There are two songs on this album that would properly qualify as "notorious". One of them is "All The Tired Horses", quite possibly the most infamous recording Dylan ever officially released. The second would be this song, Dylan's cover of Simon & Garfunkel's classic "The Boxer", featuring a duet between the Nashville Skyline croon and Dylan's more "regular" singing voice (i.e. what we'd been hearing more or less since 1967). You can find your share of opinions on Dylan's reasoning behind cutting this song in the first place (parody, homage, take your pick); you can also find your share of opinions on the actual quality of the song itself, including whether or not it's clever or stupid (a fine line between both, let us not forget) to have that duet between Dylan's two different singing voices. It might not be a great cover, but it's never not been interesting.
At least, that's the general opinion. I personally find it kind of funny that a song so dull, half-assed, and throwaway can have such attention placed upon it - I understand why, of course, but even the most cursory listen to the song makes it hard to imagine that it really deserves it. Say what you want about Simon & Garfunkel's original, but what you can't deny is that it has a power and dramatic energy that makes it the masterpiece that it is (who amongst us can forget the two intertwining voices on the chorus mixed with that echoing, pounding bass drum?) and makes us want to delve deeper and come up with all sorts of theories about it being about this or that musician (ahem). That makes the complete lack of power in Dylan's version all the more evident - much like how "Blue Moon" suffers from Dylan singing it like he was just rousted from a particularly good nap, neither of Dylan's voices puts on a particularly good show here. Maybe that is the point, of course (parody? eh? eh?), but it doesn't make the listening experience any more bearable if it is.
In lieu of anything else particularly productive to say about this cover (I mean, it really does stink), I'd like to bring up a section of the RS review that I've passed over before - the bit about Arthur Rimbaud. Marcus plucks a paragraph out of what appears to be a biography/chronology of the infamous poet, covering the years right after Rimbaud had left Paris and his friend/lover Paul Verlaine, traveling with seeming aimlessness before he would settle in Abyssinia (what we call Ethiopia today) for basically the rest of his life. Intertwined therein is a quote from RS writer Charles Perry - "We know Dylan was the Rimbaud of his generation; it seems he's found his Abyssinia". It is that quote, I think, that sums up a great deal of what was thought about Dylan in those odd years where he was between peak periods, seemingly lost in a desert, content to lay down the pen that had served him so well and inspired so many.
It's important, I think, to give some thought to what that Abyssinia actually meant in Dylan's case. I suppose Self Portrait as a whole might be it; all the same, an album is not always a window into the soul of the artist recording it (being a big fan of Pinkerton, I would assume the dross Rivers Cuomo records now is not really representative of who he is as a human, and it kinda shakes me to think that it actually might be). So, then, I think you can safely assume that what's being considered Dylan's country of settling down is, in fact, him settling down; i.e., his family life. Because he has dedicated himself more to being a good husband and father (and because, arguably, his music has suffered for it), the blazing genius he shared with Rimbaud is gone forever. He has, in effect, entered early retirement. I've mentioned that I'll get to this a little later, and I still fully plan on it, but I want to point this out because it truly needs pointing out.
These were young men that wrote this review. Greil Marcus, for example, was all of 25 years old when he penned the great majority of it, and it's safe to assume that the rest of the authors were in the same general age group. These were men (and one woman) that absolutely, positively, undoubtedly did not want to hear that Bob Dylan, Voice of His Generation, was off dangling toys in front of his kid's faces or having coffee with his wife in some cafe in upstate New York. They were hip-deep in a cultural war that would define that entire generation, fresh off the pain of 1968 (the defining year of that generation, like it or not), still battling The Man and trying to carve out a niche for those that wanted to let their freak flag fly, and writing for a magazine that would serve as the Pravda for that niche. And their hero was walking away to settle in Squaresville, daddy-o. It seems a little silly now, with the proper perspective, but I don't blame them for comparing Dylan to Rimbaud and worrying that he'd given up something special for something entirely banal.
I keep thinking of one of the lines of that review - "Would Self Portrait make you want to meet Dylan? No? Perhaps it's there to keep you away?" And you have to wonder if that's what Dylan really had in mind; after years of the world beating down his door, maybe he just wanted to put a big "KEEP OUT" sign up on that door. The more you look back, the easier it is to sympathize.
Friday, August 28, 2009