Author's note: Read after the jump for some thoughts about the Self Portrait portion of this project.
Well, if we ever needed proof that Dylan's a fan of the blues, it's right here. Quite frankly, I've had moments where I've been a little surprised, maybe even shocked, by the people that have both defended this album as a whole and certain songs in particular. I know I shouldn't be; after all, just about anything with at least the slightest bit of artistic merit will have its defenders (you rarely, if ever, see a movie on Rotten Tomatoes at 0%, after all), and as that is purely in the eye of the beholder, it would be crass for me to begrudge anybody who says they enjoy Self Portrait or "In Search of Little Sadie" or something. I even can understand why people like the songs that they do, for the reasons that they do. You'd have to be pretty uncharitable if you couldn't.
Take this track, "Woogie Boogie", for example. I readily admit that I do not have the appreciation for the blues that I wish I did, and both the half-baked nature of this song (that it stays together for the two minutes this song lasts is a testament to, well, something, I guess) and the fact that it's a blues instrumental, for Pete's sake, make me feel like the recipient of some particularly baffling practical joke when I hear this song. On the other hand, 12-bar blues have their own innate rhythm and fun built in that can be enjoyable for nearly any arrangement (even The Beatles' unreleased stab at the blues, "12-Bar Original", has a thing or two going for it), and the brass arrangement/particularly screechy sax solo are a hoot to listen to. The song may not be particularly essential, even on an album in which seemingly nothing inessential has been left behind, but it's a cheap, fun thrill for two minutes, and that alone is worthy of a thumbs-up in this environment.
A reader named David left an insightful comment on the last post about how Dylan, during this time period, had lost his muse (cf. the well-known "I had to learn to do consciously what I could do unconsciously" quote), and Self Portrait is a result of that searching around, part of the process of regaining his voice. That idea had occurred to me (I'll write about it a little later, when we get to "Watching The River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece), as well as the theory that Dylan was attempting to create a bootleg record (including the Isle of Wight stuff lends more credence to that), as well as any other number of things people have speculated about this album. Now, I tend to be in the camp of "believe anything Bob says at your own peril"; after all, how many stories has he thrown out there about this album alone? Dylan's not really one to share his history (Chronicles nonwithstanding, of course - hey, when's Volume 2 coming out, Bob?), and when he does it's often like his own personal Rashomon. You can go down a real slippery slope if you choose to take him on face value.
In this instance, however, I'm willing to believe that there's something to what Dylan says when he refers to his muse deserting him. I don't think that he meant that his talent deserted him - after all, talent is talent, and it's pretty damn hard for somebody to completely scupper that. On the other hand, it's rather obvious that Dylan was not writing the type of songs that made him famous, and if we assume that he even wanted to, that points towards some sort of mental block preventing him from doing so. And as David suggests, that had to have been a scary experience. In that sense, Self Portrait becomes more of a fascinating experience, somewhat akin to watching a pitcher who once relied on a blazing fastball try to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer after blowing his elbow out one too many times. As I'd written in the "Tell Me Momma" entry, change is one of the hardest things for a human being to deal with, and we should give Dylan a great deal of credit for trying to work out his problems in the studio.
On the other hand...does that explain why Dylan felt the need to record THAT many covers? Or to put out the Isle of Wight tracks? We should do well to remember that Dylan would bolt for Asylum Records not long after this album (which most people believe led to Columbia releasing Dylan out of spite), and that there has to be something to Dylan handing Columbia 24 songs as part of his contractual obligations that really did not live up to what people expected out of Bob Dylan at this point in his career. And it does seem interesting that the very next album, New Morning, contains a great deal of great songs. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Of course, New Morning does have its share of clunkers, and this album does bear the occasional hallmark of somebody trying, so I'm not going to put too much credence into the theory I just advanced. It's just me speculating on this album - despite everything, it does have a level of intrigue that even some of his great albums don't really have. Gaze too long into the abyss, after all, and the abyss will gaze back into you. It probably doesn't say much that the abyss would see a great deal of puzzlement in me.
Nathan, a longtime reader of this lil' blog of mine, posted a comment in the "Let It Be Me" post that gave me some pause. He noted that the posts are beginning to run together (I don't know if they are, but I can understand him saying so), that I've basically repeated the same stuff about each song (again, I can see that) and that I've dedicated a disproportionate amount of space to the RS review of this album (totally merited). In other words, he's basically written out the nightmare that I'd feared before delving into this series - that I've become uninteresting. All you wags feel free to toss out a "when were you NOT uninteresting?!?!" quip in 3...2...1...
All right, hope you got that out of your system. Anyway, it is during this particular album's series of posts that I've been most keenly aware that eyes other than mine are reading what I'm putting out. That's not me saying I'm surprised by that (I've been submitting to Expecting Rain for a good while now - any eyes other than mine are due in large part to that site), so much as it's me saying that the presence of an audience has not weighed as heavily as it is on me right now. And I welcome that, in a way - after all, without being able to challenge yourself, a writer could find his own well of creativity drying up, and I've certainly found myself in a challenge now. On the other hand, there are other people reading this blog, after all, and consideration to their feelings should also be given thought. I'd much like to keep the readers I have, now that I have some; you have no idea how much I appreciate people reading and posting, even the ones that dislike my writing. I feel blessed to be doing this for more than one person, every time I post.
I'd mentioned that I'd be writing both about the album and the review because they're so deeply tied to each other, and I stand by that. I also should mention (and this, I suppose, will be obvious) that I've been leaning on that RS review because at certain points I find myself at a loss for words. I make no bones about when I find myself out of my element or struggling for inspiration (the Basement Tapes series spring readily to mind - I had myself some hard moments, believe me, and some of the comments basically reinforce that), and I was pretty sure going in that it was going to be rough sailing trying to make heads or tails of a lot of this stuff. I wasn't going to sidestep the album, though - that would be disingenuous. The blog's title IS "Every Bob Dylan Song", after all.
However, as I said, the consideration of more than just myself now has to come into play, and the fact that just one reader felt strongly enough to write a post about what's going on with this series is enough to give me pause. Look, the last thing I want to do is be a quitter, or to feel like I've shortchanged anybody in this project, most of all myself. I still believe I can get through every song and find something to dedicate a couple paragraphs to, and the RS review, while a crutch, is a crutch that's given me a lot to chew on. We haven't even reached the real meat of that review yet, either - the ideas of Dylan's responsibility to his recording audience, or the auteur theory and how it relates to this album, and so on. I'm more than ready to continue down the same path, and with a smile on my face. After all, at the end of the day this is fun. If it weren't, I'd have stopped writing a long time ago.
At the same time, it can't just be fun for me, either. Any writer that puts his work out in a public forum has to realize that he is now writing for a party of more than just one, and thus cannot simply wallow in whatever pond he might want, if nobody else wants to wallow with him. I want this blog to be an enjoyable experience, and while I've occasionally taken detours for my own sake (I wasn't really sure ANYBODY would enjoy the Isle of Wight post), like any good serial writer, I want you guys coming back, post after post, as long as I have the wherewithal to keep moving on. This blog doesn't just belong to me anymore. It might be cliched to say that, but I firmly believe it.
And so, as you may have noticed already, there is a poll on the right side of this blog. On it are four options about the future of this particular series of posts. I leave it up to you to decide where I go from here. The poll will be open for a week, long enough for everybody that regularly reads this blog to make their opinions known on the matter. Whatever the decision may be, I will uphold it one hundred percent. Believe me when I say I want your voices to be heard, and this is a good way to let them be heard. I'll keep posting in regular style all this week, until the poll closes and I know which direction I will be taking from thereon out. Thank you all so much for reading this, and please vote in the poll. It really does mean a lot to me.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Author's note: Read after the jump for some thoughts about the Self Portrait portion of this project.