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Those of you that were lucky enough to tune in to the first Johnny Cash Show on June 7, 1969 would have been intrigued and maybe a little surprised by Bob Dylan's appearance. You would've seen Bob walk out on stage, You would have seen him perform three songs, including a charming version of "I Threw It All Away", as well as reprising his duet with Cash on "Girl of the North Country" that arguably improves on the album version by virtue of being a tighter, more focused take. And you would have been even more surprised to hear a song that had never appeared on an album before, another low-key country song (a cover? an original?) with some nice backing from Cash's house band. That song would be "Living the Blues", a Bob Dylan original, and one of the highlights of Self Portrait (indeed, it probably would've been one of the highlights of Nashville Skyline). Why he played it on TV instead of, say, "Lay, Lady, Lay" is anybody's guess, but it's a pretty cool thing that he did, one of those strange side roads in Dylan's career.
As played on Self Portrait, "Living the Blues" trades in the more raucous energy of the Johnny Cash Show run-through in favor of a slower and statelier performance. Dylan does some of his best singing on the album here, maybe because it's a song he's more comfortable with, or maybe because singing it in front of a live audience (where he, perhaps, betrays some nervousness by occasionally losing his key and shouting some of the lyrics) helped him work out some of the kinks in his technique. And it's on this take where Dylan's backup singers really come in handy, as they add vocals that wouldn't be out of place in a Broadway musical or something (the "uh-huh"s in particular are fantastic), giving the track a little extra oomph. It's enough to make me wonder what some ladies doing backup or some Jordainaires-type adding harmonies would've done for Nashville Skyline - would the songs have suffered with that extra showbizzy touch, or would the songs have gained from an extra musical dimension?
I suppose in the "what-if" department that question doesn't rank particularly high with regards to Dylan's career, but I've always found myself more interested in the darker (i.e. less light shed) periods of Dylan's career, historically speaking. We know so very much about Dylan's peaks - No Direction Home, the Rolling Thunder Review, and so on. In fact, what made Chronicles such a fun read was that Dylan wrote about parts of his life that we didn't know so much about, eschewing yet another tale of getting stoned in Nashville prior to recording "Just Like A Woman" for stories about recording Oh Mercy and hiding up in New York. And I like to think about how Dylan's career might have changed if those lesser-known periods had changed in some way - like if Bob had released New Morning before this album, or if he'd never gone gospel, or if he'd done anything in the mid-80s. Even little things like "what would "One More Night" sound like with backup singers?" remind us of just how malleable history can be. We never know what can turn fortune entirely on its head.
This segues, I think, into this song's own little section in the RS review, a discussion about the music industry term "product" and how that connotes something we don't generally think about when we think of music. It's kind of amusing that this pops up for a song that would not be considered mere product, but that's neither here nor there. Marcus makes the suggestion that this is as close to product, rather than music, as Dylan has ever gotten in his career, and I think that the less charitable of us would agree that is true. Marcus, perhaps for the best, never outright states that this was what Dylan was intending to do, as this opens up a very ugly can of worms, but he certainly leaves the reader imagining that this might be the case. After all, when the comparisons he draws are to Dylan's first Greatest Hits album (we don't need to go into why that counts as "product") or with the Rolling Stones' odds-n-sods compilation Flowers (which, at least, holds some very strong music within, along with some interesting outtakes), it doesn't take a genius to see what Marcus is hinting at. And those were label-created Frankenstein monsters - Self Portrait, after all, was put together by the man himself.
I think, in the end, what keeps this from being the pure product Marcus worried it might be are the good songs, like "Living the Blues", that help make this album appear to be a little more than what it seems (reputation-wise, at least - Marcus is dead on when he talks about how the album is less than it might appear). Sure, the spark of creativity in Dylan may have been at a low point here, and the scattershot nature of the album as a whole will prevent it from ever really being considered as a curiosity at best and a travesty at worst. But, like many a bad album by a good artist, there is the occasional port in the storm, something you can hang your hat on and say "see? It's not all bad". I was asked by a commenter "you really hate this album, don't you?", and I don't, not really. The disdain for particular songs mounts up when you're going song-by-song, but the album as a whole is not so egregiously bad that I'd want to shout from the mountaintops about it. And a song like "Living the Blues" allows me to not hold the same cynicism as others do about this album, and to say "hey, we're all allowed a bad album sometimes", admitting that I'm free from the angst that led to Marcus et. al.'s mammoth review in the first place. Whatever good feelings you can get out of this album, perhaps the poorest reviewed in the history of rock music (considering the artist, of course), those are definitely worth holding onto.
Thursday, August 13, 2009