Some thoughts on Bob Dylan
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.
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.
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.