“What is this shit?” opened Greil Marcus’ Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s 1970 double album Self Portrait. According to Dylan, the depths of whose perversity can seem, on occasion, nigh on unfathomable, he decided to put together this eccentric melange of covers and odds and ends, including the worst numbers from his Isle of Wight concert of the previous summer, as a means of escaping the straitjacket of his fans’ expectations. “We released that album to get people off my back,” he later explained in an interview, “so people at that time would just stop buying my records, and they did.”
Dylan was approaching 30 when Self Portrait appeared. Despite the country-pie persona he had assumed on the album’s predecessor, Nashville Skyline, and despite his extended sabbatical from touring and his retreat from the public sphere after his motorbike accident in 1966, Dylan was still routinely being hailed as the “spokesman of his generation,” as the “expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of young America,” to quote from the address delivered at Princeton when the university conferred on him an honorary doctorate in the summer of that year. Dylan, however, simply wanted out. “What did I owe the rest of the world?” he asks, recalling this period in his memoir, Chronicles: “Nothing. Not a damned thing.”
Its trenchant opening notwithstanding, Marcus’ review of Self Portrait was in fact exhaustive, finely nuanced, and not entirely negative. He interprets the record as a weird sort of concept album, one gleaned from the cutting-room floor and artfully constructed as a “cover up, not as a revelation.” Certain songs, such as Living the Blues and Copper Kettle, get an unambiguous thumbs up, while others, such as Dylan’s parodic version of Paul Simon’s The Boxer (thought by some to be about Dylan), get smartly dismissed: “Jesus is it awful.”
Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010
By Greil Marcus
That’s a phrase that must have coursed through the mind of even the most ardent of Dylan fans on more than one occasion over the four decades that have passed since Self Portrait. Dylan is now approaching his 70th birthday, and the uneven, often baffling trajectory of his career, with all its astonishing peaks and dispiriting troughs, is at last developing a degree of clarity. For every great “comeback” album such as Blood on the Tracks or Infidels there has been a Down in the Groove or a Christmas in the Heart, for every sublime reconnection with his genius, a shambolic shuffle down a blind alley.
In recent years both trade and academic presses have been rolling out book after book on the man who transformed popular music forever. That transformation took place primarily in the years 1965 and 1966, when Dylan released his great trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, and embarked on a world tour with the Band that is often called the greatest rock ’n’ roll tour of all time. It reached its apotheosis in the famous concert on 17 May at Manchester Free Trade Hall, at which Dylan responded to a cry of “Judas” from a disaffected folkie with an instruction to the band to “play fucking loud,” and an incendiary performance of Like a Rolling Stone. Footage of this concert provides the climax to Martin Scorsese’s superb documentary of Dylan’s early career, No Direction Home, although we get to see only the first verse of the song: No doubt the rest is stored in the vaults awaiting some further lucrative release.