Much the same way that peanut butter is inextricably linked with jelly, Bob Dylan's magnum anti-opus Self Portrait is now inextricably linked to its infamous review in Rolling Stone, with Greil Marcus' thoughts on Dylan weaved together with actual thoughts on the songs themselves. Thanks largely to Marcus' opening gambit "What is this shit?", coupled with Rolling Stone's nascent reputation as a cultural juggernaut (as opposed to whatever the hell it's supposed to be today - "wow, the Jonas Brothers AND PJ O'Rourke! Finally, all my dreams have come true!"), the reputation of Self Portrait was more or less instantly cemented to what it is today; i.e. a black mark on Dylan's impressive canon. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who go against the grain in this regard and hail Self Portrait as either a masterpiece (like Ryan Adams does) or at least not as bad as everyone says. And while they may be correct in that it's not the worst album ever recorded (that would be Metal Machine Music, lest you're wondering), it's simply not worthy of any type of reputation reconstruction. Simply put, it's not so much a terrible album as just an album. That isn't a good thing.
As you also might expect from a trainwreck that has assumed legendary proportions, people have spent vast amounts of time trying to figure out exactly what the hell these 24 (!) songs are all about. Eyolf Olstrem, proprieter of my beloved Dylan Chords website, put together a mini-essay that touches on some of the theories as to how this album - a double-album, let's not forget - came into being, and noted Dylan writer John Howells compiled a selection of quotes from Bob and some of the musicians on the album in order to piece together the mystery. Obviously, there's no real point in doing so, much as there's no real point in trying to get the answer out of Bob (he ain't telling), but the fact that there are people still willing to try says a lot. This is, plain and simple, a baffling album, all the way around.
It remains more baffling when you actually hear the album. What's really mind boggling to me isn't the fact that the album is godawful, so much as the fact that it honestly could have been so much more. Leaving aside "All The Tired Horses", a great (yes, I said "great") song that really does defy any kind of reasoned analysis, you can find some actual gems amongst the half-baked covers and sleep-inducing morass found here. "Copper Kettle", the Isle of Wight tunes, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know" (perhaps that's just me) - certainly for our iPod generation, there are a few cuts that I'd stash on my player without any second thoughts. The problem is that, in the presence of such mediocrity (and I mean that in its most basic sense - most of the songs are neither good nor bad, just there, kinda like a dust bunny or something), those gems lose their luster, becoming part of the furniture and little more. The really worrisome thing is that, perhaps, the really good songs were the mistakes all along.
For this series of posts, I'm going to try something a little different, if for no other reason than to possibly retain some sanity and not dedicate 20 posts to simply saying "what the hell can I say about this?" over and over. The review that Marcus et. al. wrote for Self Portrait can be found here. If you haven't read it, I absolutely urge you to - not only is it a nuanced and intelligent piece of work, not only is it less a screed or a complete takedown of the album than a concerned and well thought out look at a man at an obvious crossroads, but it's as fine a piece of musical criticism as we'll see in this or any other decade. It's also staggeringly pretentious, which makes it so much fun to take shots at. And with that in mind, I will be using that review as the baseline for MY reviews - not for all the posts (well, maybe - depends on how much will I lose as we go along), but for the majority of them. I'll talk both about the song in question, the RS crew's response to the song, and whatever Marcus is going on about for that particular song/number. I think this might just work.
Now, I can see you people either scratching your heads at just how meta all of this is ("he's reviewing a review? What?!"), or getting annoyed at how lazy just piggybacking on somebody else's work might be. And I don't blame you. But as I said at the start, the album and the review are more or less joined at the hip now, both of them actually helping to inform and explain the other, giving the album a life and a vitality it surely would not have if Rolling Stone had just opted for a simple "this album sucks" review. And I believe it's worth exploring both of those pieces of work, in order to get a clearer picture of both Self Portrait itself and the era that led to that fateful review. What the hell - if nothing else, this'll be more interesting than going on about Nashville sessions and what have you. To quote AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine, "that doesn't necessarily mean that it's worth the time to figure it out — you're not going to find an answer, anyway — but it's sort of fascinating all the same." Indeed.
Of all the songs on this album that actually do receive any sort of publicity, "All The Tired Horses" is by far the most (in)famous. We're talking about a song on a Bob Dylan album in which Bob Dylan does no singing whatsoever, the actual vocalists sing a grand total of one lyric, over and over and over, (never has the "written by" credit meant so very little), and the single acoustic guitar is overwhelmed by a grandiose string section and some piercing organ work. Little wonder that the song has attracted so much attention - I can't think of a weirder environment for the tune to show up than in Manhattan* indie venue The Cake Shop (dig the one Self Portrait defender in the comments!), where a charming and off-key singalong morphs into a blast of shambolic rock noise. To be honest, the clanging cymbals and shaky strummed chords fit way better for the song than the operatic arrangement Bob devised for the tune. But that's just me.
As I wrote above, I consider this to be a great song; I don't consider it great in the same way "Like A Rolling Stone" or "All Along The Watchtower" is great, of course, but it is great all the same. What makes it great to me, given my puckish sense of humor, is just how bloody-minded the whole damn thing is. This, after all, is the leadoff to an album titled Self-fucking-Portrait, for the love of Jesus (has Bob ever blown more of a wicked raspberry to his fans than that album title?), the table setter for an astonishing twenty-four tracks that Dylan fans in 1970 had to have been waiting for with the same enthusiasm as every other release, and what do we get? A group of ladies singing that one cryptic (or entirely banal, depending on your point of view) lyrics, billowing strings, and a sense that either Dylan's having himself a heck of a laugh or...well, Dylan's having himself one heck of a laugh. Could you imagine hearing this album for the first time back then and thinking "wait, this is what the whole album's gonna be like?" That must've blown a mind or two back in the day.
That lyric has attracted so much attention both because it's the simplest/dumbest/funniest one Dylan's ever wrote (and it's really only funny in context), and because it's one of the most basic examples of Dylanology you could possibly imagine. See, when he - excuse me, the ladies - sing "how'm I supposed to get any riding done?", they actually mean "writing", you see, and this album's mostly covers and all, and the originals are all not that great, so...boom! Self-analysis! Self-portrait! Mystery unlocked! I, of course, would like to think that Dylan did that on purpose, a way to send the Webermans of the world hunting for some MacGuffin, the same way that Lennon wrote "I Am The Walrus" to make the fringe Beatles fans geek out. Sadly, I'm pretty sure that's not true, and that the strict poker face Dylan maintained all throughout the album (that's one of the reasons this album has its reputation, I think - if the WHOLE thing was played for laughs that'd be one thing, but Dylan approaches so many of the tunes in a straightforward way that the only humor is of a black kind) was maintained here. I mean, think of if Dylan really did mean "riding" and the song's about, uh, horses. How terrible and pointless would that be? Better to make the myth come true so we can print that myth, right?
The song, like all the good songs on this album, works better in complete isolation, perhaps shuffled between The Clash and Aimee Mann or something, or on a YouTube video like the one I posted above. Freed from the constraints of the album and its all-encompassing reputation, the strengths of this track are so much easier to digest. Much like "Good Night", the lullaby finale to The Beatles' masterpiece (also a track with lush orchestration and simple lyrics), "All The Tired Horses" is a gently beautiful piece of music, something that can lull you to sleep with a smile upon your face. And as much as I appreciate the fact that it holds pole position on the album that it does and that Dylan was clearly challenging his listeners with this song (though not in the way he had before), I think it might be better to think of the song as that kind of beautiful lullaby, as a gorgeous little tune with no aspirations other than to be a gorgeous little tune. Would that the rest of this album sounded like this song, so we could think of the whole thing as gorgeous little tunes.
*I'd originally written "Brooklyn" - my friend Jeff did/does sound work for them, and he lives in Brooklyn, so that's where the mistake came from.