Shedding off one more layer of skin. Keepin' one step ahead of the persecutor within.

by David Holzel

Probably the greatest rock review ever was Greil Marcus’s 1970 Rolling Stone magazine critique of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album. The review is remembered today principally for its opening line: “What is this shit?”

The follow-up to Dylan's countrified Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait was a double album, a rare thing the time. Self Portrait is part muzak, part studio warm up, part noodling with old-time standards. Here’s Dylan accompanying himself on vocals to Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” There he is, crooning the country weeper "I Forgot More (Than You'll Ever Know)."  And, dang, if Dylan isn't switching voices mid-song on the live numbers sprinkled among the studio cuts.

If you were able to steel yourself to listen to the entire four sides, you would emerge 74 minutes older, possibly with Marcus's question tattooed on your lips.

For almost 35 years, that question was never satisfactorily answered.

Now comes Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles Volume 1. According to Dylan, Self Portrait was part of his effort to deflate his image as a prophet, messiah and voice of a generation, and win him and his family some peace of mind.

“I released one album (a double) one where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it,” Dylan writes.

His goal here–and with other seemingly self-sabotaging actions–was to escape being “the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese.”

As I searched around for background information on Self Portrait, I came across a quote Anthony Scaduto included in his early ‘70s biography, Dylan, An Intimate Biography.  “It’s a great album,” Dylan tells the writer. “There’s a lot of damn good music there.”

Not a single word about the studio wall.


Tangled Up in Jews

Expecting Rain

 Beliefnet on Chronicles

On the day Bob was born

  Jack Feeny reviews
  Dylan's albums

Realtors for Dylan


As with anything Bob related, you can never quite separate the truth from the put-on. I suppose that goes for Chronicles as well. Some of it has the ring of truth, some is too tedious to have been a joke (although Self Portrait is a potent argument to the contrary), and the rest? Well, just call Dylan the Magus of Misdirection

Dylan displayed all his talents of inscrutability and elusiveness during Ed Bradley’s “60 Minutes” interview, broadcast in December 2004. Did the songwriter provide any answers in that interview that included information? Does Chronicles? And, while I'm at it, are they still cleaning the walls down in Nashville at Columbia Records from the Self Portrait sessions?

Fortunately, public access cable channel 731 in Redfield, South Dakota, secured an interview with Dylan following his “60 Minutes” appearance. What follows is the transcript of reporter Brad Edley as he tries to pin Dylan down and set the record straight:
Brad: Bob, thanks for making the trip to Redfield, the pheasant capital of the world.

Bob: Inscrutable silence

Brad: You spend a good portion of Chronicles writing about how you tried to escape, or really destroy the image the public had of you as a prophet or a cultural icon.

Bob: Like Abraham destroying his father’s idol shop. Only it was my own idol shop. Not that I believed in it. But that phoney-baloney shop just had to go. I lit every fire under it that I could.

Brad: You wrote that you once poured whiskey over your head in public. You intentionally made bad albums. You write: “I released one album (a double) one where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.” That would have been Self Portrait.

Bob: Yeah, pro’lly.

Brad: And people bought that album, too. It's ironic, that the way that people viewed you was just the polar opposite of the way you viewed yourself .
Bob: I'n't that something?

Brad: So how did you decide what to do?.

Bob: Well my wife and kids an me would sit around after supper on a Saturday night, and we’d all put ideas into a hat. I picked a slip of paper out of the hat, and that would be the week’s activity. One time it might be to get myself photographed at the Western Wall so people would think I was a Zionist. Another time
it might be to get a job pumpin’ gas in Paramus, New Jersey, so the press would report I was crazy, or a sicko, or a Mormon.
"No one wants the voice of their generation to sound like he’s been a two-pack-a-day man for 40 years."

Brad: You’ve said that you don’t like to go to restaurants. You don’t like being recognized. If you could go out to eat without being recognized, where would you like to go?

Bob: Mmmm. Mebbe Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

Brad: Why Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse?

Bob: Well, for one thing, I think they took the name from one of my songs....

Down at Ruth’s Chris
The electric henchmen are taking a piss
But the Burmese tile floor got shpritzed

Uhhh.... something something something
Yadda yadda yadda
But its alright ma,
I’m only peeing.

It was on Blonde on Blonde or maybe Sgt. Pepper. I’ve also heard they have a good salad bar.

Brad: Some of the people you wrote about in the book, people you said you admired might have come as a surprise to your readers.

Bob: Mmm-hmmm.

Brad: Frank Sinatra Jr., for one. And the singer Johnny Rivers. And Barry Goldwater. The same Barry Goldwater who, you sang in one of your songs, you wouldn’t let move in next door and marry your daughter?

Bob: See, I don’t know where those lyrics came from. It was like a hand of mystery came up and wrote them down while I was payin’ the Con Ed bill or somethin’.

Brad: So were you disappointed when Barry Goldwater lost the presidency to Lyndon Johnson in ‘64?

Bob: Yeah, sure. But then,
If you think I’ll let Lyndon Johnson
Move in next door and marry my daughter

doesn’t rhyme so good. And, Even Barry Goldwater must have to stand naked is an image no one was ready to contemplate. Too ahead of its time, I guess.

Brad: And what about Johnny Rivers? You mean the guy who sang "Secret Agent Man?"

Bob: Wasn't it "Secret Asian Man?"

Brad: No. "Secret Agent Man."

Bob: Well, well. I always thought it was "Secret Asian Man." Sounded kinda magical to me. And I mean Harry Houdini kind of magic, more than, say, Amazing Kreskin kind of magic.

Brad: But getting back to your efforts to destroy your image as a messiah or Prophet of Protest...

Bob: ...Don’t forget the Duke of Disobedience. That was one of my favorites. I hated to see that one go.

Brad: You wrote that for one of your albums you changed your voice.

Bob: Mmmm-hmmm. And not just for that album. I’m changing it right now.

Brad: Right as we’re speaking. Why?

Bob: Well, no one wants the voice of their generation to sound like he’s been a two-pack-a-day man for 40 years. What kind of voice is that for a generation? A generation wants, oh, mebbe someone like the voice of Walter Cronkite or Alex Trebek to be their voice.

Brad: Or Dick Cheney? He’s only about four months older than you. You could have been in the same class in school.

Bob: Dick Cheney, voice of his generation. The beat goes on, doesn’t it? chuckles

Brad: So your voice isn’t like this at all?

Bob: Nah. Why would it be? Sinatra smoked like a Texas-bound freight train and put away a pint of Chivas a day, and when he was 60 he sounded the same as he did when he was 30.

Brad: Well, Bob, it’s been really good talking with you again. And I really only have one more question.

Bob: OK.

Brad: Could you give me back the money I paid for Self-Portrait?

Bob: Inscrutable silence 

Copyright © 2005 by David Holzel

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