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Bob Dylan’s Lost Years

How the singer-songwriter made misunderstood music, burned down his career and ultimately saved himself

Folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan is photographed during a news conference at New York's Kennedy International Airport on his arrival from England on Sept. 2, 1969.  He said a weekend concert on the Isle of Wight was a warm up for the return of personal appearances in the United States.  (AP Photo)


The turning point was back in Woodstock,” Bob Dylan once said of a time in 1966. “A lit­tle after the accident. Sitting around one night under a full moon. [I] looked into the bleak woods and I said, ‘Something’s gotta change.’ “

Everything Dylan had done up to then had been accorded the power of influence and myth. His early-l960s folk-derived songs – in particular “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” – had given voice to frustration and anger over delayed civil rights and advancing warfare. His electric music – which came roaring alive in 1965, with “Like a Roll­ing Stone” – carried a sense of wrath and of new possibilities. As critic Greil Mar­cus would note, “The world used to follow him around.”

The music that Dylan made after 1966 was far different. Some of that work –the legendary Basement Tapes, and John Wesley Harding, both recorded in 1967 – has long been considered some of his best, and most resourceful. But the album he released in June 1970 – Self Portrait, a sprawling collection of folk songs and country music, with a few haphazard live tracks – was the most surprising and con­troversial he’d yet made. It was seen as a betrayal of his effect and potential, and of the following that had trusted him. It was Greil Marcus who also wrote, at the out­set of Rolling Stone’s most famous re­view, “What is this shit?”

“Would Self Portrait make you want to meet Dylan?” the review continued later. “No? Perhaps it’s there to keep you away?” Dylan himself would later say as much –that he’d made the album to discourage those who saw him as a prophet, who in­vaded his life and demanded he return to his public and political obligations.

Now, 43 years later, a new collection, Another Self Portrait (1969–1971): The BootlegSeries Vol. 10, offers a different way of hearing that music. Dylan was singing about a constantly risky search for new identity and new voice – for a different way of being. He seemed to be renouncing the ideals of tumult and rebellion in favor of other verities: home–based idyll and folk tradition. But through it all, there was an­other tumult going on: Dylan’s battle with the world over the nature of his calling and responsibilities. “I used to think,” he said in 1968, “that myself and my songs were the same thing. But I don’t believe that any more. There’s myself and there’s my song.”

Dylan’s Self Portrait years would be the most misunderstood passage of his life and work. “We’ll never entirely forgive him,” one biographer would later say. Yet much of what Dylan would do that was great in the years after flowed from this antecedent of failure. That is, maybe it wasn’t a failure after all. Maybe it was bet­ter than anybody, including Dylan, knew at the time.

In the early-daylight morninging of July 29th, 1966, after an ar­duous world tour, Bob Dylan suf­fered a motorcycle accident on a road near his home in Wood­stock, New York. “I was blind­ed by the sun for a second,” he said later. “I just happened to look up right smack into the sun with both eyes and, sure enough, I went blind for a second and I kind of panicked. I stomped down on the brake and the rear wheel locked up on me and I went flyin’.” Dylan’s wife at the time, Sara Lowndes, had been following in a car and took her husband to the office of their doctor. Dylan reportedly sustained cracked vertebrae, and spent weeks in re­cuperation, then months in hideaway.

His high-velocity career trajectory broke to an abrupt halt. There would be no major U.S. tour, as planned, and an upcoming TV special (Eat the Document) and novel (Tarantula) would have to be delayed. Rumors spread that Dylan was disfigured, or so se­riously injured that he might never make music again. In the spring of 1967, New York Daily News reporter Michael Iachetta tracked the singer to his Woodstock home, and was relieved to find Dylan recovered, though vague and uncertain about any fu­ture work. “What I’ve been doing mostly,” Dylan said, according to Iachetta, “is see­ing only a few close friends, readin’ little about the outside world. Poring over books by people you never heard of. Thinking about where am I going….But songs are in my head like they always are.”

The motorcycle wreck has always been seen as a transformative event – the de­marcation between the revolutionary rock & roll poet and the man who would soon seem content in blithe truths and at a re­move from concern for events of the day. “I was pretty wound up before that accident happened,” Dylan said later, perhaps re­ferring to drug use that may have includ­ed amphetamines.

“We all took speed in the Sixties,” says Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. “Especially in the folk and early rock scenes. We were all into Dexamyl spansules and a thing called Eskatrol, which was a time-released amphetamine, and Compazine, which was a psychiatric tranquilizer.” A couple of months before the accident, Dylan, on tour with the Hawks, nonchalantly told a Swedish reporter that he had “been up all night” on pills.

“I probably would have died if I had kept on going the way I had been,” said Dylan. Just how much the accident truly remade Dylan didn’t become known until 2012, when he told ROLLING STONE that he had become “transfigured” after the event. Clinton Heylin, who has written several books about Dylan, has described the art­ist as undergoing a “personality change” in these years.

r1191 bob dylan

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At the same time, Dylan was remark­ably busy – and inventive in new ways – in the year that followed. Early in 1967, the singer invited his backing band from the 1966 tour, the Hawks – guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, keyboard­ists Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, and, in time, drummer Levon Helm – to Woodstock. For the next several months, Dylan and the Hawks (who would re­name themselves the Band in 1968) re­corded more than 100 songs. There were numerous songs that seemed to just come out of Dylan’s mind and mouth in the mo­ments they were being played; the collec­tive body of work became known as The Basement Tapes. Dylan loved his new mu­sical regimen: “That’s really the way to do a recording,” he told RS founder and edi­tor Jann Wenner in a 1969 interview, “in a peaceful, relaxed setting, in somebody’s basement. With the windows open and a dog lying on the floor.” Dylan would get up early in those days, making coffee and sitting down at his typewriter, sometimes coming up with lyrics for as many as 15 songs in a day.

“He was very relaxed,” says photogra­pher Elliott Landy, who visited him in Woodstock. “He took the garbage out, just to show me he was having a normal life. He was a major pop star of the era, but he was like, ‘This is what I do during the day.'” While in Woodstock, Dylan also began studying painting with Bruce Dorfman, an artist and friend he’d met in the area. “He loved to talk about his kids,” said Dorfman.

For his first real album since the acci­dent, Dylan traveled to Nashville in Oc­tober 1967, writing 12 new songs and per­forming them on an acoustic guitar with local players. The sessions went quick­ly. “Dylan and I were notorious for using first takes,” said producer Bob Johnston. He began working with Dylan on High­way 61 Revisited in 1965 and was expert at creating conditions that allowed artists to play and sing without feeling forced into a manner or performance, and at finding musicians to fit the atmosphere. “No one ever counted off for [Dylan],” Johnston told interviewer Richard Younger. “He’d start tapping his foot and everybody would be going and nobody had any fucking idea where he was going. I told everybody that I ever came in contact with, ‘Just keep play­ing. Don’t stop.'”

The resulting work, John Wesley Hard­ing, was a finely wrought set of parables of fated and deceitful people, some look­ing for an escape from those fates. Dylan insisted that Columbia Records treat John Wesley Harding inconspicuously: The album was released two days after Christmas 1967, and received no promo­tion. But because Dylan had been silent in the music world for 18 months – the pub­lic had no real awareness of the Basement recordings – Harding quickly became Dylan’s biggest–selling album to that date. Just as quickly, it had a huge effect on rock & roll and its culture. Within months, the album’s fundamentalist structures and arrangements had the result of stopping the psychedelic movement cold. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – who had just months earlier recorded psychedel­ic daydreams Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Their Satanic Majesties Request – were deeply affected by the re­cord’s ascetic sound, and soon retrenched their own music. Despite its impact, Dylan sometimes seemed dismissive of John Wesley Harding. In June 1968, he would tell Sing Out! magazine, “If I didn’t have the recording contract and I didn’t have to fulfill a certain amount of records, I don’t really know if I’d write down anoth­er song as long as I lived….I didn’t want to record this last album. I was going to do a whole album of other people’s songs, but I couldn’t find enough.”

Ddespite a less frantic pace, and the wall of privacy that Dylan was trying to create, there was real grief and per­plexity going on in his life. In late spring 1968, Dylan’s father, Abe Zimmerman, died of a heart attack in Hibbing, Minnesota, at age 56. Dylan had been distant from his par­ents. He had not initially informed them of his wedding to fashion model Lowndes in 1965, nor of his motorcycle accident. “I don’t have any family,” he had said in 1965. “I don’t dislike them or anything, I just don’t have contact with them….It’s easier to be disconnected than to be con­nected.” But the young rock iconoclast who had denied his family now had one of his own (Jesse, his first of four children with Lowndes, was born in 1966), and the loss of his father struck him hard. Dylan broke down at his father’s funeral. “Now there would be no way to say what I was never capable of saying before,” he wrote in his autobiographical Chronicles Vol­ume 1 in 2004.

Dylan was worried for the welfare of his new family. In 1968, his fame closed in on him at his bucolic Woodstock home. “Goons were breaking into our house all hours of the night,” he wrote in Chroni­cles. On one occasion, Dylan found a couple who had just finished having sex in his and Sara’s bedroom. “What are you doing?” he asked. “We’re leaving,” they answered. An­other time, according to biographer How­ard Sounes, Dylan and Sara awoke to find a man in their bedroom, watching them. Dylan bought a gun, and resented bitterly that these intruders identified with him in some way. “Whatever the counterculture was,” he later wrote, “I’d seen enough of it.” David Crosby remembers taking Dylan to a coffee shop in Hollywood, thinking that the two could be unobtrusive and “look at girls and talk.” It didn’t work: “People were like, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God,'” says Cros­by. “We had to split. He was ticked at me for taking him.”

In spring 1969, Dylan moved his family across town to a 12-room “arts and crafts” mansion on 39 acres of land. Dylan also bought 83 acres of woodland around the property, for additional privacy. “What mattered to me was getting breathing room for my family,” Dylan wrote of those years. “The whole spectral world could go to hell.”

At the heart of this was a sense that the world might not let go of its expec­tations; Dylan didn’t want to be defined or claimed. He addressed the issue in the summer of 1968, in an interview conduct­ed by his friends Happy Traum and John Cohen for Sing Out! “This is 1968, al­most the height of the Vietnam War,” said Traum. “I was very conscious of his mov­ing away from politics, so I felt it was my duty to push him on the war and his atti­tudes toward protest music.”

In the interview, Traum said, “Probably the most pressing thing going on in a po­litical sense is the war. Now I’m not saying any artist or group of artists can change the course of the war, but they still feel it their responsibility to say something.”

“I know some very good artists who are for the war,” Dylan responded. He went on to tell about his painter friend. “He’s all for the war. He’s just about ready to go over there himself. And I can compre­hend him.”

“Why can’t you argue with him?” asked Traum.

“I can see what goes into his paint­ings,” Dylan answered, “and why should I?…Any way, how do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?” Given the source – the man who had written “Masters of War” – and his influence on 1960s pro­test music, it was an almost unthinkable statement. Around that time, Dylan even told Landy that he was going to vote for anti-civil rights firebrand George Wallace in the 1968 presidential elections. “He was a jokester,” says Landy. “I told that to the guys in the Band, and they said that you never know if Bob is kidding around or not.” (Crosby, who knew Dylan in the Greenwich Village folk scene, sets the record straight: “He felt very strong­ly about civil rights. He didn’t like the war, either.”)

Dylan’s next album, 1969’s Nashville Skyline, seemed to undermine any re­maining claims that the radical element of the counterculture might have on him. It was a country–western record, replete with dobro and pedal steel guitar, featur­ing Dylan singing in a low, almost Bing Crosby-ish voice that he hadn’t used on re­cord before. (When asked about his sing­ing, Dylan said, “It’s time I sing relaxed – this is my normal voice.”) On the famous album cover, he smiled and tipped a fron­tier preacher’s hat in a courtly welcome. “These are the type of songs I always felt like writing when I’ve been alone to do so,” Dylan said. “They’re more to my base than, say, John Wesley Harding. There I felt ev­eryone expected me to be a poet, so that’s what I tried to be. But the smallest line in this new album means more to me than some of those songs on any of my previ­ous albums.”

While taping an appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV series in Nashville on June 7th, Dylan gave a written response to a report­er’s request for an interview with what the reporter described as Dylan’s “credo” of the time: “I love children. I love animals. I am loyal to my friends. I have a sense of humor. I have a generally happy outlook. I try to be on time for appointments. I have a good relationship with my wife. I take criticism well. I strive to do good work….I try to find some good in everybody.”

If  “Nashville Skyline” had been a gambit to dissuade Dylan’s standing among rock & roll enthusiasts or the counter­culture, to make plain that he no longer moved mountains, it failed. Rock artists – primarily Dylan’s friends the Byrds, with their 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo – had already begun to make C&W-imbued music. Be­cause Dylan still had plenty of mythic al­lure, Nashville Skyline added considerable momentum to that trend.

The album, which was a hit, also added to the demand for Dylan to appear in pub­lic. In August 1969, he cold-shouldered the three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair (“an Aquarian exposition”), which had been scheduled to take place near his adopted town, leaving home as the event got under way, heading to England, where he accepted an invitation to appear, with the Band, at the Isle of Wight Festival, for an audience of 200,000. (Asked at a press conference why he’d come to the Isle of Wight, Dylan replied, “I wanted to see the home of Alfred Lord Tennyson.” “Why?” “Just curious.”) This was Dylan’s first major concert since the end of his 1966 world tour, in London. He proved, not surprisingly, something of a reluctant star. He disapproved of any publicity that trumpeted him as a storied legend, and he was seen by some to be nervous and ragged onstage. His old friend Dave Van Ronk’s wife, Terri, remembered seeing him around that time: “He said he doesn’t like performing in front of big audiences, but he is going to perform again because he doesn’t have anything else to do.”

In April 1969, two weeks after the re­lease of Nashville Skyline, Dylan returned to the studio in Nashville for the first of the Self Portrait sessions, and brought with him sheet music and several songbooks. “What do you think about doing an album of other people’s songs?” he asked Bob Johnston. Johnston later said, “He came in the studio with old books and Bibles and started recording.” Dylan covered country songs, or songs in a country style, includ– ing the Davis Sisters’ 1953 hit “I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know)” and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)”; “Take a Message to Mary” and “Let It Be Me” (which had been hits for the Everly Brothers); and “A Fool Such As I” (identified with Hank Snow and Elvis Presley) and “Blue Moon” (a big–band hit for Tommy Dorsey, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart).

Dylan then set aside Self Portrait (which was originally to be titled Blue Moon) until early March 1970. When he resumed, in a New York studio, his inter­ests and style were shifting. He was now singing in a less affected manner, and had a wide range of folk music in mind – in­cluding work by contemporaries: “Thirsty Boots,” a civil rights-era song, by Eric An­dersen; “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song,” by Tom Paxton; “Early Mornin’ Rain,” by Gordon Lightfoot. Many of Dylan’s other choices reached back into earlier Amer­ican and British sources: “Pretty Saro,” a lovely and rueful song that, according to researcher Derek Barker, first came to America in the 1700s from Scot–Irish set­tlers; “Railroad Bill,” a song about a black 1890s railroad robber, from Carl Sand­burg’s American Songbook collection; “Tell Old Bill,” another traditional song collected by Sandburg; “Days of ’49,” an 1840s gold-rush tale; “Little Brown Dog” (“Tattle O’Day” on Another Self Portrait), and, from the late-188Os Francis James Child ballads collection, “House Carpen­ter” – which Dylan had performed since the early 1960s. Dylan also recorded a moonshiner’s reverie, “Copper Kettle.”

The accompaniment on most of these tracks, as they appear on Another Self’ Por­trait, is raw and spare – Dylan’s acoustic guitar, joined by either acoustic guitarist David Bromberg or keyboardist Al Kooper, or both. Kooper recalls the sessions as curious. “I hadn’t played with Bob on rec­ord since Blonde on Blonde,” he says, “so I was glad to get the call. When I got to the studio, it was really weird. He had a pile of Sing Out! magazines and was going through them – picking out songs and just recording them. It just was strange, strange, strange. It was nuts, I thought. Why is the Shakespeare of songwriting doing other people’s songs? And why is he doing all these old folk songs? What’s going on?”

Bromberg, who was emerging as a singer, songwriter and versatile guitar­ist at the time, views it differently. Dylan “had a bunch of magazines and song–books,” he says, “but he was only looking in them for some of the lyrics. He knew the songs: They were all songs that he liked. There was nothing tentative about any of it. He’s more than a songwriter. He’s also a brilliant interpreter – I think he may have missed that.”

The recordings in their naked form – as they now appear on Another Self Portrait – are inspired, passionate, from a singer at a new and different peak. But Dylan chose not to release them in that form. The New York recordings were sent to Nashville by Bob Johnston, to be overladen by strings or a rhythm band’s embellishment. Dylan didn’t attend the overdub sessions, nor work on arrangements for the sessions; those were done by Nashville arranger Billy Walker, who provided symphonic arrangements for Eddy Arnold’s “uptown country” sound. The overdubbed orches­trations were too jarring an effect for an audience that had so far taken Dylan’s ca­prices in good faith. The strings struck some as too suggestive of the sound of film composer Dimitri Tiomkin, or Mantovani, a conductor who specialized in orchestral arrangements of both popu­lar and semiclassical music, with cascad­ing strings.

In the end, almost everything about Self Portrait bothered people: the mix of smooth and rough singing, a dearth of Dylan’s own songs – only five new compo­sitions (two of them without words), plus four slapdash-sounding performances from the Isle of Wight show – and an es­pecially poor decision to credit the tradi­tional songs to Dylan’s authorship. Biogra­pher David Dalton wrote of Dylan, “He’d mislaid himself, an incredible lapse of at­tention….He was the one we expected to carry the ark of the 1960s into the new dispensation. And when he wouldn’t or couldn’t be our savior, we would become resentful of him.”

Despite the fact that there was a re­markable album hidden within it at the time, Dylan himself has often disavowed Self Portrait. In 1984, he told Kurt Loder, “I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me.’ I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s go on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t givin’ us what we want,’you know?’ They’ll go on to somebody else.” In Chronicles, Dylan wrote, “I just threw ev­erything I could think of against the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too.” Dylan would also later say that he had simply forgotten how to write songs in the way he had before – he called it a period of amnesia. “In the early years,” he said in 2004, “everything had been like a magic carpet for me – and then all at once it was over. Here was this thing that I’d wanted to do all my life, but suddenly I didn’t feel I could do it anymore.”

In late 1969, he relocated his family to a double town house in Greenwich Village, with a front door that opened to MacDougal Street. Woodstock had fi­nally become unbearable. “These gate-crashers, spooks, trespass­ers, demagogues were all disrupting my home life,” he wrote. “We moved to New York City for a while in hopes to demolish my identity, but it wasn’t any better there.” When Dylan erected a wall to shield his part of the terrace on MacDougal, some neighbors knocked the wall down while he was out of town.

Dylan now had a handful of songs – “Time Passes Slowly,” “Father of Night,” “New Morning” – that he’d been consider­ing giving to playwright Archibald MacLeish for his dark new play, Scratch. In­stead, Dylan brought them to his next album, New Morning, which he began re­cording soon after Self Portrait‘s comple­tion. “It was natural,” says Al Kooper, who ended up producing the album. “I would come up with the basic arrangements. His manner was calm. These were mostly day sessions. He’d go home to his family.”

Dylan recorded only original songs, and instead of working fast as usual, he attempted various arrangements of some songs. “He kept changing his mind,” Koop­er says. “It reached a point where every­thing was done, but he still had to decide the sequence and what version of a song he was going to use. I said, ‘I think my work is done here. Do whatever you want, but I don’t think you need me anymore.’ “

Four and a half months later, on Octo­ber 21st, 1970, Dylan released New Morn­ing. At first, the album was received as a triumphant return to form. A headline in ROLLING STONE at the time read WE’VE GOT DYLAN BACK! Dylan himself seemed to think the album had been an exercise in treading water. “Some critics would find the album to be lackluster and sen­timental, soft in the head,” Dylan himself noted. “Oh, well….To be sure, the album had no specific resonance to the shackles and bolts that were strapping the coun­try down. Nothing to threaten the sta­tus quo.”

But there was also unease eating at the edge of the song “Sign on the Win­dow”: Dylan’s assertion that love and fam­ily “must be what it’s all about” came at the song’s end, as either consolation or pain to a man who understood that kind­er dreams can be easily lost in the rain. If Dylan’s accident had driven him into his family, to better appreciate it, it also drove him into a realization that the her­metic seal of bliss might be imperma­nent. The politically minded Joe McDon­ald, of Country Joe and the Fish, said,
“[Dylan] stopped being a rebel and started being a nice guy, a family man. He don’t fool me, man.” The truth is, Dylan’s refuge in that dream could last only so long: Though he and Sara Lowndes were admired as one of the great romances of the 1960s, the couple separated and di­vorced bitterly in the 1970s. Talking to Jonathan Cott about the late 1960s, Dylan said, “I was trying to grasp something that would lead me on to where I thought I should be, and it didn’t go nowhere.”

Which is to say, Dylan’s better self may have believed in the domestic idyll, but the reality of its dissolution may have been home to his more enduring self.

By late 1971, demands for who Dylan should be, what he should do, hadn’t ended. Even David Bowie had issued a call in song for him to take up his duty as a moral and political paradigm. A new breed of obsessives who called themselves Dylanologists started plumbing his work and the details of his life and statements for clues to the mys­tery of his purposes. One activist even rummaged through Dylan’s garbage and staged protests outside his Greenwich Village home, with marchers who carried signs that attacked Dylan, for his seeming indifference to radical causes.

On August 1st, Dylan appeared as an unbilled guest at George Harrison’s Con­cert for Bangladesh, at both the afternoon and evening shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Harrison, who was fresh from the Beatles after their disintegration, was making his first public appear­ance as a solo artist. He and Dylan enjoyed a friendship and mutual respect, and Har­rison realized that Dylan singing at this charity occasion would bring it great cred­ibility. Harrison, though, had a hard time winning a commitment from Dylan, who was worried about the large audience that would see him, and how it might interpret his participation. At a rehearsal, where the two friends sang Dylan’s “If Not for You,” which both men had recorded, Har­rison, according to rock lore, asked Dylan to do “Blowin’ in the Wind” – a song Dylan hadn’t sung in seven years – at the show. Dylan, apparently irritated, shot back, “Are you going to play ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’?” Even as the concert was ongo­ing, Harrison didn’t know whether Dylan would show. “I looked around,” Harrison later said, “and he was so nervous – he had his guitar on and his shades….It was only at that moment that I knew for sure he was going to do it.” Cott wrote about the moment in ROLLING STONE in September 1971: “People cheered, but they didn’t be­lieve it, responding the way one does after having obtained something deeply hoped for with a kind of passionless disbelief.”

Everything about Dylan’s appearance that day was a surprise. Just as the rock world was adjusting to him on his new terms – as a man with a glorious past but a hesitant present and an up-in-the-air fu­ture – Dylan came on like a ghost ready to regenerate back to life. Performing with Harrison on guitar, Leon Russell on bass and Ringo Starr on tambourine – in a small cluster of accompaniment around a standing microphone – Dylan sang “Just Like a Woman,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and more, plus stripped–down ver­sions of early masterpieces “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Greil Marcus, writing about Dylan at the Bangladesh concert, noted, “[From] the first notes of’Just Like a Woman,’ it’s clear that something else is happening. Here he rises to one of the great performances of his career. He sings the song the way that Hank Williams would sing it if he were still alive, with the ghostly chill of ‘Lost Highway.’ It may well be the equal of any­thing he has ever done, and if it took him five years to regain the power he once had, then what matters is not how long it took, but that he has regained it.”

That year, Dylan also recorded “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a song about an­swering a calling, pursuing the implica­tions of one’s own mind and talents. A pre­viously unheard early rendition by Dylan, from March 1971, closes Another Self Por­trait, with Dylan as his own sole accom­panist, on piano. “Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Colosseum,” Dylan intoned in a raspy voice, his left hand rumbling on the lower keys, like Bill Evans wander­ing around a dark groove, “dodging lions and wastin’ time/Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see em/It sure has been a long, hard climb.” There’s promise and hope in the song – “Someday, everything is gonna be smooth as a rhapsody/When I paint my master­piece” – but it might also be a feint, some­thing the singer tells himself rather than to admit a dispiriting truth. Dylan sounds already weary from those words’ promise; he knew well that things weren’t about to be smooth, like a rhapsody.

From late 1971 to early 1974, Dylan was more like a rumor than a luminary. He appeared as a guest musician or a hint of a voice on other people’s recordings, in­cluding Doug Sahms first solo album. He also appeared as an enigmatic sidekick to Billy the Kid in Sam Peckinpah’s Western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and wrote a soundtrack for the film; it produced an unanticipated hit, “Knockin’ on Heavens Door,” that still stands as one of his most evocative songs. But there would be no formal new albums until Planet Waves, in early 1974 – another record that seemed to affirm domestic devotions, though it also forecast a marriage that was starting to come apart.

Dylan would eventually re-emerge. When he returned in the mid-1970s – with barnstorming tours of America with the Band in 1974 and the Rolling Thun­der Revue in 1975, and with revealing and daring new albums, Blood on the Tracks and Desire – he was confident with the selves and perspectives that had once seemed disparate. Years later, in the early 1990s, with Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, he again recorded ver­sions of aged and inscrutable folk songs, and did it in much the same manner as he did in Self Portrait‘s essential form: as a lone voice, trying to reclaim inspirations and lessons from the history and artifacts that had made him strong and remarkable in the first place. “These old songs are my lexicon and prayer book,” Dylan told The New York Times‘ Jon Pareles in 1997 – “All my beliefs come out of those old songs.” The music Dylan subsequently made – Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Tempest (2012), among other albums – have been works about a self looking for transcendence despite the in –exorableness of decline, just like the course of the world he moves in.

Self Portrait did that in a younger voice, when the whole world seemed up for grabs, for the singer and the times around him. Every moment mattered, even if it was only to shun earlier moments. The mix of ordeal and bliss and more ordeal he’d been through between his 1966 motorcycle ac­cident and the late seasons of 1971 had dis­abused him of any burden to accommodate or resist what the world hoped of him, or to assure himself or others that love is all there is; that it makes the world go around. Neither concern would determine him in the years to come. The Self Portrait years had freed him of all that.

In This Article: Bob Dylan, Coverwall


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