“Oh mighty thing!” said Vera to Frank, “Why didn’t you just tell them you were a moderate man and leave it at that instead of goosing yourself all over the room?” “Patience, Vera,” said Frank. Terry Shute, who was sitting over by the curtain cleaning an axe, climbed to his feet, walked over to Vera’s husband and placed his hand on his shoulder, “Yuh didn’t hurt yer hand, didja Frank?” Frank just sat there watching the workmen replace the window, “I dont believe so,” he said.
In the liner notes to his 1968 album, John Wesley Harding, the three Kings have shown up at Frank’s house to ask what the new Dylan album is about. Frank runs around like a lunatic for a few minutes, tearing off his clothes and stomping on a lightbulb, and then puts his fist through a window. The Kings aren’t sure of the explanation, but leave happily, having been cured of all their ills.
Dylan chose not to share the Kings’ reaction, if any, to his follow-up, the infamous Self Portrait, but critic Greil Marcus spoke for everyone with a Rolling Stone review that asked, “What is this shit?” A hopelessly disorganized mess of half-written originals, indifferent cover versions, and odd performances of traditional tunes, it’s frequently thought of as Dylan’s kiss-off to Columbia Records, cutting two albums off his contract (he was soon to leave the label), or as a deliberate attempt to knock down the public’s idolized and idealized version of “Bob Dylan.”
Whatever the reason, this legendarily bad album came at the beginning of his strongest period, the period that got me started on Dylan. One Christmas my parents gave me George Harrison’s 1971 Concert For Bangladesh album, a necessary but far too expensive purchase for a young Beatles fan with a $10-a-week allowance. It was largely a disappointment, but side five blew me away. Appearing live for the first time in many years, Dylan performed a half dozen of his classic songs accompanied by Harrison on guitar, Leon Russell on bass and Ringo Starr on tambourine. I knew very little about Dylan at the time, just the few songs that were played in the late 70s on rock radio. But I played that one album side over and over, completely blown away by Dylan’s voice and the power of the songs.
And it’s all about his voice. Harrison plays near-perfect accompaniment, but doesn’t take a single solo. Ringo is as perfect on tambourine as he is everywhere else, doing just enough and no more than is necessary, without a shred of ego. And Leon Russell plays simple and melodic bass. Dylan’s acoustic guitar is strong but not even slightly showy, and his harmonica playing solid, melodic and inventive, but neither take away from the sheer power of his voice.
He starts “Just Like a Woman,” the closing song, with a nice bluesy run up and down the neck, as Harrison and Russell confer behind him. But the band doesn’t pick up on it, so he pauses, waits, and then strums his way gracefully into the song. “Nobody feels any pain,” he starts softly, pushing it a bit harder as he sings the second half of the line, “tonight as I stand inside the rain.” Harrison and Russell sing harmony with him on the chorus, but leave him to sing the closing line alone. You hear a hint of the old sneer as he sings, “but she breaks just like a little girl,” or “her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls,” but this is not the vicious anti-ballad of the mid–60s. In the heart of the song, the camera closes in, and the bridge starts to build – “It was raining from the first so I came in here,” his voice rises not with venom but with pain, and by the time he gets the climactic line, “Ain’t it clear that I just don’t fit?” his voice pierces every heart in the room, and you’re still recovering as he winds down to the sarcastic (or not) “please don’t let on that you knew me when….I was hungry, and it was your world.”
(I’m not going to have the “Dylan can’t sing” argument. It’s simply ridiculous, like arguing about creationism or whether the Earth is round. If Dylan can’t sing, then neither can Tom Waits or Howlin’ Wolf or Woody Guthrie. If Dylan can’t sing, then Picasso can’t paint, and you can pour out your aged whiskey and get a wine cooler instead.)
Back in the real world, the early 70s were his high point as a singer. He didn’t have the sheer go-for-broke power and range of his younger years, and he hadn’t yet acquired the depth of feeling and experience he has now, but in this period (say, 1968 through 1975), he had the perfect balance of both. He was relaxed, smoking less and taking better care of himself, no longer “burning the candle at both ends and using a blowtorch in the middle.” He had shed the hard-edged armor of the mid–60s, and the Woody Guthrie imitation of the early 60s.
He was comfortable in his own skin, and had found his own voice: A gorgeous, weathered baritone that could spread butter (just think of “Lay Lady Lay”), stab deep, or slice close to the bone in an old-time song or a blues. But at the time, we hardly ever got to hear that voice. Through that period, he released very few albums. There were some masterpieces (John Wesley Harding, the first appearance of that gorgeous voice, Planet Waves, Blood On the Tracks, Desire). There were some solid second-tier albums like New Morning and Street Legal, the puzzling but sometimes wonderful Live at Budokan and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and absolute dreck like Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. (I’m not including the bizarre Dylan album, which I assume was Columbia’s revenge on him for Self Portrait.)
All through his long slide in the 1980s, where every album was worse than the one before, I remember hoping desperately that Dylan would once again release an album at least as good as Street Legal, wondering what had happened to that singer and why there was so little of him to hear. I bought his early albums, only to find that the original versions of those songs were mostly not as good as the live versions from 1971. I bought the new albums hoping for a “comeback” and never finding one. I consoled myself with a cassette tape (now an iTunes playlist) of the songs from Bangladesh plus a half-dozen new tracks recorded in 1971 and sprinkled among the reissues on Greatest Hits Volume II. (I called it “Blue-Green 1971” for the Bangladesh photographs that provided the cover art for Greatest Hits Volume II, dominated in hue by his blue denim jacket). And wished there was more where that had come from. Where was that singer from that summer night at Madison Square Garden, the one who sounded so good singing harmony with Happy Traum on “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere”?
It turns out he was locked in the vaults. The latest release in the “Bootleg Series,” Another Self Portrait, offers two discs of evidence that while publicly releasing some of the worst albums of his career, he or his record company held back some truly wonderful music. Song after song of Dylan alone, or with David Bromberg and Al Kooper, perhaps Charlie McCoy on bass, singing songs we haven’t heard before, or songs that were released with poor choices in overdubs and production. Bromberg’s guitar reminds me of David Rawlings in its relaxed and melodic pyrotechnics, while Charlie McCoy plays the perfect bass that stood out so beautifully on Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding. George Harrison joins on a few songs with great harmonies and stellar country electric solos. There’s another song with Happy Traum. Some old songs sung well, and some songs we remember him singing terribly (“If Dogs Run Free,” “Alberta”) in better versions. And we have the full concert from Dylan’s appearance at the Isle of Wight that same year, singing beautifully, backed by The Band at full force. Dylan’s singing is top-notch, he’s playing harmonica like he means it, and his guitar and piano are a joy to listen to.
“What seems to be the problem?” Frank turned back to the three kings who were astonished. The first king cleared his throat. His shoes were too big and his crown was wet and lopsided but nevertheless, he began to speak in the most meaningful way, “Frank,” he began, “Mr. Dylan has come out with a new record. This record of course features none but his own songs and we understand that you’re the key.” “That’s right,” said Frank, “I am.” “Well then,” said the king in a bit of excitement, “Could you please open it up for us?” Frank, whom all this time had been reclining with his eyes closed, suddenly opened them both up as wide as a tiger. “And just how far would you like to go in?” he asked and the three kings all looked at each other. “Not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there,” said the first chief.