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Bob Dylan
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Bob Dylan

One more look

Music | New installment of Dylan series vindicates Self Portrait

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

“I wanted to call it Surviving in a Ruthless World,” said Bob Dylan in 1984, explaining why he’d called his then-latest album Infidels. “But someone pointed out to me that the last bunch of albums I’d made all started with the letter s. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t wanna get bogged down in the letter s.’”

Albums starting with s have a long history of bogging Dylan’s career down. Street-Legal (1978), Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981)—each burned bridges with critics and fans. 

But the trouble all started with Self Portrait, the double album of countrypolitan covers and curiosities Dylan released in June 1970, hoping it would convince people who’d spent the ’60s acclaiming him the Voice of a Generation to leave him and his family alone.

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In retrospect, it was a logical next step, coming as it did after the decidedly mellow, country-inflected John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. At the time, though, it was taken as an insult to all things seriously countercultural and instantly became stigmatized as one of the worst albums ever by a major rock and roller.

It wasn’t. And, as if to prove as much, Columbia Records has made Self Portrait the centerpiece of its 10th installment of the Dylan Bootleg Series

Titled Another Self Portrait (1969-1971), the two-disc “standard” edition presents seven of Self Portrait’s stronger tracks stripped of producer Bob Johnston’s embellishments (strings mostly) and excavates 25 previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions of songs recorded during the sessions for Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning. It also includes a different version of “Wallflower” than the one that appeared on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 and two live tracks from Dylan’s 1969 Isle of Wight concert with The Band.

But Disc Three of the “deluxe” edition (which also includes the original, remastered Self Portrait [Disc Four] and two books) presents the concert in its entirety. And those 17 performances blow away even such meritorious studio cuts as “Thirsty Boots,” “This Evening So Soon,” “These Hands,” and “Tattle O’Day.” (Apparently getting bogged down in t is not such a bad thing).

That Dylan scandalized folkies by “going electric” in 1965 and staying electric until his motorcycle accident in 1966 is well documented. But listening to him deliver much of that same music three years later in a smooth, revitalized croon is to hear him stake, in some ways, an even more joyfully defiant claim on a creative future that would for decades brook neither idolatry nor fashion. 

Legal release

Speaking of staking claims, another curious multidisc Dylan set appeared last December. Released only in Europe and in a limited-edition, 100-copy run, The 50th Anniversary Collection: The Copyright Extension Collection, Vol. 1 enabled Sony Records to retain ownership of 86 early Dylan recordings that, in the European Union, would have otherwise passed into the public domain in 2013.

Early coverage of this most odd intersection of supply, demand, and legislation assured fans in France and Germany who couldn’t land a hard copy that they’d be able to buy digital versions from Dylan’s website. But neither they nor anyone else can now, leaving connoisseurs of Dylan’s creatively fertile period between Bob Dylan (1962) and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) little choice but to fork over $1,700 (the current going price on eBay) or to download illicit uploads.

It’s an undifferentiated vault dump, and redundancies abound. (There are seven versions of “Mixed Up Confusion” alone.) But the performances are spirited and the sound excellent.  

And it doesn’t start with s. —A.O.

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