By Tony Attwood
Dylan, the man known for his lyrics, presents us on Self-Portrait, with two instrumentals. Why?
I think to find out we have to look at the overall vision of the album, and most particularly the title. Self Portrait to me means, “this is what I really am, this is what I do, this is my life.” And that is what he delivers.
The implication of this is that not every song is a masterpiece, not every song is a gem, not every rendition works.
At the time of the release we were five years away from hearing the Basement Tapes, but of course Dylan knew all about those sessions, and his striving to find ways to create a new type of music. He had also decided not to follow the political era, the assassinations, the city rioting, Vietnam…, but instead to record totally different type of songs. Occasional comments by Dylan about everyone wanting a piece of him, and telling him what sort of music to write and perform, show that he was annoyed and frustrated by others telling him what to do. He wanted his own artistic integrity.
So Blonde on Blonde and the Greatest Hits marked the end, the Basement Tapes, the un-released (as yet) interregnum, while John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline marked out Dylan as his own man (again) travelling in his own direction.
Then if Harding and Nashville are details of Dylan’s new directions, so Self Portrait is an overview of the man and his life. He’s giving us little pictures of him, including the grotty bits.
The recording of Rolling Stone on the album is deliberately a recording of a live show where he gets things very wrong. Alberta, turning up twice, is a tribute to a song that hundreds of thousands of musicians have enjoyed playing and singing – a beautiful song that both the genius of Dylan, and those of us of modest talent, can share. A song that marks the start of the album as a tentative uncertain beginning, and a solid well-rounded and full-of-hope ending.
In the midst there is Woogie Boogie. Woogie Boogie is what those of us who play in bands do – and quite probably what Dylan and his musicians have done as a warm up before every session. A straight instrumental 12 bar blues. (The title of course comes from the piano style of the 1920s, the bopping bouncy dance style, which eventually became the contrast to the slower sadder blues). Everyone knows how to do it, and you just do it to get the feel, to allow the engineer to get an idea of what you might be up to. and to get your fingers moving. The drummer might adjust his stool, the guitarist might change the plectrum, someone might check that their instrument is in tune, the organist might change the settings, the pianist wonders who spilt a pint of beer into the inner workings…
It is in short the equivalent of the athlete’s warm up before the race.
Normally you never hear such songs, but Dylan is showing us his world; all the bits we never see.
Now consider the end of the album. She Belongs to Me is actually an interesting recording of the song that is certainly worth having. Dylan’s voice is in fine fettle, the lead guitarist knows where he is going, the version takes the song we know and develops it – the very essence of Dylan – and the piano adds a lovely mix of “Rainy Day” style and backup chords.
Then we have an experimental ending which doesn’t quite work – but its still a much better attempt at a reworking of an old favourite, and it makes much more of the portrayal of the artist as one who you will do anything for, before you end up so obsessive about her that you can’t escape.
And so to Wigwam. It is a really lovely song – a song that you really want to have Dylan lyrics to – and yet he torments us by just singing the melody.
Now I don’t know any writer that has postulated a link between the way the lady artist in “She Belongs to Me” torments those who follow her, and the way Dylan is tormenting (or if you prefer, telling to fuck off) those who are demanding he does more songs like Blonde and Highway 61. To me, he is saying, this could be about anything to do with our troubled times, contrasting our worries with our lighter moments – but I am not giving you that, because that makes life too easy for you. I am going my way.
I don’t have to give you the lyrics you want, Dylan says. I don’t have to give you the perfect renditions of my classic songs. I don’t have to give you anything at all. If I want, I can take time out and just sing melodies.
The ending to Wigwam is unexpected, but then so is the start. Listen to it again, and hear the growl bass after the guitars come in. It comes and goes and comes and goes.
I suspect 99% of people who have listened to this piece have never even noticed this – but play it again and listen. There is something odd, something lurking beneath. This is not just a pretty tune. This is the historic portrait – a life drifting by.
One of the big clues is that there are no repeating verses and choruses as in pop and rock normally. This is strophic – through composed from start to end. Each of the three sections is different. It is worth hearing again just to appreciate that.
And then as the album draws to a close we return to Alberta, that beautiful poignant song of want, hope and desire for the future Whereas in the first version it was poignant now it is one of life being ok. We’ve made the journey, and yes, I can live with this.
Through one very plausible interpretation of Self Portrait, Wigwam is the statement of moving on. We’ve done the warm up, we’ve looked back, we’ve considered the highs and lows, we’ve done ok, and pondered something utterly different from ever before, in terms of Wigwam. So the pensive for Alberta gives way, and we move forwards to a lively upbeat new future.
Perhaps the disappointment is that Dylan does not seem to have wanted to develop Wigwam further. It remains a one off. But he’s now the tormenting (not a tormented) artist, turning you this way and that while feeling satisfied with life around him – he’s doing fine, and he’s not giving you any real insight into what he is going to do next.