I well remember buying Self Portrait in June of 1970. It was one of the first albums that I didn’t buy either at Band Stand Records: a little hole-in-the-wall downtown that seemed to have every obscure rock record ever recorded; or from the bargain racks at Woolworth or Caldor (you youngsters can Google these names). For this major release I went to E. J. Korvette’s, a new retailer in a shopping center on the outskirts of town that was drawing business away from Main Street. I felt somewhat guilty, but, hey, they advertised the lowest prices on LP’s.
I was somewhat taken aback by the price, which if I recall correctly was $8.99. Yes, it was a double album. However, I paid less for Tommy and I paid even less for Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. Anyway, when I got it home and listened to it, I was perplexed. It seemed like a big stew with everything thrown into it. There were songs that sounded like the old Dylan and songs that sounded like they were left off of Nashville Skyline. And,then there were songs with the Band that would have been at home on the Great White Wonder.
I didn’t quite know what to make of this release. Nevertheless, my reaction was not as apoplectic as that of Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus who famously asked, “What is this sh*t? I thought Days of 49 was absolutely inspired, covering a neglected period in America’s history and Bob sang it like he was there. I also really appreciated Dylan’s take on Elmore James’ It Hurts Me Too (and especially liked David Bromberg’s solo). And even the somewhat laconic Alberta was cool. Of course, it goes without saying that in 1970, the live tracks from the Isle of wight festival the year before were very welcome. Yet, I still couldn’t figure out why Dylan would record covers of The Boxer or even Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Mornin’ Rain.
So, when I heard that Columbia planned to release a Bootleg Series CD based on Self Portrait I was obviously skeptical. Upon my first listen I was reassured. With unreleased tracks from Nashville Skyline, Greatest Hits II, Self Portrait, and, New Morning this compilation accomplishes what the original didn’t; It provides a bridge from Dylan the folksinger to Dylan the Country and Western crooner and beyond. A real highlight for me is Copper Kettle (without overdubs). When I heard this version I immediately understood the anti-government strain that runs through rural America. Especially when he sings the line “We ain’t paid no whiskey tax since 1792.” Many view Dylan as simply a songwriter but he is also a great interpreter of song. On this one he nails it, painting a romantic portrait of a rugged individual, defiant of the law, yet rooted in a long tradition of an anti-establishment lifestyle.
The third CD of the complete performance at the Isle of Wight festival is a real bonus. The only recording of this I had was a bootleg of truly poor audio quality. The Band is as funky as ever. Dylan sounds like your drunken uncle singing at a wedding while pulling you out on to the dance floor, which suits the loose feeling of the concert just fine. Robbie flubs a few notes but who cares? He is playing from the heart and manages to wring genuine emotion out of his instrument. The rest of the Band do what they do best; play real, authentic rock and roll. Yes, Dylan forgets the words to Like a Rolling Stone but, again, who cares? Rainy Day Women here sounds much better than the original because it is being played with a fervor lacking on the studio version (and contains a nice solo by Garth Hudson). I must say that Bob is in fine form on the acoustic numbers – Wild Mountain Thyme, especially – and he is here beginning his practice of rearranging and reinventing his songs with every performance.
If you appreciate Bob Dylan, or if you appreciate American music, you should (spend more than $8.99 and) get this CD.