Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait, post #3

As we've noted, Self Portrait was comprised of a bunch of songs recorded in April-May 1969, a few numbers from the Isle of Wight, and a bunch of songs recorded in March 1970.  Another Self Portrait ignores the April-May 1969 sessions, although the 1973 Dylan compilation had picked up a couple of outtakes from them.  Conversely the Dylan album ignored the early '70 sessions, while Another Self Portrait lavishes attention on them. 

SP included fourteen tracks from 3/70.  ASP includes 11 more unique recordings, plus "stripped" versions of seven of the SP tracks - that is, the same takes but denuded of the overdubs added for the finished album.  Of the 11 unique recordings:  One is a third take of "Alberta" to complement the two on the original album.  One is another take of "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue," first attempted in 4/69 and then recorded again in 6/70 during the sessions that resulted in New Morning; this last version was released on the flip side of the "Watching The River Flow" single in 6/71, and is the best of the three, I think.  Another is an early take of "Went To See The Gypsy," which of course would be rerecorded for New Morning.  And another is an unexpected revival of "House Carpenter," which he had recorded for his first album.  "Railroad Bill" is another song he used to do back in his folkie days.  But the other six are new:  we've never heard Dylan singing them before. 

Which is, right there, fucking awesome.  This is a major cache of material.  These 11 alone amount to an old vinyl elpee's worth of music.  And they're by and large really good takes.  I still think perhaps the best single recording to surface from these March sessions is "Copper Kettle" from the original album;  "It Hurts Me Too" and "Gotta Travel On" are close.  But of the new ones, "Tattle O'Day" and "Pretty Saro" are brilliant, and the rest are very nice too. 

What about the stripped versions of the previously-released recordings?  I never hated the overdubbed versions, to be honest, and I still think I prefer the gussied-up "Copper Kettle" - I long ago outgrew whatever fetish I may once have had for the lone troubadour with his acoustic guitar, and I actually enjoy hearing Bob experiment with different production styles, different ways to find a rapprochement with pop music.  But I do agree that the unadorned versions of "Days Of '49," "Belle Isle," and "Little Sadie" recover a kind of experimental fragility that's nice to hear.

Because experimenting is what he was doing.  It's never been clear that he was really trying to make an album with these sessions, or with the 4-5/69 sessions.  I'm still not sold on the idea that Self Portrait and New Morning were part of one big project, which is what ASP is suggesting.  But I do think it's likely that from February 1969 all the way through August 1970, he was entering the studio fairly regularly, more or less just because he could, but without necessarily having new songs or a particular project in mind.  Twice, with Johnny Cash and with George Harrison, he was jamming with friends who happened to be accomplished musicians, just as he had done with the Band in 1967;  at other times he was in the studio with session musicians, some of whom (like David Bromberg, Al Kooper, and Charlie Daniels) were fairly strong personalities too.  And always, as in '67, he was rummaging through old songs, trying to find something he connected with, waiting for his swamp to catch fire.  In 1967 this had led to a slew of new originals, culminating in John Wesley Harding.  In February 1969 this unlocked a sudden, small burst of songwriting that became Nashville Skyline, but he has said that this was more or less an accident, and it didn't happen again;  by April 1970 he had only written a couple more new songs, but for whatever reason he decided to put out an album with what he had on hand, maybe to get the record company or the fans off his back, and that was Self Portrait.  But in June he was right back in the studio again, and with the same approach:  lots of covers.  Only this time he had a few more originals, and eventually enough to make an album.  I'll discuss that in a future post.

In other words, if the Basement Tapes of 1967 were Dylan's epic trawl through the murky waters of American vernacular music, quite possibly the sessions that would define his career, seeing him connect his 1964-1966 modernism with his pre-1964 folk roots, then his sessions in 1969 and 1970 can be seen as a continuation of that effort.  Nothing he did in 1969 or 1970 quite equals what he did in 1967, but then I consider the Basement Tapes to be the acme of American music, period. 

And now with ASP we have really a pretty good handle indeed on where he was at, what part of the Basement he was in, in March 1970.  There are still a few missing tracks - Olof lists takes on "Dock Of The Bay" and "Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies" that I'd like to hear, among other things.  But to be honest this is more than I ever expected to hear from these sessions.  And the new stuff is good.  It makes me reassess the period, and I liked the original album.  So chalk one up for Columbia.

But the best was still yet to come.

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