In the record industry music is referred to as "product." "We got Beatle product." When the whirlwind courtship of Johnny Winter and Columbia was finally consummated everyone wanted to know when they would get product. They got product fast but it took them a while longer to get music. Such is show biz, viz. Self-Portrait, which is already a triple gold record, the way "O Captain! My Captain!" is more famous than "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," is the closest thing to pure product in Dylan's career, even more so than Greatest Hits, because that had no pretensions. The purpose of Self-Portrait is mainly product and the need it fills is for product – for "a Dylan album" – and make no mistake about it, the need for product is felt as deeply by those who buy it, myself included, of course, as by those who sell it, and perhaps more so.
As a throw-together album it resembles Flowers; but it's totally unlike Flowers in that the album promises to be more than it is, rather than less. By its title alone Self-Portrait makes claims for itself as the definitive Dylan album – which it may be, in a sad way – but it is still something like an attempt to delude the public into thinking they are getting more than they are, or that Self-Portrait is more than it is.
(11) "Living the Blues" is a marvelous recording. All sorts of flashes of all sorts of enthusiasms spin around it: The Dovells cheering for the Bristol Stomp, Dylan shadow-boxing with Cassius Clay, Elvis smiling and sneering in 'Jailhouse Rock' ("Baby you're so square, I don't care!"). The singing is great – listen to the way Bob fades off "deep down insyyy-hide," stepping back and slipping in that last syllable. For the first time on this album Dylan sounds excited about the music he's making. The rhythm section, led by the guitar and the piano that's rolling over the most delightful rock and roll changes, is wonderful. The girls go through their routine and they sound – cute. Dylan shines. Give it 100.
"... various times he thought of completing his baccalaureate so that he could teach in the college and oddly enough [this is from "A Rimbaud Chronology," New Directions Press] of learning to play the piano. At last he went to Holland, where, in order to reach the Orient, he enlisted in the Dutch Army and sailed for Java in June of 1876. Three weeks after his arrival in Batavia [Charles Perry: "We know Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it seems he's found his Abyssinia."] he deserted, wandered among the natives of the jungle and soon signed on a British ship for Liverpool. After a winter at home he went to Hamburg, joined in a circus as interpreter-manager to tour the northern countries, but the cold was too much for him and he was repatriated from Sweden, only to leave home again, this time for Alexandria. Again, illness interrupted his travels and he was put off the ship in Italy and spent a year recovering on the farm at Roche. In 1878 he was in Hamburg again, trying to reach Genoa to take a ship for the East. Once more he tried to cross the Alps on foot [Charles Perry: "We know that Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it seems he's found his Abyssinia."] but in a snowstorm he almost perished. Saved by monks in a Hospice, he managed to reach Genoa and sail to Alexandria where he worked as a farm laborer for a while. In Suez, where he was stopped on his way to Cyprus, he was employed as a ship-breaker to plunder a ship wrecked on the dangerous coast at Guardafui. Most of the first half of 1879 he worked as foreman in a desert quarry on Cyprus, and went home in June to recuperate from typhoid fever."
(12) "Like A Rolling Stone" – Dylan's greatest song. He knows it, and so do we. Not only that, but the greatest song of our era, on that single, on 'Highway 61 Revisited,' on the tape of a British performance with the Hawks in 1966. If one version is better than the other it's like Robin Hood splitting his father's arrow.
1965: "Alright. We've done it. Dig it. If you can. If you can take it. Like a complete unknown, can you feel that?"
We could, and Bob Dylan took over. All that's come since goes back to the bid for power that was "Like a Rolling Stone."
"Can you keep up with this train?" The train no longer runs; I suppose it depends on where your feet are planted.
Dylan from the Isle of Wight is in your living room and Dylan is blowing his lines, singing country flat, up and down, getting through the song somehow, almost losing the whole mess at the end of the second verse. You don't know whether he dropped the third verse because he didn't want to sing it or because he forgot it. It's enough to make your speakers wilt.
'Self-Portrait' enforces or suggests a quiet sound. "Like a Rolling Stone" isn't "Blue Moon" but since most of 'Self-Portrait' is more like "Blue Moon" than "Like a Rolling Stone," and since it is a playable album that blends together, you set the volume low. But if you play this song loud—really loud, until it distorts and rumbles, you'll find the Band is still playing as hard as they can, for real. The strength cut in half by the man who recorded it, but volume will bring it back up.
Some of "Like a Rolling Stone" is still there. A splendid beginning, announcing a conquest; Levon Helm beating his drums over the Band's Motown March (ba-bump barrummmp, ba-bump barrrummmp), smashing his cymbals like the glass-breaking finale of a car crash; and best of all, Garth Hudson finding the spirit of the song and holding it firm on every chorus. Near the end when the pallid vocalizing is done with Dylan moves back to the song and he and the Band begin to stir up a frenzy that ends with a crash of metal and Bob's shout: "JUST LIKE A ROLLING STONE!" There is something left.
1965: "BAM! Once upon a time . . . " The song assaults you with a deluge of experience and the song opens up the abyss. "And just how far would you like to go in?" "Not too far but just far enough so's we can say we've been there." That wasn't good enough. "When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you." It peered out through "Wheel's On Fire" and "All Along the Watchtower," but it seems Dylan has stepped back from its edge.
The abyss is hidden away now, like the lost mine of a dead prospector. "Like a Rolling Stone," as we hear it now, is like a fragment of a faded map leading back to that lost mine.
I once said I'd buy an album of Dylan breathing heavily. I still would. But not an album of Dylan breathing softly.
(13) Why does "Copper Kettle" shine (it even sounds like a hit record) when so many other cuts hide in their own dullness? Why does this performance evoke all kinds of experience when most of 'Self-Portrait' is so one-dimensional and restrictive? Why does "Copper Kettle" grow on you while the other songs disappear?
Like "All the Tired Horses," it's gorgeous. There are those tiny high notes punctuating the song in the mood of an old Buddy Holly ballad or "The Three Bells" by the Browns, and that slipstream organ, so faint you can barely hear it – you don't hear it, really, but you are aware of it in the subtlest way. There is the power and the real depth of the song itself, that erases our Tennessee truck-stop postcard image of moonshining and moves in with a vision of nature, an ideal of repose, and a sense of rebellion that goes back to the founding of the country. "We ain't paid no whiskey tax since 1792," Bob sings, and that goes all the way back – they passed the whiskey tax in 1791. It's a song about revolt as a vocation, not revolution, merely refusal! Old men hiding out in mountain valleys, keeping their own peace.
[The old moonshiners are sitting around a stove in 'Thunder Road,' trying to come up with an answer to the mobsters that are muscling in on the valley they've held since the Revolution. "Blat sprat muglmmph ruurrrp fffft," says one. The audience stirs, realizing they can't understand his Appalachian dialect. "If you'd take that tobacco plug out of your mouth, Jed," says another whiskey man, "maybe we could understand what you said."]
What matters most is Bob's singing. He's been the most amazing singer of the last ten years, creating his language of stress, fitting five words into a line of ten and ten into a line of five, shoving the words around and opening up spaces for noise and silence that through assault or seduction or the gift of good timing made room for expression and emotion. Every vocal was a surprise. You couldn't predict what it would sound like. The song itself, the structure of the song, was barely a clue. The limits were there to be evaded. On "Copper Kettle" that all happens, and it is noticeable because this is the only time on 'Self-Portrait' that it happens.
"Not all great poets – like Wallace Stevens – are great singers," Dylan said a year ago. "But a great singer – like Billie Holiday – is always a great poet." That sort of poetry – and it's that sort of poetry that made Dylan seem like a "poet" – is all there on "Copper Kettle," in the way Bob changes into the lines " . . . or ROTTEN wood . . . " fading into "(they'll get you) by the smo-oke . . . " The fact that the rest of the album lacks the grace of "Copper Kettle" isn't a matter of the album being "different" or "new." It is a matter of the music having power, or not having it.
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