On The Prospect of Dylan’s “Another Self Portrait”

Uncut‘s September issue is now out, and (besides teeing up the August 20th release of Ty Segall’s Sleeper) it gives the complete treatment to the August 27th release of Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10.  The way they preview it, Dylan fanatics can get excited about what’s to come: outtakes of both the original Self Portrait and New Morning, a live album of Dylan and the Band at the Isle of Wight in ’69, alternative versions, etc.  But for those who actually remember Self Portrait, Greil Marcus’s famous opening line in his Rolling Stone review — “What is this shit?” — certainly rang true at the time.

We remember Self Portrait, when we think of it at all, as the double album on which you found the Basement Tapes version of “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo).” To a teenager listening to it — especially at a moment (Summer of 1970) when so much great music was abounding, from Get Yer Ya Yas Out to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s epic, hits-driven season to Mad Dogs and Englishmen and John Barleycorn Must Die — it was enough to make you write Dylan off.  Which at that moment we kinda did, not fully reengaging with him ’til Blood On The Tracks and Planet Waves a half-decade later.

So the idea that now there is about to be released a 35-song compendium, as well as a more expensive complete dive down the rabbit hole, makes us feel… fascinated.  Was there really more to this period of Dylan than we realized at the time? Uncut would make you think so, though as much as they are an excellent filter for new music, and a source of many of our favorite discoveries over the years, they do tend to mythologize the work of artists from the ’60s and ’70s, such that you might think every album from that period, every band and performance, was a masterwork.  It, um, wasn’t.  And even great bands put out dreck (cf. Their Satanic Majesties Request.)

The fact that we still remember Greil Marcus’s review also tells us something about the quality of rock writing back then.  Can you imagine, 40 years hence, anyone being able to recall a single review in the 2013 version of Rolling Stone?  It’s possible we may be able to remember, decades hence, how terrible Jon Pareles’s writing in the Times is, but that’s a different matter, and we digress.

We do still remember that horse’s ass (and the man who, by complaining about the $6.00 ticket prices of their 1969 tour, would goad the Rolling Stones into doing a free concert in the Bay Area, which became Altamont…) Ralph J. Gleason’s review, four months after Self Portrait came out, of New Morning, which rock crits viewed as a return to form, or at least relevance, the antithesis of the creative nadir that Self Portrait was dismissed as.  “It came on the radio in the late afternoon and from the first note it was right…” Gleason went on to imagine that everyone, in every car on the road, heard the same set of Dylan songs, and that realizing the Dylan they loved had returned to form, all was right in the world.  A little later, when Alice Cooper’s great Love It To Death was released, John Mendelsohn — our favorite rock crit of the era — parodied Gleason: “It came on the radio in the late afternoon and from the first note it was right: Alice Cooper bringing it all back home again.”

So, we look forward — as someone whose estimation of Dylan has exponentially increased in the decades since; yeah, we view ’90s/’00s Dylan as more personally relevant, if not more important than ’60s/’70s Dylan — to the new version of Self Portrait.  Even as we wax nostalgic over an era in which an artist’s album could have such resonance, good or bad, as Dylan’s did in 1970, not to mention the power of rock critics to praise or dismiss a work with such world historical importance.

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