Bob Dylan Rescues His Worst Album

Release Offers Self-Portrait of Artist as a Youngish Man

Born Again: Bob Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ was one of his most reviled albums, but it has been reborn in a new version that is surprisingly revelatory.
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Born Again: Bob Dylan’s ‘Self Portrait’ was one of his most reviled albums, but it has been reborn in a new version that is surprisingly revelatory.

By Jay Michaelson

Published September 18, 2013, issue of September 20, 2013.
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For the next year, Dylan recuperated in a house near Woodstock. Away from the swirl of the 1960s — which Dylan inspired, and yet in which he did not really participate — Dylan turned to solid things: farms, honest songs, country living. “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,” Dylan sings — on “Another Self Portrait,” in an alternate version with backing vocals by George Harrison. While the world was spinning toward revolution, Dylan had already abandoned the persona that provided the world its soundtrack.

The songs he wrote and recorded with The Band in 1967 did, in fact, go unreleased, circulating as bootlegs until Columbia Records finally put them out as “The Basement Tapes” in 1975. Indeed, the only official Bob Dylan and The Band album was the disappointing “Planet Waves” (1973). Meanwhile, Dylan recorded with other musicians, his output ranging from brilliant (“John Wesley Harding”) to puzzling (“Nashville Skyline”) to appalling (“Self-Portrait”). It’s almost as if Dylan was afraid to reveal himself during this period of healing and introspection, instead putting out crap for mass consumption, singing in a fake voice — almost entirely absent in this new collection — and withdrawing from public life. As he sang in 1970, “The man in me will hide sometimes, to keep from being seen /But that’s just ’cause he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.”

“Another Self Portrait” is what he was doing in private. Some of the tracks are indeed gems. The cover of Leadbelly’s “Bring Me a Little Water” sounds like a lot of the songs on “The Basement Tapes,” and wouldn’t be out of place next to The Band’s best-loved songs, like “The Weight.” The cover of Dylan’s own “Highway 61 Revisited,” performed with The Band, is rollicking and better than any of the others I’ve heard. It turns Dylan’s apocalyptic satire into a roots-rock revival; it’s almost impossible not to sing along with it. Most of “Another Self Portrait” is an unexpected treasure trove. It’s better than the best of what we have from this period so far, and feels like the real Dylan that was indeed hiding to keep from being seen. Turns out the true believers were right.

In fact, this strange juxtaposition of rootsy beauty and commercial schlock would recur in Dylan’s career, and become resolved in only its most recent period. As Dylan wrote in his quasi-memoir, “Chronicles,” he found himself in a comparable career malaise in the 1980s, as he churned out similarly uninspired “product” for years, desperately trying to remain “relevant.” The way out was the same as it had been two decades earlier: getting back to basics, first with the 1989 album [“Oh Mercy,”] then with two albums of acoustic covers of classic Americana, and finally with the 1997 masterpiece “Time Out of Mind” and its successors.

It’s only now, it seems, with the wisdom of age, that Dylan can reveal his roots in public, to sing about “Thunder on the Mountain” and host “Theme Time Radio Hour.” Or, who knows? Maybe that’s just another con. Maybe the truth is that there are only cons.

If you like, you can understand this whole cycle in religio-cultural terms. Dylan wanders, he gets lost, he gets back to his roots. This is the pattern of many American Jews, whether the roots are religious, cultural, artistic — or not Jewish at all. Perhaps it has something to do with Diaspora, with placelessness, with not quite having a home.

Yet Dylan’s is also a universal psychological journey, as we all wander from our cores and have to restore our connection to them now and then, to remember the truths of who we are and what we love. To hear Dylan find that core, half-reinvent it, and succeed in bringing forth such private beauty from it is the joy of “Another Self Portrait.”

Jay Michaelson’s newest book is “Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment” (Evolver Editions). But his best material is unreleased.


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