Self Portrait (1970) Is that all this is? A kiss-off to the Folkslingers and Rock’n’Rollers who didn’t get the message after Nashville Skyline? Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

Recorded over the space of a year and bloated with old-time cover versions and obscure live takes of the hits, Self Portrait must have come as a shock to fans of both Dylan the Folkslinger and Dylan the Rock’n’roller.

In Rolling Stone magazine, Greil Marcus welcomed the 24-track LP into the world with the famous words:

What is this shit?!

Let’s give it a listen, shall we?

The author, ten years old, on a family holiday in Dartmoor (April, 1993)

A Note On Random Chance

If you’re wondering why I’m starting my review series with Dylan’s most vilified album, it’s because I used a spreadsheet to select the order at random.

If you’re wondering why I’ve just shown you a photograph of me aged ten, well… Dylan has released 39 studio albums, which is one for every year that I’ve existed.

So, for no obvious reason at all, I’ve decided to pair every Dylan review with a corresponding photo from my forgotten past. Hence, for Dylan’s tenth album, a photo of myself aged ten (see above).

Anyway, back to the music.

The Music

It is, by and large, shit. So let’s get a shovel and start digging. Can we unearth an album worth the listening?

Of the 24 tracks, I say that we can immediately dispense with the three live recordings.

Putting aside their variable quality (Like A Rolling Stone: flat-out terrible; She Belongs To Me: passably interesting; Quinn The Eskimo: entertainingly rompish), their place is not on a studio album, but on a greatest hits compilation (which is exactly where Quinn is plonked a year later).

So we’re down to 21 tracks.

Of those, 16 are covers, leaving just five Dylan originals. It’d be unfair to completely dismiss the cover versions, but I’ll set them aside for a moment.

The Five Originals

Actually, three of the five are instrumentals and it’s hard to say quite how much songwriting Dylan himself did. Certainly the most successful, Woogie Boogie, relies heavily on the talent of the blues band soloists. Dylan never learned the sax.

There are, apparently, some interesting musical goings on in All The Tired Horses, but mostly I hear the twiddlings of a guy who’s just discovered a few new gadgets in the recording studio. Hard to listen to, even by accident.

Wigwam summons the atmosphere of Dylan’s consistent preoccupations: Cowboys and Indians, Mexico and the Mariachi. For that reason, I give it a free pass.

That leaves just two Dylan originals with words. Not exactly a prodigious output for the voice of several generations. In fact, now we come to listen, we realise that Minstrel Boy was plucked from the famous Basement Tapes that Dylan recorded with The Band back in 1967.

That leaves Living The Blues as the last remaining Dylan original on Self Portrait.

It’s not bad.

The 16 Covers

Where do we start with this mess? First, let’s split them into traditional and contemporary.

9 Contemporary Covers

There are nine songs on Self Portrait that were written (or re-popularised) in the 1960s or 1950s by people other than Dylan.

Given that the median Dylan album contains only ten tracks in total, why ram this Self Portrait with an albumful of songs written by his contemporaries?

There seem to be two reasons for these covers:

To Show Off His Crooning Voice

The crooning category contains I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know, Let It Be Me, Copper Kettle, Blue Moon and Take Me As I Am.

Vocally, these songs sound like the inspiration for Nashville Skyline, which Dylan had released the previous year. But, stripped of Dylan’s Skyline smile, they come across as utterly humourless.

Perhaps with the exclusion of Let It Be Me, we can dispense with the whole lot without fear of recriminations.

To Have Fun

Into this category we put Early Mornin’ Rain, Gotta Travel On and The Boxer (yes, the Simon & Garfunkel song).

I can’t think of any reason why these cover versions should exist, other than Dylan had fun singing them. No harm in that. Except that at least one of the covers is simply horrible. I’ll leave it to you to work out which.

The Everly Brothers’ Take A Message To Mary seems to fall into both categories, which is FINE.

A brief mention is due to Thirsty Boots, a splendid Eric Anderson song that Dylan recorded in a bombastic rendition for Self Portrait, but chose to exclude from the album. More on that sort of shenanigans in a bit.

7 (or 4) (or 5) Traditional Covers

Here, Dylan is on more solid ground. So solid, in fact, that he steals the songwriting credit in the liner notes.

Ever since Bob Dylan (his first album), Bob Dylan (the singer) has been a jukebox of the American folk and blues tradition.

His special talent has always been one of interpretation and, often, the appropriation of melody for his own lyrics. See Blowing In The Wind, The Times They Are A’Changin’, etc..

It’s what he’s best at and, when it works, it’s genius. When it doesn’t work, it’s In Search Of Little Sadie.

The Little Sadies / Sadists

In Search Of Little Sadie is purportedly the sound of Dylan trying to find an interpretation of the traditional folk song Little Sadie. I say ‘purportedly’ because the musical chaos has been carefully written and practised. This is not a rehearsal. This is — what else? — a joke.

I’m sure it’s very clever, very funny and very Dylan, but it’s not particularly fine listening.

Two songs later, we get the actual Little Sadie. Jaunty. But even here, mystifyingly, the producer cuts late and we hear the sound of a tape machine clicking off and a guitar clanging.

In some ways, these two songs are the beating heart of Self Portrait. This album was written and produced to sound like a band warming up. The sound of Dylan behind the shades: an honest self portrait.

The question is: why be honest? We’ll never know for sure, but we all have guilty pleasures (Gangsta Rap, Bryan Adams) and — guess what? — Dylan does too. Just no one ever dreamed his would be this embarrassing.

Trad Today Gone Tomorrow

Okay, so we’ll cut the Little Sadies, but what about the other trad songs?

It’s a mixed bag.

The album begins and ends with two almost identical versions of the traditional blues song Alberta — one in double time, one in triple time.

Alberta is a great song and both performances crackle — but why did Dylan think we needed both takes? Perhaps, taking his own lyrics literally, he really was ‘going through all these things twice’.

Days of ‘49, credited to American folklorists Lomax, Lomax and Warner, is another triumph, driven on by the menacing drum kick and the rolling warmth of the piano.

It Hurts Me Too is insipidly unnecessary. Even if Self Portrait wasn’t already overlong — 74 minutes, really?! — It Hurts Me Too would still be unnecessary.

Thanks to the 2013 Bootleg Series release of Another Self Portrait, we know that Dylan recorded at least four superior trad songs that were ultimately cut from the album:

  • Pretty Saro
  • Railroad Bill
  • This Evening So Soon
  • House Carpenter

In fairness, no accurate self portrait of Dylan would be complete without leaving a few of the best songs off the album. Blind Willie McTell, Abandoned Love, Seven Days, Seven Curses, Series of Dreams, Red River Shore — it’s a classic Dylan move.

The Disappearing Act Of Belle Isle

That leaves one final song that did make the cut: Dylan’s take on Belle Isle. Marc Bolan was a huge fan:

Belle Isle brought to my memory all the moments of tenderness I’ve ever felt for another human being, and that, within the superficial landscape of pop music, is a great thing indeed.

Bolan’s right that Belle Isle is a beautiful song, even if, personally, I feel like the campfire guitar clashes with the strings as the song reaches a climax. With its soaring strings and matinée crooning, Belle Isle doesn’t even sound like ‘Dylan’. He’s not there.

On which note, it’s time to return to that famous Rolling Stone review:

There is a curious move toward self-effacement; Dylan removing himself from a position from which he is asked to exercise power in the arena.

Is that all this is? A kiss-off to the Folkslingers and Rock’n’Rollers who didn’t get the message after Nashville Skyline?

Maybe, but humour me for a moment…

Is Self Portrait a buried classic?

If I were compiling a ten-track Dylan album from the bloated ruins of Self Portrait and Another Self Portrait, this is what I’d come up with:

  1. Alberta #2
  2. Days of ‘49
  3. Early Mornin’ Rain
  4. Let It Be Me (or Take A Message To Mary if you prefer)
  5. Pretty Saro
  6. Woogie Boogie (Wigwam if you need to cool off)
  7. Belle Isle
  8. Railroad Bill
  9. Thirsty Boots
  10. Living The Blues

And, blow me, if that isn’t a great album. A 32-minute Self Portrait of which anyone would be proud. Even my ten-year-old self, face down in a swimming pool in France:

Masquerading with Bob Dylan Through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame. Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.

Last week I wrote about one ancient Bob; this week I’ll write about another.

On Monday, I took my usual seat on on my usual cross-legged cushion for my usual Chess Club match-up with my confederate-cum-competitor. There are only three rules of Chess Club. The first rule of Chess Club is snacks, but the second is music.

Yann Tiersen, Ludovico Einaudi, Nick Mulvey. That sort of thing.

I wasn’t expecting Bob Dylan.

Between the years of about 2004 and 2015, I listened to very little other recorded music but Bob Dylan. Then, on his seventy-fifth birthday, I played a couple of his songs live. Overnight, my life changed. And I stopped listening to Bob Dylan.

A fool such as I.

Back in May, Bob Dylan turned eighty and, on Monday, I was turned on again.

His Bobness will always be an important artist for me, not because of what he is—not because he’s the Voice Of A Generation or a Nobel Prize winner (although he is certainly one of those things)—but because of what he is not.

He’s not a great guitarist. He’s not a great singer. He’s not even a great harmonica player. He’s not a great poet. He’s not a great painter. He’s not a great prose writer. He’s not even always a great lyric writer.

And yet his life could be an instruction manual on how to get the most out of what you’ve (not) got.

Work fucking hard!

In 1965, Bob went to Newport Folk Festival and plugged in his electric guitar. He made such a racket that people booed. In fact, his entire electric tour of North America and (most famously) England got booed and heckled.

This all culminated in his performance at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966 where, just before playing the last track (Like A Rolling Stone), a man stands up and shouts, ‘Judas!’

Dylan sneers back, ‘I don’t believe you.’ His voice rises in hysteria: ‘You’re a liar!’ Then he turns to his band and screams—‘Play it fucking loud!’

Grammarians: Good spot—I’ve changed tense because you can hear all this for yourself, as if live, on The Bootleg Series 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert Disc 2.

I tell you this little side story because the entirety of Dylan’s artistic method boils down—if I can paraphrase the man himself here—to one maxim: work fucking hard.

How many songs?

When he didn’t include Blind Willie McTell on Infidels, one of the diabolical albums he released in the 1980s, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

Relax. It’s just an album—I’ve done thirty of them.

Bob’s record record now stands at an impressive thirty-nine—and that’s just the studio albums.

Some are exquisite (Bringing It All Back Home, Blood on the Tracks, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind); some are execrable (Empire Burlesque, Infidels, Saved, Shot of Love, Knocked Out Loaded); but you can deny the existence of none.

Wikipedia reckons Bob has written or co-written 736 songs, lending credence to his claim to ‘write ten songs a day and throw nine of them away’.

Empire Burlesque seems to exemplify this philosophy—just without the throwing away part.

Nine overproduced synth-laden atrocities are wholly justified by Dark Eyes, a sublime Bob plus guitar plus harmonica love song. Don’t get me wrong: the musicianship on Dark Eyes is Dylan-level incompetent, but the song itself is wonderful.

You could make a superb album from the songs that Dylan actually did throw away. How about this?

  1. Paths of Victory, hiked from The Times They Are A-Changin’
  2. Seven Curses, doomed to be unreleased in 1963
  3. Mama, You Been On My Mind, forgotten in 1964
  4. Love Is Just A Four Letter Word, ****ed off in 1967
  5. On A Rainy Afternoon, never properly dried off in 1966
  6. She’s Your Lover Now, kissed off from Blonde on Blonde
  7. The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar, jilted from Shot of Love
  8. Abandoned Love, left on the doorstep of Desire
  9. Foot of Pride, stamped out of Infidels
  10. Blind Willie McTell, overlooked from Infidels

In fact, since 1991, Colombia Records have been releasing, not one, but a dazzling series of albums from abandoned songs such as these. And, arguably, the so called Bootleg Sessions series, now into Volume 15, are a grander setting for many songs than the albums they might have once adorned.

How many gigs?

On June 7 1988, Bob Dylan went on tour with his band and, basically, never stopped playing shows.

In the three-odd decades since, Dylan has, according to the frighteningly forensic histories of Olof Björner, played no fewer than 3,064 shows. That’s roughly 100 shows a year.

For comparison, between 2014 and 2019, modern chart-toppers Arctic Monkeys played about 50 shows a year. About half the work rate of an eighty-year-old.

Dylan’s hyperactive schedule has been called the Never Ending Tour—a title Dylan himself rejects because it romanticises instead of normalises the hard work that goes into being a touring musician.

Does anybody call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? … These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with my working so much. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A carpenter, an electrician. They don’t necessarily need to retire.

For some reason, a lot of musicians get to a certain point and stop writing and performing. Maybe life gets in the way. Maybe they run out of money. Maybe they get bored. Maybe the fame that comes with musical success was the end goal. Who knows? It’s none of Bob’s business.

Bob Dylan sees his music as a job. One that he’s lucky to have. So he does nothing more than what a person lucky to have a job does: he shows up for work every day. If he were a carpenter, he’d plane wood and make dovetail joints. Instead, he writes songs and plays them.

How many masks?

Dylan prickly reaction to the Never Ending Tour media moniker hints at something he has fought against from the beginning: the desire of journalists, fans and even fellow musicians to burden him with responsibilities and expectations.

You only have to watch a few of Bob’s interviews to see how doggedly he evades the ribbons and bows that journalists want to pin on him.

Take this example from 1986:

MR JONES: What about being a role model for so many of the people who are doing music today?

BOB DYLAN: No, no, no. Not a role model.

MR JONES: What are you, then?

BOB DYLAN: I’m just me.

Creativity isn’t a fixed trait. It’s not something that you are born with. It’s not something that you have or don’t have, like electrical current running through a lightbulb. It’s not that.

It’s something else. Something more ethereal, something that would suffer under the weight of responsibilities and expectations. Dylan seems to know that, if he accepts and believes media titles like ‘Voice of a Generation’, the creativity would vanish.

Instead, throughout his whole career, Dylan has played a succession of roles. Just when an interviewer thinks they’ve pinned him down as a protest singer, he goes electric. When they’ve finally caught up with the rock’n’roller, he’s a Nashville country singer.

And so it goes, through a dizzying repertoire of acts that encompasses carnival ringleader, born again Christian, Delta bluesman, big band crooner and even Christmas entertainer.

Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.

Dylan told us the secret back in 1964. While getting ready to play If You Gotta Go, Go Now at a concert on Halloween at the Philharmonic Hall in New York, he messes up the tuning and hits a bum note:

Don’t let that scare you! It’s just Halloween. I have my Bob Dylan mask on. I’m mask-erading, ha ha ha!

Dylan defends his creativity against the frozen fixities of responsibility and expectation by masquerading, playing a succession of characters behind the chrysalis of the Bob Dylan mask.

Everything else—the genius, the mystery, the doctrinaire Platonism so beloved of outsiders—he determinedly and consistently downplays, much to the annoyance of the press.

From the same 1986 interview I mentioned earlier, this is how he answers a question about why his work has meant so much to so many people:

I guess it’s been inspiring. I know it’s been inspiring for me to write it. Outside of that, I wouldn’t know.

When the hapless journalist presses Dylan on the matter, the mood turns to frustration for both parties:

I don’t know. I just don’t. I’m still trying to make sense of it to me.

Dylan’s honesty is too simple, too personal, too Stoic.

Back in the sixties, there was a mania to understand Dylan’s ‘message’. In Dont Look Back, a documentary filmed on Dylan’s 1966 tour of the UK, one journalist asks him what his ‘real message’ is.

‘My real message?’ Dylan replies. ‘Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.’

For me, Dylan’s real message is that there is no such thing as personal creative genius, only persistence and hard work.

And, through the changing colours of his chameleonic career, Dylan has shown exactly how ferociously that work ethic must be defended against the ossifying effects of wealth and fame.

Let’s put on our creative masks and show up for work. Let’s masquerade.


This piece emerged from something I wrote about a hundred years ago called What Bob Dylan Means to Me in Twenty-Five Words. If you’d like me to rewrite this 10,000 word masterwork, then you’d better become a paying subscriber or email me or something.

Oh, and, no, I’m not telling you what the third rule of Chess Club is.

UPDATE: 16 July 2021

For those of you asking for my all-time favourite Bob Dylan songs, I found two lists that I made during what I’ll call The Rabid Dylan Years. The first, made in 2009, turned Dylan’s songs into a knockout tournament. These songs made up the semi-finals:

  • Idiot Wind
  • Maggie’s Farm
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues
  • Tangled Up In Blue

Two songs from Bringing It All Back Home; two from Blood on the Tracks. It was impossible for my 2009 brain to pick a winner.

Then, in 2012, I compiled a list of my most played Dylan songs, going back a year or so. This was the top four:

  1. Things Have Changed
  2. Tell Ol’ Bill [Alternate Version]
  3. Dirge
  4. Blind Willie McTell

Two things to note. Firstly, only three years later, the list is completely different. Things have changed indeed. In fact, none of the four from 2009 are among the twenty most played songs of 2012. Secondly: both lists would be completely different again in 2021.

As a topper, only three of these eight songs make the top thirty of this 2020 Rolling Stone list and two of them don’t even make the top hundred. The catalogue is fathomless.