Greil Marcus’s review of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait probably brought more attention to Bob the album of raggedy covers than the album probably did itself. As much as Marcus’s assessment was spot on itself, the author missed one key problem. Having survived the literal and metaphorical chaos that drove his popularity and prestige that was the “Rock God” era, he set out to find a new sound. His search for a new truth birthed his early 1970s material that left many asking – what is this sh@t?
By the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, Bob Dylan was in full retreat, not only from his rabid fans but his music as well. His first two incarnations, the Folkie and the Rocker both betrayed him in the end when fame and fortune came calling. Dylan didn’t like being a “fame whore,” or did he?
Dylan was always his worst enemy. His open rebellion against being classified caused him to fight his fans but he fought himself as well. With there recent releases of the era spanning Bootleg Series, we are afforded a more complete view of the various Dylan paradigms. The irony in the end was Dylan’s popularity would grow.
In hindsight, it is easy to see Bob Dylan was battling the ghosts of the “Rock God” era. 1965-1966 was an epic year creatively for Dylan, one that has basically become unmatched in the annals of music history. As he had made abundantly in the past, Dylan wasn’t going to bow to fan expectations where his music was concerned. This era saw Dylan search for a sound which he replace the previous era with.
How do you follow up brilliance, though? Bob Dylan had set such a high bar in his creative life that eventually even he wouldn’t be able to hurdle it. Not only had he limped away from the motorcycle accident, so did his creative life limped away from the creative mania of the previous.
Although he would gain plaudits for his 1969 album Nashville Skyline, Dylan continued to grasp for a sense of his creative place in the world. Barely 30 minutes in length, despite critical praise to the contrary, Bob Dylan’s future did not lay as a country crooner. The albums he made were uninspired and lacking any interest from their creator. His syrupy crooner cadence, however, was enough to poke you ear drums out.
And leave you asking –
What is this shit?
(1) “All the Tired Horses” is a gorgeous piece of music, perhaps the most memorable song on this album. In an older form it was “All the Pretty Ponies in the Yard”; now it could serve as the theme song to any classic western. Can you hear the organ standing in between the beautiful strings and voices? ‘Shane’ comes into view, and ‘The Magnificent Seven’: gunmen over the hill and out of time still got to ride. It sounds like Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Forty Guns’ singing, as a matter of fact