Ralph Gleason: "There was this cat Max Kaminsky talks about in his autobiography who stole records. He stole one from Max. He had to have them, you know? Just had to have them. Once he got busted because he heard this record on a juke box and shoved his fist through the glass of the box trying to get the record out.
"We all have records we'd steal for, that we need that bad. But would you steal this record? You wouldn't steal this record."
You wouldn't steal Self-Portrait? It wouldn't steal you either. Perhaps that's the real tragedy, because Dylan's last two albums were art breaking and entering into the house of the mind.
(20) Songwriting can hardly be much older than song-stealing. It's part of the tradition. It may even be more honorable than outright imitation; at least it's not as dull.
Early in his career, Bob Dylan, like every other musician on the street with a chance to get off it, copped one or two old blues or folk songs, changed a word or two, and copyrighted them (weirdest of all was claiming "That's Alright Mama," which was Elvis' first record and written – or at least written down – by Arthur Crudup). As he developed his own genius Dylan also used older ballads for the skeletons of his own songs: "Bob Dylan's Dream" is a recasting of "Lord Franklin's Dream"; "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" finds its way back to "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill." "Pledging My Time" has the structure, the spirit, and a line from Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen"; "Don't the moon look lone-some, shining through the trees," is a quote from an old Jimmy Rushing blues. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" comes off of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." This is a lovely way to write, and to invite, history, and it is part of the beauty and the inevitability of American music. But while Dylan may have added a few words to "It Hurts Me Too," from where he sits, it's simply wrong to claim this old blues, recorded by Elmore James among others, as his own. That 'Self-Portrait' is characterized by borrowing, lifting, and plagiarism simply means Bob will get a little more bread and thousands of kids will get a phony view of their own history.
That splendid frenzy, the strength of new values in the midst of some sort of musical behemoth of destruction, the noise, the power – the totality of it! So you said well, alright, there it is . . .
The mythical immediacy of everything Dylan does and the relevance of that force to the way we live our lives is rooted in the three albums and the two incredible singles he released in 1965 and 1966: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisted, Blonde on Blonde, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Those records defined and structured a crucial year – no one has ever caught up with them and most likely no one ever will. What happened then is what we always look for. The power of those recordings and of the music Dylan was making on stage, together with his retreat at the height of his career, made Dylan into a legend and virtually changed his name into a noun. Out of that Dylan gained the freedom to step back and get away with anything he chose to do, commercially and artistically. The fact that more than a year now separates one album from another heightens their impact, regardless of how much less they have to offer than the albums which established this matrix of power in the first place. In a real way, Dylan is trading on the treasure of myth, fame, and awe he gathered in '65 and '66. In mythical terms, he doesn't have to do good, because he has done good. One wonders, in mythical terms of course, how long he can get away with it.
(21) "Minstrel Boy" is the best of the Isle of Wight cuts; it rides easy.
(22) The Band plays pretty on "She Belongs To Me" and Dylan runs through the vocal the way he used to hurry through the first half of a concert, getting the crowd-pleasers out of the way so he could play the music that mattered. Garth Hudson has the best moment of the song.
Vocation as a Vocation: Dylan is, if he wants to be, an American with a vocation. It might almost be a calling – the old Puritan idea of a gift one should live up to – but it's not, and vocation is strong enough.
There is no theme richer for the American artist than the spirit and the themes of the country and the country's history. We have never figured out what this place is about or what it is for, and the only way to even begin to answer those questions is to watch our movies, read our poets, our novelists, and listen to our music. Robert Johnson and Melville, Hank Williams and Hawthorne, Bob Dylan and Mark Twain, Jimmie Rodgers and John Wayne. America is the life's work of the American artist because he is doomed to be an American. Dylan has a feel for it; his impulses seem to take him back into the forgotten parts of our history, and even on Self-Portrait, there is a sense of this vocation; Bob is almost on the verge of writing a western. But it's an ambitious vocation and there is not enough of that, only an impulse without the determination to follow it up.
Dylan has a vocation if he wants it; his audience may refuse to accept his refusal unless he simply goes away. In the midst of that vocation there might be something like a Hamlet asking questions, old questions, with a bit of magic to them; but hardly a prophet, merely a man with good vision.
(23) "Wigwam" slowly leads the album to its end. Campfire music, or "3 AM, After the Bullfight." It's a great job of arranging, and the B-side of the album's second natural single, backing "Living the Blues." "Wigwam" puts you to bed, and by that I don't mean it puts you to sleep.
Self-Portrait, The Auteur, And Home Movies: "Auteur" means, literally, "author," and in America the word has come to signify a formula about films: movies (like books) are made by "authors," i.e., directors. This has led to a dictum which tends to affirm the following: movies are about the personality of the director. We should judge a movie in terms of how well the "auteur" has "developed his personality" in relation to previous films. His best film is that which most fully presents the flowering of his personality. Needless to say such an approach requires a devotion to mannerism, quirk, and self-indulgence. It also turns out that the greatest auteurs are those with the most consistent, obvious, and recognizable mannerisms, quirks, and self-indulgences. By this approach Stolen Kisses is a better film than Jules and Jim because in Stolen Kisses we had nothing to look for but Truffaut while in Jules and Jim there was this story and those actors who kept getting in the way. The spirit of the auteur approach can be transferred to other arts; and by its dictum, Self-Portrait is a better album than Highway 61 Revisited, because Self-Portrait is about the auteur, that is, Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited takes on the world, which tends to get in the way. (Highway 61 Revisited might well be about Dylan too, but it's more obvious on Self-Portrait, and therefore more relevant to Art, and . . . please don't ask about the music, really . . . )
Now Dylan has been approached this way for years, whether or not the word was used, and while in the end it may be the least interesting way to listen to his music it's occasionally a lot of fun and a game that many of us have played (for example, on "Days of '49" Dylan sings the line "just like a roving sign" and I just can't help almost hearing him say "just like a rolling stone" and wondering if he avoided that on purpose). One writer, named Alan Weberman has devoted his life to unraveling Dylan's songs in order to examine the man himself; just as every artist once had his patron now every auteur has his critic, it seems.
(24) 'Self-Portrait' is a concept album from the cutting room floor. It has been constructed so artfully, but as a coverup, not a revelation. Thus "Alberta #2" is the end, after a false ending, just as "Alberta #1" was the beginning, after a false beginning. The song moves quickly, and ends abruptly. These alternate takes don't just fill up a side, they set up the whole album, and it works, in a way, because I think it's mainly the four songs fitted in at the edges that make the album a playable record. With a circle you tend to see the line that defines it, rather than the hole in the middle.
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