Some months back my wife poked her head in my work room, and said, “That is terrible music.” The terrible music she was referring to: Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album. I was playing it as I worked (if I’m working in my office, music is playing).
I’ve always understood where the critics were coming from when they slammed Self Portrait. It’s no Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited or John Wesley Harding (but it is also no Down in the Groove or Knocked Out Loaded, my two contenders for Dylan’s lowest point) but I love it just the same, from its cover art — a self portrait (pictured above) — to the photos within (Dylan posing with a chicken!) to the loopy arrangements. Most people cite Dylan’s double-tracked vocal on his cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” as the supreme example of just how bad this album is. I find Dylan’s Simon & Garfunkel voices fascinating.
Self Portrait is perhaps the most reviled album in Dylan’s career (the now famous Greil Marcus review in Rolling Stone led off with “What is this shit?” – a saltier version of my wife’s verbal review). Despite the wrath heaped upon Self Portrait I fell hard for the album since it was released in 1970. Saving up to buy it, I had to make do with listening to it at a local box store where it was sacrificed to the stereo department as a demo to be played on turntables (my guess is that someone bought it then returned it). Once I actually purchased the album, it became a favorite to work to as I drew my way through high school, college and beyond. It’s one of those select albums that has the ability to spirit me away to the Cartoon Zone every morning (another album in the spiriting away category: the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request — hmmm, yet another album the critics loved to hate).
Self Portrait is back in the news (and being re-raked over the coals) due to the imminent release of Another Self Portrait – the tenth in Dylan’s Bootleg series. This latest in the series features two discs of previously unreleased material from the Self Portrait sessions. Lost in every review I’ve seen of Another Self Portrait is mention of the 1973 Columbia Records release, Dylan, an album of material from the Self Portrait era – it’s usually referred to as Columbia Records’ revenge for Dylan changing labels (he left Columbia, briefly, for Geffen’s Asylum Records). It came in for the same trashing as Self Portrait. With its cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” as well as a dual nod to Elvis Presley with covers of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “A Fool Such As I” – Dylan was, to me, just as good as and a welcome addition to the earlier Self Portrait. The album was quickly forgotten and buried under the sea of coverage for the new Dylan material on Planet Waves released just three months afterDylan hit record stores. Dylan became the forgotten album, never released in the United States on compact disc (I bought a European import, released under the title, A Fool Such As I).
Why this particular phase of Dylan’s career became (and has remained) integral to my work I’ll never know. I can always play Highway 61 Revisited and still feel that electric charge as the lead off track, “Like A Rolling Stone” kicks in. I’ve learned though that the album is too exciting, too distracting; listening to it keeps me from working. The surest path to the Cartoon Zone, for some forty-three years, has been the “terrible music” of Self Portrait.