Dylan's 1970 Controversial Double Portrait Reconsidered

When Bob Dylan “plugged in” at Newport back in ’65 the legion of original fans went bonkers, jeering and booing, but Dylan persevered and his popularity grew as the much larger rock audience tuned in, thanks in part to covers by The Byrds on their first album.

Dylan was ready with Highway 61 Revisited in the summer of 1965 and then the monumental Blonde on Blonde but he turned the tables again after his mysterious motorcycle accident releasing the still-mystical John Wesley Harding December of 1967.

While that album was recorded in Nashville using crack Nashville cats, his next album Nashville Skyline issued in 1969, found Dylan bending to the will of the Nashville rather than vice-versa. Dylan trotted out his new country crooner persona. Some fans rebelled but most felt the short album was either a goof, or a short-lived interesting experiment because the record proved a commercial success.

With the release of the double album Self Portrait in the spring of 1970 many fans had had enough. The stupid cover, the bucolic photos inside showing a fat-faced, neatly coiffed sissified country gentleman on his farm and on the back cover facing the early spring sun, outraged those who Dylan had tugged into an era of discord and protest. Yet despite the negative reaction from hardcore fans, the album was a #4 chart success and quickly earned a gold record.

“Is he shitting on us?” was how many reacted and they were correct! The double LP, padded with filler, sloppy performances and covers was the drifter’s escape from his appointment as a generation’s spokesperson. He wanted to make a clean break and in that he was successful.

I don’t think I played my original more than once after buying it forty years ago. I only took it off the shelves recently to compare it to this Sundazed reissue. For the life of me I couldn’t understand why Sundazed bothered with this loser…until I played it.

In retrospect, while its still a sloppy album in many ways, there’s much to recommend and what’s more, listening made me realize both what a ballsy move it was for Dylan and what a selfish little shit I was, as were most of the critics.

We supposedly loved Dylan the rebel for doing what he wanted and not what was expected of him. Well, that’s just what he does here though what he does is recede from rebellion into capitulation. That’s probably what was most annoying—along with some really shitty tracks that were needed to pad a single album into a double.

In retrospect, Dylan backed by top Nashville studio cats recorded to perfection in the town’s best studios offers plenty to excite the senses. Side one in particular, offers a lot: the opener’s repeated chant about “All the Tired Horse,” rings of Americana, “Alberta #4” is soft but not out of step with previous Dylan and “Days of 49” sounds like an outtake from John Wesley Harding. The problem is between “Alberta #4” and “Days of 49” comes “I Forget More Than You’ll Ever Know,” a bit of Nashville dross redolent with oily pedal steel and worse, Dylan crooning in a voice no more of a put-on than his others, but more annoying and outrageous.

A cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” while not bad is clearly unnecessary filler and sounds like a warm up for the John Wesley Harding sessions. The side ends with “In Search of Little Sadie,” an odd-metered, pitch shifting epic with a psych-country feel that works.

Side two gets off to a bad start with a cover of the classic “Let It Be Me.” It’s just Dylan inventing karaoke. He’s not bad at it, but he’s not good either, his voice swamped by the bombastic arrangement a studied singer could easily negotiate. It sure is well recorded though. Listen to that bell-toned acoustic guitar.

“Little Sadie” is built upon a familiar folk melody and isn’t much but then comes the inexcusable mess of an instrumental jam called “Woogie Boogie” and you’re thinking to yourself WTF?

“Belle Isle” is another John Wesley Harding sounding outtake with a string section and a melody reminiscent of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” but it proves how easily Dylan seems to be able to come up with serviceable melodies and compelling lyrics.

Next up is a glossy Dylan original that sounds like a remake of Guy Mitchell’s ‘50’s hit “Singing the Blues.” Again, it’s nothing but in retrospect the playing is so good! A pathetic and pointless remake of “Like a Rolling Stone” backed by The Band that was either actually recorded live or has a fake audience attached puts the side out of its misery.

LP number two is chuck full of covers: Billy Grammar’s great ‘50s hit “Gotta Travel On,” “Blue Moon,” (!), Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” Boudleaux Bryant’s “Take Me As I Am” and “Take Message to Mary.” None of these covers provides value. But there’s plenty of background pleasure provided by The Band. The side also has “The Mighty Quinn (the Eskimo)” also backed expertly by The Band. That alone is worth the side!

Side four is mostly Dylan originals but there’s not much worthwhile other than the live “Isle of Wight” version of “She Belongs to Me” from 1969 sung in his semi-crooning voice and the weird horn drenched “Wigwam.”

A double album mess out of which one okay record could have been culled, but Dylan was obviously hell bent on alienating his core constituency.

Still, in retrospect, listening to Dylan in his Nashville playpen “doing his thing” is a hell of a lot more interesting than many musicians taking themelves seriously.

Sundazed’s double LP reissue is nicely done and captures well the sound of the original, though it leaves out the original’s textured cover paper and for some reason, perhaps as a goof because Bob Irwin knows better, the label uses the older “360 Sound” cherry red label that had been jettisoned in favor of the paler red one with “Columbia” in yellow repeating in a circle around the label’s outer edge.

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