“How are you?” he said to me. I said it back to him.”
After near two weeks of listening to Bootleg Series #10: Another Self Portrait, I am finally ready to explain what I think is happening here. Like many things in life, it is often a challenge to really engage in a piece of music or art or scenery. It’s especially so when we have people enthusiastically standing over our shoulder eagerly panting, “Well, what do you think?” And with public art, movies or performances we can also have our expectations influenced or manipulated by things we read or hear other people say, which keeps us from having a real direct experience.
This is why I try to withhold my remarks on a new Dylan album until I’ve re-experienced it a minimum of six, eight or ten times or more. So… I’m ready to weigh in on Another Self-Portrait.
As some of you know… in addition to writing I also do some painting, including much of what is used to add interest to my blog entries. While in my studio last Sunday night — and listening once again to Another Self Portrait — I understood what was happening on this album. A painter, like Picasso or Matisse or any student of the art, can create and re-create the image he is striving to capture. He or she may use a thin brush and later use a palette knife to get the desired effect. He or she can apply layers of oil, scape them off and re-apply them. Through trial and error the painter learns what works and doesn’t fully satisfy.
I once saw a retrospective of Henri Matisse’s life works at a New York gallery many years ago and was struck by the first painting (of his wife) which he purportedly painted and re-painted more than 160 times in order to get it right.
How does a recording artist accomplish this? I know that many bar bands find their groove by direct response from their audiences. Certainly this was how Dylan’s talents emerged in the Village. He appeared on the scene, wrote new songs, performed them and heard immediate reactions. But after the fame flame is ignited things change. The Beatles could no longer do the bar scene once pop culture’s laser lights fused in. After Dylan retreated to Woodstock it was a whole new game.
So here we have an album in which we discover an artist caught in the act of discovery. Another Self Portrait is a compilation of outttakes that reveals how a recording artist has to work. “Let’s see what happens when we do this song with horns. Let’s see what happens with piano. No, wait, let’s try it with guitar. Now let’s billow it out with a full backing ensemble.”
I’ve already noted elsewhere the special appreciation I have for “Went To See The Gypsy” which is the opening cut on this new collection of Dylan outtakes.
Now, through the courtesy of these producers we have snapshots of how many these songs reached their final destinations. One of the questions many painters are asked is “How do you know when it’s finished?” Well, that is one of the challenges of artists in every genre. The two versions of “Went To See The Gypsy” on the double CD show us how strong the song was at its inception, and yet Dylan continued to shape it, re-forming it into the version that satisfies so deeply on side one of New Morning.
Not only is the final version we heard on New Morning played with a different instrumentation, it also deviates in some of the words. The Bootleg 10 version that opens side one is played with a simple guitar, and the tone is reflective, wistful and almost melancholic. Both versions begin with the lyrics “Went to see the Gypsy/stayin’ in a big hotel/he smiled when he saw me coming” but then comes the first variant. On the Bootleg version he sings, “and he wished me well.”
I find this a subtle but interesting line because if it’s Elvis, he’s just being a friendly cat in the music business wishing Dylan well. But the final version goes like this: “And he said, “Well, well, well.” Now that is more than a greeting. It could imply a, “Well, what have we got here? Well, well, well. So this is that fella who’s headed for the limelight now. Doesn’t look like much to me.”
The first stanza ends with another slight alteration. “How are you?” he asked of me and I asked the same of him.
In the second stanza the songwriter/storyteller goes down to the lobby to make a phone call out, but a pretty dancing girl bops down and hollers for him to “Go on back to see the Gypsy…”
In this earlier version of the song she follows with “he can rid you of your fear. He did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here.”
And this is where the New Morning version comes alive because the embellished lyrics take the song to a new place. Instead of ridding the young performer of his fear (in this imaginary encounter between the established icon and the up-and-comer) the final version exclaims, “he can move you from the rear, rid you of your fear, bring you through the mirror… he did it in Las Vegas and he can do it here.” Dylan’s playful ambiguity is at this point fully unclothed.
The extra line “bring you through the mirror” resonates with so many literary concepts. Who among us has never been fascinated by mirrors? I think here of George MacDonald’s Lilith, a tale into other worlds beyond a mirror. In the late 19th century MacDonald was a friend of Lewis Carroll who famously penned Through the Looking-Glass.
The bridge stanza is wholly different in this version of the song, the 1970 release conveying a much stronger sense of the moment. In short, all along the way decisions were being made and the weakest portions of the picture painted by these lyrics were discarded, replaced with stronger images that enhance the power of the story. On cut fifteen of disc two there is yet another version, this time vocals and piano. Dylan’s chord structures are evolving and it is yet another fine version of the song. It’s fascinating how many different ways one can serve such a great dish using different ingredients. Throughout all the variations here, as well as from the previous sets from this Bootleg Series, there is indeed a rich sense of exploration, innovation and remarkably satisfying music to hunker down with, whatever your moods. Another Self Portrait is as good as anything Dylan has ever created. And I love how Side 2 ends… culminating in the exclamation of all artists everywhere…. “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
Thank you, Bob. And to all who helped pull this together.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com in 2013.