Friday, October 21, 2016

Self Portrait (1970)

Self Portrait
(1970, Columbia Records)


(pancakes, "angel tears," and vegan sausage links)

Strap in for a wild ride on a doomsday device, cause I'm talkin' Self Portrait, baby. This record is often referred to as Dylan's strangest record. So, I thought I'd be an adult about this and do something downright wacky for dinner tonight. I have prepared myself 3 frozen pancakes (there's 3 more on reserve if needed, which they will most certainly be because I am more food-beast than gentleman), along with 5 links of microwavable Morning Star vegan breakfast sausages. I've topped it off with the tears of angels. Yes, also known as "syrup." Every thing is ass backwards, and I'm sure I'll make it through this dinner before I plow through even a quarter of this 24 song American MONSTERpiece.

Perhaps no better time to review this steaming pile of notes, this dinner comes a week after Bob Dylan's real life ascension into the pantheon of Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Well, here's a real study in the absurd for you scholars. So, after nearly a decade of influential, ground breaking, critically lauded work, we reach the bottom of the barrel. Perhaps debated as much as it's hated we've reached the controversial,  2nd double LP of his career, Self Portrait. 

In the days of yore, exceptional rock critic and full-time Dylan obsessor, Griel Marcus, opened his Rolling Stone review for this LP with the now infamous  line: "What is this shit?" Well, let's sit through it together and find the F# out.

Many have called this Bob Dylan's career suicide record, a contractual obligation of sorts. Such things had been done before, and as such continue to live neatly tucked away in the far recesses of our brains, and the internet...   Check out one of the great Van Morrison career highlights from his great "lost" contracutal obligation record below.

(I mean, it could be ring worm, y'know?)

Over the years, fans and curiosity seekers have come to Self Portrait's defense, offering up wild explanations about it's arguably horrid nature, jumbled ideas, half-assed covers, and its arching baffling quality. Hell, even Dylan himself confessed to painting the ridiculous album cover in under 10 minutes (Looks like a handsome devil, put through a fun house mirror of oil paints if ya ask me). I mean really, it's sort of postmodern art mixed with the Mobile Alabama leprechaun sketch.

(OR is this Dylan's unreleased Amateur Sketch LP from 1971, as rarely rumored)

Mostly sung in Dylan's country affected Nashville Skyline meatball-in-the-throat style, the whole hodgepodge is daunting to say the least. In reality, the LP is mostly a collection of what Dylan once described as practice tapes made before other recording sessions while in Nashville. In this sense, Dylan has offered up the explanation that this is own self-released bootleg record. Others have speculated this album helped rid this burdened Zimmy of any remaining "hero of a generation" status from the man at the time. Still, others revel in all that is Self Portrait, holding it in such regard as, say, The Shaggs' Philosophy of the World. Truly, a record that defies explanation, a perhaps only remains interesting without a definitive answer. 

At any rate, let's dig into this heaping pile of polarizing carpola together. CHEERS, and don't choke to death!

All the Tired Horses- Okay, a group of women are seemingly stuck in an echo chamber, repeating the same damn line over and over. From the horizon, acoustic strums and some subtle orchestration sweeps in and out and swell about. All the while, the female singers keep singing, "All the tired horses in the sun, how my 'supposed to get any riding done?" I'm beginning to wonder myself. I didn't know this was an issue I was supposed to think about as I sat down with my pancakes. But now I begin to worry on the 49th or 52nd time they've repeated this sentiment, "YES! How am I supposed to get any riding done, indeed?" Well, this song is kinda of terrible, but also oddly gripping. Seems to never end, which is a major drawback for a 3 minute opener on a 24 song LP.  Also, I once put this album on a few years back and fell asleep before this song was over. I eventually woke up somewhere around track 17, which is like going through a slow motion nightmare to find you're still not done listening to Self Portrait. Oddly hypnotic, I guess. 

Alberta #1- op-----------kjl7fg6v7y  What you see before you is the first published works from my Tuxedo cat, Maisy. I know my other cats, Iris and Mitzi have published some work on pervious blog posts, but now this little stinker?  Maybe Maisy did too. I don't know, these felines are prolific! I got up and paused this record to fetch some added angel tears (syrup), and she took over. Figure I'd leave it because it fits perfectly in the sense of Self Portrait, and properly sums up the LP better than most critics can. Nice work Maisy.

Anyway, Bob Dylan's back on this track, finally dropping some honest to goodness Dylan vocals, none of which mention "horses." Here, a mix of electric Dylan collides with some of that leftover country croon from his past couple LPs. This song's a traditional blues number, or so the liner notes tell me. It shuffles sleepily along, the bass sounding like a doe eyed bassett hound on sedatives. Love the out off synch backing vocals from what can only be described as a makeshift choir section.

(This is Maisy, who looks suspiciously like the above "leprechaun sketch" but without the hat. Mystery debunked.)

I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know- There's that Dylan country croon we've come to know and love (to hate). Just joshing, Mr Zimmy. Here, Dylan tackles an old country number 1 HIT, from Skeeter and Betty Jack Davis. The song itself was written by Cecil A. Null. Again, how do I know this? Reading about it, and reporting the facts. And now you've read it, and you'll remember it for a night and both impress and annoy your friends who want to receive exactly none of this information. This is some sleepy, sappy, corny, straight-up county! You can almost see the neon glow of the buzzing Schlitz sign over your shoulder, hear the clunk of a cowboy boot on the hardwood.  And yet, overall, it's somewhat comforting, but far from brilliant.

(a real-life cowboy still trying to "get" Dylan's Self Portrait since its release)

Day of 49- Dylan lays it down pretty straight. Doing what he does most on the LP, Zimmy counterattacks with another cover, this one about the Gold Rush. It's 5 straight shooting minutes of piano, guitar, drums mid-tempo folk rock. Nowhere near as radical as anything from when Dylan went electric, but passable. Interesting mainly for two things; Dylan stumbling and fumbling through several lines and just leaving it on tape, and for the outlandish DUCK sounding instrument melodically farting in the background. Fart on, you melodic duck!

(WARNING: this album may contain duck farts)

Early Mornin' Rain- Dylan decides to cover Canadian folk hero (as he is a monster of Canadian folk), Gordon Lightfoot. However, this one is a 3 lifeless minutes of snooze piano, harmonica sections accented by creepy flamanco guitars, all built around paralysis inducing verses.  Also, I hope you're happy. I've gotten syrup on the keyboard now, adding to the many things that have become lodged in my keyboard since the first post. Who did I think I was bringing syrup around a computer? I am not GOD, but a mere man. Oh boy, how do I clean this? Gross. The rest of this review will be a squeamish exercise in why I can't have nice things.

(how I now feel following my Angel Tear follies)

In Search of Little Sadie- This is a strange stripped down tune where Dylan basically throws in the kitchen sink, although he apparently never threw a kitchen sink at any of his studio musicians. For all of his fault, Zimmy is not a sink thrower. This one is actually a Dylan original, a retelling of the song "Little Sadie," which he decides to cover 2 songs later, of course, because this LP is full of dumb ideas. The song's basically a two-parter, shifting gears mid song for no good reason except that this album is one big "kiss my ass" in a world full of puckered lips. Have I mentioned this is a strange LP?

Let It Be Me- Okay, side one done. The dinner is long done because it's a small dinner, but the memory remains.... of syrup.

(Metallica in a syrup commercial)

Still, this goop is on the keyboard. Syrup is like glitter; get it on something and it regenerates itself. F this! I'm heating up more frozen pancakes as a reward for getting through side A, and enjoying it as much as I did.

Okay, I'm back to report on the song, and not syrup. Originally written by French composer, Gilber B├ęcaud, it was later made semi-famous by the Everly Brothers, the envy of all kids snatching up 45's at the 5 and Dime. If you're on a  bullet train to Schmaltz City, let this song be your ride ticket. That's some thunderous piano balladry in the mix but a spine tingling number in bad taste.

Little Sadie- Dylan sings this traditional folk song that would make any old toothless man in butt-flap pajamas want to pogo around with a jug. Included in the mix, some extraneous bongos? Sure, why not? 2 bizarre minutes that the world could've certainly done without, but glad to have it. 

Woogie Boogie- Here, we find a short Dylan original. The man who once wrote "Positively 4th Street," "Just Like a Woman," and "Masters of War," now drops a little ditty named "Woogie Boogie" on us, like a piano falling from a crane on a hapless dog (the dog was not injured, thankfully). So what we have here is simply a "boogie." The piano boogies, the guitar boogies, the bass... you guessed it.  BOOGIES. Everything about this song also does sort of "woogie" as well. It can't be disputed that it doesn't lack in the woogie department. Near the end, a killer sax rips in and that boogies too. And we woogie on out with the sax blasting like the session player were auditioning for the SNL band 5 years to soon.

(other examples of "boogies" that have been "woogied" out of one's body)

Belle Isle- A traditional folkie piece that Dylan digs out of the gutter. Vocally, Dylan sounds like the young prince of Greenwich Village again, but the orchestration crushes the life out of this one. It's so out of place, one can almost sit stunned at the inclusion of such heavy handed bullshit in a two minute folk piece. And yet, it's so weird, I kind of love it.

Living the Blues- Dylan walks the fine line between sarcasm and straight up cornball.  A tongue-in-cheek piece. Is Dylan both nodding and winking at us, simultaneously? Who cares. Kudos to the old-timie radio style backing vocals. Crummy stuff here. 

Like A Rolling Stone (live)- Here's the first of a bunch of weirdo live songs that appear for some reason on this over-stuffed album. The recordings are from Dylan's somewhat famed performance at the Isle of Wright festival in 1969. The festival took place in a relatively unkonwn English town (to your average American folk eating hamburgers and lighting fireworks), and attracted Woodstock like numbers, but significantly less. The big deal in '69 was the return of live Dylan, after laying low from that sketchy motorcycle accident. And let me tell you, based on this crooning bullshit version of "Like a Rolling Stone," I'm sure many fans were like, "let's take selfies at the Red Bull truck and snag some $4 bottles of water than continuing to listening to this shit." If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of colleges kids tipping over ATMs and climbing the scaffolding.

Still a lot of Dylanites like this live set, so I'll shut my mouth, or lick the syrup off my fingers. Ewww.

(possible footage from Dylan's Isle of Wright Fest set in '69. Fans were excited to see them some Live Zim!)

Copper Kettle- Here, Dyaln covers a song by folkie Alfred Frank Beddoe who wrote this in the '50s.... the 1650's!!! (when folk meant something, am I right?). But, no, really. Here Dylan gives a strong vocal performance. The instrumentation is lush but still feels wholly appropriate. The female harmonies in the back are near perfect, if not somewhat ridiculous. Dylan's best showing of the LP, possibly.

(An artifact no Dylan fan can live without, this can be purchased on

Gotta Travel On- Dylan tackles a country hit from the late '50s and turns this into some snarled-lipped country rock. This whole song feels like it's covered in dirt, much like my keyboard is continuing to remind me it's covered in syrup. What a terrible dinner this has turned out to be. Also, I'm hungry! Next week, I'm gonna make a meal and stop trying to be "clever" with stupid pancakes. On a different note, if you're a fan of bongos, head over to this song and here them blasting out of the right speaker. Man. Bongo FURY! But this is some Allman Brothers or Lynrd Skynrd type stuff pre-dating the both bands. But most certainly, this song does not predate bongos.

(Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart appear on the cover of Bongo Fury, released years after Self Portrait. It should be noted that both Zappa and Beeheart would have made welcome additions to Self Portrait)

Blue Moon- 1 Uggghh, this sums up this whole LP. What is happening? But who gives a flyin' flip? I'm personally glad this horrible cover of a horrid song is on here because it wouldn't be Dylan's weirdest album full of tracks sort of him literally shooting himself in the foot. Love that piercing violin outro. So horrid it's also pretty great.

(Blue Moon is also a beer that everyone claimed they hated years back until everyone found out all their friends secretly loved it, despite everyone claiming they hated it, and now it's okay to be yourself.) 

The Boxer- Mr. Zimmy gets contemporary for the kids and tackles Queens, NY's greatest export since Mr. Met Bobbleheads, Simon and Garfunkel. Mind you, this was before The Ramones so Dylan had to reference these balding beaus. As the history of this song supposedly goes, "The Boxer" is  possible slander towards Bob Dylan for denouncing his folk roots. SO, in a great strategic attack, Dylan covers it, does a terrible job doing so, and makes a mockery out of the whole thing. Others say, that's all speculation, but man this is a terrible cover. Botched from top to bottom, and beaming with irreverence. Gotta love it!

(One time, this boxer bit off another boxer's ear, somewhat controversially). 

The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo) (live)- This song would eventually get an official release on The Basement Tapes but here, we get it for the first time. Yes, this is another senseless inclusion of a live track from the Isle of Wright Festival. Dylan and The Band are at least giving it the ol' dirty try here. Unlike "Like a Rolling Stone," this one really pushes forward, frolicking about in its upstate NY country glory by way of the UK.

(more scenes from the Isle of Wright fest, I think)

Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)- Another semi-lifeless country cover to round out the third side here. Originally recrorded by country legend Boudreaux Bryant (who recorded tons of songs with his wife, Felice). I've currently heard zero originals of theirs compared to Dylan's one cover at this point in my tenure on God's green pastures. This is a mix of straight country and falling comatose, face down in a smoldering ashtray.

Take a Message To Mary- So if you liked the last song, welcome to this song. Yes, Dylan's covering the Bryant's again. Speaking of covering, and the Everly Brothers (as I did earlier), the Bryant's wrote a bunch of songs for the Everly Brother's in the late '50s. So there's that strange connection. "The world is a weird place maaaaannnn"- Dylan in, like, '65. Unlike the constant snooze alarm of the "Take Me..." this is a catchy, strongly played ditty with killer backing female harmonies.

It Hurts Me Too- A totally stripped down blues original penned by Dylan, buried at the end of this massive album of junk. Not breaking any boundaries here, musically and especially lyrically. Still, this is a welcome reprieve after mostly wishing I could be listening to anything else at this point. Wait, what am I saying? This album is kind of cool! Ughhhh. Art is complicated, maaaaaaaaannnn.

("Fuck art, Let's Dance"???? I guess this was taken at the Isle of Wright festival? Pictures are worth  a thousand words). 

Minstrel Boy (Live)- The next two live songs are from that same damned Isle of Wright Festival (possibly pictured above) I keep bringing up. I keep mentioning it because Dylan was brought there, and then he brought the songs here. What a circle. So this was the only known recording of this song until the official Bootleg collections of The Basement Tapes were released nearly 40 years later in 2014. Whatever... This song's got some cool drunk guy vocal harmonies at the beginning. I'm checking out and my inner Griel Marcus is calling... "What is this shit?"

She Belongs to Me (Live)- 2 The great song from Bringing It All Back Home is redone here with The Band adding that funky, country bass hustle and horrid jangled bluesy riffs no one asked for. Imagine going to see your favorite artists and a bunch of moronic frat dudes come out with their blues chops and take a shit all over it.  The Band are really shitty most of the time. Just ask Robbie Robertson. He's probably like, "I don't care what you say. Just pick up a copy of The Last Waltz on Blu-ray today!"

Wigwam- 3 Officially, this was the only single released from this album. How 'bout that trivia? Can't you just picture all the teens in their bellbottoms and Nixon fronted "Not My President" t-shirts running out of the record stores clutching a copy of something called "Wigwam." Anyway, if you can't I'll describe this to you in a pictures.

(kids going to grab their copy of "Wigwam" at a Chicago Whitesox game, some 9 years later)

 First off, for this being the only single off the album...  How do I put this? THERE ARE NO LYRICS! Just blaring horns, and Dylan babbling a melody like he's intoxicated.  Screw it, this record is kinda great.

Alberta #2- How do you round out the crummiest record of your career to date? Bring back the second song of the LP to close it out. Unfortunately for us, this is a few shades cornier than the first, by a smidge (which is like a 'smudge,' but cuter).  The rhythm is tighter here, but I prefer less county-rock bop... and more...

I really don't care for Kidz Bop to tell you the truth. But after all this, I'm fatigued and open to anything, I guess. 

Well, I made it through this album for the second time in my life in one sitting. The rest has been pieced together. At least you finally have a treasure map of how to navigate one the greatest career suicide records ever released. Also, I'd advise against syrup and bring a couple of Advil with you. 

Join me next week as Bob Zimmerman returns to the market a mere 4 months later with a "real" LP, and attempt to show the world he was just yankin' everyone's chains with this Self Portrait tome of magnetic tape and etched wax.  

(Bob Dylan, in search of another chain to yank, circa "after the '80s")

Until next time! 


  1. Your most appetizing dinner yet! (But you needed more pancakes....)

    OK, I'll just say it - if I'm in the right mood (like after a few drinks), I freaking love Self Portrait. Yeah, it's sloppy and it's crazy, and it's mostly not even my kind of music.... but it may be Dylan's happiest album ever, and that comes through, I think.

    It's also a gigantic middle finger to the 1960s in general, and especially to all those fans and critics who insisted that Dylan must play the role they had assigned to him (Archbishop of Anarchy, as he put it). It was the very same issue Dylan had with the folkies a few years earlier, only this time it was the hippies that he had to chase off his lawn (quite literally) while trying to raise his kids.

    Hence, he chooses a badly butchered rendition of the song most sacred to the freaks ("Like a Rolling Stone"). He addresses his most direct message ever to his fans with "Take Me As I Am" (ironically, he does this using someone else's words). And finally, to all those who endlessly analyze Dylan's lyrics for their "hidden messages", he gives them "Woogie Boogie" and "Wigwam".

    Dylan is just really having a good time here, doing songs that he loves but that he knows a lot of his fans hate. I smile and laugh whenever I listen to Self Portrait, which is fairly often.

  2. Hey man I just wanted to say how much I love this blog, keep it up