "All the Tired Horses," of course.

Self-Portrait most closely resembles the Dylan album that preceeded it: Great White Wonder. The album is a two-record set masterfully assembled from an odd collection of mostly indifferent recordings made over the course of the last year, complete with alternate takes, chopped endings, loose beginnings, side comments, and all sorts of mistakes. Straight from the can to you, as it were. A bit from Nashville, a taste of the Isle of Wight since you missed it, some sessions from New York that mostly don't make it, but dig, it's Dylan, and if you wanted Great White Wonder and Stealin' and John Birch and Isle of Wight and A Thousand Miles Behind, Self-Portrait will surely fill the need.

I don't think it will. It's true that all of the bootlegs (and the Masked Marauders, which was a fantasy bootleg) came out in the absence of new music from Dylan, but I think their release was related not to the absence of his recordings but to the absence of the man himself. We are dealing with myth, after all, and the more Dylan stays away the greater the weight attached to anything he's done. When King Midas reached out his hand everything he touched not only turned to gold, it became valuable to everyone else, and Dylan still has the Midas touch even though he'd rather not reach out. It is only in the last two years that the collecting of old tapes by Dylan has really become a general phenomena, and there are many times more tapes in circulation than are represented on the bootlegs. There is a session with the Band from December of 1965, live albums, ancient recordings, tapes of Dylan at the Guthrie Memorial, with the Band last summer in Missouri, radio shows from the early Sixties, the live "Like a Rolling Stone." It sometimes seems as if every public act Dylan ever made was recorded, and it is all coming together. Eventually, the bootleggers will get their hands on it. Legally, there is virtually nothing he can do to stop it.

He can head off the theft and sale of his first drafts, his secrets, and his memories only with his music. And it is the vitality of the music that is being bootlegged that is the basis of its appeal. The noise of it. Self-Portrait, though it's a good imitation bootleg, isn't nearly the music that Great White Wonder is. "Copper Kettle" is a masterpiece but "Killing Me Alive" will blow it down. Nashville Skyline and John Wesley Harding are classic albums; but no matter how good they are they lack the power of the music Dylan made in the middle Sixties. Unless he returns to the marketplace, with a sense of vocation and the ambition to keep up with his own gifts, the music of those years will continue to dominate his records, whether he releases them or not. If the music Dylan makes doesn't have the power to enter into the lives of his audience – and Self-Portrait does not have that power – his audience will take over his past.

(10) Did Dylan write "Belle Isle"? Maybe he did. This is the first time I've ever felt cynical listening to a new Dylan record.

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