So what we've got here is Bob playing something that might appeal to his nature, an old folk song about a rambling old vagabond's misadventures during the Gold Rush era. That, right there, touches on three of Dylan's favorite things - Americana, tales of a roving ne'er-do-well, and his overwhelming love of gold (okay, that might be King Midas). It seems like a slam dunk on paper, and Dylan does his level best to live up to that billing, giving the tune a dramatic minor-chord acoustic arrangement (which makes it sound quite a bit like "As I Went Out One Morning", actually) and some really brassy horns on the chorus. And, for the first few verses, the song works really well, as Dylan puts quite a bit of oomph in his vocals and the band reacts in turn. If nothing else, this gave us the straight-out dumbest moment in the RS review, where Marcus suggests that Dylan, in singing "just like a roving sign", might have been deliberately avoiding singing "just like a rolling stone" in his take (I mean...really, Greil?), and that bit of comedy is worth something, I think.
The problem with this song, unfortunately, is that it overstays its welcome; the damn thing is five and a half minutes long, after all. I found myself thinking of Dylan's 1967 songwriting era, encompassing the Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding, and how Dylan had carved out a new songwriting style that waved its flag in the name of brevity. You listen to those songs, precious few of which even approached the four minute mark, and it's easy to marvel at Dylan's economy of songwriting, and of how he told stories and painted pictures and established vivid characters with startlingly few words. Now, "Days of '49" does this pretty well; it makes sense that Dylan would be drawn to a song that so strikingly tells tales of characters meeting their doom in the good ol' days or what have you. But every good storyteller needs to know when his story's been told, and at nearly 6 minutes the story's been told way too long. YMMV on this; I just sort of lose patience near the end, and judging by the way the band kind of staggers to the finish, I'd dare say they did as well.
This particular song's section is devoted to a small snippet of conversation between GM (Marcus, I'd assume) and JW (who I'd also assume is Jann Wenner), talking about this particular album and its lack of ambitiousness. Wenner suggests that it might be a good thing that Dylan's releasing something without any ambition to it, which I don't particularly understand, and never really have. Perhaps somebody can shed some light on that for me. Then, after Marcus suggests the obvious, the two of them reach a consensus on what Self Portrait actually is...a "friendly" album. And this statement, which I can only believe is meant as a putdown, is something worth thinking about. Because, let's face it, this really IS a friendly album. There's none of the acidic quality of his Electric Trilogy, nor some of the rougher edges of his immediate post-crash work. Self Portrait is the smiling face of Bob on the Nashville Skyline taken to its logical extreme, with a showman's eagerness to please thrown in, and with everything polished and spit-shined and cleaned up in a way a regular visitor of Branson, MO could love. For a Dylan fan - hell, for a music fan - that's an unsettling prospect.
And that plays directly into the era that music had descended into when Self Portrait was released. When Marcus says that "what we need most of all is for Dylan to get ambitious", not only is he playing directly into the "Dylan uber alles" attitude that led him to seclusion in the first place, but he's speaking for a generation that was losing heroes left and right and was starting to feel like the revolution was over before it really began. The dark side of the 1960s, the one the boomer generation tends to gloss over, is what I've talked about more than once on this blog - the idea that the hippies and peace lovers ultimately lost, that it was Nixon in the White House instead of McCarthy or RFK, and that a well-written tune really couldn't change the world after all. That's a sobering prospect, to say the least, and it's small wonder that hearing Dylan sing an album of standards and covers would've been even more sobering. Talking about peace and love is fine and all, but ultimately action is what counts (and, unfortunately, the flower power generation only got so far where that was concerned, but that's a subject far beyond the ken of this humble blog), and putting a smile on your face only takes you so far. That's what Marcus and Wenner are bummed about - Dylan, at a time where many were long past smiling, refused to take that big grin off his face.
And, right there, another piece of the puzzle that is this godforsaken album falls into place. One wonders how the cognoscenti of 1970 would've received an album full of brazen electric garage rock from Dylan, even if the lyrics were far below his mid-60s standards, and even if it was apparent that he was just putting this music out to placate those that so badly wanted placating, that just wanted Daddy Bob to say everything would be all right. Instead, they got an album of happy pablum, of Dylan strumming his way through "Blue Moon", for the love of Jesus, and seeming like he could give less than a damn about the fanbase that idolized him and pined every day after his public disappearance for him to return, like some kind of drugged-out MacArthur. And the lashing out and crushing reviews and disdain become that much more explainable. I'm not saying they're wrong that this album sucks - okay, "sucks" might be harsh, but that's as far as I'll bend - but you wonder how much of that anger is directed towards something that Bob didn't intend to be there. And, for that, this collection of harmless tunes deserves a little bit of sympathy, forty years on.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009