When I learned about the apparently true dramatic rescue of the tapes which led to Another Self Portrait,this reminded me of another apparently true and beautiful story I was told in graduate school that I have never found any corroboration for anywhere. One afternoon, in a small town in England, a woman whose name I can’t recall, a literary scholar and historian, found herself with time to kill before making a train connection. She wandered a little near the train station and couldn’t have been more pleased to find a small shop featuring rare and used books, monographs, letters. Browsing happily, she came upon a box containing old manuscripts labeled Equestrian-Horsemanship. She flipped through the folders of crumbly or yellow or marvelously preserved texts; she could decipher the antique typefaces or handwriting. One of the artifacts began with these words:
When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable…
The browsing stopped and she suddenly felt a good deal more than happy. What she had in her hands was an original manuscript of the first work of literary criticism in English letters. She held Philip Sidney’s In Defense of Poesy, published in 1595 and written in 1579. Somehow–not unlike outtakes from Self Portrait and New Morning apparently ending up in a public storage annex– Sidney’s essay ended up in this box in this shop near a train station. The shop’s owner glanced at the opening lines and said, “Ah. Horses. I’ve got a box for that.” And in the box it went.
In the Defense, Sidney famously argues that the work poets do to imagine deserves its own honorable category of knowledge. Poets imagine. They neither “lieth” nor “affirmeth” and should not be asked to do either. This could be as succinct a definition of fiction as you’ll ever read. It’s also in this essay that Sidney uses his “many Cyruses” illustration of the poet’s imagination working upon reality as opposed to “building castles in the air.” Do not ask a poet to compose an historically accurate portrait of the real, “natural,” life and work of the Persian emperor that may inform us. Ask a poet to re-create a Cyrus who may inspire us.
And that the poet hath that idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he hath imagined them. Which delivering forth, also, is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him.
Poor Bob Dylan–he has been making one Cyrus after another of himself and we amuse or frustrate ourselves wrangling out one Cyrus from another, weighing them against each other, writing stories to connect them, and often enough deciding which is the greater Cyrus. All the while we’ve not learned enough from Sir Philip Sidney: we wring our hands and bang our heads on each other’s heads over Bob Dylan’s lieths v. Bob Dylan’s affirmeths, Bob Dylan’s shite and Bob Dylan’s gold.
Luckily, Caesar has issued a thumbs-up reprieve to the new-old-improved Another Self-Portrait. Shite no more! After several listens, I’m starting to have my favorites and my general impressions and my fanciful stories.
Those early Elliott Landy photos of the Country Boy in the Woods make a peculiar artificial impression. Dylan’s ability to control his visual identities is a sharp tool in his bag of tricks, and in these photos he seems to me to overwork the trick, to hasten and theatricalize a new persona that’s already working in John Wesley Harding. His face is sickly and exhausted and the simple white costume has the look of a redemptive ghost out of time who is nonetheless crisply tailored (NB–the best account of the motorcycle accident I’ve come across is in Sid Griffin’s Basement Tapes book). Anxious saints, crafty and potent drifters, wicked messengers show us more clearly the redemptive ghost of Bob Dylan than this wan and somewhat affected actor.
This 69-71 material has a welcome sound of Bob Dylan singing himself back to the health of primy nature rather than obscure nature. We are still in boats against the currents of time as we were in John Wesley Harding, but now he’s rowing with different muscles. There’s the solace and the refreshment of playing with old-coin language. Jolly. Saucy. A fine hand. 44 smokeless. Brakeman. Gentleman. You can hear the great release of Dylan’s using these old coins without irony or nostalgia. And this is nothing more or less than the great release of his joy in open-throated singing that makes character and emotion feel like, well….breathing. It seems ludicrous to single out any collection of Dylan’s work as a voice album, but there’s such a special bird-happy pleasure in the voice he brings to this material. I hear it everywhere. Railroad Bill‘s ride, ride, ride; the hurry-up wagon verse in This Evening So Soon; in what happens when he catches his stride in House Carpenter.
- The first stripped down Went to See the Gypsy beats the gussied up New Morning version. Here it feels like a story unfolding in real time, not so jaunty. Things seem to hold together and matter: the dark room and solicitous gypsy with his secret knowledge frightens the singer who goes to find a regular means of communication to make a “small call” for some regular companionship, the pretty dancing girl tempts/orders him to return to the gypsy’s prophecies. When he “contemplates every move,” he’s caught in time and self-consciousness in the face of all these mystic or not-so-mystic seductions. After all, the *gypsy* pulled off his tricks in Las Vegas, and the dancing girl disappears…there’s still the dream of home and the little Minnesota town. Slowed down, the song’s got dark tones and gravity, which we love here in the garden. And the guitars at the end are rather spellbinding.
- On the other hand, “If Dogs Run Free scat version–Party of one!” That would be me. The New Morning take of Dogs Run Free is hilariously misbegotten and serves the New Morning I hear–a man crying what the hell am I doing and how long am I going to keep doing it? I’ll have it any day over a melodious normalized Dogs Run Free.
- And I feel the same about All the Tired Horses. The overdubbing on Self Portrait gives the *song* a faux drama that emphasizes the part-cheesiness and part-suggestiveness of the pun. The overdubbed version is slippery and winking and works well to throw down Self Portrait‘s gauntlet of apathy.
- The Gaslight House Carpenter is a perfect nightmare. The boy singing it is so inspired that he sounds blind as he summons the hills of heaven and hellfire. Now, years later, he creates a drama of mounting doom that drops the Gustave Dore horrorshow. It takes Dylan a verse or two to start piloting the ship–at first it seems he’s pitched too high, his voice breaks on “returned” but he presses on with the help of the musicians (Al Kooper’s piano a little too theatrical? Maybe not?). The vocals gather power and confidence until they swell to fill the room with the announcement that there is no other world for the lovers, just death in the grave of the sea. This could have been the sheer precious novelty of a *footnote* to the Gaslight masterpiece, but it turns out to be wonderfully greater than a precious novelty.
- What I’ve always/only liked about If Not For You is the elegance of the title/refrain as it knits up the tossed-off charm of the lyrics. What Dylan himself has referred to as the “gallantry” of his own songs is already in this song with a nice light touch. But in this romantic take, with a luscious and sadly unattributed violin, the elegance becomes serenade-below-the-window alluring.
I’m paying attention to the characters Dylan plays on Another Self-Portrait. Partly because the intensity of the vocals brings to life a motley troupe of characters, and the sequencing plays this up. Pretty Saro, Spanish is the Loving Tongue and Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song are such good foils for each other (I’m going to ignore Alberta because it’s easy for me to ignore). Pretty Saro‘s beauty comes close to that of Wild Mountain Thyme–eternally youthful and blooming. In Spanish is the Loving Tongue, he comes off as broken and tired and wasting in his exile–on paper this song is a thin story, but you’d never know it from the liquor Dylan’s treatment wrings out of it. (Although he does make “corazon” sound like a type of cold medicine.) From this we go right to the worn out joyless surrender of Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song. There’s fatigue all through these songs but the singer’s fatigue in following his old drunk script with the slatternly Annie could be the bitterest on the record and is quite a counterpart to the pathos of Spanish is the Loving Tongue and youthful loveliness of Pretty Saro.
Listen closely and you can hear Dylan do some good Lennon and McCartney impersonations on the Beatles’ pastiche Working on a Guru. A moment of silence–or, go listen to Possum Belly Overalls– for George Harrison, one of the greathearted good sports of all rock music.
This is the only version of Thirsty Boots I’ve heard and I am wondering if Dylan’s taking the role of a virtuosic showman here, gliding swiftly and effortlessly through these verses is the usual approach to the song. I am wondering if a virtuosic approach to an earnest song nostalgically honoring the hard work of 60s activism and idealism is another kind of honoring? Or is it a kind of it ain’t me babe farewell? Or is it Bob Dylan reminding us who wrote Chimes of Freedom in the first place? I’m wondering if even asking these questions is just a sign of my own cynicism.
Someone did have fun with the sequencing of Another Self Portrait. All that sad lonely world of Only a Hobo pairs nicely with the beggar Minstrel Boy who sounds like a carny kid in this Basement Tapes version. The Lewis Carroll lovely nonsense of Tattle o’Day’s little brown dog leads us to dogs running free. Working on a Guru and Country Pie link well together through the guitar work and the balmy lyrics. These are also convivial songs, you can hear good times in the studio, and this mood leads nicely to the Isle of Wight’s hearty I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight. I like combining the idle endless whiskey night of Copper Kettle with the dry-mouthed exhaustion of Bring Me a Little Water.
No option but to end with When I Paint My Masterpiece. Dodging lions and wasting time. All he sees is the rubble of the great works of long-dead men, and the rubble of his own dreams and memory. There’s no here and now (which is why I miss Botticelli’s niece–not just because it’s a knee-slapper but because she’s much more of a fantasy than the girl from Greece). Sigh, sigh, too bad he sold his obsolete Victrola. I want the song to go on because I love hearing him amuse and distract himself in the pain of idleness and lack of inspiration.
Then I want the song to end, and all those thirsts quenched, and all that fatigue refreshed, and all those men trapped in swamps of time to reset their clocks so we can get to work on some masterpieces. Amen to Another Self Portrait, and onward and upward.