Critic Greil Marcus spoke for countless Bob Dylan fans when he began his Rolling Stone review of 1970's Self Portrait with a now-famous question: "What is this shit?" The two-LP set was a bizarre mishmash of pop covers (Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer"), pre-rock hits ("Blue Moon") and poorly recorded live cuts from Dylan's 1969 set at the Isle of Wight festival. Nearly every tune was overloaded with weird backup choirs, strings and horns. "I knew that opening was provocative," Marcus says today of his RS review. "But that's what everybody in the country was saying, and I had to reflect that."
Decades later, Self Portrait remains one of Dylan's least-loved releases. So it came as a surprise when he announced the latest volume in his ongoing Bootleg Series: a four-disc set called Another Self Portrait, drawing on never-before-heard material from Dylan's original acoustic recording sessions and outtakes from Self Portrait along with select cuts from 1968's Nashville Skyline and 1970's New Morning. A deluxe edition will feature a complete recording of Dylan and the Band's 1969 set at the Isle of Wight Festival as well as a remastered version of the original Self Portrait. Both editions hit shelves on August 27th.
The Self Portrait sessions began in New York at Columbia's Studio A in April 1969, but after just a few days of messing around with covers like "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Blue Moon," he abandoned the project for nearly a year. When they resumed in March 1970, Dylan had very little original material, and he again returned to covers, this time recording with a small band that included David Bromberg on guitar and bass and Al Kooper on organ.
"It was bizarre," Kooper tells Rolling Stone. "He wasn't writing any of the songs, which is an important part of a Bob Dylan album. He had a pile of Sing Out! magazines and he was taking the songs, as in the chords and lyrics, straight out of them. They were his main feed, then they pulled other things like 'Mr. Bojanges' and 'The Boxer.' I was like, 'Yikes!' At one point we recorded 'Come a Little Bit Closer' by Jay and the Americans. Hopefully nobody ever hears that."
They worked for about three days, cutting everything from Tom Paxton's "Annie's Going to Sing Her Song" to Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain." Producer Bob Johnston then took the tapes to Nashville and Los Angeles, where he loaded them up with back-up singers, horns and additional bass and guitar. In very few cases did the overdubs improve the songs. "The unadulterated Self Portrait songs were very stark and arresting," says Marcus, who contributed liner notes to this new box set. "It's really the kind of music that didn't surface until Dylan's acoustic albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong over 20 years later."
Marcus wasn't the only critic to rip into the finished version of Self Portrait, and in later years, Dylan himself essentially said that he tanked the album on purpose. He was trying to raise his new family in New York, and the hippies were literally staking out his house, trying to coerce him into once again leading the protest movement.
"I said, 'Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to," he told Rolling Stone in 1984. "They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's go on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't givin' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else.'"
It didn't go as planned. "The whole idea backfired," he said. "Because the album went out there, and the people said, 'This ain't what we want,' and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, 'Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait. . . To me, it was a joke. It wouldn't have held up as a single album — then it really would've been bad, you know. I mean, if you're gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!"
Whether or not he truly intended to make a bad album at the time, many fans shared Marcus' take that the album was "shit." "In those days, when a new record came out by a major performer, they played the whole thing on the radio," says Marcus. "As I wrote in my original review, a DJ came on maybe a quarter of the way through and said, 'Gee, maybe I shouldn't keep playing this. I've been getting a lot of calls saying, in essence, 'What is this shit?'"
Self Portrait quickly moved to the cut-out bin, and has been largely ignored by the massive Dylan cult ever since. Bob Dylan biographer Clinton Heylin labeled it "an album of outtakes and live oddities from one of the least interesting periods of Dylan's career" in his definitive biography Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited.
Another Self Portrait began a year ago, when people in Dylan's office found a previously unknown two-track mix reel of Self Portrait-era material. "We were going through all the tapes at Sony," says a source close to the Dylan camp. "We figured that as record companies shrink, some things might get lost. We were trying to exhume everything. This tape was located under a number that would indicate it was a master, but it wasn't. It was a mix of these songs in their raw, undiluted form. When we heard it, we were like, 'This is something we should really think about putting out. We should reexamine that period.'"
The set is fleshed out with outtakes from 1969's Nashville Skyline and 1970's New Morning. "What's clear on the set is that Bob is one of the best singers in the world, hands down," says the source. "His interpretations of those folk songs are great. 'Pretty Saro' will break your heart. They are recontextualized oddly, but the raw material there is phenomenal. . . We included the Nashville Skyline songs because we thought this was a journey of Bob Dylan discovering his voice, so we included a couple of those because we happened to like them as well."
A deluxe edition of the set will contain a complete recording of Dylan and the Band's complete 1969 set at the Isle of Wight. It was his first real concert since a motorcycle crash prematurely ended his 1966 world tour. "The concert has been bootlegged many, many times," says the source. "There were four songs from it on the original Self Portrait, but we always hated the way they sounded. They were mixed a long time ago and they put Bob's voice way high in the mix and the band is somewhere in the back. They were treating him like he was Tony Bennett or something. This new version has the vocals down and more of the audience sound. It sounds great."
Two of the songs, "Time Passes Slowly" and "Working on a Guru," come from Dylan's one-day session in New York with George Harrison in May 1970. "Most of the songs from that day suck," says the source. "The story we heard from the engineer is that they were just messing around as they waited for Elvis, and Elvis never showed up. They were just treading water. But these two songs are very nice."
The legendary George Harrison session also marked the first day of recording for New Morning, an album of original material that hit shelves just four months after Self Portrait. There are eight songs from the New Morning sessions on Another Self Portrait. "He was trying to clean up what happened with Self Portrait," says Al Kooper. "The sessions were very hurried. Bob Johnston disappeared halfway through, and I took over as producer. They're finally releasing a version of 'New Morning' I cut with horns and a version of 'Sign On The Window' with strings."
Another Self Portrait wraps with a previously unheard piano demo of "When I Paint My Masterpiece" that Dylan cut in 1971. "Not only is it a nice capper," says the Dylan source, "but he cut that song 10 years into his career. At this point, he's tried country. He's tried old songs. He's tried new songs. He's still searching. He's just a guy searching for different sounds. He's 10 years in and he's thinking about painting his masterpiece. There's a little lyric change on the bridge of this version. Instead of 'Sailing around the world in a dirty gondola/ Oh to be back in the world of Coca Cola" he sings, 'Sailing around the world in a dirty gondola/ Sure to love that old rock and rolla/ Sure wish I hadn't sold my old Victrola.' We though that would be a cool thing to end with."
Since launching the Bootleg Series in 1991, Dylan has released eight sets, but has withheld much of the material that fans are most eager to hear. "We're trying to put this stuff out in an intelligent way," says the source. "Sets for Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde will eventually come out. When fans hear the Blonde on Blonde set, they'll realize that the real hero of the sessions was pianist Paul Griffin. . . There will also be a Basement Tapes box one day. We're trying to get the best sources on all the Basement Tapes. That'll happen one day, absolutely."
Speaking of the Basement Tapes, the new box reveals that "Minstrel Boy," a Self Portrait original, was actually written during those famed 1967 sessions. "This was never even rumored," says Marcus. "That's a tantalizing thing. We have no idea what's out there. If we all live long enough, maybe we'll find out."