Was Dylan, once again, a traitor? Dylan did not sound “authentic,” a crime considered high treason in critic’s circles. The diamond in the rough was now a smooth country crooner. Not even in the Hank Williams mold, but all schmaltzed up in corn and wrapped up in strings. How did that happen to our Bob?
After listening to the stripped down material on “ASP:BS10,” one has a new appreciation for the original double LP. It no longer sounds the same. It makes sense. There are plenty of wonderful versions of folk songs sprinkled among the filler.
The first thing I would ask now is: Why all the overdubbing? From the recent interviews from David Bromberg and Al Kooper, one gets the feeling Dylan was attempting to record a simple album, then something changed along the way. Dylan has been known to be stubborn, and even passive-aggressive, to get his way. Who can blame him? He must constantly be surrounded by “experts” who know way less about being Dylan than Dylan does. No wonder he covered “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)”? In this context, it could be a protest song.
The overdubs could have been a sincere attempt at sweetening the album. Maybe he heard Ringo Starr was recording standards in London with a dozen different orchestral arrangers, or that Phil Spector was overdubbing strings on the Beatles’ “Let It Be” album. Maybe he was inspired by recent Elvis records like “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds,” or countless country and western sides.
On the other hand, he could have been trying to sabotage his own career. Maybe he'd had enough. Negative (and inaccurate) reviews of the Isle Of Wight show, bootleg recordings, fans invading his privacy, businessmen stealing him blind. Constantly misunderstood. After their deaths, unfinished recordings by two of Bobby Zimmerman’s biggest influences, Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, were released with added strings and other atrocities. Maybe he was trying to bury Bob Dylan?
Of course like everything else about rock music circa 1970, things were taken very seriously, with Dylan being one of the main instigators. Authenticity was everything. Bobby Zimmerman’s ambition in high school was to join Little Richard, not Pat Boone.
When Johnny Cash sang that he shot someone in Reno to watch him die, you believed it. However, when you hear “Little Sadie,” you don’t believe Dylan was capable of getting off his comfy country couch and loading his gun, let along being angry or crazy enough to kill anyone. He was so mellowed out he didn’t even appear capable of hurting a fly. (Also, did you notice how his voice changed part way through the song on "ASP"?)
However, in 2013, none of that matters.
The recordings from this era are appealing in their own right, enough the bring grown men close to tears of joy. What was “Self Portrait” really? At its heart, Bob Dylan played a handful of folk songs, and some blues and pop standards, with some friends. Just jamming, exploring his roots, having some fun. What controversy? Lighten up. Take a load off and stay a while. It’s as authentic as it gets, if you take it for what it is. It's no big statement. It's a modest portrait of where he was, and how he got there. To quote from "Positively Wall Street," "Who were you expecting, Jesus Zimmerman?"
The highlights from “ASP” are many. Much like the Beach Boys’ “Smile” album, who knows what would have happened if this material had been released instead of the finished product, or how Dylan’s career, and the entire direction of popular music, would have gone had it seen the light of day in 1970. The stark demos, the basic tracks with Bromberg and Kooper, the loose sessions with George Harrison while waiting for Elvis (yeah, right), the thoughtful arrangements added back to two “New Morning” tracks, all make one wonder, “What could have been?” Not only is every track worthy of inclusion, but if it is not a superior take to the released version, it is at least a worthy companion.
“Self Portrait” was one of music’s great unsolved puzzles. Well, at least we now have the materials needed to imagine what Dylan may have been thinking at the time. While previous editions of the Bootleg Series either confirmed or expanded what we already knew, “Another Self Portrait” totally rewrites Dylan’s history as no album has done before.
We’ve been so spoiled lately. Not only did we get “Tempest” and “The 50th Anniversary Collection” last year, we now have this treasure.
The odd thing is, as I re-listen to my vinyl version of “Self Portrait,” I feel a connection that previously eluded me. As I said before, I never hated it. In fact, I loved to defend it to anyone looking for a fight. But it took “Another Self Portrait” to see another side of Bob Dylan. Which I would guess was one of the reasons it was released.
What does Dylan think of all this? Who knows? The painting on the cover was done by Dylan, but it hardly looks like a self portrait. Maybe it’s Dylan with a face lift? The portrait of the artist as re-imagined as a young man, an idealized version of the real thing? Maybe he doesn’t see it as his own self portrait, but those of his management and record company?
Again, it matters little. What is in my hands, and should be in yours by now, is one of the best albums Dylan has ever released. Now you can stop reading, and listen.
Keep up with Bob Dylan Examiner news. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Performing Arts column for Examiner.com. Thanks for your support.