Marcus reviewed the original Self Portrait release in Rolling Stone back in 1970, and his lead, “What is this shit?” has become legendary. It wasn’t even his most scathing line, which was, “I once said I’d buy an album of Bob Dylan breathing hard, but I never said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing softly.” From the time of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline country retreat into cozy, opry crooning until his reunion with the Band (roughly 1969-1973), Dylan went through a very confused period, and that confusion is crystalized (cremated?) in Self Portrait. He had to release the follow-up, New Morning, less than four months later to placate the angry fans. After that, he was only enigmatically sporadic – a few songs with Happy Traum here, a Bangladesh concert appearance there, the odd protest single (“George Jackson”) and his foray into soundtrack music with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which had two songs, “Billy” (four versions) and the eternal “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” just a little reminder to keep his detractors in check. All in all, he seemed either lost in the wilderness or as if he had just stopped caring.
Dylan himself has attempted to spin Self Portrait over the years, claiming that he put it out to deliberately alienate fans so they would leave him alone, but this revisionism doesn’t explain the quick rescue of New Morning, much less his continued, if increasingly intermittent, ambition from time time, from Blood on the Tracks to Time Out of Mind, which are little reminders that Dylan still cares enough to regain the respect from listeners new and old. So now Dylan is attempting to salve the wound of his worst-regarded release by recontextualizing the album, stripping the tapes of all the AOR production, the strings and backup singers and chamber echo, and highlight the raw, small band, and more intimate recordings, and mixing them with demos and outtakes from Skyline to his unformed non-album from 71-72. Will it succeed? We’ll see next month. Dylan’s longtime aversion to bootleggers is still evident, as this set will largely ignore the sessions he recorded with Johnny Cash and George Harrison during this time, two sessions that have been widely traded, and are fairly easily available.
And perhaps it’s this aversion that has as much to do with his long-time negligence to his Basement Tape collection. These notoriously made up much of the Great White Wonder bootleg, one of the first major boots from 1969, along with cuts from that other long-neglected, way-past-due-to-be-released “Minnesota” tapes from 1961 (and, again, widely traded and mostly available to anyone interested to look for it). The original 1975 release of The Basement Tapes was revelatory, but shoddy, including some ill-advised doctoring, and omitting at least one (“I Shall Be Released”) essential song. Dylan released little sprinkles over the years on Biography (“The Mighty Quinn”) and finally on Bootleg Series Vol. 2, released “Released” along with the otherwise forgettable singalong “Sante Fe.” Some fifteen years later, the fine recording of “I’m Not There” was finally issued along with Todd Haynes film of the same name. At this pace, releasing the previously unknown “Minstrel Boy” on this new set, before releasing a proper Basement set, is akin to giving a middle finger to those of us who have collected these unofficial recordings over the years, as a wry way of letting us know just how little we know about what Dylan is sitting on. Thankfully, the most promising thing about these sets, as well as similar archive releases from many of the ’60s school of rock, gives us hope that many of these historical tapes are being preserved and saved at this time when the record labels are being devoured and broken up by their corporate owners. And while bootlegs will always be interesting artifacts for collectors, there aren’t many who wouldn’t choose to buy pristine-mastered releases when they become available. Hopefully, both the proposed Blonde and Basement box sets will be released eventually, or as Greil Marcus says, “If we all live long enough, maybe we’ll find out.”
Now, as for my own Basement frustrations, I wanted to highlight some of these unreleased tracks from these 1967 tapes that have become favorites of mine. And speaking of Greil Marcus, I recommend his excellent book Invisible Republic, which has also been issued under the name The Old Weird America.
1) “Sign on the Cross” – Dylan’s elegy to fallen pride.
2) “Under Control” – A rocking boogie that more than one listener has noticed has a strong resemblance to the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane.”
3) “A Fool Such As I” – a cover of the Hank Snow standard, this version is much better than the one Dylan rerecorded during the Self Portrait sessions, later released on the awful Dylan LP of outtakes.
4) “Young But Daily Growing” – A very moving rendition of the old Scottish ballad “The Trees They Grow So High,” which dates back to the 18th century. Dylan here sings from the shifting perspectives of a father and his daughter.
5) “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” – Another traditional ballad, a very loose version, but Dylan seems to be having fun singing it.
6) “The Spanish Song” – An apparently improvised number, and again, sounds like they’re having a lot of fun playing it.
7) “Rock Salt and Nails” – A murder ballad (maybe?) from Utah Phillips. Dylan likely learned it from the Flatt & Scruggs version.
8) “Silent Weekend” – Pretty straightforward 12-bar rocker, and a nice showcase for the Band’s backing.
9) “All You Have to Do Is Dream” – An original, not to be confused with the similarly titled Everly Brothers song, this is a spirited, R&B flavored number.
10) “I Am Your Teenage Prayer” – Hands down the funniest song from the Basement sessions. With a false start.