When Dylan released the original Self Portrait, in 1970, Greil Marcus’ review in Rolling Stone started, “What is this shit?” And pretty much everyone wondered the same thing.
I was 14 years old at the time, and I’d listened to Dylan, but I didn’t grow up with him. I remember as a 12 year old being at my young aunt’s house in Brooklyn for a weekend, playing Freewheelin’ and Bringing It All Back Home for the first time, many times, enough times to have them ask me to stop. When Self Portrait came out some forgotten relative bought me the songbook for my birthday, and I “learned” the album by playing the songs on my guitar, figuring out the melodies on the piano. I was well aware that Dylan didn’t write most of them, and I was aware the world thought the album was crap, but what I found in that songbook was a collection of great singable songs I was able to play despite my rudimentary six-string skills.
So, what happened when I finally heard Self Portrait, the album, performed by Bob Dylan and his associates? I loved it. It really is a collection of great dynamic musicians sitting around playing some very famous and some less famous songs, with Bob crooning in front of some excellent chick singers, and everyone is seeming to have real fun time (but not making any kind of big deal about it). It’s loose, but the arrangements are bold and artful. It sounds great and the songs really are great. Not folk, not pop, but simply enduring classic songs written for a clear voice and a bunch of friends backing you up.
Not many saw it that way. Some jokers in the 90s created a list of the 100 Worst Albums, and Self Portrait landed third, behind only Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and that album of Elvis talking to the audience. This is funny and just plain stupid.
Self Portrait comprises songs that were recorded in the studio while the band was warming up for the Nashville Skyline sessions. Dylan has had a few explanations for why he released them, as a double album(!), next. The one that seems truest is that he was sick of being the voice of a generation and wanted to do something that was the opposite of supercharged. Nashville Skyline got him part of the way there, but they were still Dylan compositions, still ripe for superheated analysis. (This was the period when AJ Weberman was stealing Dylan’s garbage and publishing about what he found.) An album of casual covers was Dylan’s way of taking the air out of the ball.
But my life was outside that history. For me, Self Portrait was a collection of very agreeable songs presented in a very pleasing way. Casual, appealing, easy to sing. Not the greatest Dylan album, not even close, but one I have listened to often. A great pleasure.