One of the most cutting Little Britain sketches has to be their send up of actor Dennis Waterman. For those of you unfamiliar with the 80s heartthrob’s work, he was a UK television star who had the habit of recording the theme music for the series he was appearing in – from the wonderful Minder and its ‘I Could Be So Good For You’ theme to the less convincing On The Up.
As a result of this curious practice, Lucas and Walliams would routinely depict an elfin like Waterman meeting his agent where he would demand to “write the theme tune, sing the theme tune” of any project he was offered.
In a way ‘Self Portrait’ is seen as Bob Dylan’s “write the theme tune, sing the theme tune moment”. Not only does he write the tunes (less than normal as there are plenty of covers), but Bob also wades in with his paints, supplying the self-portrait that gives the album its name. Contemporary critics certainly felt the record was highly self-indulgent.
A double album stretching over four sides of vinyl and a departure from the sharp, voice-of-a-generation folk and rock ‘n’ roll of his 60s work, it prompted Greil Marcus to ask “What is this shit?” in the opening line of his famous Rolling Stone review of the record (although his review is not quite as scathing as its opening line suggests). The 1991 book The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time, meanwhile, declared the album the third worse release of all time (behind Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ and Elvis’ ‘Having Fun With Elvis On Stage’).
For Dylan himself the album’s release was equally awkward and less than straightforward. Having largely disappeared from public gaze following his motorcycle crash in 1966, while continuing to record the singer-songwriter had limited his appearances to a TV show with Johnny Cash and 1969’s appearance at the Isle Of Wight Festival (songs from which appeared on this album).
However these reclusive ways did not stop Dylan’s songs from appearing at a rate faster than his official releases allowed for (this was before the officially sanctioned ‘Basement Tapes’), as songs recorded with The Band had a habit of illicitly finding their way into the public domain. Initially Dylan hinted that ‘Self Portrait’ was an opportunity to “bootleg himself” and beat the leakers, hence the deluge of material that appeared (although he left off over 20 outtakes).
However that was not the only reason the album was at such a right angle to Dylan’s 60s heydays. Again despite his absence, Dylan was Still felt as the “voice of a generation”. Fans camped outside his houses while university lecturers brought their seminars down his street, and everyone felt Bob owed them something. As he wrote in Chronicles Vol I, to escape the attention Dylan attempted to cultivate a ‘mad’ persona, hoping people would steer clear of this rock lunatic and apparently ‘Self Portrait’ was part of these scarecrow measures.
He told Rolling Stone in 1984 that the album was designed in part to put off the hardcore sleeping on his lawn: “I thought ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful.”
So apparently sabotaged from the start is there anything to be said for ‘Self Portrait’ now? Well the timing of its release did not do the album any favours, but that’s because Dylan was ahead of the times again. Firstly, the “rarities collection” didn’t really exist in June 1970 and such was the growing dominance of the album as an art form that all records, and particularly Bob’s, appear to have been judged on their cohesion and manifesto. In ‘Self Portait”s case, some reviewers even argued it was a (unlistenable) concept album about the ‘self’, however to these ears – and with Dylan’s assertion he was bootlegging himself and the subsequent ‘Bootleg’ compilation series launched in 1991 – the record feels a lot more like a collection than a cohesive album, that brings together unused studio tracks, covers and live recordings accumulated during its creator’s post-crash isolation.
Freed from judgement, ‘Self Portrait’ makes a lot more sense and becomes a more enjoyable place to meander through, particularly for those of us listening to it as Bob celebrates his 70th birthday in May 2011. Because while a Dylan trying to shake his voice-of-the-generation tag might have been shocking just months after the 60s ended, a Dylan creating modern Americana folk sounds a lot like the one who today records similarly folklore-infused albums likes ‘Modern Times’ or ‘Love & Theft’.
In fact the ambient acoustics and yarn-telling qualities on old folk songs like ‘Alberta Pt 1’ or ‘Days Of 49’ actually wouldn’t sound too out of place if they appeared on Dylan’s next release (assuming it’s not another Christmas collection). However, taking ‘Self Portrait’ as a collection, we also get a glimpse of the missteps and experimentation Dylan undertook to find himself a new skin.
‘Let It Be’, made famous by The Everly Brothers, sees Dylan souping up the falsetto of ‘Nashville Skyline’ into something more robust and lush, while his take on the classic ‘Blue Moon’ takes its cues from Roy Orbison with its rich, gentle tones and loungey arrangements. However it’s clear while both alternatives were soon abandoned for the post 60s Dylan.
The likes of his duet with himself on Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’ (ironically a song once rumoured to be an attack Dylan himself), the taut ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and melodious original composition ‘Wigwam’ – which Wes Anderson borrowed to great effect in The Royal Tenenbaums – show that the wiry, occasionally goofy-sounding Dylan had far more versatility and impact.
Just to prove that point, Bob even includes a trio of live tracks from the Isle Of Wight show – of which a groovy version of ‘The Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)’, complete with guitar feedback, is the pick of the crop – that seem be the foundation of the cowboy-dressing, keyboard-stalking, classics-rearranging Bob who is still touring the world today.
So what is this shit? It’s Bob Dylan inventing the rarity collection and finding his future voice, I would say probably by accident, but then again who would dare underestimate Bob Dylan?