Bob Dylan’s double album Self-Portrait, released this week in 1970, is the most critically reviled — and misunderstood — album in rock and roll history.
The release unleashed bitterness in journalists. They were outraged by what appeared to be a trivial album by the oracle of popular music. People felt betrayed. The notion that Dylan puckishly chose to designate this work as his “self-portrait” made them feel even angrier. How dare he take such liberties!
“What is this shit?” Greil Marcus famously wrote in Rolling Stone, setting both the tone and the standard for the official criticism.
Greil Marcus is a giant. He needs no defense from me. He would be a first-round inductee in any Rock Critics Hall of Fame. Fortunately for me, his blurb generously graces my new Penguin book, “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution” (Note: you can pre-order the book by clicking on to JonFriedman.net).
But with all due respect, the critics got it way wrong this time. “Self-Portrait” is a great album! And no, this is not a misprint. I suspect that it got such a hard time largely because Dylan didn’t sing protest songs in the wake of the Kent State massacre, he did massacre “The Boxer” and included a standard like “Blue Moon” and prominently sang other people’s songs — plus, he had the temerity to include female back-up singers!
The terrific songs are sprinkled across the two-record set: “Days of ’49,” “Copper Kettle,” “Take a Message to Mary,” both “Little Sadie” ditties, “Let It Be Me,” “Early Morning Rain” and the titanic “Belle Isle.”
And as a bonus, we can get a glimpse of the Isle of Wight concert, Dylan’s first real concert in three years. He and The Band sound just fine, continuing the easy-rolling, country-swing style of music. He was wearing a white suit on this occasion. As Eric Clapton pointed out, Dylan had transformed himself into Hank Williams. The man certainly has a sense of style. Dylan came across well at the show even though he must’ve been nervous, following his layoff from the stage. He had to confront easily the largest crowd of his career to that point, 200,000 people — and he knew that three of the Beatles were in the audience. That factoid alone would probably be enough to unnerve him.
Dylan sings so convincingly. This quality alone should be enough to move listeners. The guitat playing, too, is sensational. Maybe the critics were tired by 1970 of Dylan’s two-year country-music excursions and wanted to express their displeasure with the Nashville cat Bob. That would be petty and silly.
“Self-Portrait” is a very calm album, and it in turn can calm you down. It has a relaxed, unhurried pace. The songs are sequenced well. You can listen again and again to the album without feeling bored.
Give “Self Portrait” another chance one of these days. You will be surprised by what you’ve been missing. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the realization that this is a GREAT Bob Dylan album.
The JonFriedman.net Question of the Day: Where do you rank Self-Portrait in the annals of Bob Dylan’s albums?
My answer: I would put it in the top 10.