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

Bob Dylan

Self Portrait

Columbia
Rolling Stone: star rating
Community: star rating
5 0 0
June 8, 1970

Self-Portrait, The Auteur, And Home Movies, Cont.: We all play the auteur game: We went out and bought Self-Portrait not because we knew it was great music – it might have been but that's not the first question we'd ask – but because it was a Dylan album. What we want, though, is a different matter – and that's what separates most people from auteurists – we want great music, and because of those three albums back in '65 and '66, we expect it, or hope for it.

I wouldn't be dwelling on this but for my suspicion that it is exactly a perception of this approach that is the justification for the release of Self-Portrait, to the degree that it is justified artistically (the commercial justification is something else – self-justification). The auteur approach allows the great artist to limit his ambition, perhaps even to abandon it, and turn inward. To be crude, it begins to seem as if it is his habits that matter, rather than his vision. If we approach art in this fashion, we degrade it. Take that second song on John Wesley Harding, "As I Went Out One Morning," and two ways of hearing it.

Weberman has determined a fixed meaning for the song: It relates to a dinner given years ago by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at which they awarded Bob Dylan their Thomas Paine prize. Dylan showed up, said a few words about how it was possible to understand how Lee Harvey Oswald felt, and got booed. "As I Went Out One Morning," according to Weberman, is Dylan's way of saying he didn't dig getting booed.

I sometimes hear the song as a brief journey into American history; the singer out for a walk in the park, finding himself next to a statue of Tom Paine, and stumbling across an allegory: Tom Paine, symbol of freedom and revolt, coopted into the role of Patriot by textbooks and statue committees, and now playing, as befits his role as Patriot, enforcer to a girl who runs for freedom – in chains, to the South, the source of vitality in America, in America's music – away from Tom Paine. We have turned our history on its head; we have perverted our own myths.

Now it would be astonishing if what I've just described was on Dylan's mind when he wrote the song. That's not the point. The point is that Dylan's songs can serve as metaphors, enriching our lives, giving us random insight into the myths we carry and the present we live, intensifying what we've known and leading us toward what we never looked for, while at the same time enforcing an emotional strength upon those perceptions by the power of the music that moves with his words. Weberman's way of hearing, or rather seeing, is more logical, more linear, and perhaps even "correct," but it's sterile. Mine is not an answer but a possibility, and I think Dylan's music, is about possibilities, rather than facts, like a statue that is not an expenditure of city funds but a gateway to a vision.

If we are to be satisfied with Self-Portrait we may have to see it in the sterile terms of the auteur, which in our language would be translated as "Hey, far out, Dylan singing Simon and Garfunkel, Rodgers and Hart, and Gordon Lightfoot . . . " Well, it is far out, in a sad sort of way, but it is also vapid, and if our own untaught perception of the auteur allows us to be satisfied with it, we degrade our own sensibilities and Dylan's capabilities as an American artist as well. Dylan did not become a force whose every movement carries the force of myth by presenting desultory images of his own career as if that was the only movie that mattered – he did it by taking on the world, by assault, and by seduction.

In an attack on the auteur approach, as it relates to film, Kevin Brownlow quotes an old dictionary, and the words he cites reveal the problem: "The novel (the film) (the song) is a subjective epic composition in which the author begs leave to treat the world according to his own point of view. It is only a question, therefore, whether he has a point of view. The rest will take care of itself."

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