I feel it's worth mentioning that it's about at this point in writing the Self Portrait reviews that I've finally experienced that moment where I wanted to throw in the towel - I'm four songs from the finish line, once I get this post done, and that finish line has never felt so far away. For the record, it's not entirely this song in question that's made me lose my will; it's more like a catalyst than anything else. I have no qualms with this kind of schmaltzy country music, with the pedal steel guitar out in full force and the ladies in the cowgirl getups singing away in the background and the drummer tapping that snare in that well-known way and the saloon piano tinkling away in the background and Dylan stretching out his country croon almost to the point of self-parody (and say what you want about that voice, but he never came as close to that point as he did here), I really don't. Who amongst us doesn't like "Stand By Your Man", for instance?
It's just that the cumulative effect of this album has finally caught up to me - I only played this album all the way through once in preparation for this seemingly never-ending series of posts, and it was roughly at this point that I finally had to take a break lest I fell asleep or blacked out or something. And even going post by post and song by song as I am now, I still find myself wanting to lay my head down on a cool, cool pillow and float off to dreamland. The issue is that there are already enough songs like that on this damn thing - do I really need another one? The RS review argues that the album might not look so bad if there'd been some editing and we'd gotten just the Nashville stuff like this; I feel, however, like putting this stuff back to back would've actually made the album even more boring. And it's a really painful thing to listen to an album by your all-time favorite artist and be bored by it. I can only imagine what his studio band must've felt - some of them had actually played on his Electric Trilogy and his great post-crash albums, some of the best music anybody has ever recorded, and now they're tap-tap-tapping their way through Country's Greatest Hits and "Little Sadie". Hard not to feel for them.
And now the bit I've wanted to discuss for a few posts, the section in the RS review linked to this song. You can read it in the link above; I won't bother summarizing it here. I find it amusing that, nearly 4 decades on, people are STILL talking about why exactly Dylan chose to name this collection of covers and live tracks and assorted nonsense Self Portrait, attempting to crawl into the mind of a man who a) is smarter than all of us and b) has made his reputation on being unpredictable. To me, what helps give this album so much mystery is that it's the first unpredictable move in his career that led to something not good - or, if you want to be charitable, something that the majority of us doesn't agree is either good or an outright masterpiece. The review speculates that Dylan is defining himself on somebody else's terms, but I don't necessarily think that's true - after all, we've never really known what it means for Dylan to define himself on his own terms anyway. This was a man who had worn what, four different faces by this point in his career? Bob Dylan's not even a real name, for the love of Pete. What's one more face, even if it's the face of the musicians he's loved?
The really important part of that blurb is the second part, complete with Duke of Windsor comparison. And that brings up something that not only Dylan, but every artist of any particular influence (aesthetic, political, or whatever) has to deal with - the idea of where that artist's responsibility lies. The RS review makes it all too clear where they feel Dylan's responsibility lies - the very next blurb suggests that we are tied to him "whether he likes it or not" (as to that question, I have a pretty good guess) and states that because H61R changed the world, his subsequent albums must also do so, "but not in the same way, of course" (gee, how charitable of them). Basically, according to them Dylan has already made himself a person of influence, and is bound by some sort of law or honor or whatever you want to remain a person of influence and to use that influence to shape the rest of mankind. Well, at least in an acceptable fashion - no more of this country bullshit, okay? And if he decides not to do so, because of this or that or the other thing, he's just another Puppet of The Man and a two-faced traitor like anyone that made himself a public figure, gave himself to us, and then had the indecency to snatch himself away.
I would hope the tone I adopted tells you how I feel about this; that kind of selfishness is almost laughable, even with the understanding that the times this review was born in could bring about that level of dramatic emotion. That Bob wanted to share his music with us is not just something incredibly special, but something precious few individuals are lucky to have ever been able to do. And that, by virtue of luck and circumstance, the music he recorded helped shape a crucial period in American society - that's simply not something Bob is accountable for. To be honest, the man's not really accountable for anything (well, other than not killing or raping or whatever...sorry, too much criminal law already). If Bob had never recorded another album after 1966, it would have entirely been his right. Quite frankly, if every artist that's currently on this planet today wished to stop recording or making albums or writing books, that is also entirely their right. To try and snatch that right away, and demand the artist no longer create art, but Shape The World, is beyond any of us. Quite frankly, were I in Bob's place, you'd have had no shortage of pictures of me getting on a plane somewhere. And I'll tell you this - I'd have never looked back.
Friday, August 28, 2009