Dylan in 1970: a stuttering return to song writing.

By Tony Attwood

Self Portrait was recorded at various times between April 1969 and March 30, 1970, but according to reports the first recordings of songs that eventually came out on New Morning were also recorded in that final month of the Self Portrait sessions, and appear to have been considered for Self Portrait.

In March three of the songs that were eventually released on New Morning were recorded which gives us a guidance as to the compositional dates the series starting with

In a Rolling Stone interview in 1984 Dylan confirmed the notion that he had had a period of wanting to back off from the music scene totally at the end of the 60s, as he had done by writing just one song the previous year.   He may also have had some grief from the film company for producing his commissioned work (Lay Lady Lay) too late to be included in the movie.

“I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.I’d also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn’t know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff—Abbie Hoffman in the streets—and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?’ But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he’s got the people there that want one. I didn’t want that, though….

“We moved to New York. Lookin’ back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn’t the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There’d be crowds outside my house. And I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else. But the whole idea backfired. Because the album went out there, and the people said, ‘This ain’t what we want,’ and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.’

The recordings which were used for New Morning were made between June and August 1970, and thus we can see the Spring and early Summer 1970 as the period in which these songs were written.

I suspect the fact that these songs have had such limited exposure in concert – even retrospectively (I’m told only four have ever been played live) shows that Dylan was not completely happy with them.

These compositions at the start of the New Morning process circle around the link between Dylan and the poet Archibald MacLeish who was working on a musical, and these early songs from this year’s collection were written for the production.   The project eventually failed to materialise with Dylan’s music – however it appears from comments made elsewhere that Al Kooper felt this commission, although unfulfilled, started the process of composition again for Dylan.

However Dylan doesn’t seem to have been totally focused on the type of music that emerged in these opening songs as the next composition was the curious and totally different All the tired horses.

But then came the rest of the New Morning collection in quick succession

In the review of “The Man in Me” on this site, written about 18 months ago, I said, “so he were are, rocking along and feeling content with life, just as we are with Winterlude, New Morning, and One More Weekend.  The guy’s ok, the world’s ok, the woman with him is ok.  He’s a solid worker, he’ll just get on with it.”

That still seems a reasonable way of summarising where all this had got to.  The intensity of the musical was clearly too much, this is much more relaxed.

Of course sometimes the relaxation was maybe a bit too relaxed, and not too many good things seem to have been said about “Three Angels”, “If Dogs Run Free”, and “Winterlude” although each, like Country Pie two years before, has its advocates.

Dylan it seems however was not convinced of what he was writing, and continued to record other songs, although eventually he dropped them.  Noticeably he didn’t write other songs – merely record some of his earlier songs and songs written by others.  The muse was not at its height, and it would appear that Dylan finally used all the songs he composed.

The final song from the series was created after the main thrust of writing, after Dylan accepted an honorary doctorate in music from Princeton University early in June and subsequently wrote “Day of the Locusts”.

My prime concern on this website is always with Dylan the composer, but it is clear that at this time in all aspects of his life Dylan was having problems – it appears that there were arguments with Bob Johnston the producer, Dylan had produced an album with the intention of making people forget him, and he struggled to create the quality of writing that had been his hallmark up to the time of JWH.

Reworking the album continued through summer, and Al Kooper said of the era, “When I finished that album I never wanted to speak to him again…He just changed his mind every three seconds so I just ended up doing the work of three albums…”

This is a reflection of a mind still in turmoil – David Crosby’s commentary on the events at Princeton University add to this feeling of a very angry Bob Dylan.   And yet some of the songs of this year written for New Morning are nothing like this.  It is as if Dylan were able (at least on occasion) to turn away from the anger, artistic disputes and uncertainty and still produce more delicate pieces of music.

In the end however, the songs were written and the album generally got good reviews, and the work was to some degree an antidote to the emotions that had created the need for Self Portrait.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here

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