In the spring of 1970, anticipation for Bob Dylan‘s next album was through the roof. He hadn’t released a note of new music since Nashville Skyline 14 months earlier. His upcoming album was going to be his first double LP since Blonde on Blonde, and it came with a title – Self Portrait – that seemed to promise the kind of personal statement fans craved.
What they got was something totally different. “A radio station played the entire record when it first came out,” says author and critic Greil Marcus. “Maybe a quarter of the way through, I recall the DJ saying, ‘Gee, I don’t know if I should keep playing this. I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls saying, in essence, ‘What is this shit?'”
Those four words – What is this shit? – kicked off Marcus’ infamous review of Self Portrait in Rolling Stone. He wasn’t the only listener to be completely baffled by the album. It’s a bizarre mishmash of pop covers (Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”), pre-rock hits (“Blue Moon”) and poorly recorded live cuts from Dylan’s 1969 set at the Isle of Wight Festival. Nearly every tune is overloaded with backup choirs, strings and horns. “I knew that opening [to the album review] was provocative,” Marcus says. “But that’s what everybody in the country was saying, and I had to reflect that.”
Dylan’s journey to the first critical flop of his career started at Nashville’s Studio A in April 1969. Working with a band that included guitarist Charlie Daniels, bassist Charlie McCoy and drummer Kenny Buttrey, he cut standards like “A Fool Such as I” and “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Dylan didn’t explain the thought process behind all the covers (and still hasn’t), though his decision to record “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues” was clearly inspired by an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show that week.
The Self Portrait sessions were extremely loose. “There was nothing regimented,” says Daniels. “I remember one time he wanted me to do a solo. Someone said, ‘How many bars? What chords?’ Dylan then made a very Dylanesque statement: ‘What do you want Daniels to play?’ ‘Well, all he can.’ That was it. You just added what you thought was best and what you thought Bob wanted.”
After cutting just 11 songs, Dylan suspended the sessions until the following March. When they resumed in New York, his band included Al Kooper on the organ and David Bromberg on guitar, Dobro and bass. “I hadn’t played with him since Blonde on Blonde, so I was glad to get the call,” says Kooper. “When I got to the studio, it got really weird, just the strangest situation. He had a pile of issues of [folk-music journal] Sing Out! and was going through them, picking out songs and just recording them. They ran the gamut from traditional folk songs to ‘Mr. Bojangles’ and ‘Come a Little Bit Closer,’ by Jay and the Americans, and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer.’ I didn’t comprehend what he was doing, and I wasn’t really in charge, so I just sat in my seat and did what I was told.”
Bromberg barely knew Dylan and had never worked with him. “I tried to make the tracks interesting without overshadowing him,” he says. “With Bob, everything is either the first or second take. You either get it or you don’t, and he always gets it. Also, he’s an incomparable performer of traditional music. After the first album, he really lost touch with that side of himself. I think he just wanted to show different things that he was quite good at.”
Over three consecutive days, Dylan and his band cut 30 tracks – including traditional songs like “Pretty Saro” and “In Search of Little Sadie.” Producer Bob Johnston then took all of the Self Portrait tapes to Nashville, without Dylan, and piled on layers of horns, strings and backup singers, dramatically altering the mellow sound of the originals and causing many critics to presume that Dylan had lost his mind. Johnston’s motives for the gaudy overdubs remain unclear.
So, what exactly was this shit? As years went by, Dylan offered wildly different explanations for Self Portrait. “There’s a lot of damn good music there,” he told biographer Anthony Scaduto in 1971. “People just didn’t listen at first.” But three years later, he began to admit that the album may not have been his finest hour. “I didn’t live with those songs for too long,” he told RS‘s Ben Fong-Torres. “Those were just scraped together.” At a 1981 press conference, Dylan went further, calling the album a “joke” and saying that he tanked it on purpose – a position he explained in great detail in a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone. He was tired of hippies stalking him and his family in New York – overzealous followers who hoped Dylan would again become a leader of the protest movement. “I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me,'” he told Kurt Loder. “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?'”
It didn’t go as planned. “The whole idea backfired,” he said. “Because the album went out there and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I did the cover in about five minutes. And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.'” In 1985, he said the album was a response to the Dylan bootlegs that had flooded the market. “I just figured I’d put all this stuff together and put out my own bootleg record, so to speak,” he said. “You know, if it actually had been a bootleg record, people probably would have sneaked around to buy it and played it for each other secretly.”
Dylan is a notoriously unreliable narrator of his own life story, so it’s impossible to say what his true intentions were. But 43 years after the album’s release, he allowed his team to revisit the original session tapes, minus the overdubs, and release it as the revelatory Bootleg Series box set Another Self Portrait. The results were stunning, proving that underneath Johnston’s overdubs sat a beautiful covers album. “The unadulterated Self Portrait songs were very stark and arresting,” says Marcus. “Without the additional stuff and overdubs, the music speaks an entirely different language.”
The deluxe Another Self Portrait also included Dylan’s complete set at the Isle of Wight, his first major performance since his motorcycle crash three years earlier. A new mix of the live recording lowered the vocals and proved his uneven performance was not nearly as bad as the legend suggested.
The new set did cause Marcus to reassess this period of Dylan’s career, but he stands by his review of the original Self Portrait. “A few years ago, Mojo asked me to come back and listen to the record again and write about it again,” he says. “I tried really hard to listen to it and hear where I might have been wrong. The stuff that I liked before sounded even better. The stuff that I didn’t like before, like the Everly Brothers ‘Let It Be Me,’ was worse. I don’t know [why he released the version he did]. Maybe it was meant to be a moat to keep people away.”