I burst out laughing yesterday. I was listening to “Wigwam,” the version of the song on the new release from Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10, without the overdubs from the original Self Portrait album in 1970. Heard this way, it is a very unassuming performance: voice, guitar, piano: a pleasant, contemplative melody. I think that it is, in its way, a joke, however, because, while there are no lyrics, Dylan sings “la da da da” type stuff throughout. Put that together with what he said (in 1984) about the original 1970 release of Self Portrait, and how he wanted to alienate the people who were looking to him for big statements and answers:
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 get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else.
What better way to do that than for the great lyricist and poet and “voice of a generation” to record a song with nothing but “la da da’s” in it?
Yet, as mentioned, the simple version just released is quite pleasant, and not excessively alienating. I knew that the one on the actual Self Portrait had various stuff on top of it, but I hadn’t listened to it in a long while. So I put it on for comparison. And that’s when I burst out laughing. Hearing this simple little tune peppered with a big cheesy horn arrangement just cracked me up. The sound of the burping and blaring brass almost drowning out Dylan’s “la da da’s” was completely absurd and hilarious, coming right after hearing the simpler and purer version. It occurred to me that Dylan himself must have been rolling around hearing this. He had to have been crying, sides shaking, as he told his producer, “OK, let’s go with that version for the album, that one sounds good.”
So it is: Self Portrait is a joke wrapped in a joke, wrapped in a joke. The latest joke is that over forty years later, they’ve released the outtakes from this almost-universally-despised album, and people all over the place are writing long intellectual-sounding treatises on how wonderful it is. You truly can’t make up this stuff.
I personally wasn’t at all upset when Self Portrait was released in 1970. Actually, I wasn’t too into the music scene at that point, being more into the baby food scene. Later, when I became a fan, I found my way back and around to Self Portrait, as people do. It didn’t incense me; it was just amusing and in spots quite lovely.
The new release is broader than just Self Portrait, covering as it does 1969 to 1971, along with one blast from the 1967 Basement Tapes period with The Band (“Minstrel Boy”). It is, in fact, too sprawling and mixed up to listen to as one album, in one sitting. That’s the nature of most of these Bootleg Series releases. It’s the kind of record where a listener will find his or her own favorites, and absorb the rest over time. For a dedicated fan of Dylan, it is essential, no doubt. For someone just becoming familiar with Dylan, there are many more things that should rate higher than this (although I think almost any entrée to Dylan’s oeuvre is ultimately a good one).
Favorites for this listener include the demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and the astounding alternate version of “If Dogs Run Free.” And, although I always liked the Self Portrait version of “Copper Kettle,” the one here without the strings is assuredly more powerful and resonant. The piano and vocal rendition of “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” would likely be near the top of my list (just because I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff) were it not for the fact that this happens to be a track that was legitimately (i.e. illicitly) bootlegged over the years and so I was already familiar with it. Still, it’s lovely.
Some believed that the crooning and melodic voice with which Dylan was singing during these years was something of a put-on. He claimed it was due to his giving up cigarettes. If that’s true—and although I’m no anti-smoking zealot—I kind of wish he’d stayed away from smoking for a few more decades, or permanently. However, would Blood on the Tracks have been taken seriously sung in his Nashville Skyline voice? It’s an interesting question. At any rate, it might have left him with more melody in his now 72-year-old vocal cords. (But then, he does pretty well with what he’s got left.)
As for the grand arguments being made about how great and important this particular release is, I have to say that on this occasion I think the praise is being just a little over done. Dylan is good here, on Another Self Portrait. He was and is the ultimate fan of music; he’s a ravenous collector of songs and someone who loves to reinterpret them in his way. He’s a peerless musician when it comes to instinct and feel, and he was working with some very fine musicians (Al Kooper, Charlie Daniels, et al) during this period. He could surely churn out these covers of great old songs in his sleep, and at times here I think it should be admitted that he may not be all that far from dozing off. Although a few tracks hit heights, there is, I believe, a marked lack of urgency and passion. Even the songs he himself composed during this period which are represented here, like “Time Passes Slowly” and “Went to See the Gyspy,” are essentially low key numbers, though quite fine for all that. Dylan was not looking to burn any houses down or blow any roofs off during this time. He was enjoying himself in as un-incendiary a fashion as possible. It is very nice that we get to enjoy it too, without the baggage and the turmoil of the time and the critics of that moment, all of these years later. It is, in fact, the sweetest possible punchline.
Addendum: A brief note on the audio quality, since I’ve made an issue of this in the past. I have not obtained the vinyl version of this album, but instead the 2-CD version. As far as “loudness” (aka dynamic range compression) goes, it seems at least to me that this new release is substantially better than what we’ve been used to for the last ten years or more. That is, the mastering is less loud, and has more natural dynamic range. I hope that I am right, and that this is the new trend, not just for Dylan but for music in general. It would be very good news.