Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10
Bob Dylan Columbia/Sony ★★★★✩
THE Bootleg Series, since it was launched 22 years ago, has invariably served up delectable, and often irresistible, offerings from the Bob Dylan vaults. Even so, the announcement earlier this year that the 10th volume would focus on 1970, and specifically on recordings from the Self Portrait sessions, caused some bemusement among aficionados. After all, this was a notoriously fallow period in the artist’s creative trajectory, and the album is best remembered for the first sentence of Greil Marcus’s review in Rolling Stone: ‘‘ What is this shit?’’ What’s more, Dylan himself has been fairly derisory in his recollections of it, dismissing it as ‘‘ a joke’’ in one interview, and noting in his memoir, Chronicles: ‘‘ I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.’’ The aim, evidently, was to disorient the annoying fans who insisted on regarding him as a spokesman for his generation; he told Rolling Stone in the 1980s that the idea was to stop people ‘‘ buying my records, and they did’’. Yet Another Self Portrait gives the lie to the notion that it was a perfunctory project. The latest release was prompted by the discovery last year of tapes without the saccharine overdubs, with many of the takes featuring just Dylan, David Bromberg on guitar and Al Kooper on keyboards — with one reviewer comparing the result with ‘‘ finding a Rembrandt under a layer of crap’’. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but the evidence clearly supports Sony Music executive and Bootleg Series veteran Steve Berkowitz’s contention that Bromberg ‘‘ plays just spectacular guitar and Dylan sings his butt off’’.
The latter description particularly holds true in the case of newly unveiled tracks such as This Evening So Soon and These Hands, but Dylan’s vocals are keen throughout, not least on traditional songs such as Pretty Saro, Copper Kettle and House Carpenter, and on Lead Belly’s Bring Me a Little Water there’s more than a hint of the rasp that became familiar two decades hence.
Self Portrait featured four rather muddy recordings from Dylan’s and the Band’s appearance — with three Beatles among the audience — at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, a far cry from the cleaned up and remixed version of the entire set that’s included in the sumptuous deluxe version of the new release. The demos and alternate takes from New Morning suggest that, too, could have been a superior album — although Working on a Guru, with George Harrison on guitar, is little more than an entertaining curio. On the other hand, Dylan’s takes on songs by contemporaries such as Eric Andersen ( Thirsty Boots) and Tom Paxton ( Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song) fall in the category of gems that would have been lost to posterity but for the Bootleg Series. I would still be surprised if the archivists dug up anything worthwhile from the mid-80s. But with Dylan you can never be sure.