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Some thoughts on Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan faces21.
There are 12 works in Face Value, the new Bob Dylan exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, on until January 5 and free to enter. One room, three walls, four paintings on each wall, identical proportions, symmetrically hung. A dozen faces, any or all of whom could have stepped out of his recent songs. He’s given them names, but we don’t know whether “Ivan Steinbeck”, “Ursula Belle”, “Red Flanagan”, “Sylvia Renard” and the rest are real people, or whether they’re products of the imagination that created Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. “These are conventional people,” the artist says during a Q&A contained in the slender but handsome £25 catalogue. “One of the men is actually a member of the Sydney Yacht Club. One’s a limo driver.” Well, maybe. It doesn’t matter.

This is not my area of expertise, but Dylan seems to me to have mastered the use of pastels — the chosen medium here — quite well enough to bring his subjects to life. The eyes are the key to a portrait, and every one of these characters has a certain regard of his or her own: they’re looking at you, or past you, or through you, or inside themselves. Each has a subtitle, which might or might not be significant: “Slap in the Face” is the line accompanying “Ken Garland”, who has a broken nose and looks like a prizefighter. They could be the 12 Most Wanted, or they could be a jury. They could be devils or they could be angels. Or a bit of both, like most people.

2.

When you add the illustration on the front of Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol 10 to the dozen pictures in Face Value, with which it shares its format, it starts to make more sense. Dylan’s image of himself — if that is what it is — floats between reality and fiction, neither one nor the other.

I bought the four-CD box, mostly because I wanted the disc containing the complete concert at the Isle of Wight in 1969, but I’m glad to have many of the items among the 35 tracks collected on the first two CDs (the fourth disc is yet another remastering of the original Self Portrait, which I didn’t need). As many people have already said, “Tattle O’Day” is a major discovery, a mysterious traditional song beautifully delivered by Dylan with David Bromberg’s guitar and Al Kooper’s piano: the sort of thing that very probably formed the inspiration for the material recorded on the Basement Tapes. There are excellent alternative versions of “Went to See the Gypsy” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, and another lovely voice-and-piano treatment of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue”, a song I’d be happy to hear him sing every day for the rest of my life.

But this version of “House Carpenter”, also with Kooper on piano and Bromberg on guitar, isn’t a patch on the electrifying one he recorded by himself during the sessions for his first album in 1962, with which he began his long tradition of omitting some of his finest work (an omission corrected in 1991 with its inclusion in Vols 1-3 of the Bootleg Series). I don’t like “All the Tired Horses” without its string arrangement, or “New Morning” with banal horns and without Ron Cornelius’s magical guitar solo, or “Time Passes Slowly” done as a homage to Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”. And so on.

A mixed bag, in other words, just like Self Portrait itself back in 1970, from which the two tracks I play most today, as I did then, are Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain” and Gilbert Becaud and Manny Curtis’s “Let It Be Me”, both completely enchanting.

3.

As I said, I bought the deluxe edition in order to get the full set from the Isle of Wight in 1969, and therein lies the real revelation. Here’s where the remastering has really helped, dispelling the sonic fog that shrouded over the three tracks that were released in a jumble on Self Portrait and, of course, improving even more on the terrible sound of the audience-recorded bootleg LP version I bought a few weeks after the event itself.

Thanks to the impression created by those recordings, and to the general lack of enthusiasm of the contemporary reviews and word of mouth reports, I’d never regretted not making it to that particular IoW festival, even for Bob. Now I do. It becomes clear that Dylan and the Band were in top form, hitting their marks on every song they play together, finding an excellent balance between the driving electrified Hawks of 1966 and the rustic Big Pink sessions of two years later. And when you hear everything laid out in its proper context, Dylan’s four-song acoustic set is wonderful, with “Wild Mountain Thyme” among his very best recordings of traditional material (or any material, come to that).

I can’t help thinking that three factors militated against a proper appreciation of the set by many of those who were there. First, the audience was exhausted, coming to the end of the weekend and having endured a three-hour wait before the Band’s nine-song set and then a further 40-minute hiatus before Dylan made his appearance. Second, after a weeks-long build-up that took hype to new heights, there was an expectation that the main attraction would be joined on stage by, at the very least, all four Beatles and Eric Clapton; it didn’t happen, of course. Third, the musicians’ self-presentation might not have helped: although John Wesley Harding and Music from Big Pink had made it clear that things were changing, I can’t help feeling that if Dylan had come on in a leather jacket, jeans and Wayfarers instead of that white suit, and performed exactly the same songs in exactly the same way, he might have been given a different hearing.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Alan Codd #

    Good point about the gear (suit) Richard. I was there. I can confirm this. The audience was exhausted. I have remembered ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ heard Live ever since. And I have found a very good Clip of ‘I Threw It All Away’ from this Concert, on Youtube, from an unconventional camera position, that confirms for me everything you say, and that I like most everybody else, was wrong about the quality of the music. Dylan is in his very consciously delivered ‘Singing’ voice, but it Rocks.

    September 5, 2013
    • It’s a relief to have my guesswork confirmed by a first-hand witness. Thanks.

      September 5, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on michaelsbackpocket and commented:
    It’s generally very hard to argue with anything that Richard Williams says about music and this post is no exception. But in listing the best songs from Bob Dylan’s recent Bootleg Series Vol. 10, I would just ask him to take another listed to I Threw It All Away and Pretty Saro

    September 5, 2013
    • They’re both great. I thought about mentioning them (“Pretty Saro” linked with “Tattle O’Day”, “I Threw It All Away” for the sheer quality of the singing) but decided I couldn’t start making it into a track-by-track review. So thanks.

      September 5, 2013
  3. Richard
    I too bought the Box set because I am one those “Dylan Nutters” mentioned to Martin Colyer by the assistant at HMV and I have also been pondering the way I felt at the IOW as I was fortunate enough to have been there. I think you are absolutely right about the hype and as Bob Dylan had not played live for three years the sense of anticipation was probably as high as it ever has been for a performance like this.
    We were not expecting any part of the set to be laid back and we also did not expect the “singing voice” or the white suit and as you point out we had endured a long wait.
    Despite all of this my memories of the IOW are now seen with the rose coloured spectacles of nostalgia and I still have the great event poster that I managed to bring back intact framed in my house. This new remixed version confirms to me that the fact that I was a little under whelmed at the time was my fault!

    September 5, 2013
    • Thanks, David. I can only repeat what I wrote in a reply to the first comment: it’s nice to have a mere supposition validated. Now I envy you the memory.

      September 5, 2013
  4. In a counter-revolutionary way, it was as dramatic for Dylan to turn up at the Isle of Wight in 1969 looking like a rabbinical student attending a wedding, singing in a country-crooner voice, when 200,000 people were expecting the 1966 Byronic hyena who hadn’t been seen in public for three years.

    As you say, after the original excitement over the outtakes, it’s the Isle of Wight concert is emerging as the major (re)discovery. Not least since my C90 bootleg sounds like it was taped by someone standing in Southampton. It’s really like Bob and the Band coming blinking out of the basement to play their debut gig.

    September 6, 2013
    • “1966 Byronic hyena” – that is such a good phrase, Matt!

      September 6, 2013
  5. I’d never regretted not making it to that particular IoW festival, even for Bob. Now I do…..

    Such a heartbreaking line, and it is one I might easily have written myself. Like many others, I was not totally convinced by Self Portrait first time around. I didn’t actually buy a copy – no need at the time, since everywhere you went it was being played…

    And yet many years later, 42 to be exact, I actually went out and bought a copy. Why? Because I found that even after that passage of time, the songs had stuck and I would find myself singing snatches of them in unguarded moments – waiting for a train on a rainy platform in Crewe, that sort of thing. I had this nagging feeling that these were songs worth hearing – and that Bob was making a sincere effort with this material….but even so….

    So I was glad I read your review, Richard. Thoughtful, insightful and spurred me into action – I lifted an index finger and three Amazon mouseclicks later, it was streaming into the computer [a tenner for the box set mp3 download by the way – surely must be a loophole?].

    I started playing the album and was truly staggered:

    • by the quality of these stripped back arrangements
    • by the quality of the new material
    • by the IoW performance

    How could CBS have managed to hash things up so comprehensively first time around? And why/how did Bob and The Band let them get away with it? Anyway, it’s been worth the wait. Great that we live in an age where with Bob there are good things to look forward, and backwards, to!

    September 6, 2013
    • Alan Codd #

      Ditto from Alan Codd who only bought the two disc set yesterday and listened to it in one sitting. Looking at the ‘Self Portrait’ on the front this morning, I am almost convinced that this, or that, is Bob’s masterpiece. Throwing all critical howevers somewhat recklessly aside I have to say I was completely convinced by the musicality and strength of every single track, and this applies to me too, I had been waiting for this – a chance to get the first ‘Self Portrait’ in a better perspective, for over the years I had been progressively more and more drawn to the first issue, and all the more interested in the unresolved questions that it brought up. Why was it in places often so deliberately bad? Why was IOW so ineffectually misrepresented? Why the sudden Dollops of Crooning without any reference to a musical context, or range of interests, where they came from. Secretly I began to be a fan of ‘Self Portrait’. But I am more than a fan of ‘Another Self Portrait’, I am a complete Convert. Well done Bob. You worked hard. Your heart was in your material. You had a valid interest in all sorts of music(s). Might play ‘This Evening So Soon’ again.

      September 7, 2013
  6. But is there an edition without Woogie Boogie? I would pay a few extra bucks for that ! Seriousl, you merely confirm that I have to put the four disc version on my birthday wish list. Between this and the Nilsson door-stopper, my gift givers will have their work cut out for them.

    September 11, 2013
  7. Peter #

    Speaking of the Isle of Wight concert… is there a live Dylan moment more sublime than his re-working of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”? Goose-pimple stuff…

    March 9, 2014

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